Bishop Andrew Cozzens, auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, joined bishops from all of Minnesota’s dioceses March 16 in St. Paul to meet with Gov. Mark Dayton and several state legislators. As the board of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the bishops spoke about a range of issues, including tuition tax credits, commercial surrogacy and prison sentencing reform. The MCC’s day on the hill is an annual event. The Catholic Spirit spoke with Bishop Cozzens at the State Office Building as the day was wrapping up. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What issues have you made a priority in speaking with legislators today?
The biggest issue I’ve been trying to speak with legislators about is including tuition in the expanded education tax credit. I was trying to help legislators on both sides of the aisle see that this is really an issue about helping poor children get out of poverty. A lot of people don’t know the incredible work that our urban schools are doing.
People hear a lot about the achievement gap in Minnesota and how bad it is, and it is one of the worst in the country — that is, the gap between students of color and minority students, and the rest of the students in what they achieve. What people don’t know is that in north Minneapolis, which is one of the most difficult neighborhoods in our state, . . . you have Ascension Catholic School. If you go to the public school in north Minneapolis, you have a 40 percent chance of graduating high school. If you go to Ascension, you have 100 percent chance of graduating from high school.
We have a product that is really helping children get out of poverty. And we’re not just helping Catholic kids. We’re helping all the kids that come through our door. If the governor would include tuition in his education tax credit, that could help stabilize these very fragile urban schools, because tax credits are for poor families, and this is about helping poor families get a good education for their children and giving them choices.
What’s been the most persuasive argument you’ve heard against your position today?
None of the arguments are persuasive, but the strongest arguments against are, No. 1, that people have the idea that there needs to be a separation between church and state, which of course we recognize. But this is not the government paying for Catholic education. This is the government giving a tax credit to parents who value an education for their children. The government doesn’t make anybody choose this. Parents can take that money and go wherever they want. But if they choose to use it in a Catholic school, they can. What they’re given then, is a choice to help get their children out of poverty.
The other argument against it is that it’s too expensive, but it’s actually cheap when you consider that we have a $900 million surplus in the state right now, and this would only cost about $23 million to the state. And it doesn’t take any money away from public schools. This is a bargain that can help deal with our achievement gap immediately, when the other fixes that are needed for our public schools are going to take a lot longer and will cost a lot more money. As one representative said to me today, $23 million is a lot cheaper than what we’re going to pay if these kids are in prison because they didn’t graduate from high school.
What other issues did you discuss with legislators?
We talked about everything from reform of sentencing guidelines for prisoners to promoting a commission to study the problem of [gestational] surrogacy and the complexities around that issue. We’re really in favor of a commission to study that. We also talked about environmental issues and, certainly, life issues. It’s one of the interesting things about being Catholic: You can walk into pretty much any senator or representative’s house and find something you can agree with them on. You can also find something that you can challenge them on, because the Gospel always challenges us. We’re not ideologues; our ideas all come from the Gospel.
What do you think the range of issues says about the Catholic Church’s place in public policy?
What it says is that the Catholic Church is really concerned for the common good. We want to do all we can to promote that. One of the things that we talked about everywhere we went was the Year of Mercy and that because this is a year of mercy, we should be taking a special look at how we can promote mercy in our politics. Prison reform and sentencing reform is a great example of that. Sometimes, mercy is more effective in helping people than punishment, especially people who are addicts, not drug dealers. We tried to bring that faith perspective to everybody.
How was that received?
It was received pretty well by everybody. It’s a very interesting place to start a conversation with a politician, to say that the pope has asked us to have a Year of Mercy and we’d like to talk with you about what that means for the state and government. It’s amazing how many knew about it already, even if they’re not Catholics.
Tell me about the meeting you had with Gov. Dayton this morning.
The governor is always very warm and he served us a nice breakfast. [Laughs.] We had a very cordial conversation. Obviously we have some real disagreements with the governor on a set of issues, but we believe that it’s important for people of faith to explain what they think will serve the common good and the governor always listens very well with that, even if he doesn’t always end up agreeing with us. One of the issues I tried to push hard on was this education tax credit for tuition, and he didn’t agree with me, but he did agree to visit Ascension School in north Minneapolis. I want him to see it. I think it’s going to help when he sees those kids to say, why can’t we help those kids?
Why is it important in general for you and all the state’s bishops to be here today? What can you accomplish together that makes a bigger impact than if you had come down here individually?
Voices of faith matter in our society because our faith gives us perspective on what’s true and what’s good. And we want to help bring that about. When we come together as a group of bishops, we show the unity of these voices of faith to people, and we represent and speak powerfully for the Catholic faith for the whole state. It’s really good for legislators to see that people of faith can speak with one voice on certain issues. It helps them understand why we’re so concerned with the common good, because that’s why they’re here, too — they’re concerned about the common good, even if we disagree on how to get there.
How does this relate to faithful citizenship [a concept outlined in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”] and what can Catholics in the pews take away from this?
As Pope Francis says, a good Catholic meddles in politics. We’re called to be good citizens not just of the next life as Catholics, but good citizens of this life. We’re called to try to bring about what’s going to serve the good of the person, the dignity of the person. So we try to do that not only with our voting, but by trying to influence the democratic process. The democratic process is messy, it’s a really messy governing process, but it’s really important, and it’s a good way to govern, and we need to try to influence it with our voices and our prayers so that people can understand their own dignity and live the life that God intended them to live.
Given the climate we’re facing this election year, what advice do you have for Catholics participating in the political process?
Given the great divides that exist between the political parties, especially on the national scene, it’s easy to just give up and say, “This is ridiculous. Who can deal with the radical divides which don’t represent the majority of Americans?” But, it’s very important that, although we have to live in a culture that doesn’t respect our beliefs and truths, we still have to try to influence that culture in helpful ways. So actually coming to the Legislature and speaking to legislators on issues is a very practical and helpful way to bring about the common good. Even if the legislators I spoke to today don’t agree with me, it humanizes the whole process and they get to see that we’re really about trying to do good, and it removes the demonization that we can have for people who disagree with us.
What other practical things should Catholics do this year?
Catholics should always be watching when the Legislature is in session what bills are being passed and where they might have an opportunity to register their own thoughts about bills. It’s a very important bill that’s being heard about assisted suicide today that I’m glad that many Catholics were here speaking against, and we have to make sure we know what’s going on and our voices are heard on that level, and not just when the second Tuesday in November comes around. A great way to do that is through the Minnesota Catholic Conference grassroots network.
What can the Church learn from the public at large as viewpoints are aired during an election year?
We certainly learn where people are at and where their struggles are. We shouldn’t discount that, even if we disagree with some things that are said. There are a lot of people that feel disenfranchised for various reasons, so that’s why they support certain political candidates, so we need to understand why they feel that way so we can help them come to see the things we value and learn what they value.
What else do you want to add?
It’s never easy to speak with people who disagree with us, but it’s really important to do that, to come with humility . . . because it’s the way Jesus came: with humility, proposing the truth for those who would want to follow him, so we do the same in various ways in society, in the political realm, social realm and in the moral realm.
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