Educate, communicate and mobilize

| April 12, 2011 | 4 Comments

New Minnesota Catholic Conference director says three-point focus will help church deliver its social teaching message

Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, stands on the steps of the Minnesota Capitol April 8. Photo by Dianne Towalski / The Catholic Spirit

The Minnesota Catholic Conference works every day to build a culture of life and bring the church’s social teachings to bear on important public policy issues at the state Legislature and in other arenas.

The problem, however, is that too many Minnesotans — Cath­olics included — don’t even know the organization ex­ists or are unfamiliar with its work, according to the conference’s new executive director.

Jason Adkins, who assumed the leadership post March 28, has a plan to change that.

“It starts with education,” he said during a recent interview at the MCC’s office on University Avenue in St. Paul, a short distance from the state Capitol. “We need to transcend the polarization in the church. We do that first of all by communicating effectively the church’s social teaching to our own people. We’re going to make that a priority — really reaching out to the folks in the pews and to legislators as an educational resource.”

Part of communicating effectively requires becoming more vocal in the public square and utilizing new media such as Facebook and Twitter to advance the church’s message, Adkins said.

“We’re going to be out there talking a lot more,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest change you will see. Catholic social teaching is a beautiful gift that we have, and we want to share that gift to help rebuild the culture — to build a culture of life and protect human dignity.”

And, he added, the MCC will be working to mobilize Catholics on important policy discussions needing their input at the state Legislature and beyond.

“Catholics can’t just sit on their hands, because there are important issues on the table,” Adkins said. “The integrity of the church is threatened as well as religious freedom. There are threats to the sanctity of life, threats to civil society like the assaults on marriage. These issues are going to affect everybody, in addition to the things we’ve always been working for: advocacy for the poor, the rights of immigrants, and adequate and basic health care.”

Setting priorities

During his first two weeks on the job, Adkins, a member of St. Agnes in St. Paul, said he has been busy meeting legislators, building relationships with them and beginning to lay the groundwork for bills on a variety of issues.

“Our main priority this year is getting a constitutional amendment to protect marriage between one man and one woman,” he said. “Marriage is the basic building block of civil society, and the social science data is overwhelming that kids need a mother and a father.

“Second, there are a number of culture-of-life-related bills,” he added, noting the MCC’s support of proposals that would end taxpayer-funding of abortion, ban human cloning and the public funding of state-sponsored research related to human cloning, and prohibit abortions after 20 weeks based on evidence that children in the womb can feel pain at that age.

The MCC is also supporting several choice-in-education bills. One would create a tuition tax credit for parents of children in non-public schools. Another is a school scholarship bill that would give financial assistance to families of low-income children in underperforming public schools so they can more easily attend private schools.

The MCC also supports a proposal that allows businesses and individuals to donate money to non-profit organizations and receive a tax credit. Those organizations, in turn, would provide scholarships to students to attend private schools.

And, given Minnesota’s budget deficit, the MCC is also paying close attention to how budget-fixing proposals would affect the state’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.

“We are really trying to encourage legislators to ensure the budget is not being balanced on the backs of the poor,” Adkins said. “I like to tell people you have to treat a government budget like a family budget. You have to have priorities. You can’t have a flat-screen TV if your kids aren’t fed and clothed.

“The same thing applies to our state budget as well,” he said. “You can’t have some of the amenities if low-income folks don’t have basic needs being met.”

Diverse background

Adkins said his academic background and work experience have helped prepare him for his new role at the MCC. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and theology from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where he also earned a master’s degree in Catholic Studies. He has a law degree from the University of Minnesota.

Adkins, who is married with four children, also spent time in Rome working as a journalist with his wife Annamarie for the Zenit news agency, where they covered social, political and economic topics.

He most recently served as a staff attorney for the Institute for Justice Minne­sota Chapter, a public interest law practice.

His new job, he said, “is really the culmination in many ways of a lot of professional, spiritual and personal experiences that have shaped me along the way.”

As the public policy voice of the state’s bishops, the MCC is very focused on legislative initiatives. But Adkins is also aware that, in his role, he also serves as an ambassador for the church.

“A lobbyist is fundamentally an educator, and you have to meet people where they’re at,” he said. “A unique aspect of this particular lobbying job is that it’s not only a nuts-and-bolts policy position. You’re also talking about spiritual things.”

That includes having conversations with legislators about their faith and how it relates to the positions of their political parties and their own policy positions. Adkins says he welcomes the chance to have those conversations.

“I think there are really great opportunities to be an ambassador for the church,” he said. “That’s a great responsibility, and it’s very humbling. The Catholic Conference staff is going to need everyone’s prayers for both wisdom and charity and for speaking the right word when it needs to be spoken.”

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