God's Lobbyist
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God's Lobbyist

Date: May 19, 2008
By: Thio Ange
State Capitol Bureau

Editor's Note: Fr. Thio Ange is an ordained Roman Catholic priest from the Ivory Coast.  He spent the past several months at the Missouri School of Journalism under a collaborative program with the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.  As part of his activities in Missouri, Fr. Thio observed the workings of Missouri's legislature and the statehouse press corps.

JEFFERSON CITY - Larry Weber is a deacon in the hallways of Missouri's Capitol. Besides being a deacon, he also is the lobbyist and executive director for the Missouri Catholic Conference. 

In that role, he voices the position and the teachings of the Catholic Church on topics such as rights of conscience for health care providers; stem-cell research, abortion and immigration.


"I was asked by the bishops about eight years ago to head the Missouri Catholic Conference, so I've taken over that and I work with the rest of the staff, I work closely with the legislators and other public officials in Missouri so that the public policy decisions that are made, hopefully at least to some extent reflect catholic values," Weber said.


Unlike priests, some deacons are allowed to have families.  "I am a husband, I have been married for twenty three years, I have three children, two daughters and one son, I am a deacon in the Church."


Larry Weber is an extensive career in law and government.  He was awarded his law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1983.


From 1983 until 1987, he maintained a private law practice in the Kansas City area.


He began his work in state government as a staff attorney with the State Tax Commission.  He also has worked for the Missouri Senate, the Missouri Supreme Court and the attorney general's office.


It was in 1999 that Larry Weber was ordained as a deacon for the Jefferson City diocese.  It was a decision that he said took some convincing.


"I wasn't listening to God very well and he had to keep sending other people into my life telling me maybe you should be a deacon and I heard that, I kept hearing that so many times and finally I heard it about three times in six weeks and I thought maybe it is something I should look into. I felt that was what I should be doing, so in this diocese I went through about five years of formation to do that and was ordained nine years ago."


It was after his ordination as a deacon that Missouri's Catholic bishops asked him to take the leadership of the Missouri Catholic Conference as the organization's executive director in 2000.


"I had worked for the state for about fifteen years before that, I had worked in all three branches of the government. I was a lawyer for the Senate, I had worked for the State Attorney General's Office and directed their efforts with the legislature and I was also their director of legal ethics for the staff inside the Attorney Generals office.  For five years before that I was commission council for the Missouri Supreme Court.  I advised the court on administrative matters, but I also represented the interests of the entire judicial system in Missouri before the legislature.  The bishops were aware of this when I was ordained in 1999 they immediately started talking to me about the possibility of doing this as well."


As Weber describes his decision to accept, it was not easy.


"It was a big decision because I was enjoying the job working for the government and I thought I would do that until the day I retired.  But obviously it was important to the bishops and the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was probably another calling I was getting in my life as well.  So, I agreed to do that and I started it in July 2000."


In the succeeding years, he been called "God's lobbyist."


It is a title that causes Weber discomfort.  "I think that is a little ostentatious.  I think there are a lot of people who are over there that are trying to do what God is calling them to do and I think in part that's what I am trying to do too.  I am part of those who are willing to put their values into play in the legislature, in state government and I am more than willing to work with them, to discuss with them and to help them do that.  I think I'm a little more comfortable putting it that way than calling myself 'God's lobbyist.'"


But Weber does accept the description of being a lobbyist.  "I guess I'm trying to influence decision making.  That's what a lobbyist does one way or the other, tries to influence decision making according to a particular set of values.  And since I'm trying to influence decision making according to scriptural values to that extent I guess there is some truth to it."


Many of the lobbyists in the statehouse hallways represent clients seeking governmental actions that will improve their profits -- a quite different objective than that of a lobbyist for the Roman Catholic Church.


"Nothing we believe as Christians is inconsistent with the temporal values of the world.  We try to tell them why this is a good thing, why it would further the good of the people of this state. I have a very dedicated staff who work with me to do this and we obviously have the power of prayer we can be very persistent.  We also try to involve the Catholic faithful throughout the state to act on their faith values too."


Some members of the Senate say they appreciate Weber's job in the Statehouse. "We appreciate people that are not shy about recognizing that the church does have a role in government that godly people should be informed and involved and free to express their views. I think lots of people misunderstand what separation of church and state means. Certainly the state has no interest in advancing denomination, but to use it as a club, to beat Christians into submission into staying away from government or being involved is not reasonable and certainly not intended by the clause" said John Loudon, R-St. Louis County.


While Weber's role as a lobbyist for the church is unusual, Bishop John Gaydos of Jefferson City said it is a proper role for the church.


"We have no power in the state of Missouri. The only power we have is the power of truth. Any citizen can speak up to do what they can do to influence public policy. We just happen to do it in an organized fashion."


But there are rough edges.  "Sometimes speaking with truth to power can irritate people a little bit," Weber acknowledged.


One Roman Catholic legislator acknowledged the difficult nature of Weber's role. 


"If he's referred to as 'God's lobbyist,' that's a big job and the fact that God is all-knowing makes it a more difficult Job. I think Larry has difficult job to do," said Rep. Tom Villa, D-St. Louis.


During the years with the Missouri Catholic Conference, Larry Weber has found himself talking with legislators about some of the most controversial issues in the state.


"The whole issue of human life sciences research continues to be a very pressing issue, a lot of money and lot of political energy into allowing a greater scoop of research than we would consider ethical or that we as Catholics will ever consider as ethical," Weber said.


Abortion issues in the legislature also have been on his agenda.  "We have to point out to them that we're called to protect all life even life that's not readily apparent to us, a little baby in our arms, or whatever."


As for his efforts, Bishop Gaydos asks Weber to "speak always the truth to power and not to worry about the consequences."