ORLANDO, Florida – While he was still working for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, veteran policy adviser John Carr had the idea of gathering leaders of the Catholic pro-life camp with those working on social justice, in hopes they’d realize how much they have in common.
Ten years later, a vastly expanded version of that initial inspiration is unfolding in Orlando, Florida, bringing together over 3,000 people from all 50 states, representing an estimated 80 percent of all U.S. dioceses. It’s called the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders,” and runs July 1-4.
(Research conducted by the bishops’ conference as part of the preparation for the event found that while the divide between the pro-life and social justice camps was a serious concern for leaders in those constituencies, it didn’t have much traction at the pastoral grassroots. There, worries about the rising number of Americans with no religious affiliation — the “nones” — equally alarming growth in the number of ex-Catholics, and difficulties in passing on the faith to the young tended to loom larger.)
Carr, who now runs the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, told Crux on Saturday that if Catholics “got our act together, with our ideas, our people, our leaders, we’d be dangerous.”
Carr believes American society and the country’s politics could greatly benefit from the “good news that we have.”
“If we get our act together, we could provide an alternative vision of public life and show that care for the weak, the unborn, the undocumented, the old, the young, people without healthcare, people struggling to survive in the face of religious persecution, in other words, a common commitment to the defense of human life and dignity, offers not only a way forward for the Church but a path for our society,” he said.
Carr also believes that Pope Francis offers a powerful impetus in that direction, insisting that “People who look at our Holy Father through an ideological lens, are really stuck in their own heads.
“This is a pastor, this is the world’s pastor, and he’s showing us a way forward by his authenticity, by his priorities, by his simplicity, by his courage,” Carr said.
Crux spoke with Carr during the Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando on Saturday. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
You helped get the ball rolling on the idea for a get-together like this, and here we are. What are you hoping for?
To be honest, it was a much more modest proposal. As you know, I’ve been trying to bring together the pro-life agenda and the social justice agenda, into a common agenda around human life and dignity, something I think our Church needs, our country needs. The idea was to get pro-life leaders and social-justice leaders, to talk about what we have in common and why both movements are not moving the church in the way that we should, not having the impact they should.
And now, it’s exploded into 3,000 of our closest friends, and an agenda as big as the world — literally, missionary discipleship.
You’ve worked at the USCCB and you’ve been watching the conference since you left. Has there ever been anything like this?
We did something called Jubilee of Justice around the year 2000, that had about 2,000 people. But it was more focused on the social mission of the Church. It was in California, which was a little cooler than Orlando.
But I’m excited. To get 3,000 believers together to celebrate what we have in common and to figure out how we can be the body of Christ in a better way, that’s gotta be powerful.
What are you hoping will result?
Greater unity. Frankly, the polarization in the country is so awful, it’s seeping into the Church. And so we don’t go begging with our faith, we go begging with our politics or ideology. People say things like, ‘My pope was John Paul II,’ or ‘mine is Pope Francis.’ No matter who it is, he’s our Holy Father. We cannot have bishops who are chaplains to factions. We can’t see ourselves as rivals, when we’re all on the same team.
If there’s ever been a time when our message of human life and dignity needs to be heard, it’s now. Frankly, I love politics, but it’s demoralizing.
You’ve been trying to bring different factions together for the past 20 years, but things seem worse now than ever. Where do you find a place for hope?
I would actually give ourselves greater credit. Today, I actually find the divisions mostly among the elites, the old and the crabby. I work a lot more among young people, and these are not their fights. They’re looking for a moral vocabulary that gives meaning to their lives, and I think Pope Francis has been an absolute gift.
In my parish, in Georgetown, we’re not fighting those fights. We’re trying to figure out what it means to be a believer today, and Pope Francis challenges us every day. Thanks to you and to Crux, and the pope app … I mean, literally, every day he gives a little homily, it’s about five paragraphs, and he says things like, “Don’t be a couch potato Christian.” I resent that, he’s describing me! But he challenges us every day.
I frankly think it’s time to tell the elites in ecclesial life, enough. Be leaders, not dividers. Let’s find the areas we can move around. Find the areas where we can work together. And make our case in a country that needs to hear our message.
So I think among the folks, at the parish level, the young people I deal with, this is a great time to talk about how we’re in this together. And I also think that Catholic social thought can be that factor bringing us together. The most important word in Catholic social thought is the word ‘and.’ It’s ‘human life and dignity,’ ‘human rights and responsibility.’
As Benedict XVI said, Catholicism historically is the Church of the “both/and.”
And we have to act like it.
In DC, you’re at the intersection between faith and politics. In the Trump era, what is your diagnosis as to where civil discourse is at right now, and anticipating your answer, is there anything that can be done to save it?
What a mess. For years, I’ve had a debate with E.J. Dionne on which institution was in more trouble, the Catholic Church or American politics. And for years, he was just taking me to the cleaners. So I said to him, how does it feel that the Catholic Church is the place for hope and change?
So, I think that it’s as bad as it’s ever been. I think that it’s sucked everybody into a worse place. Without getting into personalities, we’ve lost the guide rails of public discourse, and there are very few institutions in American public life that cross partisan lines, ideological lines, economic lines, racial lines. And all of that will be on display during the next three days.
If we got our act together, with our ideas, our people, our leaders, we’d be dangerous. And it’s time for us to project, share the good news that we have, because our society, our politics need it so desperately. I actually think there’s an opening here. If we get our act together, we could provide an alternative vision of public life and show that care for the weak, the unborn, the undocumented, the old, the young, people without healthcare, people struggling to survive in the face of religious persecution, in other words, a common commitment to the defense of human life and dignity, offers not only a way forward for the Church but a path for our society.
It could be a game changer for the American culture …
And it’s time for our leaders, frankly, both the Church and politics, to understand the responsibility they have and the gifts they’ve been given.
Seeing these challenges of division, Father Julian Carron told us that ‘If you don’t think that Francis is the cure, then you don’t understand the disease.’ In other words, our culture is profoundly adrift, and it needs to be shocked. And our Church needs to be shocked, to get out there, to get into the game and be that change.
Nothing could be less helpful than business as usual. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t motivate, it doesn’t inspire. Francis offers us not only strong words but a humble way, and in so doing, offers us a path forward.
People who look at our Holy Father through an ideological lens, are really stuck in their own heads. This is a pastor, this is the world’s pastor, and he’s showing us a way forward by his authenticity, by his priorities, by his simplicity, by his courage.
You and I have been on several panels, with very profound thoughts from you, from Ross Douthat, David Brooks, Mark Shields, Cokie Roberts. I once asked one of those panels, ‘Why is the pope a powerful leader?’ and Kim Daniels said, ‘Because he walks and talks like Jesus.’
I drove home with my daughter, in her 20s, and said: ‘What do you think about that, all those smart people with profound insights and analysis, what did you like?’ And she said, ‘I liked the woman who talked about the pope who walks and talks like Jesus.’