Former Congressman Dan Lipinski: we must be “Catholic first”

Congressman Dan Lipinski Public Domain CNA Illinois Congressman Dan Lipinski.

Former Congressman Dan Lipinski has urged faithful to be “Catholics first” in the public square, putting their faith above an excessive loyalty to party, personal comfort, or fear.

In an address at the University of Notre Dame’s de Nicola Fall Conference on Nov. 12, Lipinski said that the recent decline in practicing religion among the electorate has moved politics into a God-like position in the hearts and minds of people. He said this shift has intensified the practice of politics to a zero-sum game with no option of compromise, with devastating effects for both political institutions and people.

According to Lipinski, sectarian voters have emerged on both the left and the right— voters who are motivated more by their political party than by any other values— though he conceded that this is “more common” and arguably more dangerous among the left. Among the sectarian left, Lipinski asserted that muted “echoes of the French Revolution” can be heard.

Citing research from 2019 in the American Journal of Political Science, Lipinksi said that for sectarian voters, affiliation with a political party takes such precedence that it can “determine or change not just policy preferences but also their self-identified religion, class, or sexual orientation.”

Reportedly held together by “contempt for the other side,” Lipinski pointed to trends within the groups that make them function more like religions which require total adherence or members face banishment as a “heretic.”

Lipinski has personal experience with expulsion from a group over nonconformity. The last of a number of pro-life Democrats elected in the early 2000’s, Lipinski was primaried every election after becoming a pro-life leader among the Democratic party, until he was defeated in 2021 by pro-abortion Democrat Marie Newman.

“For sixteen years, with God’s grace, I tried however imperfectly to play my part as a Catholic in Congress,” Lipinski said. “I went to Congress knowing that I would face challenges within my party on some non-negotiable issues. I forthrightly proclaimed my position on these issues and said that I would not change.”

“This caused consternation among the sectarian partisans in my party, who viewed me with suspicion and saw my refusal to always follow the party line as betrayal,” he said.

“I was committed to being a Catholic first, before being a Democrat, and people recognized that. I had more than one constituent come up to me and say…’You vote Catholic.’”

Mary Hallan FioRito, the Cardinal Francis George Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, also weighed in.

“All Dan had to do to keep his seat was to say, ‘I’ll throw a pro-abortion vote or two your way,’” she said in her introductory remarks about the former Congressman. “Dan knew it could likely cause him his seat and it did.”

Lipinski said politicians “cannot just pick and choose which we like” among the guidelines of Catholic Social Teaching.

Much of Catholic Social Teaching does not instruct politicians how to vote, but gives principles to discern how to vote. Issues related to human life are the exception, he said.

“One theme has a clear line to a particular policy: life, the dignity of the human person, arising from the Imago Dei,” he said. “This is non-negotiable, and policies that directly flow from this are non-negotiable.”

Lipinski became the Democratic pro-life leader and co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus after he voted against the Affordable Care Act because of its abortion provisions. He said his vote made him “a political leper” in the Democratic party. Five presidential candidates endorsed his opponent and he ultimately lost the 2021 primary by a slim margin just before the coronavirus pandemic.

“But, I was proud to be Catholic first,” he said. “I have no regrets about that.”

Lipinski said a shift toward sectarianism in the United States deepened in 2016 with the presidential election of Donald Trump. This sectarianism, he said, “adds tension and bitterness to everyday life, it eliminates real discussion and debate from the public square” and bypasses the structure of the government which was set up to “force deliberation and compromise.”

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“Americans are very concerned about the divide in our country,” he said. “Now why does it seem so dangerous? We’ve had these same two political parties for about 160 years and they battle each other in election after election: democrats and republicans.”

The answer, he said, is that “there’s been an elemental change in the nature of partisanship for many Americans: it's now rooted in people’s social identities.”

Lipinski was quick to point out that not all who affiliate with a political party are sectarian, and also suggested that there was “something different going on on the left” although the sectarian right struggles with what he diagnosed as a sort of Trump messianism.

“On the sectarian left we have a rejection of organized religion, especially Christianity, and a rejection of the biblical assumptions about the human person that have been a critical foundation of America since the beginning,” he said.

Citing scholar Roger Scruton, Lipinski noted that there is similarity between the dogma of French revolutionaries and today’s sectarian left. The dogma of the French revolutionaries, he said, “was not a system of belief but of unbelief. It demanded amorphous, unattainable ideals whose purpose was simply to delegitimize rival powers.”

“If we look at what is going on in our country today, the terms equity, antiracism setup such ideals and serve as cudgels to tear down institutions, organizations, and individuals.”

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Developing Scruton’s thought further, Lipinski borrowed his insight that during the French Revolution, only revolutionaries were said to have access to the mind of the people and speak for them while the rest became traitors— a trend he sees today in pro-life women who are branded traitors to their sex, or those like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who is “considered by many as a traitor to his race.”

Lipinski warned not to assume that opposition of a similarly sectarian and ideological nature was the only solution.

“I know it's really tempting to look for this quick solution. This has led some to raise political messianism and to muddle temporal political aims with Christian identity,” he said.

“What is the Catholic answer? We all need to have the courage to enter the public square and be Catholic first...If we want a country that respects human dignity we need to get into the public square, we need to get out there, we need to bring God’s message, we need to bring Jesus into the public square. And we can do this by putting our Catholic faith above partisanship, above personal comfort, and above fears.”

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