Legislators Consider Faith, Politics in Catholic Conversation

News Story: October 10, 2018

Tom O'Dea, Larry Carroll and Cristin McCarthy-VaheyFrom left are Tom O'Dea, Larry Carroll and Cristin McCarthy-Vahey

State Rep. Cristin McCarthy-Vahey (D-133) tossed a ball of yarn into the crowd gathered in late September for “Faith and the Public Life: How, When and Where Do You Draw the Line Between Church and State?”

Soon the yarn snaked through the group of students and local residents sitting in Sacred Heart University’s UC Auditorium. “What I do… Can you feel that?” she said, giving the yarn a gentle tug. “It’s impacting you.”

McCarthy-Vahey and state Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125) considered connectedness, constituents and commonality during the hour-long discussion, the second in a series of Contemporary Catholic Conversations presented by the Curtis Center and the Department of Catholic Studies.

Both Catholics, O’Dea and McCarthy-Vahey told moderator Larry Carroll, executive director for Mission and Catholic Identity, that their faith helps inform their decision-making in Hartford. However, both also said their faith calls them to listen to others and look for common bonds to help them represent their diverse constituents.

O’Dea said he believes he answers to “20,000 bosses” as a lawmaker for New Canaan and Wilton and that helps him stay humble. Going to Providence College and then on to law school at Catholic University gave him a healthy faith-based respect for others’ opinions and expertise, he said.

“I don’t know about you, but I know I’m not the smartest person in the room,” he said with a laugh.

However, he said he has never made a legislative decision based solely on what his constituents told him they wanted. His faith traditions often play into his decisions. “I go with my gut,” he said. “I go with what faith has taught me. I go with what I believe.”

McCarthy-Vahey, a former youth minister and social worker by training, said she also approaches legislation from a faith perspective – both issues that are traditionally considered “moral issues” and broader matters, such as the environment. She said she seeks out different perspectives to inform her thinking.

“Those tensions can really expand us as human beings,” she said turning back to her yarn exercise. “Sometimes we have to be the one to pull – sometimes we have to be the one to give a little slack. “It’s important we’re working together for the common good.”

O’Dea told students in the audience to appreciate that they attend a university that encourages them to delve into their faith and consider how it affects their larger decisions.

“Aim high. Dream big,” he said. “And not to sound kooky … but pray about it.”

“Faith and the Public Life” was co-sponsored by the Human Journey Colloquia Series.

Students ask Tom O'Dea questions