Social Ministry Day Two: Catholics 'politically homeless,' bishops' staffer says

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Washington, D.C.

American Catholics are often “politically homeless,” according to the U.S. bishops’ top officer for social action, given that neither of the two major parties fully embrace the church’s social teaching – from opposition to abortion, for example, to support for health care and an end to the war in Iraq.

“We don’t fit with the right or the left, with Democrats or Republicans,” said John Carr, who directs the office for Justice, Peace and Human Development.

Referring to the annual Social Ministry Gathering, Carr said, “I sometimes think of us as a self-help group for the politically incorrect, for people who insist on standing both with the unborn and the undocumented.”t

Nevertheless, Carr said this morning, this makes it “a great time to be a Catholic preacher, teacher or leader, because no one can accuse us of being shills for a partisan position.”

Carr, a veteran staffer of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, argued that a genuinely Catholic approach to politics cannot "cherry-pick" or be "selective."

“Catholic progressives ought to be measured by how they stand up for human life,” he said, “and Catholic conservatives by how they defend human dignity.” The “consistent ethic of life,” Carr said, “doesn’t give any of us a free pass.”

Describing the political context for Catholic social ministry, Carr spoke of tremendous polarization in Washington.

“The debate used to be within the 40-yard-lines,” Carr said. “Today everybody’s in the end zones.”

Carr related, for example, that when the U.S. bishops were recently asked to meet with members of Congress to discuss the war on Iraq, they requested that the session be bipartisan – only to be told, Carr said, “that’s not how we do things here.”

Carr described a sort of hyper-individualism on both the political right and left that both obstruct compassionate social policy.

“On the right, there’s the individualism of the market,” he said. “On the left, there’s lifestyle individualism, so that choice becomes the defining virtue of public life.”

Carr also lamented what he described as a lack of attention to poverty in the current presidential campaign, suggesting that the implied mantra of much political rhetoric seems to be, “Whatsoever you do unto the forgotten middle class, you do unto me.”

Ironically, Carr said, President George Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” seems to have informed his policy in Africa more successfully than his domestic agenda.

Carr also acknowledged that some Catholic veterans of social ministry have been discouraged by the recent wave of down-sizing in church ministries, including, he noted, a reduction in social action staff at the bishops’ conference from 37 to 24.

Nonetheless, Carr said, his experience of interviewing candidates for positions in the conference renewed his optimism.

“I met people who would give almost anything to do what we do every day,” Carr said. “We must not forget that this is important work.”

Carr argued that the recent document from the U.S. bishops on Catholics and politics, “Faithful Citizenship,” provides a template for “lifting up our church and changing our nation.” It deliberately does not tell people how to vote, he said, but it seeks to form consciences in accord with the full range of Catholic teaching.

"We don’t need Catholic Pat Robertsons or Jesse Jacksons,” Carr said. “It’s not about religious leaders telling people how to vote.”

In that connection, Carr referred to a Feb. 23 op/ed piece in the Washington Post by former NCR Washington correspondent Joe Feuerherd, who suggested that “Faithful Citizenship” marked a “right-wing lurch” by the conference.

Carr was among the drafters of the document on behalf of the bishops’ conference.

“Ironically, you could write an identical column about how ‘Faithful Citizenship’ sold out the unborn and provides a roadmap for voting for a pro-choice candidate,” Carr said. “But you know, and I know, that our reality is much more complicated.”

Carr’s address was frequently laced with humor. For example, expressing astonishment on the overwhelming vote in favor of the “Faithful Citizenship” document at the U.S. bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore, he said: “It’s not clear that even the Trinity would pass with only four negative votes.”

Explaining his own sense of political disenfranchisement, Carr also said he sometimes feels like he needs a 12-step program: “I’m John, and I’m addicted to papal encyclicals!”

In the end, Carr said, “Faithful Citizenship” calls for a form of Catholic political engagement which is:
•tPolitical, not partisan;
•tPrincipled, not ideological;
•tCivil, not soft;
•tEngaged, not used.

Sponsored by 18 different Catholic organizations, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Social Ministry Gathering brings together around 700 diocesan and parish-level leaders involved in charitable service and social advocacy. The session runs Feb. 24-27 in Washington, D.C.

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