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Catholic lobbyist says pope's encyclical doesn't change how he works in the Capitol

May 13, 2006
By: Meghan Maskery
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The first encyclical written by Pope Benedict XVI drew a clear line between church and state when it came out Jan. 25, but Missouri's top Catholic lobbyist says the pope's statement has not had any affect on how he works in Missouri's capitol.

The enclycical released in January titled "Deus Caritas Est" or "God is love," is the pope's first letter explaining Catholic doctrine to church leadership and followers throughout the world.

In it, pope Benedict wrote, "The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the state."

The letter continues, "A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply."

The issue of the church's role in political issues came to the forefront in Missouri in 2004 when the St. Louis archbishop said communion should be deined to Catholic pro-abortion-rights politicians -- a statement he reiterated during the presidential campaign of John Kerry, a Catholic.

But members of the Catholic Church in the United States said they do not think pope Benedict's encyclical calls for an reevaluation of how the Catholic Church works in the political realm.

Frank Maniscaclo, director of communications for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Pope Benedict's encylcical does not signal a change in policy for the Catholic Church's lobbying practices and has no bearing on how bishops interact with Catholic legislators.

The issue of bishops denying communion to legislators is separate from politics, Maniscalco said.

He said concerning abortion-rights advocates of the Catholic Church, "With any prominent public person, bishops have an obligation to tell them 'it's not OK.'" He added that denying communion is necessary for public understanding. "It's making sure the teaching of the Catholic Church is correctly represented."

In terms of lobbyists for the Catholic Church, Maniscalco said, "It's not like we have lobbyists high up in the Church. We do have a staff to explain our issues."

Catholic Conferences throughout the United States lobby for political change on a number of issues. The Missouri Catholic Conference Web site lists its positions on Medicaid, abortion, immigration, adoption, domestic violence among other political issues.

In the last several years, the state Catholic Conference has been very active lobbying Missouri's legislature -- particularly on abortion-related issues. Last year, it was at the center of the legislative controversy over efforts to ban some forms of stem-cell research.

Larry Weber is the chief lobbyist for the Missouri Catholic Conference whose board of directors includes the state's bishops. Weber's job is to promote a Catholic perspective on political issues.

He talks to state legislators from both parties and of different religious backgrounds. He also writes bills and amendments to bills and gives them to legislators who, in turn, introduce them to the legislature. This session, Weber wrote a bill to put a moratorium on the death penalty for three years.

Weber said he understands the encyclical to mean that the Catholic Church cannot publicly endorse or oppose any particular political candidate or political party. Taking a stance on issues of importance to the Catholic Church, however, is another matter entirely, he said.

"We not only have a right to participate in the democratic process. We have a duty," Weber said.

The role of the Catholic Church in politics has evolved since the 1960s, according to Weber. He noted that the Catholic Church is slow to change its policies and that the encyclical is just a restatement of its position on the church's role in public life.

Fr. Maxime Gbende contributed to this story.