Capitol Gains: How the Church Keeps Faith with the Political System

Article excerpt

In an interview with the editors, John Carr, secretary for social development and world peace for the U.S. Catholic Conference, reveals what a representative and lobbyist for the Catholic bishops can and can't do in Washington. As the U.S. Catholic bishops' Secretary for Social Development and World Peace, what are some of the things you do?

I have a great job, but a lousy title. The title sort of combines Washington pomp and ecclesiastical arrogance.

At the bishops' meeting last summer in Chicago, a couple in the hotel lobby was looking at the big National Conference of Catholic Bishops name tag I was wearing.

One of them said, "You're not a bishop." I explained that obviously I wasn't a bishop but that I work for the bishops.

The man looked a little closer at my name tag and then said to his wife, "He's in charge of social development and world peace."

She was clearly not impressed. She said, "Well, judging by the morning newspaper, he needs to do a better job."

Our department has basically four tasks. First, we help the bishops communicate Catholic social teaching. For example, the bishops issued a statement on the 100th anniversary of Rerum novarum that summarized a century of social teaching.

Second, we help the bishops apply that teaching to major domestic and international policy issues such as policies affecting children and families, the budget, arms, and human life and dignity.

Third, we assist the bishops in advocating for Catholic values and principles in the public arena, both in Congress and with the administration. Right now, we're deeply involved in legislative battles as diverse as welfare reform, land mines, and the earned-income tax credit.

Finally, and this is perhaps our most important task, we work to build the capacity of the church to fulfill its social mission. Probably the best example of that is the bishops' recent document on parish social ministry, "Communities of Salt and Light."

Because we are a department of the bishops' conference, it is the bishops who set our agenda. That means that we cannot act on a particular policy or issue unless that action is in fact based on policies adopted by the bishops. So we don't move very fast. But once the conference has clearly established its policy, we can sometimes be a powerful force.

Give us an example.

Recently we took up in a serious way the issue of land mines. This may seem like a very small piece of a very big issue, but the Vatican and bishops around the world had repeatedly asked the U.S. church to take the lead in dealing with the millions of land mines shittered around the earth.

Some 26,000 people, most of them kids, are killed or maimed by land mines every year. In Cambodia and Angola, for example, there are more land mines than there are children.

Land mines don't discriminate between civilians and combatants or even between periods of peace and war. It takes about $3 to bury a land mine, but it takes more than $1,000 to remove one.

It's a horrible scourge, and we have a great responsibility because the United States produces and has exported them. There's no getting rid of them without an active U.S. leadership role.

So last summer the bishops' conference adopted a statement on land mines, and we intensified our lobbying of Congress and the administration, urging them to take the lead in establishing worldwide restraints on land mines. We were able to raise the moral dimensions and the human dimensions of what was previously debated as just a military matter.

When the Senate recently passed a moratorium on land-mine use, the author of that legislation, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), acknowledged that it wouldn't have been passed without the concerted effort of the Catholic community.

So that's a small example of where our efforts have resulted in something concrete.

Where else have you focused your public-policy efforts? …