[Editor’s note: John Carr has been the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University since 2013. Before this, he served for over 20 years as director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is considered a leading expert on Catholic social teaching. Crux contributor Charles Camosy recently spoke to him about how the Church should work for social justice, and the following is the result of their exchange.]

Camosy: You’ve been director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University for three years now. For those who don’t know much about it, can you fill them in?  

Carr: After two decades at the USCCB, I was convinced that we needed new efforts to help lay Catholics know, understand, and take the values of Catholic social teaching into public life in principled, positive, and persuasive ways.  We needed to help lay Catholics, especially young people, become “salt, light, and leaven.”

President [John J.] DeGioia invited me to Georgetown, and we began to organize substantive and civil dialogues which move beyond the polarization of our politics and divisions in our Church. The response has been amazing. There is a hunger for a moral vocabulary and directions beyond the crude appeals, angry rhetoric, and ideological warfare that undermine the common good.

More than 15,000 people – including Presidents and Senators, Cardinals and students, journalists and theologians, pro-life and social justice leaders, union organizers and business executives, nuns and “nones” – have participated in Initiative gatherings which offer alternatives to the circus and combat of today’s Washington.

How has Pope Francis impacted the Initiative and the response? You are going to focus on “Francis after four years” at your next Dialogue. Why the continuing focus on Francis?

We began working on the idea of the Initiative before the election of Pope Francis and many activities focus on broader aspects of faith in public life. However, Pope Francis’s mission and message have given us tremendous momentum and generated interest from people who now see links between religion and politics in new ways.

Two most surprising developments in the last five years may be the election of a Jesuit Pope from Argentina and the electoral college victory of President Donald Trump. They are both outsiders. But they couldn’t be more different. American Catholics are now part of a nation led by an “America First” President, and members of a Church led by a “global solidarity” Pope.

The Initiative is sorting through how and why these things happened and how to practice “faithful citizenship” in these unprecedented times. For example, on March 27, the Initiative is hosting a dialogue on the “Francis Factor after Four Years” in a conversation with the new Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, and a diverse panel. They will explore how Pope Francis’s humble ways and powerful words call us to look at political, economic, and ecclesial life from the bottom-up and outside-in, a sharp contrast from the agenda in our nation’s capital.  

The Initiative is doing some unique outreach to young Catholics and Latino leaders in Washington. Why and how?

Washington is full of young Catholics who work on Capitol Hill in government, advocacy or journalism who came full of idealism, in many cases motivated by their faith. Two terrible temptations in Washington are cynicism, and replacing what you believe with partisan talking points and narrow ideological agendas.  

The Initiative is reaching out to help young leaders see their faith and Catholic social teaching as assets in their personal, professional, and public lives. Our “Salt and Light Gatherings” draw Catholics under 40 to listen, learn, and discuss the moral dimensions of their work and public issues. They heard Obama and Bush speechwriters discuss “how not to lose your soul in Washington.” They gathered in the Capitol to hear two Republicans, two Democrats, two men, two women Catholic members of Congress discuss “politics as a vocation.”

The Initiative also brings together young Latino leaders in Washington to focus on their particular opportunities and challenges, and how their faith offers directions for their work and leadership. They share their own stories and have explored the meaning of a Latino pope and issues of immigration, economics, and political participation through the lens of Catholic social teaching.

In your work at the USCCB you helped the bishops on issues of poverty and economic justice. What is your take on where we are now and what are you and the Initiative doing?

Pope Francis talks about an economy of exclusion, insisting that the moral measure of a society is how we treat the poor. The poor were missing in the campaign, and their lives and dignity are at risk in the budget, tax, and health care debates now underway. Poor families and children have the greatest needs, but the least power.

I helped organize the Circle of Protection, a coalition of diverse Christian groups including the Bishops’ Conference and Catholic Charities who have consistently, persistently, and effectively resisted major cuts to programs, tax credits, and investments that are lifelines to the poor in the U.S. and around the world. In the past, we met with President Obama and Paul Ryan to persuade them to exclude food stamps, Medicaid, and other safety net programs from automatic spending cuts.  One bishop told President Obama that in his Bible, Matthew 25 says we will be judged on “whatever you do for the least of these,” but in Washington it must say something else.  Now the Circle is urging Congress to reject policies that undermine and cut Medicaid, disproportionately cut nutrition, housing, heat assistance, and other poverty programs; as well as massive reductions in assistance to fight hunger and disease around the world.

Beyond these crucial efforts, our nation needs to make overcoming poverty a moral imperative and national priority. The Initiative and the National Association of Evangelicals organized a Poverty Summit to bring down the walls between those who focus primarily on family factors and those who focus primarily on economic factors as causes and remedies for poverty. The most important word in Catholic Social Teaching is and.  We are called to defend human life and dignity, promote human rights and responsibilities, practice solidarity and subsidiarity, uphold the dignity of work and a priority for the poor.

You were involved at the USCCB in the last big health care debate. What are some lessons for today’s health care battle?

The Catholic community provides healthcare, purchases healthcare, uses healthcare, picks up the pieces of a failing health care system. We bring everyday experience and a moral framework which insists health care is essential for human dignity and should enhance, not threaten, life. As the President has now discovered, “this is really complicated.” But the moral measure of any plan is clear: Does it protect and promote human life and dignity, especially for the poor and vulnerable. This is not about slogans like “repeal and replace,” but what kind of country we are. The CBO report made clear the new plan serves too few, costs too much, provides tax relief to the top, and less care to the bottom.

One lesson is that big changes in America need bipartisan cooperation. When a proposal can only get votes from one party, it empowers narrow interests and ideological rigidity. Another lesson is that important progress often requires some sacrifice and significant investment. Our leaders should make the case that assuring decent health care for all is worth sacrifice and investment. This is not simply about which party wins, which ideology prevails; but a matter of life and death, care for the weak, and advancing the common good.

The Initiative is sharing Catholic principles, promoting civil dialogue, and reaching out to new generation of leaders in ways that advance the common good and the mission and message of Pope Francis.