The “everyday lives of many American Catholics are no longer particularly distinctive from the everyday lives of members of other faiths, Kim Daniels writes. “And so non-Catholics can be forgiven for reducing our faith to its positions on hot-button issues, for often that’s all that seems to distinguish us from anyone else.” A “renewed and rooted Catholic culture of faith and family and friendship” can give a boost to an “exhausted culture,” Daniels contends, echoing the call for a “New Evangelization” issued by Pope John Paul II and renewed by Pope Benedict XIV in a recently convened synod in Rome.
Daniels, a religious-liberty attorney and a director of Catholic Voices USA, as well as a wife and mother, wrote the original Women Speak for Ourselves petition (initially published on National Review Online) with Helen Alvaré; it now has over 34,000 signatures.
One of the fruits of the petition’s success is a new book, Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves (Alvaré chats about it here). A chapter, “Beyond Politics: Everyday Catholic Life,” is one of Daniels’s contributions to the effort, which she talks about with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You start your chapter with a flashback: “We’ve all been there. The block party where your neighbor sees you putting ketchup on your hamburger and decides this is the time to ask you why Catholics won’t let women be priests.” Whatever do you say?
KIM DANIELS: Moments like this are great everyday opportunities to witness to one’s faith, and the only appropriate response is to meet people where they are and appeal to the positive intention behind their question. In this instance, your neighbor values women’s equality, a value rooted in the Christian idea of the equal dignity of all before God. You point that out, and recognize that like other social institutions, the Church has often failed to live up to this ideal. But you also point out that women have held prominent, unprecedented roles in the Church from its earliest days, through the middle ages when Catholic abbesses led large communities and presided over vast tracts of land, and still do today; Blessed John Paul II made “new feminism” — recognizing the unique gifts of the feminine — a focus of his pontificate, and Pope Benedict just named St. Hildegard of Bingen a Doctor of the Church. Yet, though some of Jesus’ closest followers were women, He chose only men as his apostles, and the Church is bound by that choice. And while the ministerial priesthood — in which the priest stands in the person of Christ — is limited to men, all of us are called to the common priesthood, a life of love and service to others. After that, you get your hamburger and chips and move on. Your neighbor will remember less about what you say than how you say it, and these exchanges aren’t about winning debates, but witnessing to your faith. The way you talk and the way you live will be much more convincing than any abstract argument.
LOPEZ: You describe culture as “shared habits and understandings and affections rooted in a particular place.” Do we have any of those anymore? Is this an understanding of culture that suggests life should be lived in self-selected ghettos? Should we pull back from the larger culture?
DANIELS: It’s true that for a host of complicated reasons such cultures are less common in America today. But that’s our challenge: to build robust, rooted local cultures in ways that fit our time and place; to weave joy and love into the particular circumstances of our everyday lives. Renewing this kind of culture from the ground up — family to family, friend to friend, enriching parishes and neighborhoods one by one — isn’t something routine or secondary; it’s the most important task Catholics face.
This doesn’t mean retreating from the larger culture; far from it. Pope Benedict speaks of Catholics forming a “creative minority” in society, engaging the wider culture without embracing it. This means countering its values with our own: countering materialism with simplicity, transience with rootedness, and coarseness with self-giving love. It means living lives that witness to our faith.
LOPEZ: You recognize that Christians in other times and places have faced cultures much more hostile than ours. Then why are Catholic bishops complaining about religious liberty being under threat?
DANIELS: It’s certainly true that other cultures are more hostile to religious liberty than our own; witness recent events in China, Nigeria, and the Middle East. But we shouldn’t conclude that religious liberty isn’t under threat here just because our churches aren’t being burned to the ground; hopefully our baseline standard is higher than that. Christians suffering persecution around the world look to America’s tradition of religious liberty with gratitude and hope, and we have a responsibility to preserve it.
It’s not just the bishops who are concerned about the erosion of religious liberty, but Catholics involved in our networks of schools, hospitals, and social-service organizations, not to mention Catholic laypeople generally. Thousands across the country have rallied for religious liberty, and Catholic organizations large and small have asked the courts to protect their freedom to serve others consistent with their faith. And we’re joined by Evangelical, Baptist, and Jewish fellow citizens concerned about the erosion of religious liberty — some have been directly affected already while others are vigilant as they look at where it may lead.
The HHS mandate was a tipping point. By requiring almost all employers to provide coverage for contraceptives, certain abortion-causing drugs, and sterilizations even if doing so violates their religious beliefs, it violated the long-standing bipartisan consensus in favor of a robust conception of religious liberty. It’s also awakened many to other erosions of religious freedom: Catholic adoption agencies being forced to close their doors because they want to place children in ways that are consistent with their faith; legislative efforts that would restrict the services of those who assist undocumented immigrants; and the loss of grant money by a leading provider of services to victims of human trafficking because it didn’t provide abortion and contraception. We can no longer take religious liberty for granted.
LOPEZ: The witness of “a renewed and rooted Catholic culture of faith and family and friendship” can help revive an “exhausted culture,” you write. It’s a culture quite hostile to Catholic values at the moment. What makes you think what you believe and try to live is welcome, never mind “beautiful and radical and essential”? And doesn’t this suggest that you are, in fact, looking to take away women’s birth control, looking to get them to live the way you choose to?
DANIELS: 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.
LOPEZ: 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?
DANIELS: 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.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a coordinator of Catholic Voices USA .