By Victoria Arthur
The Second Vatican Council, with its profound and sweeping changes for the Catholic Church, had concluded less than a year before the Indiana Catholic Conference’s founding. The social and political upheavals of the 1960s were reshaping American culture. And in the midst of it all, Indiana Catholics stepped forward to be heard.
In October of 1966, a small group of dedicated Catholics met in Indianapolis to do what their counterparts in only a handful of states had accomplished — to formalize a way for the Catholic Church to speak on both state and national issues. That was the genesis of the Indiana Catholic Conference, which this fall marks its 50th anniversary as the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana.
“The Church was beginning to see its role in how it impacts the culture,” said Glenn Tebbe, the fifth and current executive director of the ICC. “The goal then was the same as it is today — to reflect on Church teaching, and offer its wisdom for people to consider in a way that will benefit society.”
Indiana was a pioneer in this effort. Although New York had established a Catholic conference as early as 1918, there were only six states with such an entity when the ICC was formed. An explosion of new conferences followed beginning in the late 1960s. According to Tebbe, one of the catalysts clearly was Vatican II, the historic council held from 1962 to 1965 that addressed relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world.
Since its beginning in 1966, the ICC has served as the coordinating body for the five Roman Catholic dioceses in the state of Indiana — the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, the Diocese of Evansville, the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the Diocese of Gary and the Diocese of Lafayette.
Through the efforts of dedicated staff members, diocesan coordinators around the state, and board and advisory council members, the ICC works to:
— Provide the Catholic bishops of Indiana with a means to work together in the common interest of the Catholic Church and of citizens throughout the state;
— Follow the activities of government to discern trends, and to officially represent the Catholic Church in public policy issues; and
— Inform Catholics throughout the state about the Church’s position on important issues and engage them in taking action.
Like his predecessors, Tebbe has sought to ensure that the Catholic Church’s voice is heard in Indiana on issues of great magnitude — from the defense of life to immigration to religious freedom and many others.
“My job is to make sure the Catholic perspective is part of the discussion,” said Tebbe, in his 13th year as ICC executive director. “I try to be the voice of our five bishops, and also to enable the Catholic faithful and all people of good will to help shape public policy for the best interests of the common good.”
School choice is one area in which the Catholic Church in Indiana has not only made an impact but has become a national leader, and Tebbe was well equipped to help guide the endeavor.
Before coming to the ICC, he was a teacher and principal and later spent a decade as executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association. That organization represents Catholic, Lutheran and other non-public schools in Indiana and, along with the ICC, was instrumental in the passage of legislation that led to the Scholarship Tax Credit and the Choice Scholarship (voucher) programs in 2009 and 2011.
This success in ensuring that low- and middle-income families could choose the right school for their children is a prime example of how the Church can find common ground and cooperate with other groups sharing the same interests.
“The public thinks that the Church is one monolithic entity, but actually it is very nuanced in its approach to most things,” Tebbe said. “And that’s how we have to approach all of the issues of the day.”
Amplifying Catholic voices
Charles “Chuck” Schisla has witnessed the ICC in action from day one — and from multiple perspectives.
In 1966, as a state government reporter for Channel 13 in Indianapolis (then WLWI-TV), he covered the establishment of the ICC for his central Indiana audience. The charter member of St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis immediately recognized what a turning point this represented for the Church in Indiana.
“The most significant thing was that the Church discovered and decided to use its voice to speak in a substantive way to the pertinent issues of the day,” Schisla said.
Schisla left television a year later and moved into the public policy and public relations arenas. He eventually became involved with the ICC himself and served in various capacities for decades, including as a diocesan coordinator from 1979 to 1985. He says that the ICC has been highly effective in “taking the issues facing the Indiana General Assembly, identifying those of significance to the Catholic Church and developing formal positions on them.” With his background as a broadcast journalist, Schisla served as a liaison between the Church and the media regarding those issues through the years, including on pro-life matters and school choice.
He also helped the ICC to develop effective ways of communicating to another key audience: the Catholic faithful.
“Out of the Second Vatican Council came much more involvement of the laity in a whole range of ways,” Schisla said. “[We worked to] educate people about the Church’s position on the issues, which would help them form their conscience. Then we let them know when, where and to whom they could make their voices heard.”
The ICC’s methods for accomplishing this have ranged from drafting position papers and brochures to operating “phone trees” at the parish level before the advent of the Internet. The Indiana Catholic Action Network (I-CAN) was established in the 1980s and continues to be a vehicle for informing and mobilizing Catholics statewide. (Include website address.)
According to Tebbe, a presidential election year like this one heightens people’s interest in the Church’s stance on the major issues — and how the candidates measure up. While he said that no candidate is in complete alignment with Church teaching in all areas, he said that the ICC remains committed to articulating the Church’s position on the greatest moral issues of our time.
The former teacher views his current role as that of an educator, too. With fellow staffer Nel Thompson, who has served as the ICC’s administrative assistant since 1974, Tebbe says he wants to build upon the legacy of all who have served the organization for the last 50 years.
“We have the bishops, and the wealth of Church history and teaching to give us guidance,” he said. “In each case, we know what the teachings are. It’s our job to figure out how to make that known in the most effective way.”
Victoria Arthur is a freelance writer and member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg.
This is the first in a series of articles reflecting on the Indiana Catholic Conference, the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
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