Ending the USCCB’s Path to Progressive Politics?


September 20, 2012

After 25 years of faithful service, John Carr, executive director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development, retired last month. In a personal note circulated among his colleagues—which was later posted online—Carr wrote that he was “leaving the USCCB, not to end my service to the Church, but to serve in new ways—to help form, convene, and encourage Catholic lay men and women to take up their unique task of bringing Catholic social and moral teaching to community and political life.”

Throughout the last year of his tenure at the USCCB, Carr was under siege from the secular left because he has supported the bishops in their lawsuit against the HHS mandate to provide contraceptive care—including abortifacients and sterilization services—to employees of Catholic institutions. Carr has responded to these attacks courageously.

This fall, Carr will begin a fellowship on faith in public life at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government—a position that will give him some time to decide where he will bring his passion for social justice to “form, convene, and encourage” the Catholic laity. But the choice of the Kennedy School reveals that Carr may already have chosen to continue the path to progressive politics chosen by so many of his predecessors when they left the USCCB. In fact, the USCCB has provided a kind of training ground for many progressive Catholics currently working to help elect liberal-leaning candidates for office—including candidates who support policies that will expand abortion availability and same-sex marriage.

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Sara Morello, executive vice president of Catholics for Choice, worked for the USCCB prior to her current position at the pro-abortion organization founded by self-described “former nun” Frances Kissling. According to the Catholics for Choice website, Morello—who holds a licentiate in canon law from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC and a bachelor’s degree in theology from Creighton University—“brings her expertise in canon law, theology, church structure and governance to inform CFC work as well as that of its partners and colleagues.” In other words, Morello is using her graduate degree from a Catholic university and her experience at the USCCB to provide canon law cover for Catholics who wish to support abortion with a clear conscience.

Throughout her long tenure at Catholics for Choice, Morello developed many of the organization’s core publications. In Conscience, the Catholics for Choice flagship publication, Morello published an article in 2003 titled “Pro-Choice Politics and Church Law,” which purported to tell readers “what canon law actually says.” Morello advised her readers, “Although getting an abortion is against the Church’s law, the law itself is more complex and nuanced than many would expect…Catholic politicians should take comfort in the fact that their rights as a Catholic cannot be restricted unless the church law specifically says so, or unless a bishop or the pope takes punitive action. And, almost without exception, neither the bishops nor the pope have taken punitive action against Catholic policy makers who have expressed pro-choice views or cast pro-choice votes.” Morello concludes that “what canon law says about abortion is also complemented by the church’s other teachings, which can be found in scripture, the teaching of church councils like Vatican II, as well as the teachings of the popes throughout history, and from bishops and theologians.” For Morello, “changes over the years to theology and law underscore the responsibility of Catholics to form their own consciences through inquiry and study, not merely reliance on one priest or bishop’s teaching—or threats.”

Morello isn’t the only former USCCB employee to align herself with pro-abortion causes. Long-time USCCB employee Alexia Kelley—currently the director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the US Department of Health and Human Services—works with the pro-abortion Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and was instrumental in helping to pass President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which included funding for abortion and lacked conscience protections for health care providers. During her 10-year tenure at the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Kelley worked with Carr to funnel more than $7 million of parishioners’ donations to the scandal-ridden organization ACORN—the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

In 2005, Kelley was among the founders of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a George Soros-supported advocacy group which was created to help elect progressive candidates to office. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Kelley teamed with James Salt and Christ Korzen, leaders of Catholics United (another progressive Catholic advocacy organization), to help neutralize the abortion issue by casting it in pro-Democratic Party terms—claiming that reducing poverty was the best way to reduce abortion.

Kelley was joined at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good by other colleagues from the USCCB, including John Gehring, Tom Chabolla, and Francis Xavier Doyle. Gehring parlayed his position as assistant media director at the USCCB to a communications position at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Today, working as senior writer and Catholic outreach coordinator at Jim Wallis’ Soros-supported Faith in Public Life, Gehring frequently criticizes the same bishops he once worked for at the USCCB. Gehring is assisted in the media offices of Faith in Public Life by Nick Sementelli, another former employee of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, who appears to be taking the role of point-person in an attack on the authority of the bishops. His most recent blog posts at the Faith in Public Life website illustrate his willingness to ridicule what he calls the “confusion” among American bishops. Sementelli’s post “Catholic Bishop Contradicts USCCB; Wishes Health Care Law Were Repealed”, for example, attempts to show dissension among the bishops on the Affordable Care Act.

Like Alexia Kelley, Tom Chabolla worked at the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) before he went to work as the assistant to the president of the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union. Chabolla currently serves as one of several union leaders on the Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good Advisory Board. It is understandable that Chabolla was hired by the president of the SEIU, considering the fact that ACORN, a political ally of the SEIU that shared financial and leadership ties with the union, was the beneficiary of millions of parishioners’ dollars through the CCHD.

Perhaps the highest level “graduate” of the USCCB to enter progressive politics through Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good path is Francis Xavier Doyle. Serving at the USCCB for 24 years, Doyle was the associate general secretary of the USCCB before he became the treasurer-secretary of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. In this capacity, Doyle played an important role in helping to pass the Affordable Care Act. Publicly identifying himself as “a former associate general secretary of the USCCB”—implying that he credibly speaks for Catholics—Doyle joined Sister Simone Campbell, the director of the national Catholic social justice lobby Network, to promote President Obama’s health care reform. In a teleconference sponsored by Faith in Public Life on March 18, 2010, Doyle used his long tenure at the USCCB to imply Catholic support for the Affordable Care Act, noting that “Catholic teaching has long promoted universal health care as a fundamental human right.… No legislation is perfect, but this legislation is the first step in reforming a broken system.”

Whether John Carr continues down the progressive political path that so many of his predecessors at the USCCB have taken remains to be seen. But at Harvard, Carr will join progressive professors he knew well during his tenure at the USCCB. Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, a long-time leader within the bishops’ conference who served as the associate secretary for International Justice and Peace office, now serves as the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at Harvard. In a recent article for First Things, George Weigel described Father Hehir as being part of the USCCB “Bernardin Machine,” named after the Chicago cardinal who led a powerful network of progressive prelates that dominated the affairs of the American hierarchy—and the bishops’ conference—for more than two decades. Weigel wrote that “Hehir and Bernardin shared an ecclesiology that was sympathetic to the progressive wing of the post-conciliar spectrum.”

Besides Father Hehir, Carr will also join Kennedy School Professor Mary Jo Bane—a progressive Catholic who was often called upon by the USCCB as an expert on poverty issues. Bane is also a favorite speaker at Voice of the Faithful conferences because she advocates a complete restructuring of the hierarchy of the Church—giving more power to the laity in choosing their pastors and bishops. Voice of the Faithful does not recognize the authority of bishops to head their dioceses and continues to lobby for renewal of the structure of the Catholic Church—diminishing the authority of the clergy. Bane, who helped then-Governor Mario Cuomo implement his policy on state-funding for abortion when she worked for him as commissioner of the New York State Department of Social Services, also served as the Assistant Secretary for Children and Families in the Clinton administration from 1993-1996. In 2008, Bane served as part of President Obama’s Catholic advisory team.

Many observers believe that Carr has already established himself as part of that same progressive “Bernardin Machine” to which Doyle, Gehring, Kelley, and Morello belonged. Carr’s long tenure at the USCCB has been marked by scandal; his office made the funding decisions for Catholic Campaign for Human Development grants—some of which went to organizations that promote abortion and same-sex marriage. Last year, it was revealed that, while working for the USCCB, Carr concurrently chaired the board of the Center for Community Change, an organization that has received $150,000 from the CCHD despite the fact that the organization is involved in pro-abortion activities. Although Carr ended his affiliation with the Center for Community Change in 2005, he spent more than two decades working for the group.

Still, it is possible that Carr will avoid the pro-choice politics that so many of his colleagues at the USCCB pursued. In his farewell note, Carr acknowledged the challenges he faced from “polarized politics and false choices that ask us to choose between defense of the unborn and the protection of poor.” It is possible that despite his choice to pursue the fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School, Carr may understand better than his progressive predecessors at the USCCB that one can bridge the gap between protection of the poor and defending the unborn.

Claiming in his farewell note that sometimes he feels “politically homeless,” Carr seems to be rejecting the default path to progressive politics that so many of his USCCB predecessors took. Having been criticized by some progressives for his defense of the bishops in their HHS lawsuit, it is possible that the courageous Carr will be better able than some of his former USCCB colleagues to resist the pressure to promote policies that fail to protect the unborn. Carr has suggested that “we need places and strategies to advance a consistent vision of defending human life and dignity.” We can hope that Carr will someday find a home where he can do just that.

This essay first appeared September 4, 2012 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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