The Conference
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
June 2001

This column is the first in a regular series that will examine the public policy from a Catholic perspective, the work of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, and related issues. We look forward to this opportunity to bring greater attention to the work of the North Dakota Catholic Conference and public policy issues.

What is the North Dakota Catholic Conference? This is a good question since sometimes confusion arises about what the North Dakota Catholic Conference is and is not. Quite simply, it is the voice of the North Dakota bishops -- Bishop James S. Sullivan of Fargo and Bishop Paul A. Zipfel of Bismarck -- on matters of public policy and other mutual interests.

When the bishops engage in public policy issues they apply the teachings of the church and the Church’s experience in the world to public policy issues. The North Dakota Catholic Conference, therefore, is not “political” organization in the typical usage of the word. It is not interested in party politics or supporting or opposing candidates. Rather, it serves as a prophetic voice applying universal principles to policy issues, working to shape policies so they are consistent with the Church’s social teachings.

When engaging in this process, the bishops are well aware that not every Catholic in the diocese will agree with their assessment or even the Church’s social teachings. Sometimes, however, this recognition is lost on the media and legislators and we need to remind observers that the North Dakota Catholic Conference represents the bishops, not the state’s Catholics. Theoretically, a majority of the state’s professed Catholics could support a right to abortion. That does not mean that the Catholic Conference should, or even could, abandon its pro-life position. So, while it may distress us, it does not affect us, when someone says that Catholics in the pew do not agree with the conference’s position on a particular issue. We pray and hope that through teaching and conversion Catholics that disagree will come to respect the bishops’ views as they exercise their task of applying Catholic teaching to matters of public policy.

The North Dakota Catholic Conference is not the orthodox police for Catholic legislators. Sometimes we get requests to track the legislative records of Catholic legislators and then expose them to their parishes or bishop. That is not the role of the Catholic conference. In fact, in most of our work we do not distinguish between Catholic and non-Catholic legislators, though knowing a legislator’s religious affiliation can sometimes help establish a common reference point. This is not to say that the Church is not concerned about the actions of Catholic legislators inconsistent with Catholic teaching. That, however, is a pastoral issue best dealt with by the legislator’s pastor, not the North Dakota Catholic Conference.

Since the North Dakota Catholic Conference works on so many different issues, it sometimes must work with other organizations with particular expertise. When doing so, the bishops strive to maintain their own independence. The North Dakota Catholic Conference is not the “Catholic wing” of pro-life, farm, environmental, educational, labor, pro-family, or other organizations that might happen to agree and work with the bishops on a particular issue. We look at it as those organizations agree with the bishops, not the other way around. It is a helpful way of reminding ourselves that the positions of the bishops are rooted in a body of doctrine and we are not, like most other organizations, membership bodies that can change positions year to year.

A recent issue of New Earth contained “Legislature Trivia” noting the number of state officials and their political party affiliation. Readers may be interested in this breakdown by the number and percentage of Catholics. Keep in mind that Catholics comprise about 27% of the state’s population.
How many senators are in the N.D. Senate: 49 How many of them are Catholic? 15 (30%)
How many Republicans? 32 How many of them are Catholic? 6 (18% of the Republican Senators)
How many Democrats? 17 How many of them are Catholic? 9 (52.9% of the Democratic Senators)

How many Representatives are in the N.D. House of Representatives? 98
How many of them are Catholic? 28 (28.5%)
How many Republicans? 69 How many of them are Catholic? 18 (26% of the Republican Representatives)
How many Democrats? 29 How many of them are Catholic? 10 (34.4% of the Democratic Representatives)

One, Governor John Hoeven, of the ten state-wide elected office holders, is Catholic.
One of the three Public Service Commissioners is Catholic.
Three of the five state Supreme Court justices are Catholic.

None of the three congressional representatives is Catholic.