Catholicism is the largest denomination of the world’s largest religion. Catholics are of course well represented in Colorado, too — not only as a percentage of the population, but also as a force at the state Capitol. That's thanks in no small part to Jenny Kraska, who since 2007 has led the Colorado Catholic Conference.
The conference bills itself as "a united voice of the Catholic bishops of Colorado" on wide-ranging public-policy issues. The range is wide indeed — from schools to social services to civil rights and beyond. It's a mission that covers a whole lot of policy turf and frequently blurs conventional ideological and partisan boundaries.
In this week's Q&A, Kraska talks about finding common ground among the state's stakeholders and lawmakers. She discusses some of the details of the church's advocacy on issues like school choice, and she offers insights into the evolving alignment of rank-and-file Catholics with the two major political parties.
Kraska also takes up a topic you won't often hear from others who duke it out in the hardboiled world of lobbying at the Capitol: The role that spirituality plays in driving her daily work.
Colorado Politics: The Catholic Church long has defied ideological labels in its advocacy of public policy. The church’s stands on a broad range of issues — from abortion to physician-assisted suicide; from criminal justice to educational choice and social justice — have at times placed it at odds with both left and right. In your work as a lobbyist at the Capitol, is there in fact a part of the conventional political spectrum with which you most closely identify?
Jenny Kraska: My job is to carry out the deep commitment the Catholic Church has to defending universal truths recognized by all people of good will through advocacy in the public square. Carrying out this commitment/mission does resist labels because of the diversity of issues that are worked on. There is not an area on the political spectrum that fully represents the whole of Catholic teachings so I cannot say that there is any party or ideology that I closely identify with (even though plenty of people attempt to attach labels!).
- Executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, since 2007.
- Was elected president of the National Association of State Catholic Conference Directors in 2014.
- Earned a bachelor's degree in Catholic studies and theology with a minor in Latin — as well as a master's degree in Catholic studies and a law degree — from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.
- Has been a consulter to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Catholic Education, a member of the Federal Assistance Advisory Commission, and a board member of Catholic Rural Life.
CP: The Colorado Catholic Conference has been partnering with other faiths on some initiatives, such as the Faithful Tuesdays effort you announced earlier this year. Some of the faiths in that coalition not only have starkly different spiritual beliefs from the Catholic Church but also different views on key policy areas. What does the conference hope to accomplish through such outreach?
Kraska: Yes, the Faithful Tuesdays coalition is a very diverse coalition with varied beliefs and positions about many things including policy issues. The hope with an initiative like Faithful Tuesdays is to highlight and focus on the positions we hold in common, specifically regarding policy issues. The importance of an initiative like Faithful Tuesdays is really in creating a peaceful and respectful space for conversation and dialogue.
I believe the great success of Faithful Tuesdays is in providing a witness, amidst a divisive political environment, of collaboration and the ability to see past some very serious differences to focus on the good that can be accomplished when we speak with a united voice on issues where there is agreement.
CP: Colorado’s Catholic dioceses and the Catholic Conference have been prime movers in the school-choice movement in our state and have championed reforms in public education. Nationally, the church launched Catholic Education Partners a couple of years ago to advance parental choice in education.
What ultimately is the church’s stake in public education policy? Why engage so deeply in the secular, tax-funded education world when the church has its own network of diocesan and other Catholic schools? Is there a nexus? Does the Colorado Catholic Conference continue to support school vouchers or tax credits that could be used to defray tuition at non-public schools, including at Catholic schools?
Kraska: It’s very edifying to look at the work we’ve done when it comes to education and the school choice movement. The Catholic Church teaches that parents are the primary educators of their children and they must have freedom when it comes to choosing which school and educational system best fits the needs of their children and family.To that end the Church wants to make sure that, regardless of what choice is made when it comes to education, all children are receiving the best possible education, whether public or private.
The Church is an advocate of parental choice in education, so it’s only logical that we would engage on issues that affect that choice. Yes, the Church continues to support initiatives, such as tax credits, because they provide greater choice and empowerment to parents.
CP: You are no mere hired gun; you have a history of deep intellectual and, presumably, spiritual engagement with the faith you represent in the secular world of public policy. You hold degrees in theology and Catholic studies — even a minor in Latin! — in addition to your law degree. In your own words, what role does spirituality play in your work at the Capitol?
Kraska: For me the term “spirituality” is the living out of Christian life with a genuine desire to love and serve God and all people who I come in contact with. At the Capitol this means seeing the good in all people, regardless of our differences or stance on any number of issues.
CP: Alongside your commitment to your core tenets, you also are a veteran lobbyist with lots of experience at the Capitol; you’ve helmed the Colorado Catholic Conference for 13 years and counting. How have lobbying as well as the overall political climate evolved at the Capitol, and how has that affected your work?
Kraska: In general, the political climate of the United States, and Colorado is no exception, has become more divisive and in many cases hyper-partisan on both sides of the aisle. In some cases, there seems to be less willingness to compromise or find solutions that satisfy both sides, even if both sides don’t get everything they hoped for.
That being said, there is also an independent streak unique to Colorado politics that at least attempts, more often than not, to find compromise and common ground, which will always be needed and welcomed in politics.
CP: America’s Catholics at one time overwhelmingly voted Democratic; today, according to the Pew Center, Catholics are sharply divided between the two major political parties. What has changed, the church and its members, or the parties and their respective stands on issues of relevance to the church?
Kraska: I believe it is a combination of change in membership and substantial changes in party platforms and the stance of parties on some very important issues.
CP: Republicans are said to agonize over their party’s long-standing opposition to legal abortion because it is presumed to turn off many pro-abortion-rights, centrist women voters. What about the Democratic Party’s unflinching support for abortion rights? Does that turn off many Catholic voters? Is there any longer a place in the Democratic Party for pro-life candidates and officeholders?
Kraska: I would argue that one of the reasons Catholics are so sharply divided between the two major political parties, when at one time Catholics primarily supported Democrats, is because of the stance of the parties on life issues. I truly hope that there will always be a place in the Democratic Party for pro-life candidates and officeholders, even though there are far fewer than there were even 10-15 years ago.