MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we speak about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we are going to hear from a major figure in American Catholicism. His name is John Carr. While he is not a cardinal or a bishop, he has been a major voice of the Catholic Church on Capitol Hill for the last quarter century. As the top policy advisor for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Carr has been at the center of some of this country's most pressing social issues, but he recently retired from that post and, given this week's news, we thought this would be a good time to speak with him about the church, his career and his next chapter.
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
JOHN CARR: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: Are congratulations in order on your retirement?
CARR: Well, it's going around, this retirement thing.
MARTIN: How about that? And speaking of which, we obviously want to speak about your work, but we have to ask about the major news. We actually arranged this conversation before we knew that Pope Benedict the XVI had announced his retirement, resignation, abdication or so forth. And were you as surprised as everyone else?
CARR: I found it stunning, but in many ways, a really gracious and humble gesture. I got a little bit different perspective. That morning, I was over at Catholic Charities, where we work with the homeless, the mentally ill and people suffering with addiction. And that's really a part of the legacy of Benedict that no one knows about.
Most people - they see him as the pope of no: no to abortion, no to same-sex marriage. Some people say the church is obsessed with sex, and there's something to that. But I also think we're obsessed with sex. Journalism is obsessed with sex. And so we know a lot more about what Benedict thought about sexual matters than what he thought about economic justice.
MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, let's talk about your work. You recently retired. Your official title was the executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. You were - how can we say - the church's lobbyist in Washington all these many years. How were you drawn to this work?
CARR: Well, first of all, I had the most pompous title in Washington. I got introduced to a woman in an elevator by that pompous title, and she looked at me and said you need to do a better job. No justice, not enough peace, not enough human development.
My own view is that my faith led me to try and apply what the church teaches about human life and dignity and about care for the least of these. And so I began in Minnesota, where I grew up. I thought I wanted to be a priest, the people in charge, and my wife thought otherwise and I think that worked out just fine, but I've spent 25 years trying to help the bishops be the best teachers and leaders they can be.
Working for the bishops is not fun. I mean, I worked through the scandals and we're still paying a terrible price for that, and should.
MARTIN: You mean the sexual abuse scandals?
CARR: Yeah, yeah. I worked for people who looked the other way, in some cases, but I also worked for people who stood up for the poor and the undocumented when nobody else - we've been against the death penalty for decades and now, finally, the rest of the society is deciding that's not the way we want to deal with this problem.
MARTIN: You know, to that end, we were talking about the bishop - Pope Benedict the XVI and how he is viewed as the pope of no. I think - couldn't the same assessment be made of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops - is that, for many Americans, they are also not so much identified with their advocacy on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable, much more on issues around sexual conduct and social behavior. And I think that, you know, whether or not you think that that's fair, why do you think that is?
CARR: Well, some of the time, the church - we can come across as, you know - the answer is no. What's the question? That's not what the gospel is about, but in some ways, they didn't pick these fights. I mean, Roe v. Wade happened. Abortion was legalized. We're now in a big debate in our society of what marriage is or is not and it's no surprise that the Catholic Church would say we think it ought to be the way it is.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly Faith Matters conversation. Today, we are visiting with John Carr. He's the former top policy advisor for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He just retired in his post as one of the most influential political voices on Capitol Hill from the faith community.
One of the issues that have brought the bishops into the news most recently has been the fighting the Obama administration's contraception mandate, but how do you respond to those who say that, you know, the bishops are so intensely focused on this issue, but have not been as intensely or publicly focused on the issues around economic justice?
CARR: The fact is, every day, the bishops are working on questions of poverty. One of the best things I was a part of before I left was helping to start something called the Circle of Protection, which was the bishops, evangelicals, sojourners, Bread for the World, Salvation Army that went to the president personally, went to Paul Ryan personally, and asked them to exempt from the sequester the lifelines for poor working families. Food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, the tax credits are not going to be a part of those cuts and that was the work of the Catholic bishops and others.
MARTIN: But you look at the fact that there have been Catholic politicians, for example, who have endorsed same-sex marriage rights or who have endorsed abortion rights. They often have to kind of gently inquire about whether they will be permitted to accept the sacraments in some places, but one never hears about politicians who have not been considered the friends of the poor being denied their sacraments. And so do you...
CARR: Paul Ryan took a lot of heat last spring because of his budget, when he went to Catholic University, when he went to Georgetown. Part of it is whether you think the sacraments ought to be used in that way and, as one Catholic, I don't think so and I don't think Pope Benedict thought so.
I think there's two kinds of leadership. One is, if you think we've lost on life, on family, on the poor, on peace, then the natural temptation is to hunker down and sort of throw thunderbolts. If you think we're right on those issues then you engage and persuade.
I think Benedict, in his own very shy, quiet way, was an engage and persuade leader. He's a teacher at heart and I think he's going to be very relieved that he's going to go back to writing and teaching.
MARTIN: Well, why are you retiring now?
CARR: You know what? I had a couple opportunities. One was a fellowship at Harvard at the Institute of Politics to talk about religion in politics with young people. I got mostly young people who are not actively religious themselves who wanted to talk about where morality comes from in political life. They had never met - many of them - a pro-lifer who really believed in pro-life who was a progressive. They said how can you believe that? And I told them I had just gotten a picture of my new granddaughter and I said, I've seen her face, I've seen her fingers, I've seen her toes. She has a name, she has a room. The only thing she doesn't have is the right to be born. It was a sonogram. And they said, I never thought of it that way. I always think about in terms of the woman and her rights.
But it was a great opportunity to talk about the contributions and the problems with free religion in politics. Having spent 25 years working for the bishops, I want to spend the rest of my working life working with laypeople to offer an affirmative vision of what our faith tells us, to make a consistent case for life and dignity, justice and peace in the public arena.
MARTIN: The Post recently described you as the bishops' Karl Rove, but you've actually described yourself as, quote, "politically homeless." How is it possible...
CARR: I'm more comfortable...
MARTIN: ...there can be two such distinct views of who you are?
CARR: I'm much more comfortable with politically homeless. I try and look at public life through the eyes of faith and values and, for me, the question is, what did you do for the least of these, the immigrants, the unborn, the very poor, the kids who have no health care? That's what politics ought to be about and that's not what politics has been about.
The things that I would like in the Republican agenda - their pro-life stance - they don't talk about that at all. And the things I like in the Democratic side, the defense of the poor - they don't talk about much. So I didn't feel at home, frankly.
But, if you're homeless, you ought to try and build a shelter and part of what I'm going to try and do over the next several years is build a shelter where Democrats and Republicans can come together.
MARTIN: John Carr is the former top policy advisor for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.
John Carr, I hope you'll join us again and continue to keep us up to date on your work.
CARR: Well, thank you for your work. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.