MCC's Mike Hoey steps aside after 40 years

For Catholic Conference's recently retired executive director, listening and negotiating are not a lost art


Nineteenth-century German statesman Otto von Bismarck claimed that no one who respects the law or enjoys eating sausage should see either being made.

Recently retired Missouri Catholic Conference (MCC) Executive Director Mike Hoey spent four decades at the grinder, working to reconcile Catholic principles with the perennial realities of forging public policy.

“If we’re going to have a nonviolent civil society, we have to be willing to talk to people we don’t agree with — talk with them and work with them and at least try to reach some consensus and move forward,” he said.

Mr. Hoey admits that he’s a bit less idealistic than he was when he came home to Missouri 40 years ago. But he’s a better listener, having acquired a thicker skin and the long-view of a man seasoned by battle.

Missouri’s bishops created the MCC, public-policy agency of the state’s four Catholic dioceses, in 1967 to help people in the Church advocate more effectively for foundational principles and the common good. Chief among these are the sanctity of human life and the inherent dignity of every individual.

Coalescing consensus around these essentials and applying them to laws and policies can be slow, tedious and often beholden to the whims of history and public opinion.

“Yet, there’s no alternative way to solve problems in a nonviolent manner than through negotiation and compromise and what we generally call the democratic process,” said Mr. Hoey.

The Church has a wealth of teaching on a broad range of interrelated issues, such as protecting the vulnerable and helping people in need.

“You take all of that into the public arena, and then you have to listen to other people,” said Mr. Hoey. “You have to negotiate in order to come to some kind of common good.”

“When people are really willing to work together, creative things happen,” he said. “You have people with different gifts, and if they come to the table as patriots and citizens with good intentions, together they may come up with a better solution than they would individually.”


Let us not fear to negotiate

As a lobbyist for the Church, Mr. Hoey has found great satisfaction from some of the MCC’s hardest-won victories.

Among these are guaranteed access to special-education services for children in Catholic schools; A+ Scholarship opportunities for Catholic high school students; establishment of the Missouri Children’s Healthcare Initiative; and numerous ways of protecting society from abortion while providing life-affirming alternatives.

He’s proud that the MCC remains a prophetic voice against the death penalty and in favor of a more restorative approach to criminal justice.

Progress on each of these requires a combination of principle, persuasion, hard work, cooperation and patience.

“You can have your principles and be very clear on those as a Catholic,” Mr.  Hoey noted. “But when you enter the public-policy arena, you have to try to apply those principles in a practical way in negotiations with other people.”

Some think taking part in such negotiations is a betrayal of nonnegotiable principles.

“But what you’re actually doing is advancing those principles to the greatest extent you can possibly get, in light of the circumstances you’re dealt,” said Mr. Hoey.

He recalled Pope St. John Paul II’s declaration that when an all-out ban on abortion cannot be attained, an incremental approach to promote an abortion-free society should be pursued.

“John Paul believed that if we can accomplish this by incremental change, that’s what we should do,” said Mr. Hoey. “Because in the meantime, we have to deal with people who don’t agree with us, and try to find a consensus in creating an abortion-free society.”

Mr. Hoey said that approach applies to many other issues.

For instance, the MCC’s stand against the death penalty has been consistently strong.

“But what I’ve found through the years is that you first have to really listen to those who support the death penalty, particularly victims’ families.

“When you do that, the way you express your position begins to change,” he said. “You come at it with a better understanding of some of the dynamics involved.”

He said it’s easy to be self-righteous while standing five steps removed from a situation.

“But if you’re close to that situation, you tend to be less judgmental and more empathetic, and you tend to have a better understanding of what other people are going through.”


Knowing the neighbors

Mr. Hoey maintains that this relational approach reflects Pope Francis’ call for a “culture of encounter.”

“Rather than focusing on intricate explanations of what Catholics should do, Francis is saying, ‘Read the gospels and then go and encounter people,’” said Mr. Hoey. “‘And if you do that, it will lead you in certain directions, with certain responses.’”

For example, it’s easier from a distance to take a hard stand on the fate of undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country when they were too young to understand.

“But if you know the family and live side-by-side with them and experience joys and sorrows with them, and you see them as human beings first, I think you start to have a different perspective,” said Mr. Hoey.

“It’s really about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and trying to imagine yourself in the same situation.”

He noted that the Church doesn’t condemn women who seek abortions but tries to help them in every way possible.

“When people are desperate, they do desperate things, so we try to give them alternatives,” said Mr. Hoey. “We reach out to try to give support to help them make a good decision, the right decision.” 


A Great Plains experience

When they were first married, Mike and Mary Beth Hoey went to a poor parish in Walsenburg, Colorado, to take part in a Catholic outreach program.

While Mrs. Hoey worked in special education, Mr. Hoey got involved in parish ministry, spending many hours each week visiting individuals and families in their homes.

“Just being present was so important,” he said.

After that experience with people who are poor and lonely, he looked for a way to combine his background in education, his passion for social justice and Catholic outreach to the poor, and his knowledge of politics and government.

The MCC turned out to be a perfect fit.


Tempered idealism

“I wanted to change the world,” Mr. Hoey recalled. “But what you soon find out is that the Lord is in charge and you’re not, and that you’re just a small piece of it. You have a gift and you do the best you can in giving that gift.”

He started out as a lobbyist and community organizer specializing in Catholic education.

He also worked in rural life and family farm issues, helping families affected by the farm crisis of the early 1980s. He collaborated with Stephana Landwehr and Sister Margaret Mary O’Gorman FSM on “With My People,” a Church document outlining ways to respond to the crisis.

“People were losing their farms,” he said. “The problem was so big, there was no easy solution. But we could at least be present to them.”

He later also got involved in healthcare and other issues.

For years, his mentor was Louis DeFeo Jr., who became the MCC’s general counsel in 1969 and also its executive director in 1981, serving until 2000.

“He taught me persistence and hard work,” said Mr. Hoey. “He kept reminding me that you have to keep trying. You can’t give up. Also, he taught me how to have thick skin. People are going to say stuff. You have to go on.”

It’s not that Mr. DeFeo was impervious to insults and rejection. “But I think he just learned to see it as, ‘This is part of the Way of the Cross for me. This is what I’m going to do for God,’” said Mr. Hoey.


Spiritual mentor

Mr. Hoey believes his wife helps keep him spiritually grounded.

“Mary Beth has a natural spirituality,” he said. “I’ve had her to kind of mentor me our whole married life.”

Working with children with special needs — some with very serious disabilities — she tends to stay hopeful and recognize the positive.

“She’s always looking on the positive side,” said Mr. Hoey, “and I try to follow her in that.”

He believes it’s important to keep praying and working for constructive dialogue among people of various religious, cultural and political persuasions.

“We are so divided in this country,” he said. “We need to pray for patience and to be able to listen to each other.”

Catholics can help God answer that prayer by actively seeking opportunities to listen.

“Maybe talking to people we don’t normally talk to or going places we normally don’t go to,” he said. “Trying to be open to new experiences and to listen to people with different ideas. Getting out of our comfort zone isn’t always fun but it’s very necessary.”