WASHINGTON — A Princeton-educated laywoman and lawyer who has focused on religious-liberty issues and training Catholics on how to speak about Church teachings in the public arena has been named to the newly created position of spokeswoman for the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.
Kim Daniels, 45, joins the USCCB from Catholic Voices USA, which she helped found and where she until recently served as a director. Catholic Voices USA works to "bring the positive message of the Church across a broad range of issues to the public square," according to the USCCB press release announcing Daniels’ new position.
A mother of six, Daniels lives in the Washington Archdiocese with her husband, David Daniels, who is also a lawyer. She has a law degree from the University of Chicago.
"I’ll be doing a few things," Daniels said. "I’ll be helping draft messages for the bishops on priority issues, being available to respond to the press when needed, and helping draft op-eds and other communications as well."
Daniels thinks that her work with Catholic Voices USA — which she co-founded in 2012 with Kathryn Lopez, editor-at-large of National Review Online and currently a director of the organization — may have helped her get the job. "I think that Cardinal Dolan and other bishops very much liked the Catholic Voices’ approach of shedding light and not heat on the issues," Daniels said.
"Often, people approach controversies as if they’re the Marines," she explained. "They storm the beaches and go to battle, and there’s a place for that. But the Catholic Voices’ approach is more like the Peace Corps. We try to understand where others are coming from, we try to engage and not confront, and we try to bring the best that we have to offer."
Daniels sees the key issues confronting the Catholic Church for the next five years as religious liberty, solidarity with the poor and the vulnerable, marriage and life issues, the role of the laity and immigration. On immigration, she says that it is time to "bring 11 million people out of the shadows and fix a broken system."
She has already had experience speaking on many of these issues. Daniels has appeared on CNN, Fox News and PBS, and her writings or comments have been published by The Huffington Post, Reuters, The Washington Post and others. She has also been featured in a host of Catholic media outlets, including the Register.
Scot Landry, secretary for Catholic media for the Archdiocese of Boston, said that he wasn’t surprised to learn of the appointment.
"Cardinal Dolan has been signaling for a while that the USCCB would be hiring someone such as Kim Daniels," said Landry. "Cardinal Dolan has a passion for evangelization, for proposing our faith to the world, for engaging the media in a way that the Church’s message is always part of the conversation."
Continued Landry, "He has indicated in some of his remarks that capable laypeople, instead of bishops, should be the face of the Church on many issues being debated in the public square. He clearly wanted to build that capability within the USCCB’s own organization."
Catholic Voices USA is modeled on a U.K. organization of the same name that was founded in 2010 to ensure that Catholics and the Church were well represented in the public discussion, including in the media, when Pope Benedict XVI visited England that year. Like its English predecessor, Catholic Voices USA does media training for Catholics.
Explained co-founder Lopez, "A lot of the work we’ve done together involves media hits and misses — drafting and editing and placing things that may or may not work out, pitches and the like — and humbling training exercises."
Of Daniels, Lopez said, "She has brought both a lawyer’s professional skill and a mother’s tender encouragement to all we’ve done together on the Catholic Voices effort here. Hers is a beautiful voice, lifting up so many other voices."
Edward Mechmann, assistant director of the Family Life/Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese of New York, got to know Daniels when she went to New York to train pro-life leaders and young adults in how to talk to the media. He thinks the creation of the new slot signals a new approach to media.
"Historically," he said, "the Church has had a reactive strategy. The appointment of Kim means that we are going to shape the message and be more proactive. I’m a lawyer, and I’ve worked with lawyers and political people, and Kim is top-drawer, as an advocate, a thinker and a trainer."
Austen Ivereigh, coordinator and co-founder of Catholic Voices U.K., came to the U.S. to help the American organization with training last year.
"Kim got the idea of Catholic Voices — ‘ordinary’ Catholics who would put the Church’s case in the media, not as official spokespeople but as faithful laypeople — instantly and saw its potency," he said. "Kim managed the team brilliantly; the speakers all deeply respected her. She speaks gently but with great authority. You can see she’s thought about almost everything before."
In addition to her work with Catholic Voices, Daniels has been a lawyer for pharmacists who did not want to dispense the so-called "morning-after pill" and has written and spoken extensively about religious liberty. She has been in private practice in San Francisco, taught in a Catholic school in Mountain View, Calif., and worked for the Thomas More Law Center, whose issues include religious liberty, sanctity of life and the restoration of family values.
But one entry on Daniels’ varied résumé raised eyebrows in some circles and stirred up a minor storm in the blogosphere, rating unflattering mentions in such publications as the Catholic magazine Commonweal and the trendy, secular Huffington Post: Daniels served between September 2009 and April 2010 as an adviser to former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
People who have worked with Daniels dismiss the concern.
"Knowing of her involvement with Sarah Palin’s campaign," said Ivereigh, "I expected to find someone with Republican views. But what I met was a Catholic first, whose faith gives her a much higher horizon than U.S. party politics offers. She’s deeply pro-life and passionate about religious liberty, but she’ll go out to bat for migrants and underpaid workers and against the death penalty — in other words, she embodies the Church’s social teaching in all its breadth and depth."
The move to hire a spokesperson for the USCCB president follows debate at the U.S. bishops’ spring assembly in June 2012 about how to improve the Church’s communications model in light of rapid changes in media and reporting.
The U.S. bishops’ conference has its own Office of Media Relations, headed by Sister Mary Ann Walsh. Daniels’ position as spokeswoman for the conference president is distinct from this office.
Bishops who supported hiring a rapid-response spokesperson said the position is necessary to provide immediate comment on important issues. The current process for issuing an official statement can take one or two days. Other bishops voiced concerns that the position would undermine statements from the hierarchy.
However, Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Communications, stressed at the meeting that the U.S. bishops cannot meet present and future challenges "without embracing a culture of innovation and experimentation in communications."
Kathleen Gallagher, the director of pro-life activities at the New York State Catholic Conference, who watched Daniels conduct media training, thinks that Daniels can assist in delivering this approach to media relations.
"I was struck by Kim because she has an instinctive gift for taking complicated Church teachings and simplifying them and making them easy for people to understand," she said.
Gallagher said that the appointment is also a "good sign" of "greater reliance on the laity."
"She’s an everyday woman," said Gallagher. "Kim does not come across as political, conservative, Republican or Democrat or angry. She just comes across as a faithful, loving Catholic."
Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.
Catholic News Agency contributed
to this report.