The Catholic Bishops Move Even Further Away From Social Justice

by Amy Sullivan | September 20, 2012

The appointment of a new executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development doesn’t sound like earth-shaking news to most people. But social justice Catholics (as opposed to the abortion-firsters) have been awaiting the announcement ever since the bishops’ longtime anti-poverty lobbyist John Carr announced in June that he would be leaving after 25 years in the role.

Carr, who was highly-respected on Capital Hill and throughout the tight-knit community of religious advocates in Washington, was widely seen as a moderating voice within the conference. (Fun fact: Carr is the older brother of New York Times media columnist David Carr.) That made life difficult for him over the past few years, as he continued to promote Catholic social teaching even when it put him at odds with the positions of conservative Catholic bishops and activists, as well as conservative lay Catholics who have risen to positions of significant power at the conference.

So when Carr announced his departure to become a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, moderate Catholics looked to the announcement of his replacement for a sign of where the USCCB is headed. The bishops have criticized recent Republican budgets that have included stark cuts in social justice programs at home and abroad. But their advocacy has been restrained, expressed through letters to Congress and not through directives for parish education in the form of sermons or anything like the two-week teach-in on religious freedom that took place this summer. The open question for moderate Catholics was whether the conference would continue to pursue an arguably partisan agenda or shift some of its resources and might back to battling poverty in a more visible way.

Now they have their answer, and it isn’t encouraging. Earlier this week, the USCCB announced that Jonathan Reyes would replace Carr at the conference. Reyes has most recently led Catholic Charities in the Denver Archdiocese. But in Catholic circles, he is better known for having co-founded and served as the first president of the Augustine Institute, an unaccredited Catholic graduate school in Denver that has no women on its faculty. However, the institute does have a number of faculty with degrees from Steubenville University in Ohio, the Liberty University of Catholicism. Steubenville made national news in May when it became the first Catholic institution to sue the federal government over the contraception mandate, even though the school would almost certainly be covered by the administration’s “religious employer” exemption.

Perhaps the most relevant piece of Reyes’ background is his position as a protégé of Archbishop Charles Chaput, who served in Denver until his recent appointment to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Chaput, you may remember, was one of a handful of Catholic clerics who declared in 2004 that John Kerry should not receive communion because of his support for abortion rights. The archbishop gave an interview to the National Catholic Reporter last week that all but endorsed the Romney-Ryan ticket, and he joined a small group of Catholic leaders who have sought to defend Paul Ryan and his enthusiastic support for cutting funds to social programs.

Reyes’ appointment has been cheered by conservative Catholics online. Here’s the reaction of one columnist at the conservative site CatholicCulture.org:

Have you been frustrated, over the years, with the political statements issued by the US bishops’ conference? If so, prepare for a welcome change. Have you wondered why the bishops never seem to listen to reasonable arguments by conservative Catholics? That’s about to change, too.

No one I have talked to—in or outside the conference—seems to know exactly who was involved in choosing Reyes. It’s unclear whether the selection was left up to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who serves as the president of the USCCB, or whether the bishops who head the committees Reyes will report to were involved in the process. Regardless, Michael Sean Winters spoke for concerned moderate Catholics when he wrote at the National Catholic Reporter: “At a time when there are obvious divisions within the hierarchy regarding which public policy issues should be emphasized and how those issues should be framed, it seems to me imperative to have selected someone who was not so obviously aligned with one wing of the current ideological divisions.”

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