Every two years, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC) sponsors Catholics at the Capitol. This program promotes the importance of involvement in the political process as a means of fulfilling our religious responsibility to care for the society in which we live and place before the legislative leadership our positions as the Catholic Church.

The meeting began with a prayer led by Bishop Robert C. Morlino, bishop of Madison. We must never forget prayer leads to action. Prayer grounds us in our response to all issues and guards us against falling into an ideological spirit. We do what we do out of our need to fulfill Christ’s mandate to care and love one another.

This year’s presentation included a keynote address by Bishop Peter F. Christensen in which he responded to the day’s theme: “Reclaiming the Common Good in the Year of Faith.”

His reflection of our participation as an outgrowth of our spirituality was placed within the context of “civility” in all our interactions – even with those who may oppose us. The “common good” looks to the good of the whole community as opposed to an individual good which only looks to the good of a single person. In this Year of Faith, we acknowledge we are responsible for the good of our brothers and sisters.

As a church, our involvement in the political process is founded in the voice that our church provides in the social discourse. As Pope Benedict XVI stated in “Deus Caritas Est,” #26: “The church … cannot and should not replace the state. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.”

The meeting was held at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in Madison, located in the shadow of the State Capitol. Catholics from all over the state representing the five dioceses of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, La Crosse, Green Bay, Madison and Superior – participated in the day’s activities. Participants included members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, parish human concerns committees, diocesan social justice offices, Catholic schools offices, diocesan pastoral executive offices, communication offices, students from Newman Centers and individual Catholics.

After the presentation by Bishop Christensen, participants divided into groups for breakout sessions with experts in areas of social interest. Some of the breakout sessions included prison reform in Wisconsin, environmental stewardship, marriage and society, peace and nonviolence in the Holy Land, the church’s teaching on life – sustaining treatment, health care for the poor and vulnerable and aging, finding employment, parental choice in education, the dignity of life, introduction to Catholic social teaching, solidarity and subsidiarity and our first, most cherished liberty.

I attended the presentation on our first, most cherished liberty given by Bishop Morlino, who connected the relationship of religion and freedom by defining those terms.

When we redefine our sense of religion by imposing a type of universal spirituality we relegate our sense of religion to a personal experience apart from any objective criteria. Religion becomes a private experience and one is free, within the personal context of one’s own life, to believe whatever he or she wants. However, don’t bring it into the public forum and expect to have a voice in the public discourse.

Bishop Morlino, a longtime promoter of natural law, lamented the fact that our social discourse often denies the existence of natural law. As a result, our public policies and freedoms suffer.

Lunch included a surprise visit by Gov. Scott Walker who graciously took time out of his very busy schedule to address the gathering. He praised the Catholics present for their interest in the political process and presented his budget proposal in light of some of our common social goals.

This is the first time in eight years of my attendance at this event that the governor has addressed Catholics at the Capitol. Whether one agrees with the governor’s positions or not, it was a wonderful mark of leadership and a respect for faith-based advocacy groups.

The day ended as it began with prayer after which the participants were challenged to visit legislative leaders, especially those who represented their districts.

The message to our legislators focused on four budget-related issues:

1) Approve provisions fostering greater parental choice in education. All parents should enjoy the right to choose where and how their children are educated.

2) Maintain existing coverage for Medicaid recipients and expand coverage for those of limited means by providing for expansion and increased funding of Family Care, the state’s community based long term care program and approved increased funding for mental health services and the establishment of an Office of Children’s Mental Health.

3) Remove the provision that exempts rent-to-own agreements from the Wisconsin Consumer Act. These transactions are predatory and constitute usury; they prey on low income families and those least likely to afford financial missteps.

4) Increase budget funding for Treatment Alternatives and Diversions (TAD) programs these programs are far more effective than incarceration. It is a community-based treatment program that will make our state stronger and safer by reducing crime and recidivism, strengthening families, increasing job readiness and reducing poverty.

We are blessed to have a strong representation at the Capitol. John Huebscher, the WCC executive director, is ably supported by Barbara Sella, Kim Wadas and Cathy Coyle-Kaufmann, but they need the Catholic community to make a statement by their voices and votes.

It is obvious to me that many treat the Catholic community as a paper tiger whose voice is quickly dismissed. Perhaps it’s time to put teeth into the tiger, but this can only be accomplished when legislators see and hear their constituents.

I would love to see 1,000 Catholics at the Capitol in 2015. I promise that if that happens, then I will lead the group in a walk to the steps of the Capitol to visit our legislators.