Good-bye John Carr. Good-bye social justice at USCCB?

I was wondering when this was going to happen: John Carr, for decades the U.S. bishops' lay point-man on social justice, has announced his resignation. Carr's hat has progressively grown larger over the years; he oversaw most recently the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development, an enormous portfolio squished together when the bishops downsized their social justice operation a few years ago.

Carr's depature marks more than the end of his own tenure; it cements an ideological change in the support staff of the conference that began some years ago. George Weigel wrote recently about the end of the Joseph Berdardin era in the U.S. hierarchy (which we in Chicago learned about the minute we met our brother Joseph's successor, Francis George), but Carr's departure is just as big a deal. Bishops come and go, and so do conference presidents, but the support staff at the conference sets the tone. Formerly that staff was made up of solid moderate Catholics who leaned left on political issues (and probably theological ones, too).

They have been replaced now by culture warriors such as Anthony Picarello, the driving lay force at the conference behind the bishops' religious liberty campaign, so much so that one former conference watcher described the conference as the "Republican captivity of the U.S. bishops." Weigel writes approvingly of the end of a "culturally accommodating Catholicism"–we Bernardin folks think of ourselves more as hopeful, postive, and open to dialogue–and its clear that the newest breed of bishop and lay functionary are unwilling to seek common ground in the public arena.

The church's social teaching, already under attack in many quarters of the church, does not have the cachet it once had at the conference. Despite Cardinal Timothy Dolan's exchange of letters with Ayn Rand disciple Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin about the actual content of Catholic social teaching, few bishops make it a priority. You certainly don't see Cardinal Dolan hamming it up with Charlie Rose on the CBS Morning Show about the universal destination of earthly goods.

Time will tell if the bishops are still serious about the church's social teaching. The proof will be in the pudding of the person they hire to fill Carr's big shoes.

About the author

Bryan Cones

Bryan Cones is a writer living in Chicago.