Bridging a Catholic Divide: Odd-Couple Friendship Brings Pro-Life, Social Justice Agendas Together

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Bridging a Catholic Divide: Odd-Couple Friendship Brings Pro-Life, Social Justice Agendas Together

Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter

WASHINGTON * Cue the music from "The Odd Couple": Defying all political logic, it turns out that the chief staffer for the U.S. bishops on pro-life issues and their top expert on peace-and-justice causes are friends, as well as partners in trying to advance a seamless "life and dignity" agenda.

For the last four years, Thomas Grenchik, executive director of the bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, and John Carr, executive director of their Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, have tried to prove that it's possible to bridge one of the most notorious divides in American Catholic life.

Under other circumstances, there might not be much noteworthy about two bureaucrats who draw paychecks from the same group becoming pals. Anyone familiar with the history of the U.S. bishops' conference, however, understands that bishops invested in pro-life and social justice causes, as well as the staffs-who served them, haven't always worked and played well together.

Given the massive sociological and ideological chasm that often separates pro-life and peace-and-justice activists in America, the friendship and working relationship between Grenchik and Carr seems an important bit of symbolism.

Recent events have proven it's not just a friendship built on sand.

Last year, Carr became a target for pro-life activists when it emerged that he had once chaired an antipoverty group that, well after he left, took positions in favor of abortion and gay rights.

It ripped the lid off a hornet's nest of objections some pro-lifers have long harbored about the U.S. bishops' social justice operation. Targets included the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and its alleged links to groups that support "reproductive rights," as well as the annual Catholic Social Ministries Gathering and a few allegedly dubious speakers.

When Carr risked becoming a poster boy for those frustrations, Grenchik and other pro-lifers in the conference came to his defense.

Grenchik dispatched an e-mail on Feb. 2 to pro-life leaders across the country, insisting that Carr is "staunchly pro-life," and adding he played an important role in leading the charge against abortion funding in the health care reform debate. Because Grenchik and the office he leads carries strong credibility in the pro-life world, his testimonial helped calm the waters.

Asked if backing Garr cost him political capital, Grenchik shrugged off the question.

"That's life," he said during a recent interview. "It's more important to stand up when there's an injustice, and John's character was being personally attacked."

Carr obviously returns the favor. After a recent round of musical chairs inside the bishops' conference building in Washington, Carr lobbied to have the pro-life staff join him on his floor--claiming, he said, that the social justice and pro-life people are not only both mission-driven, but also "more fun."

Grenchik and Carr sat down for a conversation with NCR at the headquarters of the bishops' conference Dec. 13 to talk about how the conference can help the American church put its divided pro-life and social justice constituencies back together.

Both men say they believe in their bones that defending unborn life and defending immigrants and the poor, opposing gay marriage and opposing the death penalty, are part of one comprehensive stand in favor of human life and dignity Both also concede that's often not how things play out at the Catholic grass roots.

"The perception and the reality is that too often we're factions, not part of one family of faith," Carr said.

Both say they're determined to do something about it.

After Grenchik arrived in 2006, the Pro-Life Secretariat became a formal cosponsor of the Catholic Social Ministries Gathering. That had not previously been the case, and insiders read it as a sign of rapprochement between the pro-life and the peace-and-justice infrastructure of the conference.

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