Program #0149 for Tuesday, October 4, 2011: Massachusetts Catholic Conference

October 4, 2011

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Today’s host(s): Scot Landry and Fr. Chris O’Connor

Today’s guest(s): James Driscoll, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference

Today’s topics: The Massachusetts Catholic Conference

Summary of today’s show: Jim Driscoll, who became executive director of the Mass. Catholic Conference just a few months ago, appears on the show for the first time to talk with Scot and Fr. Chris about his background, the work of the body that represents the 4 Mass. dioceses on Beacon Hill, and the hot button issues of assisted suicide and casino gambling that he’s had to address right out of the gate.

1st segment: Scot welcomed Fr. Chris back to the show. He was at Boston University this past weekend with the college students and Fr. John McLaughlin, the new campus chaplain. They went on retreat in Wells, Maine, at the Franciscan retreat center. Several of the faculty went up to hear confessions of the students. Scot said Fr. McLaughlin most recently served as vocations director for the Military Archdiocese. He’s filling the big shoes of Sr. Olga Yaqob and the Brotherhood of Hope at BU.

Fr. Chris said he’s building on a great legacy with young people who are on fire for their faith. Fr. Chris always asks him how many vocations he’s got for St. John Seminary. They are the source of many vocations to the priesthood.

Scot said the seminary is planning a big alumni gathering on October 21 with the seminarians. The seminarians serve the meals and give some of the entertainment. It’s a great day for the alumni to see the future Church and for the seminarians to see those who are serving in the parishes they will serve some day.

2nd segment: Scot and Fr. Chris welcome James Driscoll to the show. Scot asked Jim about his family and background. His family attends St. Mary of the Nativity in Scituate and have been there since 1985. He has four children, all girls. Three of them have graduated college, all of them at Boston College. The last is a junior in high school. Jim went to Providence College and got a law degree at Suffolk. Jim is the black sheep in his family, being the one who didn’t go to Boston College. He was a probation officer in the district court while attending law school at night.

Jim used to work for state government in several roles. He worked for the state Lottery Commission as the assistant general counsel and then the general counsel. After that he was general counsel at the state auditor’s office until this past spring when he came to the Mass. Catholic Conference.

Jim said he loves his faith and take a lot of pride in working with the Knights of Columbus council he belongs to. For many years, he oversaw the community pool that the Knights ran. All the profits went to the good works of the Knights of Columbus.

Jim took the job because it was time to make a change in his career; he’d been working in state government since law school. He’d been acquaintances with Ed Saunders, the previous executive director of the conference, and he found Ed’s job to be fascinating. Then Ed passed away suddenly last year. After getting past the shock of his death, Jim decided to see if it was the right fit for him. Gerry D’Avolio was Ed’s predecessor and he was interim director after Ed’s passing. Gerry’s assistance was invaluable. Jim’s first day of work was when the mariatalks.com website controversy broke and Gerry helped him with that. Gerry also introduced him around to the various representatives and senators on Beacon Hill.

The Mass. Catholic Conference represents all the dioceses in the state: Boston, Fall River, Worcester, and Springfield. Jim said most states have Catholic conferences, about 37 or 38 of them. He went to the first meeting of all the directors back in July. They discuss national issues facing all of them as well as some local matters.

Jim said four people work for the Mass. Catholic Conference, including himself: Peter McNulty, who just came in as the associate director of planning and research; Kathy Davis, who handles many of the social justice and education issue; and Kathy Magno, the jack of all trades who runs the office.

3rd segment: The Mass. Catholic Conference was established in 1969 to represent the Church and the 4 bishops primarily at the State house, so that the Church can keep informed in what is going on in the Legislature and weigh in on the particular bills and petitions when appropriate. They work closely with the bishops and their staff on what issues to focus on. Scot said it’s being the voice for the Massachusetts bishops among the legislators, helping them understand what we believe as Catholics. Jim said he has decided to do is to make the rounds at the State House to meet as many senators and reps as he can. Fr. Chris pointed out that the Church is concerned with the common good of all, not just Catholics. He asked how Jim responds to those who say the Church shouldn’t be involved in politics?

Jim said as an attorney he understand the separation of church and state. But many of the issues affect your faith and you have to speak up regardless of your particular faith and the separation of church and state. Scot said his understanding of the clause about separation of church and state was not to favor a particular religion, but it’s been pushed to exclude all faith from the public square. Jim’s response is to disagree and say that the people in the pews need someone to speak on their behalf at the legislature.

Scot asked the climate among legislators in terms of wanting to hear from the Catholic Church. Jim said as you get to know the legislators, you know which ones to approach on different issues, who is receptive to social issues and who is receptive on life issues.

Fr. Chris said our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values and he is proud of our tradition in the stances we’ve taken on proclaiming the dignity of the human person and that the media comes to the Church to be the voice of those who stand for life. They want to hear what the Church has to say because the Church is serving not just Catholic beliefs, but also the common good. It’s a great day to go up to the Legislature and even get a meeting with a staff aide, who gets excited about a position and want to pass the information on to their boss. The Church has a lot of relevance on Beacon Hill.

Jim spends most of his time interacting with the Legislative branch, but on occasion they do include the Executive branch, the governor’s office, in letters they write. Scot asked if they do any local work or if it’s primarily on the state level. Jim said they do sometimes get calls on local issues, but they are usually passed along to the various dioceses.

Scot asked how they get the word out about Catholic teaching on relevant issues. He said they want to educate both legislators and Catholics on the issues. Jim said they post as much information as they can on their website. (Jim wanted to let everyone know that they’re designing a new user-friendly website. Should be ready about late November.) They also communicate through the Catholic newspapers in the four dioceses. He met with the Pilot recently on how to get more information to the Pilot more expeditiously. They are also constantly writing to the various legislators and the governor.

Scot said sometimes the Mass. Catholic Conference will publish bulletin inserts and parish announcements on various big issues. Jim said it will happen with the assisted suicide petition.

4th segment: Scot said a frequent topic on the show over the past month is the assisted suicide ballot initiative proposed by various groups. The Church’s position is that every suicide is a tragedy. The Mass. bishops want to be very aggressive on educating the people and legislators on this issue. Jim said the bishops have spoken out against assisted suicide in a press release issued on the day of the ballot initiative. The bishops have appointed a steering committee to come up with a plan to get the word out and bring together those who agree with us and let people know what it means and how it affects families.

Fr. Chris asked what is being pushed here. Jim said the bishops want to say that very life is precious from conception to natural death. The proponents call this choice and compassion, to have the choice to end lives under certain circumstances. They claim that there are safeguards to prevent the vulnerable from being taken advantage of. Scot said it sounds like the language of the pro-abortion industry: Don’t let anyone else have a say in how you live your life, not religion or anyone else. Almost any objection we would have, they’ve tried to address it by saying that people won’t be pressured, they have to have all kinds of signatures, there’s a waiting period. But as we’ve seen in other states that have passed this kind of legislation, suicide goes up after passage of the law. In Oregon, it’s the second leading cause of death of young people now, and suicide is 35% higher than the national average. Passing this legislation brings suicide to the forefront. Your 5-year-old today or 8-year-old today, when they have the worst day of their life when their 20 years old, this kind of bill that devalues life makes it more likely that they’ll consider suicide.

Fr. Chris said God is viewed as threat to our freedom and autonomy, but it really comes down to who is the author of life, us or God? We are given a great gift by God. Fr. Chris said he’s shocked that we are even discussing this issue. How cheap life has become. A kay part is the down the stream consequences when you pass something like this and you devalue human life. The pro-assisted suicide forces make it all about the individual and don’t think of the common good.

Scot said the initiative needs 69,000 signatures before early December. They passed the first stage in the first week of September. The Attorney General is not taking a position by certifying the petition. It’s just her constitutional duty to certify whether the initiative has followed the rules. The next stage is that petitions are printed and the proponents have to get 69,911 certified signatures, which is 3% of the voters who voted in the last governor’s race. They will attempt to get far more than that in case some come back as not valid.

Scot said bulletin announcements will start appearing in parish bulletins this weekend making people aware that they may be approached to sign the petitions. Hopefully Catholics won’t sign the petition even if approached by a friend or neighbor. People need to be aware of what they are signing when approached. Other petitions have also been certified so other signatures may be requested.

After they get the signatures, the petition is filed with the Legislature the first week in January. T he Legislature has until the middle of May to act or not act on the petition. They could enact it into law, but Jim doesn’t think they will do so. If not, then the proponents have to get 100,000 more signatures and if they do, it will appear on the November 2012 ballot. Scot said we can expect to see television ads from proponents and could be one of the larger issues discussed in Massachusetts over the next year. The proponents are well-funded.

Fr. Chris asked if many legislators are behind this. Jim said it’s tough to say because it’s still early. He said there’s a separate piece of legislation that gets filed every year that mirrors this petition and that hasn’t moved out of committee. He doesn’t think legislators have focused on this yet.

Jim said he hopes to send a message to proponents loud and clear that Massachusetts residents will have a resounding No to assisted suicide no matter when this is brought forward. It will take a good education effort from not just the Church but also disability groups and senior citizens’ groups. Fr. Chris asked the strategy to say this isn’t really about “compassion” and “dignity” as proponents claim. Jim said you have to expose what the definition of “compassion” really is, which in this case is ending someone’s life. It’s going to be a long-term plan that they develop. Scot said the best way t combat the euphemisms is to call them what they are. Cardinal Seán said at the Red Mass that we can’t let our citizens be seduced and that these words disguise the sheer brutality of helping people kill themselves. It’s blunt but honest and shows how proponents are being manipulative.

Jim suggested those who want to read the Cardinal’s homily can read it at their website.

5th segment: Scot said Jim has recently testified on Beacon Hill about gambling bills before the Legislature. Jim’s background at the Lottery commission gives him a unique perspective and authority on the issue. Jim said he joined a large coalition at the State House after the House voted and before the Senate took up the bill. When it comes to expand gambling beyond the Lottery and bingo, he got a chance firsthand over the years to see the downside what gambling can do to people. The Lottery has about 7,000 agents in local stores. They paid the Lottery their take of the sales, minus their 5% profit and if that didn’t happen, they would be called into the Lottery commission for a hearing. Jim was one of the hearing officers. He heard on a consistent basis that one of the major reasons people couldn’t pay their bills was because either employees of the stores were getting hooked on buying tickets or family members in family-run stores were. He saw families torn apart by gambling.

Fr. Chris said the Church has no problem with an occasional ticket, but when you’re gambling above and beyond your means, then it because a justice issue because you can no longer care for your family, which tugs at the fabric of society. Scot said he lies what the bishops said in their statement:

While the Catholic Church views gambling as a legitimate form of entertainment when done in moderation, the gaming legislation opens the door to a new form of predatory gaming which threatens the moral fabric of our society. We are concerned that the Commonwealth’s reliance on gambling revenue continues to escalate. This reliance upon an unstable form of revenue, which has been shrinking in other states, would depend upon those who are addicted to gambling, many of whom are already among the ranks of the poorest in the community.

We’re desperate for new forms of revenue in the commonwealth, but the $1.5 billion in tax revenues will come from taxpayers losing billions of dollars in these predatory casinos. Jim said the people who can least afford to play are those who will be playing. Looking at the casinos in Connecticut shows drug use is up, people are losing money. Scot said studies show that crime goes up around casinos when they open, not just the obvious ones related to needing more money, but also crimes like rape. Scot asked hypothetically how much would people pay to decrease rape by 21% or other violent crimes by similar amounts. But if these casinos open, these crime rates are likely to go up by these amounts while also sucking up billions of dollars from people in the community. Jim goes back to what it will do the family and remembers stories of people stealing from their family because they can’t get away from the addiction.

Scot said it appears there’s a deal on this between the governor, the speaker of the House, and senate president. Is there anything we can do at this point? Jim said it looks like there is a deal although no one has said so publicly. The House passed this bill in one day, which is unbelievable given its complexity. The Senate version has more than 180 amendments, mostly filed by opponents. In last year’s bill, there was a breakdown between the governor and the speak on slot machines, but this year it seems like there’s an agreement.

Scot said it’s shameful that no one in the key leadership positions sees that expanding predatory gambling is the wrong thing to do. Jim said it will create construction jobs in the short time. Scot said legalized prostitution would create jobs, but are these the right types of jobs? It’s the same in this case.

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