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Jeff Caruso: Faithful citizenship is 'about loving our neighbor as ourselves'

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Each year when the new session of the Virginia General Assembly kicks off in early January, Jeff Caruso knows he’ll be off like a racehorse at the starting bell — and he won’t stop running for weeks.

Virginia’s legislative session, which begins Jan. 12, is one of the shortest in the country — 60 days in even years, 46 in odd, said Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference. Founded in 2004 by the bishops of Virginia’s two Catholic dioceses, the VCC advocates for public policy that advances human dignity and serves the common good, in line with Catholic social teaching. Caruso and his staff focus on Virginia, but also support efforts of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on federal issues.

Because the session is so compressed, legislators and their staffs — and lobbyists like Caruso — “start work at 7 or 7:30 in the morning and run late into the night,” he said. For these two months, “it’s an all-consuming process.”

His job requires the agility “to just move in whatever direction that day or that hour or even that minute requires. It is a very fluid situation,” he said.

This year brings even more uncertainty than usual: Bill preparation was delayed by a ransomware attack, now resolved, that shut down the legislature’s computer systems less than a month before the start of the session. On top of that, Caruso noted, 17 new members in the House of Delegates are still getting up to speed.

But if he’s feeling stressed, Caruso, 50, doesn’t show it. He seems relaxed and focused as he sits down for a Zoom interview from his home in Fredericksburg, where he and his wife, Jessie, and their 10-year-old daughter, Marina, are parishioners of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church. 

He said usually 2,000 to 3,000 bills are filed every session, and only a fraction had been posted online as of last week. To be prepared to respond quickly, Caruso spends much of the year researching issues that may emerge, as well as maintaining relationships with legislators, building coalitions with other organizations and promoting advocacy.

Born and raised in Maryland, Caruso attended Catholic elementary and high schools and was always interested in “how the law and morality relate to one another.” He studied math and psychology at Penn State in University Park, Pa., then went to Notre Dame Law School in Indiana, graduating in 1996. He practiced law in Maryland for two years before joining the Maryland Catholic Conference, where he was “very intrigued and excited” to learn about Catholic legislative advocacy. He worked there for six years before joining the VCC as founding executive director in early 2005.

“A lot of people hear about faithful citizenship or promoting the common good and it can all sound very abstract,” Caruso said. “But it's really about loving our neighbor as ourselves. Legislators are making decisions about vital needs and how to meet them, in some cases even about whether people live or die. They're making decisions about people who are our neighbors, right? Because everybody is our neighbor. So, if we're going to love our neighbor as ourselves, that means engaging and trying to impact the outcome of these decisions.”

One opportunity to get involved is Defending Life Day Feb. 9 in Richmond. It’s focused on prayer and legislative advocacy. “That's really our most fundamental obligation in public policy, to defend the right to life and to defend those who are the most vulnerable,” Caruso said.

In the November election, Republicans regained control of the Virginia House and the governorship, setting the stage for pro-life legislators to now revisit some bills that have failed in the past few years, such as restoring limits on state abortion funding under the Hyde Amendment. Many states have measures based on Hyde, which restricts federal funds for abortions except in cases where the life of the mother is at risk, or rape or incest. Virginia had Hyde restrictions a few years ago, “but a couple sessions ago that was overturned, so we'd like to get that back,” Caruso said. He also expects to see new bills this session defending parental rights, including more say in public school policies.

Abortion aside, the VCC works with legislators on both sides of the aisle because Catholic positions on social issues “don't really align with one party platform or another,” Caruso said, citing bishops’ support for immigrants and refugees and opposition to the death penalty, which Virginia abolished last year.

Catholic stances represent “a consistent moral framework that cuts across political categories,” he said. “Everything we do flows from this principle that we're all created in the image and likeness of God. Because of that, we have an inherent, intrinsic dignity and certain fundamental rights that are necessary for human flourishing,” from the right to food and shelter to religious liberty, a safe environment, a decent education and health care, he said.

“But it starts with the fundamental right to life. That's the most basic right of all, and if you don't have the right to life, you can't have any of these other rights.”

Find out more

 

Sign up for VCC legislative alerts and Defending Life Day at vacatholic.org.

 

 

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2022