Kevin Christopher RoblesDecember 10, 2020
Then-Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden wears a protective face mask as he bows in prayer at the Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Del., June 1, 2020. (CNS photo/Jim Bourg, Reuters)

“I will not vote for him to support his position on abortion but in spite of it.” That is how John Carr explained his decision to vote for Joe Biden in an article for America ahead of the 2020 election, despite his deep reservations about the Democratic nominee’s support for pro-choice policies. After the dust had settled on the election—with Mr. Biden winning roughly 50 percent of the Catholic vote, according to polls—America spoke with Mr. Carr about how pro-life Democrats should engage and challenge the new administration. 

Mr. Carr is the founder and director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. For 20 years, he worked as the director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he helped write the bishops’ first document on Catholics and voting. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What responsibility do pro-life Catholics who voted for Joe Biden have in the coming months and years?

I could not support President Trump for reasons of character, issues of racism and because of his efforts to divide the nation. I expressed my support for Vice President Biden because of the good he could do to bring the country together, help overcome the pandemic, lift up those at the bottom and respect the dignity of immigrants. While my decision was clear, it was not without reservation. I made clear that I did not support Mr. Biden because he had embraced the extremism of his party on abortion but in spite of his new opposition to the Hyde Amendment and restrictions of any kind on abortion. The destruction of unborn children is a fundamental failure to protect the most vulnerable among us and the clearest example of the “throwaway culture” in our nation.

Many members of the Catholic community and others who voted for Biden did so to promote racial, economic and environmental justice—not to undermine human life.

Many members of the Catholic community and others who voted for Mr. Biden did so to promote racial, economic and environmental justice—not to undermine human life. We need to urge President Biden and his administration to pursue these priorities, which were at the center of his campaign, not an abortion agenda that could undermine his efforts to unite the nation in a time of crisis.

What do you think pro-life Catholics can do to push back against the Democratic Party’s extreme position on abortion?

Speak up, stand up, be visible. Consistent-ethic-of-life Catholics need to be consistent, defending the unborn and the undocumented, opposing the death penalty and racism, caring for the Earth and the poorest people on Earth. We should remind the elites in the Democratic Party that we are a crucial part of their winning coalition and a key to their future. They push us out at their political peril and will need our help to advance the priorities we share.

Elites in the Democratic Party push us out at their political peril and will need our help to advance the priorities we share.

We should not be hesitant to be clear about why we supported Joe Biden and why we did not, to insist that there is no mandate for a repeal of the Hyde Amendment, to undermine religious ministries or to expand abortion rights. President Biden and his administration should instead focus on the priorities that bring the country together—overcoming the pandemic, comprehensive immigration reform, caring for creation, lifting up those who have been left behind—and not wage their own kind of culture war.

What should pro-life Catholics do if Roe v. Wade is overturned and the Biden administration attempts to follow through on its promise to codify Roe in law?

Our common efforts have kept the pro-life cause alive for many years despite powerful forces on the other side. Young people are increasingly committed to defending life whenever it is threatened. Some have been waiting for decades for Roe v. Wade to be overturned. I do not know whether it will be overturned, but I do know that will shift debate and decisions to the state level, and I do not know if we are ready for that challenge.

Frankly, I think our example of care for children and mothers and those in need is our most persuasive argument for a different kind of policy. That does not mean that we fail to advocate, lobby and resist policies that would undermine the Hyde Amendment, conscience protections and existing restrictions on abortion. When people are so deeply divided and abortion battles are so predictable, I doubt continuing political combat can be the primary way to convince our fellow Americans to value and protect the lives of unborn children.

As Pope Francis has said, “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.”

We will have to continue to engage and persuade our fellow citizens of the humanity of the unborn child and the fact that abortion is not the way to solve difficult problems for a woman, a family or society. As Pope Francis has said, “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.” So, we need to do what we have always been called to do, which is to share our convictions clearly, respectfully and in a way that invites people in instead of pushing them away.

Many Catholics see the legality of abortion as an attack on religious liberty. What can pro-life Catholics do to protect their and others’ religious liberty?

We have to be clear that religious liberty is not a code word for right-wing politics and ideology. It is, in fact, protection for all of us. We need to work together across religious, political and ideological lines to build a healthy pluralism that seeks to respect the rights of all.

I do not believe the president-elect or most of those who voted for him want to see Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic hospitals and other institutions undermined by a requirement that they have to participate in abortion, for example.

We have to be clear that religious liberty is not a code word for right-wing politics and ideology. It is, in fact, protection for all of us.

Conscience protection is an important contribution to the common good. It is also an important asset in protecting the poor. After all, who feeds the hungry? Who shelters the homeless? Who cares for the sick? Who educates poor kids in our cities? In many cases, it is religious ministries, Black churches, synagogues, mosques, Catholic parishes, schools and charities. They should not be penalized, undermined or threatened because they will not violate fundamental convictions of their faith.

Catholics were fairly split during this election, and it exposed divisions that have been growing for a long time. What can Catholics do to heal these divisions?

This is really the work of our Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown: to build bridges, bring down some walls, to dialogue and not demonize. I think we have to look for common ground where we can find it. I think we have to listen and learn from people who have different views. We have to begin with our faith, not our politics.

I think divisions have been exacerbated by social media, by partisan warfare and by powerful interests. I think most Catholics want DACA students to be able to stay in the only country they have ever known. I think most Catholics want a path to citizenship for undocumented people who are a big part of our economy. I think most Catholics could come together to find ways to help lift up poor children and families.

In fact, I think Catholics with different political and ideological views can and should come together on a serious effort to overcome poverty and hunger in this country. Liberals tend to talk about structural issues and racial and economic justice. Conservatives tend to talk about personal responsibility. Those perspectives can come together to make overcoming poverty and ending hunger urgent national priorities. In fact, we ought to rely on our experience and faith to guide us rather than on the tweets we read or the ideology we salute.

What areas of common ground do you think pro-life Catholics and the Biden administration have to engage with each other productively?

We ought to be clear why many of us decided to support President-elect Biden. His commitment to decency and empathy, his defense of the poor and immigrants, his commitment to overcome the pandemic and care for creation brought us to support his candidacy. It seems to me there are three ways to think about this.

The first is areas of fundamental agreement where we ought to work together to accomplish common goals: addressing Covid-19, immigration reform, overcoming poverty at home and abroad, climate change, resisting the death penalty, seeking a more just and peaceful world.

The second is where we have common goals but important differences, like health care and education. Those are best addressed by sharing our experience, expertise and policy directions through dialogue and negotiation and finding common ground where possible. We need to work toward a healthy pluralism that respects the rights of all but does not undermine religious ministries and charities and their assistance to the vulnerable and to the common good.

Our church needs to be political but not partisan; principled but not ideological; civil but not silent; engaged but not used.

The third is where we have principled differences—abortion will be a fundamental disagreement—where we have to respectfully but clearly disagree and try to engage others to join us in protecting unborn children and the consciences of millions of Americans.

I often suggest our church needs to be political but not partisan; principled but not ideological; civil but not silent; engaged but not used. We cannot be chaplain to any party or apologist for any administration. However, we also cannot become part of the political opposition or resistance. We are a community of faith praying for and challenging all our leaders, affirming their best policies, challenging where we disagree and seeking common ground for the common good where we can.

Some Catholics think that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been too deferential to President Trump and too harsh on President-elect Biden. How should Catholics who voted for Mr. Biden engage with the bishops during his administration?

Our bishops are pastors. They are not pundits. They are not political tacticians. I do not think the Gospel is advanced by snarky comments on Twitter or picking sides in partisan battles. So I think we ought to appeal to our bishops to be good pastors, good teachers, good leaders. Laypeople ought to offer an example of political responsibility: stepping up to advocate for our principles in both political parties and showing how faith and Catholic social teaching can make a contribution to the common good rather than sow division in our society.

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