Nebraska Catholic Conference shines for 50 years
October 4, 2019
For 50 years the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC) has been shining a light in the secular world.
It’s been a light that brings attention to the plight of the poor, vulnerable and voiceless; a light that illuminates the minds of Nebraska citizens who want to make a difference; a light that emanates from the state’s bishops and the flocks they lead.
Ultimately, the NCC bears in the public sphere the light of church teaching, of Truth – the Light of Christ.
That’s a lofty mission, Executive Director Tom Venzor acknowledges, one that often involves down-to-earth details and painstaking, hard work.
But the NCC’s efforts have borne fruit, helping to secure laws, rules and regulations that have helped Catholic school students and families, protected life in the womb, secured aid for low-income residents, and more.
The organization has given a unified voice to the archbishop of Omaha and the bishops of Lincoln and Grand Island. The NCC is guided by a 13-person administrative board that includes the three bishops, the executive director and appointees who represent a variety of ministries, interests and expertise.
Clergy, religious and lay people have served on the board. The NCC’s executive directors and their staffs have carried out the work. The current NCC staff has three full-time employees, including Venzor, and one part-time employee.
Not only have Catholics benefited from the conference’s efforts, but the general public as well.
At its core, the NCC protects and promotes “the common good,” said Jim Cunningham, who served as the conference’s executive director for the bulk of its existence, nearly 40 years, from 1977 to 2014, and later for several months as an interim leader.
Simply having a voice in public debate is a good start, Cunningham said. The state’s bishops and those they lead “not only have a right to speak out, but an obligation, as good citizens.”
“The common good is served by voices that participate in the process,” he said. “I would like to think that the process would be diminished without the voice of the Nebraska Catholic Conference speaking out on issues.”
Because the conference is not based on an ideology, but on the Gospel, it has a moral authority when it speaks, Venzor said.
“Ultimately that’s what people see in our witness,” he said. “They see a moral authority that speaks the truth consistently across any number of issues. And for that, I think we’ve received a lot of respect.”
The NCC was formed as similar bishops conferences were starting in other states in the late 1960s.
Much of the Nebraska conference’s early efforts focused on Catholic education, when it was at a high point in the United States, said Paul O’Hara, the NCC’s first executive director.
The NCC helped give Nebraska’s bishops and Catholic school parents a voice in the Legislature, he said.
The conference pushed to have busing benefits extended to Catholic school students and to get tax breaks for tuition-paying parents. The organization successfully lobbied for the textbook loan program, which put publicly-funded school books into the hands of private-school students.
The NCC also went to work for the poor, trying to boost government aid to low-income families, O’Hara said.
But the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion in Roe v. Wade gave the NCC a new battlefront. With the conference newly in place it was able to respond.
“There wasn’t much opposition coming from anywhere,” O’Hara said. “And so it just fell upon us to come up with legislation.”
The NCC’s efforts became even more focused in 1991, when Archbishop Daniel Sheehan, Bishop Glennon Flavin of Lincoln and Bishop Lawrence McNamara of Grand Island established within the NCC a program to implement the U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities. Greg Schleppenbach headed those efforts from 1991 until 2014, when he became executive director for about two years.
The NCC’s pro-life efforts were focused at state, diocesan and parish levels. The parish level, Schleppenbach said, is “where the rubber meets the road in terms of really changing the culture.”
The conference also helped establish Project Rachel, a post-abortion healing ministry.
Schleppenbach and the NCC have dealt with other pro-life issues, too.
He helped establish the Nebraska Coalition for Compassionate Care in 1997 in response to efforts in other states to legalize assisted suicide.
“There was a real effort to try to get ahead of the curve” in Nebraska, he said. The coalition included experts and non-Catholics.
Schleppenbach also helped form the Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research in 2001 to fight medical research using aborted fetal tissue and embryonic stem cells. More information on the coalition can be found at their website, ethicalresearch.net.
“We found that the best way to fight that was not just from the church or pro-life groups, but to have an organization that was led by scientists – people of science and researchers, physicians, medical professionals who have more credibility and expertise specifically to these matters.”
The NCC formed other powerful coalitions, including the Nebraska Federation of Catholic School Parents in 1998. Catholic school parents across the state could fight together on issues, instead of having isolated voices.
Other NCC endeavors have included pushing for an amendment to the State Constitution to recognize marriage only as a union of a man and woman; successfully opposing a move to reinstate a tax on groceries in 2003; and promoting reform for mental health and addiction services in 2004.
The NCC is well known for its advocacy with the Nebraska Legislature, but the conference also has worked with officials in the state’s Revenue Department to help keep religious property exempt from taxation, the Department of Labor on regulations that would affect church employees, and the Department of Health and Human Services on adoption, aid for children in low-income families and social services issues, Cunningham said.
Some the NCC’s work over the years may seem more mundane, but also is important to the church as an institution and to everyday parish life, which might include cemetery regulations or serving alcohol at fish frys, Venzor said.
“We’re always making sure that public policy won’t negatively affect the ability of the church to just run smoothly and efficiently, like any other organization,” he said.
Cunningham said it was a privilege to work with 12 bishops during his long tenure. “It was just a blessing in my life, no question about it,” he said.
Venzor said he has been inspired and humbled by Catholics across the state who want to be engaged and reach out to their elected representatives at all levels of government to make a difference.
“When we have issues where we need advocacy, when we need them to make a difference, when we need them to bear the light of Christ in the public square … they step up,” he said. “It’s really humbling because they do fantastic work.”
And despite the typical politicking that goes on with elected and government officials, Venzor has seen “a real desire on the part of public officials to create good public policy.”
The conference’s vision for the next 50 years will take courage, he said, as secularism seems to be rising “in a sort of post-Christian culture.”
“Proclaiming the Gospel is not going to get any easier,” he said.
The conference will continue to call upon Catholics to be faithful citizens who are disciples of Christ, working for the Kingdom of God, Venzor said.
He said Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have emphasized that Catholics can’t “sit on the sidelines.”
“We’ve got to get involved, we’ve got to take action,” he said.