Key ‘moderate’ Catholic, hailed by choir on left

So The Washington Post ran a story the other day that made me feel very strange, for strictly journalistic and, yes, political reasons.

The story focused on the retirement of John Carr, for 25 years a key public policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops. The whole point of the story is that the bishops are now being led by people — I assumed that meant Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York — who are, shall we say, immoderate. They are too conservative, you see, because they are rather obsessed with issues such as abortion, marriage and religious liberty.

Carr, on the other hand, is a moderate’s moderate. From all indications, he appears to be a pro-life Democrat (that’s an accurate label for me, as well) who has been a crucial leader among liberal evangelicals, progressive Catholics and other folks of that ilk. Most of all, the story wants readers to understand that Carr’s departure could mean hard times for true Catholic moderates who care about church teachings on issues of justice and peace.

This made me think of that famous “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust” (.pdf) study of The New York Times issued back in 2005, following several scandals linked to the world’s most powerful newsroom. In response, editor Bill Keller, yes that Bill Keller, wrote a response entitled “Assuring Our Credibility” (.pdf) that included these words about the challenges journalists face when covering political and religious issues:

We must … be more alert to nuances of language when writing about contentious issues. The committee picked a few examples — the way the word “moderate” conveys a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme, the misuse of “religious fundamentalists” to describe religious conservatives — but there are many pitfalls involved when we try to convey complex ideas as simply as possible, on deadline.

Thus, I would like GetReligion readers to read the Post story about Carr with that passage in mind.

What’s my point? Well, I think that Carr almost certainly can be called a “moderate” Catholic in that his life’s work falls somewhere in between the church’s truly liberal branch and the whole world of doctrinally conservative Catholics. However, to establish his “moderate” credentials, it would be good to hear Carr’s work evaluated by his critics on both sides of this divide. Correct?

Instead, this is what we get:

The mixing of religion and politics engenders powerful passions, but insiders know that faith advocates typically aren’t players in Washington. Carr is one of the few exceptions. But his influence is only part of the reason Carr’s exit … is being mourned. Some are also concerned about who will come after him.

At a time when Catholics are watching their community become increasingly polarized along political lines,

Carr is considered a dying breed: a Catholic moderate with a foot firmly in both camps. He worked for the White House Conference on Families under President Jimmy Carter and was a Democratic candidate. He has also zealously slammed the Obama White House for its mandate that employers provide contraception coverage to employees. At a good-bye event this week at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters, Carr’s voice sounded angriest when he bemoaned the Bush-led Iraq War.

Catholics are becoming more divided over whether they focus on church teachings against war and poverty or the ones against abortion and gay marriage. Catholic progressives are particularly worried about Carr leaving as Church officialdom in recent years has put greater and greater emphasis on defending the unborn.

“If John Carr hadn’t been there for the past 20 years, who knows what would have happened?” said John Gehring, who focuses on Catholic issues for the left-leaning advocacy group Faith in Public Life and often clashes with the bishops.

GetReligion readers will be stunned to know that the next quote comes from Jim Wallis of Sojourners, and so forth and so on. Later on, we hear from Carr’s brother — New York Times media columnist David Carr.

So here is my question: Read this story and name, for me, the key voice evaluating Carr’s work and career from the conservative side of the Catholic establishment, whether that is in politics, higher education or even the church hierarchy.

Read the story, twice if need be. Look for the conservative voices, amid all of the high-profile voices on the left and on the center-left that are featured in this news — not editorial page — report. There should be informed, articulate conservatives who help readers evaluate Carr’s work. Right? I mean, this is journalism, after all, not a work of advocacy writing.

So who is your favorite Catholic conservative featured in this news story?

Good luck with that.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Del Rayva

    I really appreciated the WaPo story when it came out, because I was interested to learn about John Carr. However, it left me thinking that the WaPo just doesn’t understand Catholicism at all. The teachings of the Church, which are the teachings John espouses, are completely immoderate. The just don’t fit into the WaPo’s dominate narrative, where everything is either left or right. Pro life in all circumstances? Immoderate. Dedicated to just treatment of immigrants regardless of pawperwork? Immoderate. Opposed to the HHS mandate and gay “marriage?” Not just immoderate but unreasonable and irrational by WaPo’s own stated standards. Opposed to the Iraq war? Immoderate. I hold all these things along with the Cathlic Church, and apparently with John Carr. God help me if anyone thinks I, or he, are “moderates.”

    • JRA

      Thank you for summing up so concisely why there is no political party for the likes of you and me.

      As for the WaPo article itself, it’s a typical projection of the reporter’s own views and the views absorbed from the reporter’s immediate milieu (aka the echo chamber). But the problem is not just one of political bias; the piece suffers something more fundamental to the news business: namely, the reporter needs an angle, a high-level thread to make the story relevant to the section editor. Nail-biting among the right-thinking about Carr’s departure was that hook. Wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting if the story was: some people sad to see him go; some people happy; most don’t care and figure someone similar will come along. That’s no story. The STORY, not quite spoken, is that this is big news because the catholic church–that big political organization that rallies people to anti-abortion candidates, you know–is about to swing to the right. Voila! A political trend story.

      And that’s what’s really objectionable, because it’s an utterly false trend.

      “At a time when Catholics are watching their community become increasingly polarized along political lines.” Anyone involved in the catholic church knows that it was far more more politicized in the 70s and 80s and far less so now. That “dying breed” of the catholic “moderate” (ie, the catholic who is revolted by elements of both platforms) has been SURGING over the past couple of decades. The party-affiliated catholics are the ones who seem to be dying–literally–in my experience. They’re old people, still fighting the battles of Vatican II, still railing against the old men in Rome, still clinging to the idea that abortion is the only issue that matters, still justifying that abortion doesn’t matter at all, still preoccupied with nuclear weapons like Mitt Romney is preoccupied with the soviet union (oops, Russia), still suckered into the idea that capitalism must be unfettered if we are to stave off the commies. Those ideas were never Christian, never Catholic, but only a temporary infection brought on by the duress of change and political strife.

  • tmatt

    And your take on my key journalistic question in this post?

  • Del Rayva

    I thought your point was clear and your question rhetorical, so I didn’t feel the need to elaborate on it. There seemed to be a more fundamental problem with the piece: the writer doesn’t understand how to put a political person in any category but “right,” “left,” or “moderate”. Catholic teaching doesn’t fit in any of those categories, because it is concerned with questions beyond power and control. The writer failed to understand that, and would have had a bett piece if he had tried to show how radical John Carr is while not fitting in any of these categories. That wild have been a better story.

  • carl jacobs

    The Washington Post is writing to its audience. That audience doesn’t care about a conservative critique of John Carr. It wants to be re-assured that there is a safely modernist form of politically active Roman Catholicism out there. This is all about reinforcing the liberal fantasy that conservative religion will eventually fade away. But wait! The Empire Strikes Back in the form of Timothy Dolan – Catholic Sith Lord of the Dark Side and servant of Pope Palpatine XVI. Time to rally the ideological troops for the struggle ahead. There is a Vatican Death Star to be blown up.

    carl

  • Mike

    The Point of the story was that he would be missed by moderates and progressives. Why create a false balance when the story isn’t about Catholic or religious conservatives? Tossing in a quote for balance would undermine the point of the story. If there is a story about how moderates are mourning the departure of Olympia Snowe, for instance, we don’t need a quote from Tom Coburn for balance.

  • The Old Bill

    “For the typical American Catholic, seeing Cardinal Tim Dolan, the country’s top bishop, give the closing prayer at the GOP convention was the big political event of the summer.”

    Huh? It was? And what is the typical American Catholic? Didn’t a certain Mr. Mattingly write a few words about this?

    “He has also zealously slammed the Obama White House for its mandate that employers provide contraception coverage to employees.”

    But… but… doesn’t that make him a sort of field marshal in the War Against Women? That’s moderate? And a pro-life moderate? Why, I do declare I’ve never read of such a thing in the WaPo!

    “Catholic progressives are particularly worried about Carr leaving as Church officialdom in recent years has put greater and greater emphasis on defending the unborn.”

    But… but… if Carr was pro-life, why would progressives be worried about his successor? Do they fear that he might be opposed to abortion?

    Journalistic question: Can a Democrat be described moderate while holding the same views that would make a Republican be described as extreme? Or are there some issues that transcend the partisan?

    • Mike

      “But… but… if Carr was pro-life, why would progressives be worried about his successor? Do they fear that he might be opposed to abortion?”

      The reason there is a concern is that Carr was seen as a reliable voice for Catholic concerns beyond abortion, including issues of concern to the left. With Carr leaving and the continuing shift of focus by Dolan and the Bishops, the story focused on what other moderate faith policy people in DC were thinking when it comes to a shift in attention by the USCCB.

  • sari

    *Journalistic question: Can a Democrat be described moderate while holding the same views that would make a Republican be described as extreme? Or are there some issues that transcend the partisan?*

    Love to see this one answered. Maybe the difference lies in a person’s willingness to listen to and exchange ideas with the other side.

  • Joseph

    John who? I am a deeply committed Catholic who never heard of him until his retirement was announced.
    Let’s see. Does that make me center, center left, center right, far left, far right, or somewhere in between?
    Maybe I’m far right. I give 20% of my income to help the poor in our country and elsewhere.

  • deacon john m. bresnahan

    The problem the media has is that it refuses to understand that the Catholic Church’s (and the Orthodox Churches’ and Evangelical Protestant) pro-life stands are not some sort of modern political creation devised for use in the modern political arena. They are pro-life based on common Christian pro-life teachings that go back to the Bible and can be found in many early Church documents and writings which all these Church
    groupings revere.
    Based on this– it is not surprising, and almost mandatory– for a real Christian church or group to give priority to the protection of innocent human life–especially the most defenseless of innocent human life–the unborn. It is one of the key issues that separated Christianity from the blood-drenched habits of the Roman Empire and why our Founding Fathers put Life first ahead of liberty and the pursuit of happiness
    For most Christians there is a hierarchy of values which has as its bedrock the protection of innocent human life and the family. Rare is the media story that seems to understand this but, instead, looks on it all as just another facet of politics as usual : Left, Right, Center—Liberal, Moderate, Conservative —with the media making themselves the self-appointed determiners of who gets what label based on the media’s biases, prejudices, or regnant ideology.

  • adele young

    … I shouldn’t wonder that WaPo et al get it wrong with all the
    conflicting factions we find today in the Church. Who can blame them?

  • Keri

    I found the Washington Post article to be revealing on the dynamics currently in play. … I wonder how many more moderate Catholics are representing us as liaison to the Bishops and to the world. I wouldn’t mind some biographies of the laity currently working in the USCCB and possibly encouraging some more retirements. We need strong, orthodox Catholic laity inundating our Bishops, encouraging them to stand up with boldness and not be afraid to proclaim the Gospel truths and stand united in protecting our religious liberty, life of the unborn, sanctity of marriage, & morality.

  • Passing By

    An interesting but flawed article. Interesting in that it mentions the passions invoked by the mix of Catholicism and politics, then skips on by, leaving me to wonder where the passions are. John Carr, per one of the comments from someone who knows him, is a “progressive Democrat”, so the WaPo likes him. It is interesting to remember when the bishops were widely considered to be in the pocket of the Democratic Party; this fellow seems like a holdover from those days.

    However, Boorstein indulges a fatal flaw that smells like pure politics. Catholics who know anything know that there is no separation between protecting life and serving the poor. Apparently the administration’s HHS mandates even raised Carr’s ire, which says something.

    Best wishes to him in retirement.


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