Took some last minute shuffling of flights owing to Washington winter storm wipeout (and more is on its way), but I have arrived at the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering. The event brings together diocesan and parish-based directors and supporters of social justice and peace offices for some motivational recuperation, capital hill lobbying and general information sharing. They also pore over the domestic and international issues that will be on the agenda in the coming year for folks working in Catholic social ministry. They will have plenty of time to do so this year as we are about to all be snowed in for the week.
I’m particularly sorry to have missed John Carr’s keynote because I wondered if he would respond personally to the attack campaign being launched by the American Life League and confreres (and eagerly embraced by right wing Catholic bloggers) regarding his past participation as board chairman with the Center for Community Change, a national community organizing advocacy, training and support organization. Carr left CCC in 2005 and since then it has adopted some rhetoric and positions at odds with Catholic teaching. Additionally a number of Catholic Campaign for Human Development funded community groups are listed as “partners” by the CCC, though that relationship indicates little more than they may have received CCC training or worked with CCC on specific anti-poverty campaigns, not that they endorse all CCC statements or campaigns.
At first glance the connections drawn by the ALL et al depict a deep ignorance about the nature of community organizing in the United States or its history and offer the kind of head-scratching guilt by association that would be familiar to folks who can remember Sen. Joe McCarthy and the regular House and Senate inquisitions during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Instead of lists of unidentified communist enemies, ALL and allied groups wave embarrassing CCC statements and attempt to backtrack them to assorted USCCB staff. I’m told John Carr only briefly touched on the controversy during his annual keynote speech opening the gathering but other voices from the USCCB have already stepped forward to defend Carr and by extension the USCCB and CCHD.
Carr told me some time after his speech: “I’ve spent my whole life trying to bring together social justice and pro-life, so to be attacked as somehow having undermined that is both unfair and hurtful.”
He was reluctant to say much else about the internet flame war erupting around his reputation except: “I would distinguish between those who have a real concern for the poor and wonder if we’re doing this the right way, those who simply disagree with the priorities and methods of CCHD and [those] who frankly have been attacking the bishops, the conference, the CCHD, and now me and they’ve never found anything good to say about the church’s [anti-poverty] work.
“The idea that the American bishops are soft or lax in their defense of unborn children is just ridiculous. You go down to the march for life . . . and you take away Catholic parishes, Catholic schools, Catholic bishops, its not a march it’s a small rally. For people that know me, the idea that I’m a secret agent for a prochoice issue . . . and the idea that the America bishops are funding abortions and soft on gay marriage is just ludicrous.”
Carr worries the style of the attack suggests that “polarization in public life is now coming over to Catholic life.”
“We don’t need war rooms and attack ads in our community of faith,” he said. “We ought to give each other the benefit of the doubt. We ought to have civil discourse and not assume the worst of each other.
“Their new thing after four days of attacking me is that ‘this is not about John Carr.’ Well, I think that is insightful: This is not about John Carr, this is about the priorities of the poor and whether or not we are going to act on them. . . . When you do bottom up organizing instead of top down, it doesn’t always fit the neat categories, but my wish is that people would see what actually happens to people’s lives and communities as a result of this work.”