ICC planted seeds for school choice, continues fight for life issues
Bill Wood was a busy attorney and father of eight when he added another role in 1970: legal counsel for the relatively new Indiana Catholic Conference.
The ICC was still finding its way as the public policy voice of the Church in Indiana, and it was taking on an issue near and dear to Wood’s heart: support for Catholic schools.
“The Catholic Church has always had such a vital interest in teaching and in schools,” recalled Wood, now 88. “So the conference was always taking positions on education because of the Church’s emphasis on the welfare of children.”
It wasn’t long before Wood found himself embroiled in a David-and-Goliath drama in the public arena. Catholics represented just over 10 percent of Indiana’s population, but the Church played a major role in shepherding a landmark education bill through the state legislature.
House Bill 1341 would have provided $10 million from the state’s treasury to assist nonpublic schools in their performance of a secular, non-religious public service: namely, educating tens of thousands of Indiana children. As is the case now, most of the state’s nonpublic schools were operated by religious institutions, the majority by the Church.
The ICC, working in partnership with other stakeholders including Lutherans in the state, built a strong case that nonpublic schools provided a vital public service and saved Indiana taxpayers at least $78 million annually. History was made on March 12, 1971, when the Indiana House passed the bill, marking the first time a bill providing substantial state aid to nonpublic schools had passed an Indiana legislative chamber.
Although the bill was later voted down by the Senate, Wood said the ICC had made an impression at the Statehouse and laid the groundwork for future efforts in the area of education.
Nearly four decades later, not long after his retirement as the ICC’s attorney, Wood witnessed the culmination of many years of hard work by ICC leaders and partners statewide: passage of groundbreaking school choice legislation that has served as a model for other states. The Scholarship Tax Credit and the Choice Scholarship (voucher) programs were enacted in 2009 and 2011, respectively, ensuring that families could select the right school for their children regardless of income.
In education and in so many other issues—from respect for life to income inequality—Wood says that the ICC has established a reputation for well-researched analysis and arguments and has become a respected voice in public policy.
“The legislators knew that if they wanted reasoned information about abortion, marriage or any other issue, they could turn to [the ICC] for leadership and guidance,” said Wood, a member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis.
He credits former executive director Raymond Rufo and others in the ICC’s early years with “getting the legislature to understand that the Catholic Church has something to say on matters of faith and morals.”
Calling for action
This fall, the ICC marks the 50th anniversary of its founding — and it continues to speak for the Catholic Church on a wide range of issues. That includes matters that have interested the Church since its inception to more modern-day concerns.
“All the same issues are there, because we are human beings,” said Glenn Tebbe, the fifth and current executive director of the ICC. But he also identifies some of “the biggies” in the current landscape.
“We have a completely broken immigration system,” Tebbe began. “In the area of protecting and defending life, we are looking not only at abortion but the death penalty, assisted suicide and reproductive technologies that are making people commodities.
“With regard to religious freedom, we are interested in ensuring that the Church is able to express the teachings of Jesus Christ, and what God expects us to do to fulfill our obligations and live out the truths of the faith.”
With all issues, the ICC serves as the coordinating body for the five dioceses in the state — the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, the Diocese of Evansville, the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the Diocese of Gary and the Diocese of Lafayette.
ICC staff members identify issues that have a clear and compelling moral dimension where Catholic social teaching clearly calls for action, according to Tebbe. Because of limited resources, he explained, the ICC must be strategic, focusing on those areas in which the Church can make a difference.
“Our actions can be proactive or reactive,” said Tebbe, a member of St. Mary Parish in Greensburg. “Sometimes we’re the leader, but most of the time, we partner with other people. The death penalty is an example of where we will speak up when no one else will.”
The ICC represents the Church at the Indiana Statehouse, and Tebbe is its public face. ICC efforts are generally most intense prior to and during a legislative session of the Indiana General Assembly.
Once issues and pertinent bills are identified, Tebbe says that ICC staff members develop positions and draft statements. In some cases, statewide information and action networks are activated so that Indiana Catholics at the diocesan and parish level can become involved in supporting or opposing a piece of legislation or other government initiative.
In the 1980s, the ICC launched the Indiana Catholic Action Network, which continues to be a vehicle for informing and mobilizing Catholics statewide. To learn more about I-CAN, go to www.indianacc.org. Through the years, I-CAN’s operations have changed with the times. Phone, fax and the Internet all have played a role.
Fred Everett has used all of those and more since becoming the ICC diocesan coordinator for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend in 1988. He recalls sending countless faxes to various audiences during periods when school choice was a hot-button issue, and activating phone trees at parishes throughout the diocese. Good old-fashioned paper memos were just as effective, he said, when they were disseminated through Catholic schools for students to take home to their parents.
“It’s been very edifying for me to work with the [ICC team] over the years,” said Everett, who along with his wife, Lisa, also serves as co-director of the Office of Family and Pro-Life in the diocese. “The ICC enjoys a certain reputation throughout the state as not only the voice of moderation, but an entity that can be trusted.”
Focusing on the
Everett and Wood both recall how, in the 1990s, the bishops in Indiana were receiving a lot of questions about living wills. In this case, it was advances in medical technology that were driving the need for the Church to clarify its position.
Catholics were wondering what the Church thought about the morality of discontinuing life support in various circumstances, for example. The ICC took up the issue and, after much deliberation and consultation with the bishops, as well as medical experts and ethicists, the result was a standard form of a living will, also known more formally as an “advance directive,” endorsed by the Church.
Wood added that many Catholic hospitals in Indiana now have a priest on staff to address matters of faith and morals.
Also during the 1990s, Everett said that the ICC, under the leadership of then-executive director M. Desmond Ryan, helped to block an attempt in the legislature to push for the removal of nutrition and hydration for people in persistent vegetative states. Again, Everett said, the voice of the Church was heard and made an impact.
Regardless of the issues and ever-changing technology, the ICC’s overarching mission remains the same, according to Everett.
“We just do our best to make things better,” he said. “In the end, it has always been about focusing on issues of the common good, and about getting people to act.”
Victoria Arthur is a freelance writer and member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg.
This is the second in a series of articles reflecting on the Indiana Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding.