Retired USCCB official hopes to bridge divide among faithful

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lost a longtime and well-respected advocate for the Church’s social mission when John Carr retired as the executive director of the conference’s Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development. 

Since 1987, Carr, 62, helped to lead the conference’s advocacy on many issues, including health care, poverty, war and peace, economic and environmental justice, debt relief, HIV-AIDS and international human rights. 

Carr, a married father of four grown children, represented the bishops’ conference at the Vatican and all over the world in various conferences. He also had a hand in crafting many of the bishops’ important statements, including “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” 

Carr announced his retirement in a June 8 letter to directors of Catholic social ministry programs. He accepted a fellowship this fall at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he leads a discussion group examining the intersection of religious faith and public life. 

After his fellowship, Carr, a former seminarian and one-time political candidate, plans to launch a new program at The Catholic University of America, to be called the Center on Catholic Social Teaching and Public Engagement, to encourage Catholics in both the Democratic and Republican parties to stand up for the Church’s teachings on life, marriage, poverty, social justice and peace. 

In today’s polarized politics, Catholics who defend the right of the unborn and the protection of the poor, Carr said, often feel “politically homeless” as they are forced to make false choices between Catholic moral principles and the Church’s social teaching. It is Carr’s hope that his efforts moving forward will bridge that divide and help Catholic lay leaders act as faithful citizens in American public life. 

In a recent interview with Our Sunday Visitor, Carr reflected on his quarter-century with the bishops’ conference, and looked forward to the next chapter of his life in advocacy on behalf of the Church’s social doctrine. 

Our Sunday Visitor: What will you miss about your tenure with the USCCB? 

John Carr: I’ll miss my colleagues and the bishops. It’s a great thing to get to work on your values every day, to work on your faith. The bishops’ conference is a big, bureaucratic, slow-moving institution, but being at Harvard University has given me some perspective that it was a great honor and privilege to serve the bishops in sharing and applying Catholic social teaching all these years. It was a vocation and mission for me, and I’m going to try to continue it in different ways in the coming years. 

OSV: What were some of your most important, but less well-known, accomplishments at the USCCB? 

Carr: There were some things that never got much attention, but that were enormously satisfying. I know the bishops in the conference worked with Presbyterians and Catholics in Northern Ireland to lay some of the groundwork for the remarkable peace and reconciliation there. A lot of that was done privately and carefully over a decade, but I think it really helped the peacemakers in both communities in Northern Ireland. 

My work on third-world debt didn’t get much attention, but there are literally millions of kids in Africa and Latin America who have a better life, can go to school and have health care because of that campaign, and when we started, nobody gave us a chance of having that kind of impact.  

Some of the family tax credits, the earned income credit, also didn’t get much attention, but they provided help to the hardest working families with children in this country. 

OSV: What do you think of how Catholic social teaching is discussed in public life? 

Carr: Sometimes, I think the Church’s social teachings, subsidiarity and solidarity, are treated as slogans, rather than as powerful moral imperatives. I think it’s important to share the teachings more broadly, to go deeper into their power and wisdom so they’re not just slogans, but really a way of thinking that shapes how we act. I always say Catholic social teaching gives us a different way of looking at the world. We look at every policy of how it touches the weakest, starting with the unborn, but also the immigrant and the hungry child in Africa. That vision is not the vision of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. 

OSV: Did today’s polarized politics make it more difficult for you in advocating for the Church’s social teachings? 

Carr: Sure it did. If you Google me, you will read stories where someone is quoted saying that I had a role in the bishops conference abandoning the poor. Others would say that I was selling out the Church by working with people to advance common goals, even though we didn’t agree with them on everything. I think we ought to give each other the benefit of the doubt and build up the unity of the Church, not tear it apart. 

OSV: How important is the laity’s role in the Church’s social teaching? 

Carr: I’ve thought for a while that one thing that is very much needed is a stronger, informed, positive lay voice in public life that clearly reflects Catholic social teaching as a whole. I’ve spent 25 years trying to help the bishops be the best pastors and teachers they can be. What I’d like to do with rest of my working life is help laypeople be the salt, light and leaven that they’re called to be. Our Church needs it, our country needs it, and the world needs it desperately. 

OSV: What are you looking to convey in your fellowship at Harvard University? 

Carr: I’m trying to make the case that when people bring their deep values to public life, they enrich politics, they don’t threaten it. For example, this week, we’re focusing on the Mormon dimension of this election. It’s a chance to talk in a setting that doesn’t always take religion seriously, to examine both the contributions and some of the complications of faith in public life.

OSV: How have Harvard students taken to what you have to say about the Catholic Church’s role in public life? 

Carr: Yes, there is some of the typical skepticism, but also a good deal of curiosity and interest in the way that religious faith challenges us to do some broader things in public life. I think people are also intrigued by the consistency of the Catholic witness. There are not a lot of people roaming around this place who are both pro-life and pro-poor, pro-immigration reform and pro-family. 

OSV: What is the idea behind the Center on Catholic Social Teaching and Public Engagement at The Catholic University of America? 

Carr: I think there is a sense that laypeople need to have a stronger voice in public life. There needs to be a vehicle that encourages them to take up their vocation in renewing the earth. What it really is, is an affirmative vision of Catholic principles in public life, a new vehicle to act on the Church’s social teaching tradition, a vibrant place to lift it up for young people and others. I can’t think of a better time, or a more urgent task, than now to help Catholic people live out the teachings of their faith. 

Brian Fraga writes from Texas.