In November, Sheri Rickert was appointed the General Counsel and Policy Director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference. She recently sat down with the Southern Nebraska Register to discuss her position, and the responsibilities of all Catholics in public life.
SNR: You began a new job at the Nebraska Catholic Conference just a few weeks ago. What is your new role in our state?
Rickert: As you know, the Nebraska Catholic Conference is under the authority and direction of the three Diocesan Bishops. The Conference focuses primarily on advocating the Church’s position on public policy issues of concern to the Bishops with the state government and in the courts.
The Conference has undergone a recent restructuring, and I’ve been given the newly-created position of policy director and general counsel. I’m responsible for providing policy and legal advice to Greg Schleppenbach, the Conference’s executive director, and I’m working with the diocesan school superintendents in pursuing public policy strategies to benefit our Catholic schools.
SNR: What are the important issues facing Nebraska Catholics today?
Rickert: Unfortunately, Nebraska is experiencing the same assaults on human life, marriage and the family that are taking place throughout our country. These challenges undermine the morals and principles that are at the very foundation of our lives as citizens and as Christians. And because these issues are so fundamental, we are experiencing threats to our religious liberty both as we respond to those challenges in the public square, and as we try to live out our faith.
Immigration is receiving a great deal of attention at the national level, and it is an issue that we as Catholics in the State of Nebraska need to address as well. It is not a simple issue, but it is an important one, not only in terms of its impact on the ordering of our society and our unity as a Church, but especially of Our Lord’s reminder that when we welcome or reject the stranger, we welcome or reject Him.
In addition, the continued support and growth of our Catholic schools must be high on our list of priorities. Our schools not only provide a quality education for our Catholic children and help to transmit the faith to future generations, but they also provide children outside our faith community with the opportunity to obtain a holistic education that encompasses mind, body and soul. The Conference is working on ways to give more Nebraska students the chance to benefit from a Catholic education.
SNR: Why does the Church get involved in political issues? Shouldn’t we focus on the spiritual life?
Rickert: Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor, and that love must include working to sustain and improve the common good of the society in which we live. As believers, we recognize that God’s commandments are all given not to repress us, but to guide us in making those choices that will bring us and those around us genuine and lasting happiness. We cannot force our beliefs and public policy positions on others, but we would be seriously lacking in charity if we didn’t try to educate our government leaders and fellow citizens about the reasons for the Church’s position on important social and political issues.
It is out of love and concern for others that we advocate for what we know to be beneficial both for individuals and society. That means our advocacy must be clear, convincing, and respectful. Bishop Conley’s pastoral letter on contraception, “The Language of Love,” is an excellent example as to how to present a teaching that is controversial and difficult for many people to accept. It clearly and unapologetically, yet respectfully, conveys the Church’s teaching, together with an explanation as to why it is in a couple’s best interest to accept and live it.
Ultimately, of course, others are free to accept or reject our perspective, but we have a moral obligation to inform them of the choices and benefits available to them through the Church’s teaching.
SNR: What can ordinary Catholics do to positively influence the political process? How can we help?
Rickert: Given the political divisions in our country, and the political trends in opposition to our Catholic faith, it can be a real temptation to become discouraged. But our faith assures us that God is more powerful than any political division, movement or threat, and we need to act on that belief. Prayers and sacrifices, including fasting, can accomplish miracles where our human efforts are futile, and this applies as much to the political arena as to any other area in our lives. God responds to persistent prayer and sacrifices, and that is certainly one way in which each one of us can profoundly influence our politics for the better.
Naturally, we have the duty as citizens to be knowledgeable voters and to contact our government officials when important actions are being taken. But we also have to make the time and effort to educate ourselves about what the Church has to say relative to major political issues. If we disagree with a position held by the Church, we owe it to ourselves to make sure we understand the reasons for that position. And we need to listen to what the Church itself has to say from a source that is reliably Catholic. Sources that misrepresent the Church’s teaching because they are hostile to the Church, or neutral or misinformed about the Church’s position, are all too readily available.
Even if we know intuitively that some things being proposed are contrary to our Catholic faith, we need to go beyond simply ignoring them and learn how to articulate – to ourselves and to others – why they are wrong and harmful. In a democratic society, majority opinions are the collective opinions formed in our homes, schools, businesses, community activities, and circles of friends. It takes courage, preparation, and the help of the Holy Spirit, but even “ordinary Catholics” can make a difference by being prepared to defend the Church’s position, respectfully and knowledgably, in a conversation on a controversial topic.
SNR: How can Catholics discern the right answers to political questions? How can we know what to support?
Rickert: The Church clearly does not have a position on every political issue, and in many areas it provides guidance for discernment but leaves the final decision up to the individual’s prudential judgment.
In those areas where the Church does have a clear position, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a good place to learn the Church’s fundamental teaching. When there is a critical political issue here in Nebraska, one should take into account any public statements made by our Bishops and look up the Nebraska Catholic Conference website for information. For national issues, the website for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops may provide guidance.
There are other resources one can choose from to stay informed about political developments from a Catholic perspective, including the Southern Nebraska Register, the National Catholic Register, and information distributed by reliable organizations like Catholic Answers.
And again, it bears repeating that we cannot underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to instruct and lead us. Prayer and informed understanding of the Church’s position are both indispensable to discerning the right answers in what are often complicated and potentially confusing political debates.
SNR: The Nebraska political system is different from most other states. How does that difference impact your work?
Rickert: The legislative session that begins in January will be my first experience of working with the Unicameral. With 18 new senators and several new state government officials, there will be a number of us on a sharp learning curve.
SNR: Some people say the Church focuses too much on abortion, marriage, and religious liberty. Is that true?
Rickert: I would respond that those who advocate for abortion, a redefinition or weakening of marriage, and other initiatives to undermine or destroy the sanctity of human life and the family are the ones obsessed with pushing their positions. They obviously believe strongly enough in their causes to aggressively pursue any and all available means to accomplish their goals – and to keep pursuing them.
As we discussed earlier, we would be lacking in charity if we did not respond with equal conviction, clarity, and persistence about the reasons why those positions are wrong and harmful – even destructive, as is clearly the case with abortion. Our obligation to speak out on moral issues is often analogized with the obligation to warn someone who is getting ready to drink a liquid that looks and smells enticing, but is in fact poisonous.
People will try to silence us, including with accusations that we talk too much about these issues. But as St. Paul exhorts us, we have to preach the Gospel of Life, Marriage and the Family, whether in or out of season. He also says that we have to be ready to accept our share of the hardship that comes with proclaiming the Gospel, and that is where our religious freedom comes in. Unless we vigorously defend and exercise our religious freedom in the public domain, regardless of the opposition we encounter, we run the serious risk of losing it.
SNR: What is your background? How and why did you come to Nebraska?
Rickert: I was born and raised in a small farming community in southern Idaho. I graduated from Utah State University and Columbia Law School in New York City. My first job as an attorney was with an organization that assists people from around the world seeking political asylum.
Later I held various positions working for the Church, including as the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Newark (New Jersey), as an adviser to the Holy See Mission to the United Nations, and as a member of the Holy See’s delegation to the world conferences on population and development and the status of women. I also worked in private practice in New York City.
Most recently, I served for eight years as the staff director for the U.S. House of Representative’s Subcommittee with jurisdiction over Africa, global health and international human rights issues, chaired by Congressman Chris Smith.
I was looking for an opportunity to return to working for the Church, and also to move to a place with a better quality of life. This position with the Nebraska Catholic Conference was a perfect match with those goals.
SNR: What are you most optimistic about as you begin your new job?
Rickert: It is a privilege to be working for the Bishops of Nebraska and with my exceptional colleagues at the Nebraska Catholic Conference, but I think we all are aware that we face many serious challenges, both in our state and nationally. Despite these daunting challenges, we know that God never leaves us to fight our battles alone. In fact, in the Scripture that I referenced earlier, St. Paul tells us to bear our share of the hardship that comes from proclaiming the Gospel, “with the strength that comes from God.” With God’s grace and confidence in His Divine Providence, great good can and will come out of the challenges we have before us.