By Gordon Nary
Robert: My wife, Colleen, and I joined St. Juliana’s Parish in 2009 when we moved to that area.
Gordon: Do you participate in any of the parish groups and ministries.?
Robert: I serve as a lector.
Gordon: What initially interested you in Catholic political advocacy?
Robert: I was in Arizona, working as the legislative liaison for the state agency that deals with social service issues – child welfare, services to the aged and disabled, child support, etc. The mission of that agency meshes well with Catholic Social Teaching. When I heard about the assistant director opening with the Catholic Conference of Illinois, I saw it as an opportunity to more fully live the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching. And, although I was born in Brooklyn, New York, I was raised in the Chicago suburbs. My parents still lived there, so it was a homecoming of sorts.
Gordon: In your opinion, why do some parishes are often reluctant to address Catholic political challenges?
Robert: In politics, you have to take a side – some will agree with you, while others won’t. As our society becomes more and more secularized, more people are going to disagree with you if you hold Catholic views.
Gordon: What are some of the achievements of the Catholic Conference of Illinois of which you are proudest since you were appointed executive director?
Robert: The Catholic Conference helped to craft Illinois’ earned income tax credit (EITC) in 2000 for low-income workers and their families, and successfully lobbied to make it permanent in 2003. Illinois’ EITC is worth 5 percent of the federal EITC and is fully refundable. The EITC gives real help to the people who need it the most.
In 2011, the Conference helped to abolish the death penalty in Illinois, which had come under scrutiny after an investigation revealed that some Death Row inmates were innocent, and subsequently released. A moratorium was then placed on the death penalty, but prosecutors were still asking for it. It was gratifying to finally take that option off the table.
That same year, civil unions legislation was approved in Illinois, and redefinition of marriage followed in 2013. We fought and lost those battles, but they also gave the Conference the opportunity to articulate the truth about marriage.
The Conference was able to get a cost-of-doing-business increase for Catholic Charities workers in 2006 – the last time anyone got anything, as the state’s financial condition has continued to worsen.
The Conference also helped to craft the Illinois education expenses tax credit, which gives all parents of K-12 school children a credit of 25 percent of a student’s qualified education expenses – such as tuition, books, and lab fees – after the first $250. The total annual credit may not exceed $500.
We are now working on an initiative that would increase the credit from $500 to $1,000, as well as create an income tax credit for corporations or individuals who donate to scholarships for low- to- middle-income students to attend Catholic and other private schools.
Gordon: You presented (March 2016)an update on current or pending public policies as thy impact healthcare for Catholic practitioners and laity at UIC College of Medicine. Could you provide our readers with a summary of your presentation?
Robert: Catholic health care professionals need to know that their conscience protections are under attack. Illinois is very fortunate to have a strong Health Care Right of Conscience Act, which allows health care professionals and facilities to opt-out of participating in a morally objectionable medical service, such as abortion. Unfortunately, the ACLU last spring launched an attack against the law, painting it as an obstacle to patient access. Nothing could be further from the truth. The services are always available – just not from a health care professional who has a conscious objection.
The legislation modifying the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act (Senate Bill 1564) passed the Illinois Senate last spring but has yet to be called for a vote in the Illinois House.
But the vote count is very close. The Catholic Conference managed to mitigate the worst of the ACLU’s wanted changes through lobbying and negotiation. If the legislation passes and is signed into law, health care professionals and facilities can still refuse to perform, assist, counsel, suggest, recommend, refer or participate in any form of medical practice or health care service that is contrary to his or her conscience. What will be “new” is an information protocol that says when a conscience objection is invoked, the patient’s condition, prognosis, and treatment options will be discussed. This is already standard medical practice at Catholic health care facilities. If a patient insists on an objectionable service, a list of local health care providers will be given for the patient to seek out different medical consultations. The list does not constitute a referral nor does it guarantee an outcome.
At the federal level, we are pushing for the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (ANDA), which would make the Weldon amendment permanent and more effective. Currently, the Weldon amendment has been included in every Labor/Health and Human Services federal appropriations law enacted since 2004. It simply allows the government to withhold federal funding from any federal, state or local entities that discriminate against doctors, hospitals or health plans that choose not to offer or cover abortion services. But sometimes nurses and doctors are still forced to participate in abortions. ANDA would allow them to sue their employer for forcing them to participate.
Also at the federal level is the Health Care Conscience Rights Act (H.R. 90), which would allow sponsors of group health plans to exclude “coverage of an abortion or other item or service to which such issuer or sponsor had a moral or religious objection.”
These are just a few examples of how a health care professional’s conscience rights can be trampled. That’s why it’s important for every health care professional to be a part of a professional organization – like the Illinois State Medical Society – so he or she can speak up for his or her rights.
And of course, the HHS mandate that requires insurance coverage for morally-objectionable services has to be mentioned. The religious exemption is so narrow that not even Jesus would have qualified for it, leaving our religiously-affiliated hospitals, child-welfare agencies, universities, and colleges at risk for being complicit in providing such coverage, despite the government’s flimsy attempt at accommodation. That issue is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gordon: Could you comment on how state money may lead to loss of religious expression?
Robert: When an entity accepts state money, it also accepts the strings attached to it. These strings are often in opposition to the entity’s beliefs. An example is when civil unions legislation passed in Illinois in 2011. Our Catholic Charities had the largest and most efficient system of caring foster parents for children in the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. The state actually looked to Catholic Charities for help when setting up DCFS back in the 1960s. Because Catholic Charities has a policy of not placing children with unmarried children, the state did not renew Charities’ contracts, placing foster parents and their children in disarray for months.
Gordon: In your opinion, what are some of the moral challenges that we may need to consider in the 2016 presidential election?
Robert: Voters should think of these current challenges:
1. Our inability to provide quality education to children in low-performing schools hurts everyone – the kids, society at large, and the future of our nation.
2. We have a growing problem of children being born to single mothers. A recent study showed that single motherhood has grown dramatically over the past 50 years, with these children more likely to live in poverty and family instability than children of married parents. The key circles back to my first point -- we need to provide kids with a good education so they can become mature adults with a good job. When they meet that special someone, they are ready to commit to marriage and raising a family.
3. The fabric of our culture has gradually coarsened over time, so much so that now many of us are immune to the vacuous antics of reality television. There is a lack of awareness about good vs. evil. I think we have forgotten some tenets of our faith, like the term “judgment.” That is not a condemning term, but one that simply reminds us that we will be held responsible for our decisions and actions. There is too much attention to feelings and not enough thinking in society today. Lawmakers changed the laws on marriage relying on emotion.
4. Finally, the lack of respect for human life at all stages has led to a cheapening of the value of human life. We see videos of body parts of aborted babies being sold for research. We see the body of a dead Syrian refugee child washed up onshore. We see photos of ISIS jihadis holding a sword above the head of a kneeling, hooded Christian. And we see people lobbying their lawmakers for the right to get a lethal prescription from their doctor so that they may end the most precious gift that God has given them – their life.
Gordon: You also host the Catholic Conference Radio Hour which I hope all of our readers listen to, check out all of your past broadcasts, and encourage their friends to listen to as well. We have learned what a powerful political force that radio can be in the recent Wisconsin primaries.
It was great that you discuss the case of Illinois Prisoner Adolfo Davis before the US Supreme Court with Father Dave Kelly who has testified on his behalf at his resentencing hearing which helps demonstrate this is the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
What initially inspired you to use radio as a communications resource?
Robert: The Archdiocese of Chicago asked me to do the radio program shortly after I became executive director of the Catholic Conference. At any given point in time, it’s estimated that 25,000 people listen to it. It’s just another avenue to use to get our message out to lay Catholics.
Gordon: Do you have any suggestions on how parishes can maximize some of the newer technologies in communicating to their parishioners and others?
Robert: The Catholic Conference has created a grassroots email advocacy network called the Illinois Catholic Advocacy Network, or I-CAN for short, that allows people to receive emails on state and federal legislation that impact the Catholic Church and her various ministries, such as pro-life issues, social services, immigration reform, social justice, the family, and Catholic education. It’s easy to sign up at www.ilcatholic.org/take-action/join-i-can/.
The Catholic Conference also makes use of social media to communicate its message, and lay Catholics should be aware of and follow us on Facebookwww.facebook.com/CatholicConferenceofIllinois, Twitter (@CatholicConfIL) and Instagram (@ilcatholic).
Gordon: How can our readers contribute to support your mission?
Robert By signing up for and following the above-listed options.
Gordon: Thank you for your time in completing this interview and your exceptional leadership