A New Voice for U.S. Bishops & Women in the Catholic Church

After Jorge Cardinal Bergolio was elected pope, on the morning of his installation Mass, Timothy Cardinal Dolan passed right by me as I was doing an interview with the NET-TV outside St. Peter’s Basilica, on his way up to an interview with The Today Show. In his interview, Cardinal Dolan talked with enthusiasm and gratitude for Pope Francis and his early words as pontiff.

(NET-TV is a project of the Diocese of Brooklyn, now famous for its Jesus “Hipster” ad.)

Cardinal Dolan reflected on the pope’s first homily in the Square outside St. Peter’s, and in response to a question and concerns about women in the Church raised in a prior Today segment, the cardinal of New York said of Pope Francis: “He’s got to unleash the energy that was given us by Jesus and the Holy Spirit and I wonder if he’s given us a new interpretive key in his homily.”

Pope Francis, he recalled, “spoke of tender love, tender love. Now women are pros when it comes to tender love.”

“He spoke for St. Joseph loving Jesus and Mary, but then he said this tender love has to go to creation, to God’s creatures and especially to those who are most fragile, especially to those who are poor and struggling and feel alienated,” Cardinal Dolan continued.

“Women,” Cardinal Dolan said, “are pros when it comes to tender love. Will they have a more accented role in his papacy? I wouldn’t doubt it.”

And in the presidency of the current conference of Catholic Bishops …

Considering what he’s said (and has elsewhere), it should come as no surprise that the on Monday afternoon the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops announced that my good friend Kim Daniels has been named a spokesman for Cardinal Dolan as president of the bishops’ conference.

Kim is a wife and mother of six and a religious-liberty attorney. She has been indispensible as a director of a project I work on, Catholic Voices USA, over the past months. The goal of the project, which is based on a British model, is to make the case for the Catholic Church in the public square. We have done work helping train people to be on TV and radio; but it is not traditional media training. It is an apostolate that, in part, works volunteers through exercises in finding the positive intention in the question they are being asked and to communicate Church teaching with love in response. We’ve done some work in New York and Washington, D.C., and Boston and are headed to a Catholic media conference in Denver in June.

Kim Daniels also worked for Sarah Palin for a time. We’ve had a few conversations about this over the time I’ve known her (which has been a few years now). She felt a call to work with this most prominent pro-life mother who was giving voice to issues close to her heart in the public square. I wouldn’t read too much into the political significance of this as a bishops’ conference matter. Her heart belongs to her family and the Church, and her work with Palin was an outgrowth of that.

And while the Palin work on Kim’s resume may (has) attract(ed) attention, the fact that she co-authored a petition and subsequent book with former bishops’ conference spokeswoman Helen Alvaré strikes me as much more relevant to her professional story and this USCCB appointment. The effort communicated the message that women are powerful voices in building a culture of life and leaders in stewardship of religious liberty.

That “Women Speak for Themselves” resume line, along with her religious-liberty expertise, and communications focus at Catholic Voices USA — infused by her love for the Church — make her a perfect voice to add to that bishop conference team’s platform.

One report on this news suggests that:

Daniels’ hiring could come off as exploiting her gender. A year ago Dolan said that the USCCB would do better to hire an “attractive, articulate, intelligent” laywoman to present its message because, as he put it, “In the public square, I hate to tell you, the days of fat, balding Irish bishops are over.”

Usually the criticism is that despite a Church with an intense love for the mother of God, whose religious women built the Catholic health-care and education systems in America, with revered canonized women saints who are Doctors of the Church, doesn’t have enough visible women working in the Church! It’s worth pointing out that not only is there this new hire at the USCCB, but the top two officials in the communications office at the bishops’ conference have long been and continue to be women — one lay, one religious.

The Religion News Service piece also says: “Daniels, a mother of six, will also have to be credible.” I’m sure he didn’t mean to diss motherhood there, but that is is the best training ground for establishing credibility in bringing some order to chaos, which can be a useful skill-set in working in bureaucracies and the media. And having a mother as a voice is a gift in a culture where motherhood is all too often painfully undervalued and under-appreciated as the most credible of work.

And herein lies a fundamental message in putting a women who happens to be a mother — of six — forward in a visible institutional Church position: The Church is not just those “fat, balding Irish bishops” or the athletic ones who have a use for combs, either. It’s the moms and dads and single people and the young — every Catholic faithfully receiving the Sacraments, in the pews of Churches across the world on Sundays and every day. And what the Catholic Church believes about women is a message that could be a great balm to the world.

A few months back, at the opening Mass for a Year of Faith and the 50th anniversary of the Vatican Council II, as bishops from throughout the world were gathered in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI handed me a message about women, meant for all the women of the world. It said, in part:

the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is under-going so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.
You women have always had as your lot the protection of the home, the love of beginnings and an understanding of cradles. You are present in the mystery of a life beginning. You offer consolation in the departure of death. Our technology runs the risk of becoming inhuman. Reconcile men with life and above all, we beseech you, watch carefully over the future of our race. Hold back the hand of man who, in a moment of folly, might attempt to destroy human civilization.
That’s a pretty powerful mandate!

That statement was part of a re-issuing of documents Paul VI presented to workers, scientists, artists, political leaders, and women, among others, at the end of Vatican Council II. He was communicating a reset button: to renew our hearts, as a Church; to put aside the division that came from some of the shock and ideological chaos that misinterpreted the Second Vatican Council. Ultimately, as I understand it, he resigned because he knew someone could communicate this so much better than he could. And I feel confident in saying the pope emeritus shares my belief that the Holy Spirit provided. This is an exciting time of renewal in a Church that has been wrought with the evil of sin on display in prominent ways in recent decades. Reforms the Church in the United States has implemented in recent years, the new pope, changes at the bishops’ conference, lay movements of evangelization are all manifestations of this.

This news about Kim Daniels makes perfect sense. It flows from this. One of the key questions the Church is confronted with today i: How do we teach and share the Gospel effectively? From a bishop’s perspective that’s ultimately a pastoral question. And how Catholics in the pews hear and what they hear plays a major role in that. But the media in all its mainstream and social forms is where most people’s views of the Church is formed. How do we engage there clearly, as Christians, lovingly and responsively? Kim has been devoting her time to just that question as a director of the Catholic Voices USA project. So I really can’t think of a better person to be joining Cardinal Dolan and the bishops’ conference in that effort to address that question and Gospel mandate to evangelize. I have a little more to say over on the CVUSA website. She’s a joy and is able to communicate that joy with ease. And who better than a woman, one who knows the challenges and sacrifices and delights of figuring out family and professional balances in the world today, one who seeks to serve the Church she loves?

And it doesn’t hurt that she knows a lot about an important issue that has been forced upon the Church: the “safe haven” on the Department of Health and Human Services abortion-drug, contraception, sterilization mandate that is expiring on August 1, the White House having given the Church (among others) a year to figure out how to violate their conscience, as Cardinal Dolan has put it.

During that Today Show interview after Pope Frances’ installation Mass, Cardinal Dolan said: “My hope is on steroids after that magnificent mass and hearing him preach.”

He added: “Catholics, indeed the whole world, they want the Church to work. They want this pope to be successful. He’ll ride on that crest, and I think we’ve got a winner.”

In an interview I did with Kim when the Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves book she and Alvaré worked on came out, she said:

We’re called to live our faith in season and out, whether it’s welcome or not. That doesn’t mean trying to impose our beliefs on others; it means proposing them to others. For the most part, this means working for the common good in our families, neighborhoods, and parishes. It’s less about passing legislation and winning court cases than it is about building a robust, vibrant culture in the places where we actually live out our lives. More than any abstract argument, it’s everyday holiness rooted in everyday Catholic culture that draws others to the truths of our faith.

When I asked her “What makes you think Catholics want a Catholic culture, when that seems to be a thing of the past, unless you go to certain schools or work at particular institutions?” She said:

It’s not about reviving Catholic ghettoes or indulging sentimental nostalgia; it’s about living Catholic lives together in the here and now. As Catholics, we know that the good, the true, and the beautiful exist just beyond the everyday world, and sometimes overflow into it. Our job is to make that more visible; to do what little we can to build the kind of culture that, as Peter Maurin said, “makes it easy to be good.”

Such a culture is naturally attractive. Creating it in our families, among our friends, and in our parishes and neighborhoods doesn’t come from winning arguments. It comes from showing others that Belloc’s words are still true: “Wherever the Catholic sun does shine/There’s always laughter and good red wine.” How effective our witness would be if we lived that out.

I think you’ll agree that’s a good voice for the Catholic bishops’ conference seeking to communicate clearly and joyfully through the media today! It’s one in a series of sources of encouragement for anyone who wants to see the Catholic Church be a positive and effective leader and servant in American civil society.

Full-disclosure: In addition to working on Catholic Voices USA with Kim Daniels, I am a member of Cardinal Dolan’s Pro-Life Commission (many of its most vocal members happen to be women — including a doctor and a lawyer as well as women religious).

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