Politics makes strange bedfellows. This is particularly true for Catholics in the United States. If you are a serious Catholic and you are deeply engaged with political life, you are compromising some part of your beliefs. Neither party perfectly represents Catholic beliefs. Or, if you prefer, the Catholic Church fails to represent either party’s beliefs. So, if you are seriously involved in both the Church and a political party, you are compromising, one way or another. Some of us are more defined by our party associations, and being Catholic feels like a compromise.
But for those of us who seek to be authentically Catholic in the public square regardless of partisan alliances, and who are looking for models and support for that, there is very good news from the USCCB this week. They have announced that Kim Daniels, formerly a director of Catholic Voices USA, has been appointed to a new role: spokesperson for the president of the bishops’ conference (currently Cardinal Timothy Dolan). Educated at Princeton and at Chicago Law, Daniels is married with six kids and has focused much of her professional life on religious liberty law.
In articles by Grant Gallicho and David Gibson, much is being made of Daniels’ past associations with Sarah Palin and the Thomas More Law Center. These are in fact part of her resume. But they are only part of it. A much more thorough account of Daniels’ background and her commitments has been posted by her Catholic Voices colleague Kathryn Lopez (who also interviewed Daniels in this piece on “Being Catholic Every Day”). This seems to me to set Daniels’ other work in the proper context: her commitment to the full range of issues that are crucial to Catholics in the public square.
My limited contact with Daniels has come in the context of her affiliation with Catholic Voices USA. Catholic Voices USA has roots and connections in Catholic Voices (UK), but also sees its mission as rooted in a specific call issued to the US Bishops by (then-) Pope Benedict:
Catholic Voices USA is a direct response to a call of the Holy Father to U.S. bishops in January 2012. He said: “we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society.”
This is the project to which Kim Daniels has been deeply committed of late, and it is a need the Holy Father articulated to the US Bishops. To view Daniels’ appointment as a spokesperson as a partisan appointment because of her past affiliations with Palin and TMLC is to view both the bishops and Daniels precisely in the lens of the reductive secularism which they have been working to defeat, Daniels at Catholic Voices USA and the bishops in other contexts. The full range of issues to which Catholics are called to attend simply do not square with the party lines established in US politics. Catholics who seek to live out the fullness of our faith commitments in the public square are very likely to make an odd set of alliances with people who share some, but not all, of our beliefs and commitments. To read Catholics’ actions and alliances as though the political landscape were their defining horizon would be always to reduce and misread them.
To take one issue that would likely make Sarah Palin cringe: on immigration, Daniels has been a model for Catholics who seek to bring the Church’s complex set of alliances to bear to advance a bipartisan reform of immigration law. Check out her pieces in the Washington Post and the National Register on immigration reform. Notice that both pieces are relatively centrist and call for Catholics to work toward bipartisan engagement on the issue. But note the ways she appeals to the Catholic readers she is most likely to encounter in each publication. The Washington Post piece reminds readers of the Catholic themes of family, the dignity of work, and solidarity with the vulnerable, themes particularly near and dear to Catholics who lean left. The Register piece draws connections to Republicans and Tea Party folks working for immigration reform (Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul) and reminds Catholics of the immigrant history and present of the Catholic Church in the US, encouraging them to let go of disagreements with President Obama on other issues and work together for a just and family-friendly immigration reform. The piece ends with a stirring call for Catholics to move beyond partisanship:
Of course, there’s room for Catholics to disagree on prudential matters like this. But there’s room for us to agree as well. We shouldn’t see ourselves as Republicans first, or as Democrats, but as Catholics. That means we shouldn’t view immigrants as an interest group to be placated or a voting bloc to be won, but as our brothers and sisters in Christ. Immigrants bring rich cultural resources to America; it’s time to bring them out of the shadows, so that they can better integrate those gifts into the cultural mainstream. Archbishop Gomez has said that “our immigrant brothers and sisters are the key to American renewal … economic and political, but also spiritual, moral and cultural renewal.” As the national conversation on immigration reform moves forward, let’s stand together as Catholics, doing our part to help that renewal take root.
This kind of call for Catholics to stand together on all the issues that matter to us most is crucial. It calls us out of our political alliances and back to our more fundamental values, then sends us back to the political sphere to work for justice and the common good in a new way, hopefully less bound by the limitations that partisanship puts on our political imaginations. This is what Christian faith should do for us; it is what our bishops should do for us, and what their spokespeople should do for us as well: help us see how the Gospel calls us to love God and neighbor more thoroughly in every aspect of our lives, including our politics.
Most Americans, including most Catholics, have an instinct to cry “partisan” when the bishops (or others) do something that conflicts with our own political views (see this for such a cry from the right). And such things are important arguments, as we try to clarify what are the essential implications of our faith in the public square and what are the areas where prudential judgment holds sway. But I wonder if it would be possible if we could live up to Blessed John XXIII’s famous invitation: “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Yes, we must argue out the difference between essentials and non-essentials. But we should always do it with charity. And it seems to me that the very beginning of charity among Catholics in our divided political landscape is to judge one another primarily on what we do and say, not on what our past affiliates have done or said. History and affiliations are important; they matter, but they shouldn’t define us.
If our Church is going to make genuine contributions to the common good, we need laity who give themselves to public service. This can happen in hundreds of ways: teachers, doctors, social workers, military service, service to the poor, and many many more. But political service–not just politicians, but lawyers, campaigners, lobbyists–is a part of this too. And until the system changes, it will be partisan. We need Catholics who are willing to enter in and serve, even in that partisan context, and also who are willing to give voice to the limitations of that system for fully reflecting and embodying Catholic values. We need Catholics who can work with the system as it is, and also who can work for its change. Kim Daniels is, I think, one such Catholic, who is now bringing her diverse experience to the USCCB and to the Church. She won’t be perfect (who is?), nor line up with everyone’s hopes and expectations (who does?), but I suspect she is better equipped than most to “speak the truth in love” for and about the Church in the public square.