WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jayd Henricks, the U.S. bishops’ chief lobbyist, is about to trade the turbulent political wars of the nation’s capital for the tranquility of parish catechesis.
After 11 years with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Government Relations, including the last six as executive director, Henricks, 49, planned to relocate to the Augustine Institute in Denver, where he was to oversee its FORMED online catechetical program.
The new position has nothing to do with politics, “thanks be to God,” he told Catholic News Service.
Not that politics is something he wants to totally avoid after his diverse experience lobbying Congress and the White House for much of the past 15 years. Henricks said he saw an opportunity to take part in the new evangelization as envisioned by St. John Paul II and Pope Francis and he wanted to embrace it.
Henricks won’t miss the meetings, late night phone calls, endless memos and social gatherings in which he presented the U.S. bishops’ views on the importance of protecting human dignity whether the issue was abortion, religious freedom, immigration reform, health care, federal spending or tax policy.
In a way, he said, politics and catechesis intersect.
“Going to the Augustine Institute is a way to enter into the new evangelization and hopefully be a player in re-evangelizing a once-Christian culture. From there, that will affect the policies,” Henricks said.
The Northern California native expressed satisfaction with his 11 years at the USCCB. Sure, he said, there have been disappointments. Among them is the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which at the time it was being debated in 2010 consumed most of his waking hours.
While recognizing that the act would expand health care coverage to millions of Americans, three provisions fueled the bishops’ opposition: Funding for abortion; threats to religious liberty as expressed in the contraceptive mandate developed by the Department of Health and Human Services; and not allowing people in the country illegally to get on the health exchanges.
The bill became law, but parts of it have faced court challenges since.
The criticism the bishops received over their opposition still bothers Henricks. He wishes people could understand that the bishops’ stance was rooted in their concern for human dignity, as it is in all public policy stances.
“There is an essential thread that weaves through it all. That is the understanding of the human person. Christian humanism is the foundation for all that we do. To misunderstand that is to fail to understand the work of the church,” Henricks said.
“(It’s) understanding that the extraordinary dignity of every human person will affect every part of our life. That’s why the church speaks to the breadth of the issues that it does,” he explained.
Henricks arrived at the USCCB in 2006, becoming associate director of government relations. He had spent the immediate previous year teaching theology in Lawrence, Kansas, after working for three years as director of government relations at the Family Research Council, whose leaders often made controversial remarks about abortion, same-sex marriage and homosexuality.
Even though Henricks handled the pro-life portfolio at the council, building coalitions among groups opposed to abortion, he said that working at the organization “was an unnatural fit for me.”
“I’m not that firebrand. I’m not that conservative either,” he said.
Henricks considers joining the USCCB a sign of God’s intervention in his life. He said he wanted to join the bishops’ conference, but was not sure he could land the job because of his work at the Family Research Council. He credited Frank Monahan, former director of what was then the Office of Government Liaison, for taking a risk because he “saw something in me that he thought would be a good fit.”
The environment at the USCCB was more comfortable for Henricks, enabling him to embrace the chance to bring his Catholic faith to the public arena.
Henricks said he rooted his work in the theology of the Catholic faith. At one time, Henricks studied for the priesthood. He was three months from ordination to the transitional diaconate when he stepped back from pursuing a religious vocation. He holds a licentiate in systematic theology.
The theological formation received from five years in the seminary was useful on the job, he said.
“I don’t think you can do this job without a theological sensibility,” he said. “That background is employed every day in my job. For me, to be effective making the case for the church’s position, I have to know it and understand it and almost live the church’s heart and mind.”
Heading in January to the Augustine Institute, a Catholic graduate school established in 2005 in response to St. John Paul’s call for a new evangelization, will allow Henricks to return to his first love: Guiding people in the formation of their faith. He believes he can have an impact on the political realm as well by continuing to serve the church, just in another way.
The move is being made with family in mind. Henricks and his wife, Lillian, have three children, ages 9, 7 and 3. He said it is the right time for his family to make the move because the Washington area can be a difficult place to raise a family with its high cost of living and high-intensity lifestyle.
“In some respects, even though the USCCB is the heart of the institutional church, I believe that what I’m going to do is closer to the heart of the evangelizing church. This work is very important here, but it touches people’s lives in a less direct way,” he said.
“When you can touch people’s hearts to be converted and they and their families live closer to the Gospel call, that’s a privilege to work that closely to the mission of the church.”