June 4, 2013

John Carr Responds to Marjorie Jeffrey’s Column


(John Carr served as Executive Director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference for more than 20 years.)


Sadly, you (in your column) seriously misunderstand or misrepresent the substance of my column on prudential judgment. Your readers might be interested in the following brief excerpts from the column which undermine the accusations and implications contained in your misleading post:

“They [advocates] emphasize the distinction between fundamental moral principles that have compelling moral claims (like the duty to protect innocent human life) and prudential judgments that are matters for debate (like how to overcome poverty).The distinction is valid, but neither stands alone. We have a duty both to reject policies that violate fundamental principles and to pursue positive actions to carry out moral obligations.”

“Prudential judgment can become a mistaken rationale for ignoring Catholic teaching that conflicts with our partisan or ideological preferences or to act on some principles and ignore others. Some resist racism or other denials of human rights but fail to protect the foundational rights to life and religious freedom. Others deeply committed to unborn human life resist the Catholic condemnation of torture or the church’s call to end use of the death penalty. Pope Francis is challenging us to embrace the fullness of the Gospel, to resist isolation and ideology to protect the lives and dignity of all.

“Catholic teaching is a coherent whole—not a menu of compelling moral absolutes, a set of fundamental ethical principles and a collection of optional positions. Bishops are not just another interest group, and their statements are not just another set of talking points. They deserve serious attention and action. But they are not the whole church. Lay women and men need to become more informed and engaged in their vocation to be ‘salt, light and leaven’ in public life.”

“The recognition that public choices require prudence is not a way of escaping ethical responsibility; it is a call to principled discernment and decision-making. It is a beginning of moral discussion, not the end.”

This is hardly an a column that “advocate(s) an end to the practice of prudential judgment,” in your words.

As for your charge regarding my alleged “history of preferring political activism over faithfulness to Church teaching,” you don’t know me, my faithfulness or my work over two decades of service to the Catholic bishops. I trust their judgment over your citation of discredited allegations on the web. You might want to be careful about making sweeping claims about other people’s faithfulness in the future.

Far from attempting “to silence rational discourse about the proper role of government and prudent courses of public policy in the name of Catholic teaching” [your words], I was trying to make a constructive contribution to the discussion. about the role of prudential judgment in public life. Sadly, your post in misrepresenting what I said doesn’t advance that discussion, but diminishes it.

I urge your readers to read the column in America and make their own assessment. It can be found at http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/dear-prudence.

John Carr

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6 Responses to John Carr Responds to Marjorie Jeffrey’s Column

  1. I’m all for engaging on the issues, but it appears Mr Carr doesn’t make any attempt to show how Marjorie misrepresented his views. One can only be left to assume she was correct and merely struck a nerve.

    • maximus15 says:

      On the contrary, Mr. Carr cited multiple passages from his earlier article that contradict Ms. Jeffrey’s claim that he “advocate(s) an end to the practice of prudential judgment.” (the “seems” caveat does not absolve the misrepresentation). I don’t understand why this discussion had to descend to the ad hominem. Both of these writers are intelligent and made good points. But Ms. Jeffery could have made her claims without casting aspersions on Mr. Carr’s fidelity or integrity. Readers (including Ms. Jeffrey) interested in robust public discourse unadulterated by personal animus would be better served by reading the (aptly named) online journal Public Discourse.

      • irdinterns says:

        I don’t think that citing Mr. Carr’s history of serving two (opposing) causes qualifies as ad hominem. I do wish it had not been taken that way by you or Mr. Carr. I was simply pointing out the facts – albeit in a polemical fashion. (I like to take St. Robert Bellarmine as a model when addressing the views of an opponent.) Furthermore, I’m a great fan of Public Discourse. It’s a shame you don’t think my work meets their standards.

  2. I am not sure if Marjory Jeffrey mischaracterized John Carr’s column because it’s not totally clear what Carr is trying to say.

    He starts his essay well by warning against political leaders who “minimize moral dimensions of issues by insisting that public choices are simply matters of ‘prudential judgment’ and that therefore religious teaching and moral arguments are really not important.” He rightly points out that when those in Washington “overemphasize these distinctions, they often ignore the moral urgency and ethical criteria for action that come with the principles they claim to respect.”

    Mr. Carr appears to properly emphasize that, for Christians, foundational moral dimensions should be primary.

    Then his message gets confused and ambiguous. He seems unclear as to what distinguishes prudential from moral decisions. Indeed, as his column progresses, he seems to disregard his own admonitions.

    In calling the Iraq War a “prudential decision” he ignores the underlying moral components (pro and con). He offers a false choice in saying “We should be debating how to give priority to the poor, practice solidarity and subsidiarity. We should not be debating whether we are obliged to protect their lives and respond to their needs.” (In fact both conversations can, do, and should occur simultaneously.)

    It should be clear that he debate as to how to best meet the needs of the poor, long-term, is as necessary as meeting those needs today. Isn’t offering persons the opportunity for self-sufficiency a foundational Judeo-Christian principle? Isn’t perpetual dependency damaging to both psyche and soul? Rather than getting overly caught up in budgetary concerns and debating what government can do about poverty—the track record isn’t so good—why isn’t Mr. Carr entertaining means by which CATHOLICS can do more about poverty?

    It’s interesting that, in the context of a massive federal budget, Carr brings up the concept of subsidiarity, which teaches that decision making should be left at the lowest possible level in society.

    Mr. Carr interjects his own bias into the immigration debate by presumptuously asserting that his group has the most correct understanding of Catholic moral principles.

    Mr. Carr, like so many modern progressives, fails to appreciate a central fact: while there are political consequences to sincere Christian faith, Christian faith is not primarily political. Oh, liberals may give lip service to this notion, but their actions speak otherwise.

    Modern progressives don’t recognize their devotion to politics for the same reason a fish doesn’t appreciate its dependence on water. It’s become as natural as breathing…and that’s the problem.

    Political-dependency, particularly in modern times, is more likely to take us down than build us up.

    George Wiegel perhaps describes Catholic social doctrine in more accurate and comprehensible terms (from First Things):

    “Catholic social thought is about the empowerment of the poor. It is not about failed polices of social assistance that treat poor people as problems to be solved rather than as people with potential to be unleashed. It is not about using public policy to create generation after generation of serfs on the state welfare plantation. Catholic social thought is about the empowerment of the poor, and its broad imagination allows it to think of that empowerment happening through private sector means, some public sector programs, and public/private partnerships where necessary. But contrary to the way some misrepresent it, Catholic social thought does not measure the rectitude of a society by the percentage of its GNP represented in governmental budgets.”

  3. maximus15 says:

    Glad you enjoy Public Discourse. But being an avid reader of their products, I’m afraid your “polemical” writing does not meet the civil tone that makes their publication so formidable (and a pleasure to read). Even the energetic Patrick Deneen knows the difference between discrediting an argument and discrediting a person. But submit something to them and prove me wrong.

    On another note, you did not respond to Mr. Carr’s defense (which I repeated above) against your claim that he “advocate(s) an end to the practice of prudential judgment.” It is clear that Mr. Carr is not only ok with prudential judgment; he believes prudence is required for “principled discernment and decision-making.” What good would it have done St. Robert to misrepresent the positions of his Protestant opponents? And if he did, then he is not a saint (or a Doctor of the Church) on THAT account.

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