For years, Deacon Tyler McClay has patiently listened to people say that the Church should “stay in your own lane” and avoid commenting on public-policy issues.
“This IS our lane!” he stated in a recent interview. “There are always legal, moral and philosophical factors in promoting the common good, and as people of faith and goodwill, we need to be right there at the center of these important debates.
“Sometimes, our arguments are simply practical in terms of how the law will impact families and the lives and the wellbeing of the community and society as a whole,” he stated. “But yeah, we ARE in our lane!”
Deacon McClay recently stepped down as executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference (MCC), public policy agency of the state’s four Roman Catholic dioceses.
Although this has been his dream job, he and his wife recently decided to move to St. Louis to be closer to family, including two young grandchildren.
“It was a hard decision,” said Deacon McClay. “This is a special job. I like working with the bishops. For me, it was kind of a dream job — it really was. So it was hard to walk away.
“But my wife and I both believe that family comes first, and that was really the motivating factor,” he said.
In a nutshell, according to Deacon McClay, the MCC’s executive director “provides guidance to the bishops on legislative matters and interactions with other state agencies, and tries to promote Catholic values in the public square, particularly at the Capitol.”
The bishops work collegially through the MCC as its executive board of directors. The agency’s Public Policy Committee (PPC), made up of knowledgeable and engaged people appointed by the bishops from each diocese, advises them on public-policy matters and legislative priorities.
“When crafting legislative policies or statements on any of these things, you have to draw a lot of perspectives into a consensus, because the bishops are speaking collegially through the Conference, not as individuals” said Deacon McClay.
“Our bishops are pretty good at that. They do work together to try to advance the cause at the end of the day,” he said.
He noted that the MCC could legitimately take a faith-informed position on nearly every state policy that gets proposed or piece of legislation that gets introduced.
“But we have to pick our battles and decide what issues we’re going to engage on so we can have the greatest impact,” he said, “particularly on the high-profile issues. Which is part of what makes the job so stressful, because we’re involved in some very weighty matters.”
Deacon McClay grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and was raised in a Christian faith tradition.
He married Robin McClay, who had been Catholic her whole life. They now have two adult children.
Deacon McClay became Catholic through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in 2003.
Even before then, he had thought about leaving his busy law practice, going into the seminary and becoming a minister.
He remembers seeing the ad seeking a new chief counsel for the MCC in the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the St. Louis archdiocese.
He and Mrs. McClay were living in Arkansas and were looking for a chance to move back to their home state.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m probably not Catholic enough,’ because I had only been a Catholic for like six years,” he stated. “But I guess it wasn’t a deal-breaker for them.”
The state’s bishops appointed him general counsel the MCC in 2010.
Not only would he get to practice law for the Church, he would also have time to pursue his call to ministry.
“I’m grateful that I am at a place in my life where I have been able to participate in formation and preparation for the diaconate,” he stated.
He enjoyed collaborating with Mike Hoey, who served as MCC executive director after spending decades as a legislative specialist and then as assistant director.
“Mike was very helpful, and we worked really well together,” said Deacon McClay. “We agreed on a lot, but we came at much of it from different perspectives. What we disagreed on was usually pretty minor — different philosophies about how to approach some things — but we were mostly on the same page.
“I’m convinced that the Catholic Church has an answer for everything that ails this country, in our teaching documents,” Deacon McClay asserted. “The challenge is helping people see it and understand it and not to reject it out of hand because it’s Catholic.
“Because the Church’s history of being 2,000 years alive means that it doesn’t just encompass Christian teaching, it also encompasses good governance,” he noted.
Wins and losses
He entered formal discernment and formation for the permanent diaconate and was ordained in 2016.
The state’s bishops appointed Deacon McClay executive director upon Mr. Hoey’s retirement in 2018.
The formation he received prior to ordination, along with the ontological grace of the sacrament, strengthened him for what could be extremely taxing work.
“The job is not for the faint of heart,” he asserted. “There is a spiritual toll that comes with it. It requires a lot of prayer and meditation and Confession.
“Let me just say that it’s a very good thing that there’s an adoration chapel in St. Peter Church, right across the street from the Capitol,” he said. “Sometimes, you go in there and you’re just beat and you have to have a way to vent it out. And you can sit there in front of Jesus and pour your heart out to Him and also say to His mother, ‘Mom! Help me out!’”
Deacon McClay was quick to point that the MCC staff, with some members who have been there for decades, are incredibly dedicated, hardworking and helpful.
Together, they have witnessed countless “wins and losses” on the broad spectrum of issues the PPC and the bishops have identified as ongoing priorities.
Deacon McClay is particularly pleased that state lawmakers passed a law last year establishing the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program, which the MCC and members of the MCC Citizens Action Network helped get passed.
The program provides tax credits to individuals and organizations that contribute to state-approved organizations that help families with low incomes or whose children need special assistance send their children to other schools if their local public schools can’t do enough for them.
“That’s something I never thought I’d see happen, given the strength of the lobby that’s opposed to school choice,” Deacon McClay stated.
He’s also very pleased with multitude of the pro-life laws that got passed in the state legislature with assistance from the MCC and its citizen network.
“The 72-hour waiting period before an abortion, the informed-consent provisions and the staggered part of HB 126, the heartbeat bill, that got passed in 2019 — they helped drastically reduce the number of abortions in this state,” he said.
He remembers staying up with lawmakers in the Capitol until 4 a.m. the day HB 126, also known as Right to Life of the Unborn Child Act, finally passed.
“Much of it wound up getting enjoined (by the courts), but it definitely set a tone for this state,” he said.
The law includes the trigger ban that declared elective abortion illegal in Missouri if the U.S. Supreme Court ever strikes down the Roe v. Wade decision, which it wound up doing with the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on June 24.
“These are amazing things that people have been working toward for years,” he said. “I consider it a privilege to have played a role in helping get them passed.”
He also weathered numerous occasions of frustration and disappointment, brought about in large part from gridlock and legislative paralysis.
He would like to have seen state lawmakers work more on effective gun-control and increased funding for social services.
“We were successful in fighting for Medicaid expansion but we had to walk a fine line getting there,” he stated.
He also regrets what he and the MCC staff have never had time to pursue.
“One thing I always wish I could have done more of was getting deeper into the budget process,” he said. “That’s the kind long-term project that often succumbs to the ‘tyranny of the urgent.’
“It’s time-consuming to get really involved in the budget process and work to slot in funding for something, such as helping organizations like Catholic Charities with their work in providing funding for the poor,” he said.
“You almost have to have a dedicated person bird-dogging that,” he noted. “But it’s one area as executive director I would like to have moved into more.”
He’s convinced that while the levers of sustainable government are designed to move slowly, they’re not supposed to keep jamming.
“Yes, it’s hard to pass legislation. That’s not a bad thing,” he said. “On the other hand, gridlock is not a good thing, either. There’s got to be a balance. I think finding that balance is the challenge.”
He believes much of the current culture of legislative stalemate comes from overall distrust of or even indifference to government at all levels.
“We still have checks and balances in this country, although some have been abused more recently, like presidential executive orders,” he stated. “But I think fundamentally, despite the common perception, the system does works if it’s operated appropriately.
“That’s the hope we have, that we can get back to the system as it was designed to work,” he said.
He’s convinced that voting term limits for lawmakers into the state’s Constitution has not been as helpful as its backers might have hoped.
“It means people in the Capitol are always looking for their next job,” he said. “And that adds up to a lot of attention-grabbing legislation that’s not necessarily the common good, but is good red meat for the constituents.”
Carrying the light
Deacon McClay believes receiving the grace of Holy Orders and ministering in his parish helped him in his role with the MCC.
“It was life giving to do deacon work and be part of work and participate in the Mass in that way,” he said. “It helped me remember that there’s so much more to life than pending legislation.”
He enjoyed chanting the “Exsultet” at the Easter Vigil and the privilege of assisting the bishop at Mass in the Cathedral.
“I will definitely miss all of that,” he said, along with helping provide music for XLT Adoration with young people of the parish.
He is eager to continue his diaconal ministry in a parish in the St. Louis archdiocese while serving as an attorney for the state attorney’s office in St. Louis.
He will continue praying for all Catholics of this state.
“I hope we can all come together to continue to be the Church to the world and not let the divisions in our country divide us,” he said. “It’s easy for us to get caught up in that, but we’ve got to be different. We’ve still got to be the Church.
“I also hope that Catholics will put being Catholic first, ahead of their political party,” he stated. “Because all too often, I see it see it being the other way around.”
He asks for prayers for his successor, “that he or she has all the success in the world.”
“And pray for the ongoing mission of the Catholic Conference, to carry the light of Christ to the public square,” he requested.