After working for two decades as a policy adviser for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, John Carr has retired—but he’s not done yet. In May 2013, Carr sat down with Sojourners editor Jim Rice, senior associate editor Rose Marie Berger, and editorial assistant Dawn Araujo to discuss his next journey and the future of the Catholic Church. He also had a lot to say about Pope Francis’ contagious spirit—(see ‘Simple is the New Chic,’  by Jim Rice in the September-October 2013 Sojourners)—which may transform the world’s largest Christian church.
Read the full transcript of this illuminating interview with John Carr.
JIM RICE: I wanted to start by asking you about your new Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. You’ve said that the purpose is to equip and assist Catholic lay men and women in bringing the fullness of Catholic social teaching into public life. Sounds like a big task.
JOHN CARR: It’s a little less complicated than world peace and social development. I always tell the story of getting on an elevator with one of these ridiculously large name cards. It said National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Secretary for Social Development and World Peace. A couple got on the elevator and looked at me and said, “Well, you’re not a bishop.” My wedding ring probably gave me away. But I could see they were reading the rest of the name tag. The guy turned to his wife and said, “He’s in charge of social development and world peace.” She looked at me and said, “You need to do a better job.” So, the fullness of Catholic teaching is a little less foreboding.
RICE: You’ve said that you’re trying to build a shelter where Democrats and Republicans can come together. Tell us what you mean by that and how you plan to go about that task.
I’ve been here a long time, too long. I think Washington is demoralized, in every sense of that word. It’s demoralized in the sense that it can’t get anything done. Maybe immigration reform. We can hope, given the work of Sojourners and the bishops and others.
But it doesn’t get much done, and it seems to have lost its way, its compass. For Christians, who believe the measure of a society is how we treat the least of these, well, those aren’t the priorities of the Senate Finance Committee. So, it is demoralized in the sense that it’s incapable of acting. It’s demoralized in the sense that it’s sort of lost its way. And it’s demoralized in the sense that party trumps everything, politics trumps everything, including policy. And there’s almost no space for people who share some common values to get together and talk about what they could do together, even though they might be from different parties, even though they might have different ideological perspectives.
So my hope is the initiative will serve as a place where people can talk about what they share, in this case, their faith, and explore ways that they can work together and actually might even learn from each other or come to understand each other better.
RICE: Catholic social teaching has, of course, been called the greatest kept secret in the Catholic Church. A lot of our readers, probably Catholics as much as non-Catholics, won’t necessarily know what it means. What is Catholic social teaching?
Frankly, I find more interest in Catholic social teaching among evangelicals than a lot of Catholics. It provides a theological and ethical framework. The first thing to say is that it’s not new. It literally goes back to the prophets, back to Genesis.
But it took particular power and force from the life and words of Jesus. For me, the mission statement of the church was given by Jesus in his home town synagogue. “The spirit of the Lord sent me to bring good news to the poor, liberty to captives, and sight to the blind”; all your readers know that by heart. Well, how do you do that? For literally more than 20 centuries, the church has been trying to figure that out. Especially over the last 125 years, that’s taken a particular form. What has emerged is a set of documents, a tradition of action. Perhaps more important for your readers and for me is a set of ideas, a set of principles, that begin with the life and the dignity of every person. Which is built on the cornerstone that every life is precious and deserves protection, and dignity is not something we earn by our good behavior. It’s something we have as children of God.
So, in Catholic social teaching, the fundamental measure of our lives, of our parishes, and our families, and I would suggest our communities and our nation, is how we treat the human person, especially the least of these. Do we protect human life? Do we uphold and enhance human dignity? Or do we undermine them? We live in a society where people are treated as things: The Gosnell trial just now [Dr. Kermit Gosnell was on trial at the time of this interview for deaths that had occurred in his Philadelphia abortion clinic]. The Middle East, where people see each other not as brothers and sisters, but as combatants or noncombatants.
So the core is human life and dignity. From that flows human rights and responsibilities, family and community, work and workers’ rights, solidarity, subsidiarity. I have argued for a long time that the most important word in Catholic social teaching is the word “and,” A-N-D. In our society, in our politics, people try to pull apart human life and dignity. Some focus on human life, protecting the unborn child, others focus on human dignity, to make sure that child has a decent education, a place to live. Human rights vs. responsibilities. In our tradition, they work together. So if it’s the best kept secret, it’s our fault. We ought to stop saying that.
But, secondly, part of understanding that secret is to understand the connections between the principles. And that’s where the framework of Catholic social teaching comes, and I would suggest that it offers a good framework for individuals, for a family, for the religious community. But also for a nation, for the Congress, for the White House.
RICE: What is your sense of Catholic social action around the country?
I would suggest that the vision is stronger than ever. The teaching is more powerful than ever. I think the election of Pope Francis has provided incredible visibility, urgency, passion. So at the theoretical level, we’re doing great. At the pastoral level, we’re doing better. At the parish I’m part of, this is an integral part of who we are and what we do, and I think that’s true for a lot of parishes.
But at the action level, I think we’re not where we want to be. What I described it is not a principles deficit, but a priorities or a passion deficit. I think everybody understands this is a part of being a Catholic Christian. But there’s a question about where that fits in our lives, in our parish life, in the church, in our country, and around the world. I think Francis is settling that: It’s core.
Ironically, Pope Benedict, with his teaching skill and philosopher’s view, made the most powerful case. He said three things about making the church the church: Proclaiming the gospel, celebrating the sacraments, and standing with and serving the poor. This [serving the poor] is as important as proclaiming the gospel and celebrating the sacraments. And, Francis, I think, is demonstrating, with his own style and in the Catholic Church, symbolism is substance. We’re a sacramental community. He’s demonstrating what Benedict taught, that it is at the core of who we are.
So the leadership, the statements, are there. The question is whether the community is there. Part of what I’m hoping to work on is making sure that lay men and women, particularly younger folks, see this as part of what it is to be a believer. Faith is not a burden. It’s not just a set of rules. It, in fact, is a different way of looking at the world. Catholic social teaching can be a way to invite people in.
I’ve spent 25 years trying to help the bishops be the best pastors and teachers they can be. It’s a great job. I really admire the people I worked with and for. It was not always easy. I served through the sexual abuse crisis, and we’re still paying for that. There have been lots of complicated challenges. But it was a great place to see the strength and vitality of the church’s social mission and to see it grow. While I said it’s a great place, great people, and I treasure every minute of it, it was a very challenging environment. So, with what time I have left with what skills I have, I would like to spend them trying to help lay men and women be what we’re supposed to be, which is salt, light, leaven in the world. I think that’s something that, frankly, has been neglected. So we’re going to try and do our small part.
ROSE MARIE BERGER: In the context of this new initiative and the outreach to the laity, will you make any overt contacts with a number of the lay-led groups that have come up in the last few years, such as Jubilee Faithful or Voices of the Faithful or the American Catholic Council, or any of these others that are trying to self-organize in the American Catholic laity?
There’s not enough of us. We’ll work with anybody. One of the things that’s really important here, we shouldn’t find ourselves on one side of the ideological boxes that we’re in. One of the worst things that has happened is the divisions within the church. I always say we can divide up the work, but we shouldn’t divide up the church. You have the pro-lifers over here and the social activists over here. People work on immigration here and people who work on peace over here. As I said, we can divide up who does what. But we belong together. I think there is a coherence and consistency that we ought to reflect. Those of us who believe in the consistent life ethic ought to be consistent about it and reach out. We’ll reach out to anybody who’s willing, able, and involved in trying to help lay people become salt, light, and leaven.
BERGER: In the post-Vatican II church, the definition of the role of the laity has shifted, and then it’s moved back, and then it’s shifted again. What do you see as the role for the laity in the authority of the church?
This is the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. It extends a year, so it will be the 50th anniversary for a while. I’m slowly working my way through those documents. I believe one of the greatest heresies of our time is the separation of faith in everyday life on the part of the laity. I think we’ve got a lot of that heresy around. Closing that gap is really important. It’s important for our own salvation. It’s important for our own families and parishes. And it’s really important for the society we live in.
One of the outcomes of Vatican II has been enormous participation of lay people in the ecclesial life of the church. I was on a school board. My wife was president of the parish council, which is about as close as you get to purgatory in this life. My kids were altar servers. We have been lectors. [My wife] Linda and I have been extraordinary ministers of communion. And we’re not very involved. I mean, there are people who practically run parishes. I’ve been a lay person, working at the bishops’ conference. All that’s good. I think the church, bishops, the ordained, ought to call on lay people for all the experience and expertise we have. We’ll be a better church for that. But that’s not our primary mission. Our primary mission is to take the gospel into the world, to take these principles and live them out every day.
I worked on a lot of documents when I was with the conference. One of my favorites is something called “Everyday Christianity.” How do we live out our faith every day in our family, in our work, in our communities, who we give money to, where we volunteer, how we treat people at work? Are we, in fact, caring of the poor every day? How we raise our kids, who we vote for. Whether we, in fact, run for the school board, or volunteer for the Boys & Girls Club. The neglected part of the lay vocation has been the role of lay men and women in the world. There are lots of people who do it every day, who I admire enormously. I think we call them saints. We don’t have a lot of saints that have been formally canonized. But we have lots of people who live their faith, and they’re models for us. But, there are not enough of them.
RICE: Do you think, with the 50th anniversary of Vatican II and the beginning of Pope Francis’ papacy, that it’s time for reform in the Catholic Church?
Oh, I think so. Clearly, the cardinals who gathered in the aftermath of Pope Benedict’s resignation think it’s time for reform. There’s a lot of evidence that Benedict thinks it’s time for reform. He made an amazingly gracious and humble gesture. He said, I’m not up to this. How many people in our world give up virtually unlimited power voluntarily for the good of the community they serve? It was an incredibly gracious and humble gesture.
When I was growing up as a kid, the question was not whether the pope agreed with me, but whether I agreed with the pope. I’m a little weary of the ecclesial spinners who try and fit the pope into our categories, and whether he’s an enforcer or reformer, whether he’s a social activist or evangelist. It looks to me like he’s an incredibly caring pastor in a global parish, and a very powerful teacher, because he speaks directly and bluntly to us.
We try to contain God instead of share him. When Francis was in Argentina, and over and over again since he’s been named pope, he said he prefers a church at the edge, even if it makes mistakes, over a church that’s turned in on itself. We’re all learning a new word, “self-referential.” I think that’s been a part of who we are and what we believe, but it’s never been said as clearly. He said, I prefer a church that makes a thousand mistakes in the streets to one that is turned in on itself. We’ve not always been high on mistakes, on the edge. I think—by who he is and by what he stands for, by the name he chose, and by his example—he is showing us a path that makes all these sort of elaborate analyses less set and relevant.
When I was raising teenagers, one of the things my dad told me is “they don’t listen, they watch.” I think we’re watching, and we’re seeing what leadership looks like. It’s challenging all of us. I don’t think he fits the ideological categories. He said we have to be clear in our identity. We don’t just want to be a compassionate NGO. And he also said we belong at the edge.
Recently the pope gave a talk where he talked about a parish secretary. A couple comes in to be married, and he sits them down and explained all the rules and costs to them. And [Francis] says, [instead the secretary should emphasize] this is wonderful, a couple is getting married, let’s celebrate. And then a single mom comes in to have her child baptized. And the secretary says, wait a minute, what’s your living situation? The pope says, this is a child of God wanting baptism. We shouldn’t try and contain God. We should share the faith.
In some ways, it really goes back to the roots of who we are and what we believe in. As I said, in the Catholic community symbolism is substance. Where he stands, what he wears, where he lives, who he eats with—all those are communicating to us in very powerful ways.
[A story went around that] right after he was elected, Pope Francis came out of his room early in the morning. The Swiss Guard is standing there, with the pink pantaloons and all that. The pope said, what are you doing? The guard said, I’m protecting you. The pope says, well, when did you come? He said, last night. He said, so you’ve been standing there all night? And, he said yes. He went back in his room and brought out a chair and said, sit down. The guard says, I can’t sit down. I’m under orders. I’m on duty. The pope goes, who says so? The guard says, my commandant. He goes, well, haven’t you heard, I’m the pope! Sit down! And he said, have you had anything to eat. And, he goes no. And he goes into his room and makes him a sandwich and comes out, he says, I can’t eat on duty. He goes, I’m the pope. Bon appétit.
A simple thing. How you treat the people who protect you is a sign of how we ought to treat everybody. Beneath the fun of that is a simple, powerful pastor who is teaching us about priorities. He said he chose the name Francis because Francis [of Assisi] was for the poor, for creation, and for peace. If you were to pick the three issues that most need attention in Washington and aren’t getting it, it would be poverty, creation, and peace. So he’s going to challenge the status quo, in the church and in Washington.
RICE: Another very important part of your tenure here in Washington was the Iraq war. You did a lot of work on that early on, and the bishops made some very powerful statements beforehand. And yet the war happened. Especially beforehand, the bishops were clear that this did not meet just war criteria. Some critics would say the bishops got a little quiet once it started. What do you think the conference might have done differently about the war to be a stronger obstacle to what was happening?
I think one of the most disappointing things I was a part of was that President Bush and the Congress did not listen to the appeals of Pope John Paul II and the questions of the bishops. I actually was with the papal representative who was meeting with President Bush. I was with him before and after the meeting, where the pope appealed to [Bush] not to do it. Virtually everything the Holy Father warned us about has happened, including the incredible damage done to the Christian community in Iraq.
I actually think—and this just may be natural defensiveness—that the bishops did what they could, in that they shared the teaching, applied the criteria, and said, given what we know, it did not meet the test. The Holy Father was more clear. This was not right. After the war began, there was a whole series of statements and meetings where the bishops’ conference advocated those principles—proportionality, respect for civilian immunity, the good to be attained has to be greater than the damage done. Those got less attention.
Part of it is the way the Catholic bishops teach. If they had called the president a warmonger, it would have made front page headlines. If they had said the American servicemen couldn’t participate, that would have done something. That’s not who they are. That’s not their responsibility.
I once said that the sign outside the bishops’ conference ought to be “nuances are us.” The Catholic teaching on war and peace is a lot more complicated than “what would Jesus do?” It has a whole set of criteria. Even given the misinformation that we were given about weapons of mass destruction, the bishops said that it did not meet the criteria of a just war, and several cases went well beyond that.
One thing that we should have found a better way, and that’s true with this and everything else, is communication. How much did that show up at the local parish? I did a lot of workshops on preaching and social mission. Priests are conflict-averse for the most part. What I tried to suggest is there are ways to talk about these things that invite people to reflection and their own decisions, instead of lecturing them. But it’s terribly sad. Those that advocated and defended the war, I think, in their heart of hearts would acknowledge that it didn’t turn out at all the way they thought it would. We weren’t greeted as liberators. There weren’t weapons of mass destruction. And it didn’t lead to a new birth of freedom for the people in that area. Tragic, very tragic.
RICE: I want to push the point a little bit about the peacemaking and the nuances. There are a lot of things in modern warfare—the civilian casualties, the lack of discrimination is almost inherent with mass destruction, etc.—that have caused the pope to take a more clear stance against war. And this goes back a long time; it’s the 50th anniversary of [the encyclical] Pacem en Terris (“Peace on Earth”). And the U.S. bishops’ 1983 pastoral on war and peace was pretty clear as well.
That’s a pretty huge exception. I mean, it’s the major letter the bishops have done in the last 25 years on nuclear arms and warfare.
RICE: Some people have pointed out that the church uses the just war theory to try to legitimately raise questions and have moral criteria apply before war is waged, and to limit war once it starts. But the state has historically used the just war criteria to justify its wars. The Bush administration is a good example.
Well, they called it Operation Just Cause.
RICE: That’s right. Just war theory, at its best, begins with a clear rejection of war. Do you see any signs that the church might be moving toward such a “just peacemaking” approach?
Others are far more expert than I am on this. There are a couple of traditions within the church that are respected. One is the just war tradition, and the other is the peacemaking or pacifist, rejection of the use of force. Both exist within the Catholic community. The dominant one has been just war theory.
Just war tradition starts with the presumption against the use of force. Maybe we’ve not been as clear as we should be, that the presumption against the use of force can only be overridden unless some very strict moral criteria are demonstrated, in terms of authority and the good to be achieved, and discrimination, and all the rest. I think the window for waging war is a very narrow window under Catholic tradition.
Flip it over and look at genocide in Rwanda or Bosnia. Or Syria. Are we condemned to stand aside and watch? Well, we did in Rwanda, and we did for a long time. There’s another set of questions around humanitarian intervention. My own view is that the just war tradition is not static; it develops. The bishops recently raised a whole series of questions about the use of drones, using those criteria. It still offers, for those of us who are not pacifists, the best set of questions to evaluate whether the presumption against the use of force can or should be overridden in any case.
I actually think the bishops’ record is pretty good. Compared to the Bush administration, compared to the Democratic Party, compared to the universities, compared to the labor movement, the bishops were far more outspoken in their refusal to give moral justification to war than lots of other people in this society. There was sort of a “get on board” mentality; the train’s leaving. The bishops didn’t get on board, and a lot of other people did.
BERGER: In the case of the Iraq war, the bishops came out very strongly.
It would be important to say that what the bishops said was, given what we know, given our tradition, this fails to meet the test, which I think was a powerful position. But it was, again, a nuanced position.
BERGER: So if the U.S. Catholic bishops say a war fails to meet the test, if the pope says a war fails to meet the test, what is the legitimate authority for telling Catholic soldiers they should not participate in that war?
Complicated. There is a whole set of intervening moral questions—you cannot obey an order that is clearly immoral. “My officer told me so” is not a legitimate defense—between that and a refusal to participate in the actions of the military because the bishops or the Holy Father have said that, given what we know, this is an unjust war. There’s been a good deal of discussion within the conference on what their responsibilities are. They are teachers, but they’re also pastors. And the people who are in the military bear a lot of burdens. Frankly, I have found a lot more interest in the morality of warfare and the restrictions on the use of force in the military than in the rest of us. In some ways, the Pentagon takes that more seriously than my parish, which is a good thing, I guess.
I remember when Colin Powell, as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to meet with the bishops to talk about the challenge of peace and all the rest of it. He said, sometimes I feel like we’re in the valley fighting and you’re on the hilltop, asking questions whether we’re doing the right thing in the right way. For a moment there, our bishops were sort of apologizing for that. Then somebody said, I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. You’re the professionals at carrying out these tasks, and we’re pastors and teachers, who ought to be asking hard questions.
While I think it failed [to stop the war], I actually think that the use of just war criteria by the United States government is indicative of a much larger thing, which is a good thing, that we now debate whether to use force, using traditional moral criteria, instead of just whether it’s the patriotic thing to do. It would have been better had the Democratic congress used those criteria in a more rigorous way to assess the Iraq war. When it comes to humanitarian intervention, when it comes to other tough questions, increasingly, you find the questions raised around just cause, proportion, and now civilian immunity that was a key part of the president’s recent speech on drone warfare.
BERGER: What is your critique of President Obama’s counterterrorism address, in which he said the war against al Qaeda is a just war, a war waged proportionally in last resort and in self-defense?
My critique is that I’m not an expert in this field. I think it was long overdue. I think the questions the bishops raised—about the use of drones, authority, proportion, civilian immunity—are the right questions. I, for one, was glad that the president began to address those questions. I don’t think we know what the answers are. It’s complicated. Drones, in some ways, are a lot more proportionate than a bomber at 10,000 feet or a platoon of soldiers. But we have to understand that the same rules apply, whether someone is sitting in a dark room thousands of miles away or at the end of a rifle.
I think this is a dialogue the country needs to have and the church needs to be a part of it. I, for one, am glad we’re finally starting it.
BERGER: You were recently a fellow at Harvard and had a chance to engage with younger audiences, many of whom were not Catholic. How did you talk to them about shaping a moral conscience? And how did you talk to them about your pro-life stance and convey it with your Catholic social teaching and progressive politics?
I was not your typical Harvard fellow. It was a fabulous experience. We had the former prime minister of Greece. We had a former governor. We had these very distinguished political leaders, and then we had me, and Linda, who came with. It was just wonderful. They treated us very well. It turns out I’m a natural born fellow. What you do if you’re a fellow, at least at Harvard, is you talk and you eat. I talked a lot and I ate a lot, so I was really good at being a fellow.
You’re right, it’s a very secular environment, but there was a real hunger for where in public life comes the ethical dimension. Where do you find the motivation for sacrifice? Where do you get the rationale to care for the weakest, instead of the most powerful? My study group was full of people, many of whom were not religious themselves but were at least were intrigued by this.
I was an odd sort of animal in that, in many cases, I was the first pro-lifer they’d ever met. One of them said, how can you have this position?—which they saw as anti-women’s rights. It just so happened the day before I’d gotten on my phone a picture of my new grandchild. I said, I got this picture. I’m seeing her face, her hands, her toes. I know her name: Anna. She’s got a room, she’s got a closet full of clothes. The only thing she doesn’t have is the right to be born in the United States—because this was her sonogram, and she was in the womb. I said, there are two lives at stake. One of the problems is that most people only look at one life. For those of us on the pro-life side, we only see the baby—baby’s rights and promise and dignity. For others, on the pro-choice side, they only see the woman, her rights and her challenges. When, in fact, two lives are at stake in different ways. We won’t get to where we need to get as a society until we take both seriously.
I was really struck in the Gosnell trial that, again, several lives were at stake. There was this horrific description of literally snapping the necks of children. But a woman died, as well, because of negligent care. You have to ask yourselves, how would mothers go to a horrible place for horrible actions? What drove them there? I would suggest that what’s at work there is a complete lack of hope, a sense of genuine despair. So we ought to work to defend unborn human life, and we ought to work to overcome the lack of hope that leads people there.
My daughter said to me one time, I don’t know if abortion is ever going to be illegal, but I think it could be unthinkable. With the wonders of science that are teaching us every day about the humanity of the unborn child, and the consciences of women, I think we could come to a position where this is just not an acceptable action or choice. No one ever has a fetus shower. Women know what a pregnancy is. It’s no accident that young men are the most avid proponents of abortion on demand. It’s an escape from responsibility. But we’ll never get there unless we focus on both lives.
At Harvard, it was just a revelation that somebody they agreed with on a lot of stuff could have a different position. I think the strongest case against abortion on demand is the progressive case, which is that we care for the weakest. There’s nobody more weak than the unborn child. Some of them had trouble with my position opposing the death penalty, as well. But they appreciated some consistency there.
There really was a hunger for meaning and morality in that they don’t even have the language to talk about. If everything is relative, if there are no absolutes, then it’s all negotiable. A moral dilemma, somebody said when I was there, is whether you beat somebody to a parking place in the mall. That’s not what we’re talking about. What kind of society do you want? What kind of choice do you make for a career? How do you decide where being a parent fits with being a lawyer? How do you decide what kind of politics you support? I found it to be a wonderful experience.
BERGER: You mentioned earlier that, as part of the institute, you hope in particular to be able to reach out to younger people, the future of Catholicism. What are the kinds of qualities that you’re looking for in people or that you hope to teach and instill? What do you want to see in that next generation?
Evangelicals do a much better job of gathering young people to reflect on their faith. Washington is full of young, idealistic, really smart Catholics, who work for the White House or the Heritage Foundation, for Paul Ryan or Jim McGovern. Or for the bishops’ conference or, for that matter, Sojourners. To the best of my knowledge, nobody gets them together to talk about how their faith helps them serve in policy matters. So the idea is, you get people together from across political and ideological boundaries, you pray a little, you have a little fun, you network a little. But then you talk about, what does subsidiarity really mean? What are some of these slogans being thrown around? What is just war and drones? How do they fit together? What’s the vocation of a partisan? You know, what are the things you shouldn’t be doing? There’s, I think, an interest there.
Another example of what we’re trying to do: The silence on poverty in our country, but especially in Washington, is deafening. Every once in a while, the president will mention the word, and we all go, oh, maybe this is a breakthrough. The 47 percent, you wish he hadn’t said that. But there’s no focus on the increasing poverty in our midst, which, for believers, is a fundamental indictment of our society. So there’s the silence.
Then there’s the polarization, where you’ve got some people on the Right who talk about family factors. Kids having kids, don’t graduate from high school, no workers in the family, no dads. You got folks on the Left talking about economic factors. No jobs. Lousy wages. No child care. When anybody who is poor, or works with people who are poor, knows those two things combined leave you in a life in poverty. So one of the things we hope to do is to bring down the walls and get evangelicals and Catholics from different ideological perspectives together with some of the smartest people we can find to talk about how do we end the silence and how do we work together across those lines.
Robert Putnam—the sociologist, author of Bowling Alone and American Grace—his new research is on poverty. He calls it the ultimate purple problem. We will not end the silence until we break down the walls. I’m convinced that the religious community, generally, including our Jewish and mainstream friends, but especially the evangelical and Catholic communities, could be leaders in making clear that children’s lives are affected by the choices their parents make and the policies their government makes. We just can’t go on pretending that this cancer at the core of our economy and our society is going to go untreated.
RICE: Who are the people—the saints, the martyrs, the heroes—who have most inspired you in your work?
I’m a baby boomer. I was born in 1950. The first president whose hand I shook was John Kennedy. The first pope I really knew was John XXIII. Those two people, and, in some ways, Robert Kennedy even more than John, had an impact on my life. I wanted to figure out how I could be committed to the church, the poor, and public life. I jokingly told the kids at Harvard that, first, I wanted to be a priest. I fell in love with Linda, which took care of that. (It was a little more complicated than that.) Then I lost my first election, which took care of the United States Senate for me. I actually found a better place, which was a chance to put together what I believe, together with work to make things better. I worked for Coretta Scott King. I worked for the federal government. I’ve been an advocate outside of the church. For me, the Catholic community and Catholic social ministry is home. We’re in the Dorothy Day conference room! I don’t know if he will ever be a saint, but he should be: Sargent Shriver, a Catholic layman who spent his whole life trying to lift up the people at the bottom, whether it was the Peace Corps or the war on poverty. He got President Kennedy to make the call to Coretta King. He was pro-life to the very end, a Democrat who really stood up for the unborn. I said to somebody, where are the Sargent Shrivers of today? Jack Kemp I admired enormously. Where are the Jack Kemps of today?
When you look at politics, we’re a long way from saints, but I miss the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush. I miss the “two Americas” of John Edwards. Both got in trouble, for very different reasons, but the sense of the obligation to the poor and vulnerable, and the need for a society that cares for all of us—those enrich political life.
I’m one of those people who’s addicted to encyclicals. I mean, there should be a self-help group for it. The church’s social teaching gave me a way to pull together what I believed in. And it gave me a different way of reading the newspaper, of watching TV, of raising my kids. So there are saints, but there are also ideas that have been really important to me.
The people I admire the most are the people who put together the elements of our faith: Eucharist and prayer. Service and care for others. Making a difference in public life.
RICE: As a longtime Orioles fan, who are you rooting for in their series against the Nationals this week?
You know what? I’m going to the game tonight.
RICE: What are you wearing?
I’m wearing black. I tried to explain to my daughter, who lives and works in Baltimore ... I mean, we went to spring training. She thinks I’m an absolute traitor to think that you can have a team in the National League and the American League and hope that they meet [in the World Series]. But she’s not buying it at all.
RICE: In your time at the bishops’ conference, what issues would you say you had the most influence on or that meant the most to you?
I think we anchored the priority for the poor at the heart of our public policy agenda. It wasn’t hard. I mean, nothing’s as clear as the parable of the last judgment. The prophets were on to this long before any pope. Whether it’s the budget, the tax code, health care, or foreign aid, looking at everything from the bottom up is really important. A couple examples of that: Our work in Northern Ireland, where we worked hand and glove with the Presbyterians here and there, over a dozen years, quietly supporting the peacemakers. I knew the leaders of the Northern Ireland government much better than I knew people here. And the work on the children’s tax credit—no one ever has written the story, but that is a lifeline for the poorest working people in America. It was absolutely the right thing to do, and it was touch and go until the middle of the night, when President [George W.] Bush agreed. I think the work being done on the Circle of Protection is probably the most impressive work we’ve done together. People don’t realize that the decision to leave Medicaid, food stamps, and the low-income tax credit out of the sequester was a direct result of personal appeals to the president and Paul Ryan by religious leaders. So, anchoring the priority for the poor.
The other thing I’ve invested my whole life in is trying to connect human life and dignity, that we are not different wings of the church, that we are one community of faith, committed to protecting human life and dignity. I always said the most important word there is “and.” I think we’re making progress there. Not in politics, but in Christian life. Sojourners has been a wonderful example of trying to hold those two things together. Those would be some of the things I feel best about.
BERGER: There’s been some conversation about opening up the permanent diaconate to women. Where do you think that might go? What are some of the key questions in that conversation that are important for us to think about? Does the potential move toward allowing women into the permanent diaconate, does that preclude or avoid the question of women’s ordination into the priesthood, which is an active question in some parts of the world? It is clearly not an active question among institutional leadership, but what’s your take on that?
Here I’m practicing theology without a license. I’m obviously a married man. I’m the father of daughters. This is really important. I don’t know what will happen or why it might happen. The fact is it represents a search in the church to find ways to recognize the contributions of women. One of the things that struck me was that, when Pope Benedict said that care for the poor is as important as proclaiming the gospel and celebrating the sacraments, those are ministries, essentially, established by and run by women, at least in the United States. So if proclaiming the gospel, educating people in the faith, caring for the poor is as important as the sacraments, then Catholic health care, Catholic education, human services... One of the things that ought to shift is our notion of leadership within the church. If the church’s life is defined by three things, not one thing, then we ought to reflect that in who we recognize as leaders in the church.
Part of being a bishops’ staffer, there are some things you don’t know, and you shut your mouth. But my hope is that Pope Francis will find and communicate that the richness of the life of the church—men and women, First World, Third World, African, Asian, European, North American—that that diversity will be reflected in who leads the church. Because my experience of the church—there are priests that have been enormously helpful to me, but from the day I walked into a school to the people I work with now, there are women, lay and religious, who are among the most powerful leaders of the church, in terms of the ministry of the church.
BERGER: Sometimes it feels like there’s a fundamental misunderstanding between Rome and American Catholic women, in particular the religious communities, as evidenced by the LCWR investigation and examples like that. Do you think there is a misunderstanding? And what is the distinct charism that American Catholics, predominantly lay Catholics, offer back to the church?
I would say vitality. I’m something of a smart alec. Occasionally I’ve run into Vatican or European functionaries who would explain to me that the United States was a big problem— dissent and all that. I’d say, oh, we have terrible problems. In the United States, people actually go to church. Men, too. We actually have schools. Lots of them. We have hospitals. Hundreds of them. So you are right: We’ve got all kinds of challenges. It’s not as easy as you have, with almost nothing going on except for the movements, which are impressive.
So I think the vitality, the sense of participation. I think diversity. I mean, we’re increasingly a Hispanic church. My parish is an example of that. We live in Cheverly, Md., in what is sort of a white enclave, and then it became more of a black community, and our school is still mostly black. But increasingly, we’re becoming a Hispanic parish. One of the old Anglos, after Mass one Sunday, was carrying on, saying, What is happening to our parish? And being the smart alec, I said, Well, it’s being renewed. He said, What do you mean, being renewed? I said, We do funerals, they do baptisms—they’re the lifelines of our parish.
So I think diversity, vitality, and institutions that live. I mean, it’s a big debate about how Catholic Charities in Washington is both Catholic and charities. They’re doing a great job, pulling those two things together.
One of the things we ought to do is give each other the benefit of the doubt. One of the things that Francis is doing is saying stop the griping. Mr. and Mrs. Whiner. Stop the gossip. Stop building the walls. And start acting like we belong to each other. I think a lot would come from giving each other the benefit of the doubt.
I think there are two kinds of leadership. One is, if you think we’ve lost, whether it’s on life or family or justice or peace or religious freedom, if you think the culture has moved beyond us, then you hunker down and you try and preserve and protect what you have. If you think we’re right on those things, life and dignity and justice, then you engage and persuade. Francis is clearly “engage and persuade.” Cardinal Dolan is clearly engage and persuade. I would suggest that Benedict, in his quiet scholarly way, was engage and persuade. John Paul, too. Engage and persuade. I think that is much healthier. Again, the pope says a church in the streets is better than a church turned on itself.
Nobody wants to be a part of a community turned in on itself, fighting all the time. Let’s proclaim the gospel, let’s serve the least of these. Let’s live the faith as best we can, and give each other the benefit of the doubt.
RICE: Obviously, one of the most tragic and damaging realities of the past few decades have been the horrible sexual abuses perpetrated by church officials, and the complicity of those who covered up the crimes and protected the abusers. Do you think the church will ever recover from the damage done?
Just a word about the sort of trials, the sexual abuse thing. We have to be very clear that the damage there was not institutional and financial. It was spiritual and moral. I’m a parent. I’m a parent of boys who have grown up. They turn into people again after their teenage years. And, how it happened is beyond me, but I actually worked for Cardinal Hickey, who had zero tolerance before there was zero tolerance. It’s really important to remember that that’s not over. That the pain and the cost of that—financial, moral, spiritual—is still there.
BERGER: It sometimes seems as if nothing will heal that wound, and maybe nothing should. It’s just hard to know. But the accountability structures, transparencies, and the process of rebuilding some moral authority in the church around that is just so important.
I can’t go into most dioceses without certifying that I’ve had the training and, in some cases, applying a fingerprint. The safest place in the world for an adolescent male may be the Catholic Church. Other institutions—universities, sports—are discovering that it’s not only our problem. Maybe it should heal, but the scars ought to never go away. The scars ought to be on the people who were complicit in this. It’s really important that we remember how we failed in fundamental ways, and how remarkable it is that people sustain themselves. Lots of people who went through that are still parts of our community. You can understand why people would turn away, but lots of people didn’t. That’s remarkable.
RICE: You’ve obviously seen a lot from John the XXIII to the present. The church has gone through a lot of difficult and wonderful things through those decades. Are you hopeful for the future of the church? What are the signs that give you hope? In particular, where do you see the church engaging with the world in the way that you’ve been trying to do for most of your career? And what role do you think Pope Francis will play in all that?
I am hopeful. I think we’re right. I think of the unborn child, or a world that does something about HIV and AIDS and hunger, where we’ve made real progress, whether it’s finally turning toward a real discussion of poverty that focuses both on family and economics. I think Pope Francis is a great sign of hope. I was at home, working at my kitchen table, raising money for this new initiative, and the white smoke came up, and I thought, oh, my. And this guy I didn’t recognize came out. I didn’t hear his name. When he said “Francis,” I thought, “It’s going to be okay.” I love the story he told. He said, when we were in the danger zone, meaning, when he was going to be elected, he said, “Don’t forget the poor.” And, he said, I’ll choose the name Francis. It’s not only that, but I think he recovers a sense of the depth and vitality of the church, why we are the church. That creates an opportunity for lots of us. A church that moves to the edge to care for the weak and vulnerable is a church you want to be a part of.
The other reality is our problems are so tough that they can’t be solved just with economics or technology or military or diplomacy. So the moral, I think, will come to the fore. And when the moral dimensions of big problems come to the fore, I think our faith has a lot to offer. In particular, I think Catholic social teaching has a lot to offer. We’re a challenged church. We are not to forget where those challenges come from. But we’re serving a still dangerous world, a divided economy, and a demoralized politics. So the hope is that lay people will be salt, light, and leaven—because our society needs the salt of the gospel, the leaven of Catholic social teaching, and the light of the gospel.
So I am hopeful. What a blessing to work on stuff that you believe in. I remember when we were on a family vacation, at a big family reunion. One night, after some good refreshment, I was complaining about my kids, complaining about the bishops, I was complaining about the Congress. You know, none of them seemed to be taking my advice.
RICE: The bishops or your kids?
Both. One of the greatest things about this job is you go on these amazing trips with bishops. But it’s like a family vacation without the fun. You know, I’ve been to Gaza. It’s not a junket. But anyway, I expected a wave of sympathy. And, my relative goes, stop whining. Do you know how lucky you are to work at what you believe? I’d give anything in the world for that. He said, do the best damn job you can, because it’s really important.
So this is a new part of that job. I’m really excited about it, and I’m confident that people back at the conference will do good work. I’m really excited and hopeful.
DAWN ARAUJO: Many people might see the charisma of Pope Francis and might want to jump on board and even join the Catholic Church because they like Francis. What if the next pope doesn’t maintain this spirit? Do you see a problem with that?
If they want to come, welcome. But they should be careful. It is not about one guy. I thought Ratzinger would be terrible. He turned out to be just great for Catholic social teaching. Francis could turn around and deny communion to people who vote against X. So don’t do it for the pope, do it for Christ. If you find the teaching of the church, social teaching, and the sacramental life of the church enriching and spiritual in other ways, then welcome aboard.
Then if you do, find a local community of faith that really reflects what you believe. I always told my staff, go to your local parish first. Try a diverse one first. Find a home that nourishes your faith.
We do believe that the Holy Spirit acts, so I don’t think Francis was an accident. He came out of nowhere. I was on a panel at Harvard recently about the pope. The previous panels were very thoughtful about how this wasn’t so surprising after all. I said, wait a minute. Imagine I left Harvard in December, went to a book publisher and said, I’ve got a book, I’ve got a novel. Chapter one, the pope quits, first time in 600 years. Says I can’t handle it. Chapter two is on a bus in Argentina. We have this 76-year-old Jesuit, lives among the poor. Chapter three: The Italian front runners fade away, and they elect the Jesuit on the bus. And he says, I’ll be Francis. And, chapter four, he goes to the juvenile prison and washes the feet of Muslim girls. What do you think they’d say about that book? “Get out of here.” I want to know how the rest of the book turns out. So I don’t believe Francis is an accident. I think his leadership is, frankly, inspired. I think he will have an enormous impact.
A friend of mine ran into one of the more fluffy cardinals, who is very much into lace and all of that, in St. Peter’s Square. And, he had on a simple black robe. And, [my friend] said, what is this? [The cardinal] says, simple is the new chic. There’s a lot of lace for sale on eBay.
So, welcome, if you want to come, but do it with your eyes open and do it because it’s the best way for you to be a Christian.
RICE: Now that you’ve left the conference, do you see the work of justice and peace continuing among the U.S. bishops?
I am really confident that the work of the conference, that the bishops’ priority for this, will continue. They’re good people. They are doing good work. There was this false concern, “John’s leaving. The mission will be damaged.” I don’t believe that. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development has been secured, and the faithful citizenship work goes on. I have real confidence that the conference will continue its work. It faces the same challenge the rest of us do, which is not teaching, not principles but priority and passion. That’s how to judge the work.