Catholic First

In the comments below, my good friend Lisa Schmidt (of the wonderful blog The Practicing Catholic) posed the following query:

Archbishop Chaput recently issued (in part) the following statement: “We should see ourselves as Catholic first — not white or black, or young or old, or Democrat or Republican, or labor militant or business owner, but Catholic first as the main way we identify ourselves. Our faith should shape our lives, including our political choices.” One of the many things I admire about you is your ability to take what could be and have been controversial issues within our Church and pose them in a respectful Catholic-first, Catholic-forward manner. Does the Archbishop’s statement resonate with you? Do you consciously attempt to approach your work in this manner?

I love Lisa’s question because it opens a conversation we can (and should) all ponder together. Lisa quotes from an interview Archbishop Chaput gave to the National Review in response to a question about what it means to “vote Catholic”. But as both you and Archbishop Chaput note, Lisa, this “Catholic-first” quality isn’t simply about our important actions in the voting box. I don’t mean to discount elections, but the truth is that our Catholicity happens every day of our lives, in even the smallest of decisions we make.

Some of my friends know that the origins of my website happened in late 1999 and early 2000, when we Catholics were being called to the New Evangelization. In my personal life, I was in love with the world’s most amazing husband and doing my very best to faith-parent my two sons. Since Greg (said husband) wasn’t Catholic at that time, the burden of being “domestic church” fell squarely on my shoulders and though I’d been a lifelong Catholic, I went looking for help online. The resultant growth of a site dedicated to helping families live out our faith all seven days of the week has been a work of the Holy Spirit. It’s also meant that people often think my last name is “from”. I don’t shy away from that moniker — I’ve worn it proudly through good times and bad in the last eleven years, and I’m fairly certain that when my “real world” friends see me, they immediately think, “There’s Lisa, my Catholic friend.” And it’s also likely that this perception of theirs colors the way they interact with me.

Lisa, your question has me pondering the life of St. Margaret Clitherow, one of the 40 English Martyrs whose lives we celebrate this week on their October 25th feast day.  A Catholic wife and mother and a shrewd businesswoman, Margaret was “Catholic first” at a time when doing so meant grave danger. Married to a non-Catholic spouse, Margaret raised her children in the faith and so loved the Eucharist that she harbored priests and held secret masses in her home. Imprisoned for her crimes, she took the opportunity to study Latin and the gospels, never backing down from her commitment to her faith. She paid the ultimate price for her convictions — a death penalty which sentenced her to death by crushing. St. Margaret went to her death with the words, “I die for the love of my Lord Jesu” on her lips.

It’s unlikely that I’ll ever be called to stand up for my faith as St. Margaret Clitherow and her fellow martyrs were called to do. But every day, in big and little ways, you and I are called to be “Catholic first” in the context of our daily lives. In the voting box, but also in our living rooms, at the market, in the workplace and alongside sporting fields… I pray daily and often through the intercession of St. Margaret Clitherow for the grace and strength to live up to that responsibility.

Question for you: What does being “Catholic first” look like in your world? What challenges do you face in standing up for the faith?

About Lisa M. Hendey

Lisa Hendey is the founder and webmaster of and the author of The Grace of YesA Book of Saints for Catholic Moms and The Handbook for Catholic Moms. Lisa writes for several online and print publications, enjoys speaking around the country and is a frequent television and radio guest and host. Visit her at

  • Manny

    I don’t understand the “Catholic first” mentality. Should we be saying white people first? Or Italian-Americans first? Or straight people first? Or married people first? What the heck is that all about?

    I’m a practicing Catholic. That doesn’t mean I have no disagreements with the Church, either on theological issues (those are very minor, but differences nonetheless) or on political issues. Does the Church expect me to be a mind numbed robot? You will see lots of Catholics on this site or other sites go straight down the line with Catholic policy on every issue, especially the blog owners. I almost never see any dissent by the people writing the blogs. Is that humanly possible or does that fall under the catagory of brainwasshing?

    Well, I can’t do that. God gave me a functioning brain, with now nearly 50 years of experience, and by most standards a pretty well educated one. God also gave me individuality. My opinions and judgements are part of my Catholic upbringing and my faith. But I am not a mind numbed robot. I don’t have any first this or that mentality. My opinions, though they fall roughly in line with Catholic teaching though not universally, are what I deemed best for society.

  • Patrick

    I’m still trying to work out what “Catholic first” means in my world, but — pace Manny — I don’t see that as a polite request to check my brain at the door. +Chaput certainly did not mean that. If “the glory of God is man fully alive,” then it’s not “mind-numbed robots” that are wanted.

    I suspect “Catholic first” has a lot to do with having a well-formed (and well-informed) conscience, which ideally should marinate in Word and Sacrament. My perception of what that means has also been shaped over the last several years by life as a minority among evangelical Christians in the South, about which I have many thoughts.

  • Bruce in Kansas

    In my world, being “Catholic first” means trying, and sometimes failing, to live a life of sacramental grace. Prayer, Mass, Confession, Communion. Giving and receiving love and forgiveness. Giving and receiving mercy and compassion. Standing up for truth when truth is denied and praying for God’s grace for when we miss the mark. When it comes to controversial issues, it means that instead of taking my position and then trying to square it with how it agrees or disagrees with Catholic teaching, I try to read and understand what the Church teaches, then form my opinion. Within the limits of truth, the teachings of the Church really have a great deal of latitude. In my admittedly limited experience, I find going along with the dominant well-educated paradigm makes me feel, well, like a mind-numbed robot!

  • Manny

    LOL, Patrick. Sorry if I came across as strident, but I’ve conversed on this before, and I guess i’m reliving some passionate disagreement. You make exactly my point. A well formed decision you would think would occaisionally dissent. But I have to still point out, I never see any disagreement on Catholic positions from the blog owners.

  • lisahendey

    Manny, I’m glad you opened this conversation and that we’ll be able to dive into the concept a bit more deeply — I really don’t think we’re called to be mind numbed robots. In fact, following the Church’s teachings on issues often means that it’s not easy to make quick, thoughtless decisions about things like political candidates. I won’t pretend to speak for “The Church” — I’m not qualified and not nearly eloquent enough to do that. I’ll simply say that for me being “Catholic first” means going out of my way when in doubt to inform myself about the Church’s teachings, but also and especially about Christ’s teachings in the gospels. Easy, never. Do I always get it right? Absolutely not. Do I try every day, and pray to be faithful — yes. As for not seeing blog owners disagree with the Church’s positions on issues, we must not be reading the same blogs. In the Catholic blogosphere, and especially in the world of Catholic social media, there is a constant course of hearty discourse from a vast breadth of perspectives.

  • Ree Laughlin

    The implication of being Catholic First is that as individuals we let our faith help shape the culture and not the other way around. It’s our obligation to witness the Truth of our salvation, and that of the world, in a charitable and informed manner. If we accept the Truth of Jesus Christ and His Church, then our actions will be made freely in light of this revelation.

  • Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    Lisa you expressed so much of what I might have said in your comment above – so thank you. You did it more eloquently than I would have!

    Recently I was interviewed for a Catholic podcast about faith and social media specifically. This topic of “Catholic first” is near and dear to my heart and I spoke about it briefly but passionately on on the podcast.

    When all this talk of liberal, conservative, progressive, orthodox and worse yet the name calling… to and by people on either side of the divide, I simply want to say – aren’t we all Catholic? Are we not all called to be one? Not in some crazy kumbayah hold hands and sing songs image, but in the rich full tradition of being Catholic. (Which as we know means universal!)

    This to me is essential as we work to literally re-member the Body of Christ in the world. Catholic first – and everything else after that for me.

  • Joyce

    While I agree that we are not to be “mind-numbed” I do think that if we are good Catholics we need to be open to the possibility of reflecting the teachings of the Church in all our decisions, actions and conversations, both with other Catholics and with non-Catholics. Not everyone can immediately agree with everything, but if we, in good faith, are open to the journey toward acceptance of teachings we find difficult, we are on the right path to “Catholic first.”

    That being said, we have an apparent disconnect. I have had a number of difficult conversations recently with otherwise “good” Catholics who have difficulty accepting the teaching that homosexual unions are not “marriage.” While I agree this is a difficult issue from a pastoral standpoint, the root of their argument is a secular humanist assumption that it is a question of “human rights” instead of being about the definition of “marriage” according to Biblical and biological evidence and Church teaching about God’s plan for man and woman. The same is true of the death penalty – a natural human reaction to great crime is to want the maximum penalty, while the Church teaches that this does not need to be so in a civilized nation. I have met few Catholics who agree with that.

    I fear we have failed to catechize adult Catholics about the difference between making moral decisions based on a secular humanist perspective and choosing the alternative that best reflects the Church’s understanding of the mind of God. I believe that ignorance is what prevents many people from being “Catholic first.”

  • lisahendey

    Fran — would love to listen to the podcast. Can you share a link here in the comments? Thanks for chiming in.

  • Mike

    If I have no disagreements about 1+1=2 am I then “brainwashed” by mathematics? There are legitimate disagreements between Catholics on many issues, but when the Church has something definitive to say there is a reason behind it.

    In other words if you say “I disagree about the death penalty” you’re in good company, and you will find many Catholic bloggers on either side of the issue. And if you don’t see how this can be so, read the catechism.

    However, if you say “I disagree about abortion” you have not done your homework. Human life is precious + abortion kills a human life = abortion is evil. It’s simple logic, and as true as 1+1=2. Now, you can say that you disagree with the premise that human life is precious, or the science that says a fetus is a living human being, but neither claim is logical or sustainable.

    I challenge the “dissenters” to not just say “it’s their opinion against mine” but actually read the papal encyclicals, the catechism, and other church teachings on whatever subject they disagree with and come back and tell us just what is wrong with the reasoning behind those encyclicals. Agreeing with the church on those issues is not being brainwashed, but recognizing a truth.

  • Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    Sure Lisa, happy to comply! And no surprise, the Anchoress gets more than one mention! Be warned however, it is a long segment! Here is the link.

    I guess my ultimate point is this – how can we learn and grow as a Eucharistic community of believers, called by Christ to be one in His name? There is the question for the ages!

  • Mister Lynch

    Thank you, Lisa for asking this question. (And “welcome”!)
    For me, the expression, “Catholic first” resonates most deeply in the political sphere, where one can see that the two major political parties and their libertarian competition are almost daily exposing themselves as idol-worshipers of some kind. For example:
    * With the Republicans, there is the free-market fetish.
    * With the Democrats, it is the conviction that nearly any social good can be made into a legal right, and that all inequality is intolerable.
    * With the Libertarians, it is all about personal freedom.
    “Catholic first” means not allowing myself to be lured by any of these idols, but rather take on the difficult task of determining what the Word of God says about these things, and checking in with the guardian of that Word — the Catholic Church — to see what the great teachers have to say about the issue of the day.

  • Rich

    “Catholic First” in my world means that everything I am and do is based on my Catholic faith. Even the simplest actions and decisions are guided by my Catholicity. I don’t always actively think of it that way, but it’s there because I am a Catholic first.

    Do I greet a stranger with a smile simply because it’s a nice thing to do? No. As a Catholic, I am called to love my neighbor as myself and to treat that person with dignity and respect. Do I brush my teeth every day because I don’t want my teeth to fall out? No. As a Catholic, I must respect my body as a temple of God and take care of the gift given to me. When I step into the voting booth, do I first consider that candidate’s political or economic views? No. I consider how well that candidate’s views and actions align with Catholic teaching on the respect for human life and dignity. All other considerations come after that.

    If I die today and St. Peter meets me at the gates and asks “Who goes there?” I hope my answer is “A Catholic.” Everything else about me is guided by that statement. I am a husband, father, son, slightly-overweight middle-aged software developer… Everything.

  • Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    BTW to Manny, you said – “But I have to still point out, I never see any disagreement on Catholic positions from the blog owners.” I am more likely to post it on my Facebook page, but I do question things that – well, things that make me go, “what?” I also enter into lively conversations in the comments of the Catholic blogs I read. Our own Elizabeth Scalia, (whom I consider a friend) and I have had had our differences. We continue to do so as we both try to live our faith and also be in community together.

    But you have a point – some people (not Elizabeth, she asks questions) are highly doctrinal and that is that is that. Peace unto them, but it is not how I live my faith, a faith that seems to grow with every pressing question and the grace that comes with those questions.

  • Manny

    Thank you Fran, and thank you everyone who commented off my remarks. I always feel this is an important issue for Catholics to discuss. It’s one of those criticisms that Protestants level at us.

    @Mike, you said:
    “If I have no disagreements about 1+1=2 am I then “brainwashed” by mathematics? There are legitimate disagreements between Catholics on many issues, but when the Church has something definitive to say there is a reason behind it.”

    That is probably the best answer I’ve ever seen on this question. I am going to have to use that myself.

  • Rick

    My assumption is that “Catholic first” means letting my faith have full impact on my roles as a husband, father, friend, boss and citizen. I am called to be a Christian presence in the workplace with the people I supervise and also the political/economic arena. I tend toward being a Democrat politically, but as a Catholic is is encumbent on me to try to advocate strongly and sincerely for the rights of the unborn and the importance of marriage between a man and a woman. A Republican, on the other hand, may want to advocate strongly and sincerely for the reasonable responsiblities the govt. has for the poor and immigrants.

    Being Catholic first means being salt and light wherever I am.

  • Doc

    Rick, I don’t understand how a Catholic can be a Democrat while being “Catholic first”. Abortion is so strongly wedded to the Democrat Party at this point that one must consider themselves Democrat first in order to overlook the unquestionable evil that is abortion. It is clear that pro-life Democrats assume that label to head-fake the rubes, because when Nancy or Harry or Barack really needed their votes on legislation that funded or furthered the abortion agenda, “pro-life” Democrats delivered.