California Catholic Conference Celebrates Fifty Years as a Voice for Life and Dignity

In 1990, Father Sylvester Ryan was flabbergasted to be named an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles. As he learned about a calling he had never expected, he encountered the California Catholic Conference (CCC), the public affairs arm of the state’s bishops.

In 1990, Father Sylvester Ryan was flabbergasted to be named an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles. As he learned about a calling he had never expected, he encountered the California Catholic Conference (CCC), the public affairs arm of the state’s bishops.

His first CCC meeting gave him new respect for the ministry of bishops.

“I was in awe,” he said.

It wasn’t the bishops’ ecclesiastical power that impressed him, but their pastoral concern for people in need.

“They were discussing a whole broad spectrum of reality,” he said. “They were articulate. They were strong.”

Seven years later, as the bishop of the Diocese of Monterey, Bishop Ryan became president of the CCC.

“Never would I have dreamed that I would be walking through the halls of Sacramento and talking with the various levels of government . . . and learning about all these issues and laws and policies,” said Bishop Ryan, who is retired.

“It was a graced place to be.”

This year the CCC celebrates its 50th anniversary. For a half-century, it has sought to apply the principles of Catholic social teaching – the common good, protection of the vulnerable, respect for human life and dignity – to legislation. California’s 11 million Catholics are nearly a third of the state’s population, and the bishops learn directly about critical needs from a network of more than 1,100 parishes, 41 Catholic hospitals, 36 healthcare centers, and 181 social service centers.  

“We are the voice for the poor, for the voiceless. We worked really hard on overcoming prejudice in our society and trying to stand those who have no one to stand for them,” said Bishop Gerald Wilkerson, a retired auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who was CCC president 2010-2013.

“If we can support efforts to make their lives better, to touch their lives; if we can work with the legislature to build a more inclusive society, then together we will have done something very good.”

The CCC does not endorse, oppose or donate to politicians. Through the bishops, staff, and a network of grassroots Catholics, it argues for or against bills based on research, reasoning and Catholic social principles. It assists the state’s two archdioceses and 10 dioceses with local issues and with statewide pastoral projects on matters ranging from racism to end-of-life care.

“We come at it as a voice for a vision of the human person and the common good, the good society, and particularly of care for those who are poor and struggling,” said Edward ‘Ned’ Dolejsi, who has served 22 years as executive director. “That is always the voice of the Church in the political arena.”

The CCC was created in 1971, uniting a few lobbyists representing Catholic schools, Catholic Charities and Catholic hospitals. While the latter two now have their own offices, education remains a vital concern of the CCC.

For the first executive director, the bishops chose then-Msgr. John Cummins, now the retired bishop of the Diocese of Oakland. As Oakland’s chancellor, he was active in interfaith work to oppose racism and to create a theology school at Cal Berkeley. From 1962 to 1965, Cummins had been a peritus – theological adviser – at the Second Vatican Council.

Before Vatican II, “There was no sense . . .  that (the bishops) have a responsibility to contribute to the formation of public policy. It was a matter of watching out for taxation of the Catholic schools or any legislation that would not give us enough freedom to practice our faith,” he said.

The CCC, he said, was the California bishops’ response to the council’s call to stand for the rights of all people.

One of the CCC’s first actions was to support the United Farm Workers Union. Unprotected by federal labor laws, farmworkers were often forced to toil in unbearable conditions for pitiful wages. While some opponents of the union fomented violence against peaceful demonstrators, the CCC supported their right to organize for the union of their choice.

Cummins recalled a meeting of several bishops with Governor Jerry Brown in support of the pending 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. Bishop Hugh Donohoe of Fresno had warned the others to simply listen and not to answer any of the governor’s questions.

The bishops held their opinions – until Brown told them he couldn’t guarantee that the bill would pass. Donohoe immediately broke his own rule. Referring to the attacks on protesters, he said, “If you can’t deliver a bill to protect them, we will have to get rid of you — by prayer, of course.”

The bill passed and Brown signed it into law.

The conference doesn’t speak to every issue. It focuses on bills that clearly impact human life and dignity, workers, the poor, religious freedom, the environment and other touchstones of Catholic social teaching. California had legalized abortion in 1967, so protecting unborn children has been a high priority since the CCC opened its doors.  

“The bishops have been concerned not only with the wrongness of the Roe v. Wade decision and getting it overturned, but at the same time balancing that with pastoral concern for women who find themselves in desperate situations without a lot of choices,” said Julie Sly, a former CCC communications director who now edits the Catholic Herald of the Diocese of Sacramento.

Empowering Latino Catholics was another priority.

“Spanish-speaking people would come to a parish and be told that they had to have their Mass, not in the church but in the cafeteria,” Bishop Cummins recalled. “They did not feel welcome in the Church.”

When the CCC Office of Hispanic affairs office opened in 1979, its first director was then-Father Alfonse Gallegos, a humble but fearless supporter of farmworkers and later an auxiliary bishop of Sacramento. Killed in a road accident in 1991, he is a candidate for sainthood.

Gallegos coordinated meetings for up-and-coming Latino Catholics from every diocese. Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento participated in this group – known as RECOSS — as a young priest from the Diocese of Orange.

“Its lay members have grown and developed and have assumed leadership in the Catholic community. Many of them – probably all of them – have a diocesan position now,” Soto said. “Today, there are a good number of bishops in California who are Latino. And, in some sense, I feel very proud and very fortunate to have been part of the history of how that has happened.”

Former Office of Hispanic Affairs Director Al Hernandez-Santana took over in 2001.

It was clear during his seven-year tenure that Latino Catholics had influence beyond “Latino issues.” Their relationships with many liberal social justice groups helped to bridge political divides.

“We fought tooth and nail against the assisted suicide efforts in the legislature of California. That went on for years,” Hernandez-Santana said. “The danger was that the most vulnerable would be pushed into taking their own lives. [In hearings] we had brown faces and Mexican-American faces and Latino faces, people with traditional and spiritual values, recoiling at the thought that there is no respect for life.”

The CCC sponsors a weekly prayer group for people in legislative work, but “it’s not for issues,” said Linda Wanner, a 30-year employee who is the CCC’s associate director for governmental relations. “It’s just for prayer, reflection, and building relationships.”

Relationship-building is also important among bishops, who often come to meetings with differences over how best to address various issues.

 “We are one in wanting to uphold the truth and in wanting to keep the church together,” Bishop Soto said. They discern how to do so through “strategic conversations.”

“Time is provided when the bishops listen to other voices on a particular issue and then dialogue among ourselves,” he said. “The discussions are helpful in fostering a common view.”

Interactions with legislators have changed significantly over 50 years.

Cummins recalled a 1976 bill to authorize living wills, which had some wording that the bishops feared could be twisted to support euthanasia. The bishops were at a Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia when the bill’s author called to negotiate new language.

He wasn’t Catholic but wanted a bill that the Church would not oppose, Cummins recalled. They quickly found phrasing that satisfied all parties.  

Such moments are rare now, especially with one party controlling every branch of state government.

“It used to be easier to go and testify at hearings,” Dolejsi said. “You could go to a hearing 22 years ago and there would be testimony and debate.  Today the hearings are much too orchestrated and predetermined.”

Informed, active lay Catholics are more important than ever.

In 1999, the conference launched “Lobby Day,” which drew Catholics from across the state to Sacramento. After Mass at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral and briefings about issues, the volunteers visited legislators’ offices to lobby on matters ranging from prison reform to abortion to fair wages.

Billed as “the Catholic Voice for the Common Good,” within two years, Lobby Day grew from 100 participants to 1,400.

In 2001, the CCC was thriving.  It had just moved from a cramped space above a restaurant to a better location next to the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.  In early 2002, with the state in financial crisis and budget cuts inevitable, the CCC was lobbying hard to “protect those who are most in need of our assistance for their basic food, shelter, income and employment-related needs,” in the words of its former newsletter, Commentary.

“At the capitol, we were making real strides working with the legislators, and then the sexual abuse hit,” Wanner said, speaking of a national scandal in 2002 over how bishops had handled allegations of child sexual abuse. “It was an atrocity. No one wanted to talk to you or be engaged with the Church.”

“You can’t tell the story of the CCC, for the past 20 years in particular, without explaining what happened with sexual abuse of minors,” Dolejsi said.

It was clear that the Church had a moral obligation to help the victims, but that raised legal issues concerning the statute of limitations. Since the one-year “window” for lawsuits over long-ago abuse in 2002-2003, legislators have repeatedly tried to reopen that window. The CCC has argued that the Church has long since reformed.

“We want to support the victims and be responsive. No one is doing better [child protection] training than the Church right now, and we have done it for the past 18 years,” Dolejsi said.

However, “the civil liability of sexual abuse legislatively, and in public opinion, has occupied a significant area of our time and energy and, though we have worked through it, it has diminished the Church’s ability to be seen as a credible moral voice. We are in the midst of trying to restore that voice.”

After the impact of the abuse, dioceses could no longer afford to send busloads of participants to Lobby Day, now known as Advocacy Day. Instead, the CCC asked each diocese to send two representatives from each legislative district.

In 2011, high school students established their own “Youth Advocacy Day.”

“It is pretty much student-driven,” Wanner said. “They give me the topics, and I look for bills.”

As the digital age unfolded, the Catholic Legislative Network has enlisted over 100,000 members who sign up online to receive action alerts on issues of their choice. An e-newsletter, Public Policy Insights, delivers succinct summaries of legislative priorities and their relationship to Catholic social teaching.

“We don’t want to send an email to say ‘vote for that bill’ when people don’t understand what that bill does,” said Steve Pehanich, the CCC communications director. “Our goal is to educate on the practical effects of the bill, to say here are the public policy arguments on why we think it’s a good or bad bill and also provide a strong foundation of Catholic teaching.

“It’s not just public policy and it’s not just faith. It’s the combination of the two.”

With changing times, the Conference has evolved as well – finding new and better ways to reach out to Catholics and interact with elected and government officials.  What has not changed is the commitment found in the Conference’s Mission Statement:

“to advance the Catholic vision of human life and dignity, the good society, and concern for those who are poor and vulnerable.  We educate Catholics and the general public.  We empower Catholics to put their faith into action consistent with Catholic teaching.”

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