‘We should be different’

First slide

WASHINGTON - After spending most of his career representing the U.S. Catholic Church in the public policy arena, John Carr is taking a brief break, spending time in academia this fall and then launching a new project aimed at guiding lay Catholics into taking a greater role in the public arena.

Carr stepped down this summer after nearly 25 years at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, most recently as the executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.

Before he left to begin a one-semester visiting fellowship at Harvard University's Institute of Politics, Carr, in an interview with Catholic News Service, recalled the many highlights and a few struggles of his career and discussed what lies ahead.

His successor at the USCCB will be Jonathan Reyes, president and CEO of Catholic Charities and Community Services of the Denver Archdiocese since 2009. He is expected to begin his new job in December.

After decades of representing the church's interests with everyone from U.S. presidents and foreign leaders to parish activists and celebrity advocates - such as rock musician Bono - Carr spoke in hopeful terms. Even when mentioning the frustrations of working in a highly politicized Washington, he pointed to ways of working outside the politicized realm.

"What I won't miss is the polarization: in politics and, sadly, in the church," Carr said, "It's just getting in the way of the Gospel and the mission."

Growing up in a bipartisan family, with a diehard Republican mother and a diehard Democratic father, "I learned at an early age that we could express our values in different ways," he explained. "I'm somebody who's strongly pro-life and deeply committed to social justice. I don't see those things as opposing. I see them as part of the same root and values."

"I find the polarization, the assumption of bad will, the questioning of people's motives and tactics very discouraging," Carr said. "We should be different. Civility is a civic virtue, but respect for one another and how we seek to carry out the faith ought to mark who we are."

He noted a comment by third-century Christian apologist Tertullian, quoting nonbelievers about the care Christians showed for each other: '"See how they love one another.' Well, sometimes we don't treat each other very well," Carr noted.

"The intense partisanship of Washington and the increasing polarization of the church, I think, are really dangerous. And the people paying the greatest price for that are the people with the least power: the poor, the vulnerable, the hungry. ... I won't miss that much."

After his Harvard stint, Carr said, his efforts will turn to a new center for the laity, based at Catholic University in Washington, when "I'm going to try to find ways to cross some of those walls and divisions."

Some battles within the church are old, he noted, adding there have always been liberals and conservatives in the church.

He also points to the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide, as damaging the country "in fundamental ways. Obviously, its most significant damage is the unborn children that are lost." But the way that outcome came about - in a court ruling rather than by legislation - "remains an open sore in American public life."

At the other end, Carr said the polarization also comes from the little attention given to the poor by society, another fundamental issue for the church.

"The Gospel says we'll be ... judged by our response to 'the least of these,'" he said. "Well, those are not the priorities of the Senate Finance Committee. That's not the way the candidates talk. So we really have a different way of looking at the world."

The church should "have our act together to deliver that message," Carr added. "I always say we can divide up the work, but we shouldn't divide up the church. And too often we're dividing up the church."

One of the many things Carr is proud of from his tenure at the USCCB is the way the pro-life and public policy programs work as "a community that holds those things together, in a country and a politics that pulls them apart. So while we don't fit very well (in the public policy realm) there is a community in support and solidarity."

He ticked off other sources of pride in his department's work: the earned income tax credit; the refundable tax credit for children; family medical leave; increased minimum wage; protection for food stamps and Medicaid in looming budget cuts; global debt relief; funding for international HIV/AIDS relief; peace in Northern Ireland; support from the U.S. church that helped end persecution of Catholics in Lithuania; the ongoing community empowerment work of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

He's come to terms with the unheralded nature of the church's role in many of these successes.

"I had occasion to meet Bono," the Irish rock band U2's frontman, a highly visible activist on debt relief, among other projects.

The singer/activist pointed out that the church's part in making debt relief happen wasn't getting much play.

"I get all the credit. I'm on Time magazine," Bono said.

"I said, 'You fill stadiums, you make a lot of money,'" Carr recalled.

Bono told him: "But if it hadn't been for the Catholic Church, we wouldn't have gotten debt relief. ... Nobody knows that."

"The whole culture has a problem with isolation," Carr said. "We check our websites, listen to our programs. We don't know a lot of people different than us. That's a danger for leaders of any kind. ... I think that's a risk for everybody, (including) people leading the church's ministry.

"The temptation to hunker down is a really dangerous temptation," he said, adding that he thinks the current USCCB leadership is avoiding that.

He cited Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan's invitation to both President Barack Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, to the annual Al Smith Dinner Oct. 18 in New York.

Cardinal Dolan, president of the USCCB, was criticized for inviting Obama to the prominent church event. At about the same time, Cardinal Dolan was being criticized for offering a prayer at the Republican National Convention. He later accepted an invitation to do the same at the Democratic National Convention, which also was criticized as sending a partisan message.

"That looks to me like a guy who's building bridges instead of building walls," Carr said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970