Getting ready for Trump: Catholic leaders condemn the ‘imperialism’ of free markets

Cardinal Sean O'Malley speaks about the importance of protecting workers' rights during a conference at the Catholic University of America on Jan 10. (Courtesy: CUA)

Fearing rollbacks of economic, health care and environmental regulations under President Donald J. Trump that they say could harm vulnerable communities, several high-profile Catholic leaders gathered in the nation’s capital on Tuesday to urge the faithful to stand up for the rights of workers, the poor and immigrants.

“The church must work in the coming months with unions, workers, the elderly and the poor to counter the growing imperialism of market mechanisms within American public life,” Bishop Robert McElroy of the Diocese of San Diego told a crowd gathered at the Catholic University of America.

In response, Sister Carol Keehan, the president of the Catholic Health Association and a key early supporter of the Affordable Care Act, called health care “a basic human right” and she urged “a united voice” from Catholic leaders to say it is “intolerable” for the tens of millions of Americans who receive health insurance through Obamacare to risk losing their coverage.

“Each year, more of our health care dollars go into non-health care spending,” she said, lamenting laws that are “crafted largely to please or appease mega-industries, such as drug companies or insurance companies.”

Sister Keehan said that the church must “firmly reject market solutions that reject or don’t care that health care is not a market commodity.”

The speakers were on hand at a conference called “Erroneous Autonomy: The Dignity of Work,” sponsored by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America and the AFL-CIO. The aim of the conference was to highlight the ways in which various social forces, when unhinged from moral teaching, can harm society.

Boston’s Cardinal Seán O’Malley, for example, talked about the negative effects of globalization on individuals when it is unmoored from ethical boundaries. While global economic agreements can produce great wealth and lift people out of poverty, he said that fixing the accompanying wage stagnation remains “a human and moral imperative.”

The cardinal, an advisor to Pope Francis, noted further that Catholic support for a just wage “is never determined only by factors of supply and demand” but by deeper truths about human dignity. “Catholic teaching about the option for the poor,” he continued, “places us in support of initiatives to raise the minimum wage.”

More than 125 people attended the event, the third in a series exploring how the church can fight libertarian thought in civic and political spheres by highlighting the moral dimension of the economy.

Bishop McElroy, for instance, noted that markets themselves are morally neutral yet the “imperialism of market mechanisms at this stage of our nation’s history is a compelling example of erroneous autonomy.” Markets, he said, are forces for good “when they serve the common good in society by their creation of wealth, the enhancement of freedom and their service to distributive justice.”

But they also have the potential, he continued, to be “especially destructive when they become surrogates for political choices which diminish support for the elderly, the poor and the marginalized or when they undermine the rights of workers.”

Though many of the speakers took shots at ideas espoused on the campaign trail by Mr. Trump, the criticism was bipartisan. Thomas Frank, a cultural historian and author, laid blame at the feet of President Barack Obama for failing to rein in Wall Street following the 2008 financial crisis, leading to a fissure between working-class voters and political leaders in the Democratic Party.

Under Mr. Obama, he said, “no big banks got put into receivership. No bailouts were unwound. No elite bankers were prosecuted. Obama and his Democrats refused to change course when every sign said turn,” he said.

Bishop McElroy said the Obama administration overreached on some social issues, including “the heavy-handed manner” in which the administration addressed the extremely complex issue of transgender rights. Further, he said, the administration had “infringed upon the legitimate autonomy of religious communities, cultural traditions and familial patterns.”

The results, he said, included “feelings of alienation which many citizens have from elite leaders in our nation today.”

While the event focused heavily on the responsibility of government to protect vulnerable communities through increased regulation, some speakers noted the personal sacrifices Americans must make to effect change.

David Cloutier, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America, said that a carbon tax is a necessary element in helping to fight climate change. But, he said, “conscientious moral stewardship” is a necessary component.

“We can’t get a carbon tax if people’s expectations about their lifestyle don’t change,” he said. “We have to expect to fly less, drive smaller vehicles, have more reasonably sized houses. But we need more expensive fossil fuels for the essentially free waste disposal to stop.”

Calls to protect immigrants were also plentiful, including from Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, who praised the church’s call for immigration reform. Mr. Trumka said that the AFL-CIO has been critical of mass deportations under the Obama administration and that it would continue to voice concern when Mr. Trump is sworn into office Jan. 20.

“Donald Trump campaigned on mass deportation, on building walls, on imposing religious litmus tests,” he said. “Make no mistake about it, those proposals are a violation of our founding principles and our basic humanity.”

He said that now is not the time for “false promises of autonomy, of rugged individualism.”

That notion, he said, “fails to recognize that we are all bound together and that we will ultimately all rise or fall together as one.”

Richard Booth
1 week 5 days ago
I agree that we must be vigilant lest long-held values and those most in need suffer during the next four years. Why is America publishing so many articles that warn Catholics of the harm that may be done by the new administration now? Why did the Church and this publication view the election primarily through the single lens of "right to life" instead of invoking people's concerns about "quality of life" issues before the election? We must remember that the majority of voting Catholics cast their ballots for Trump. I wonder why clerics didn't talk much about the warning signs of a Trump administration that stared them in the face for about a year and a half. People, including those Catholics who supported Trump, deserve what, unfortunately, we all might get.
John Dahmus
1 week 4 days ago
Mr. Booth, I agree with your assessment. I am also dismayed by the lukewarm support of too many Catholic leaders for the Affordable Care Act because of their concerns about contraception. Those concerns could have been quietly and effectively addressed. Instead the Catholic bishops chose the heavy handed Fortnight for Freedom program and legal challenges to the implementation of the ACA. This well publicized and politicized opposition to this aspect of the Affordable Care Act gave cover for those who wanted no health reform whatsoever and must have convinced many faithful Catholics, who had little accurate knowledge of the law, that the ACA must be immoral because the Catholic bishops were attacking it.
Chuck Kotlarz
1 week 4 days ago
Does anyone see that Obama won an epic battle with twenty-five people that run the US economy? Obama increased the capital gains tax rate on the twenty-five from 15% to 23%. For the twenty-five, most of their income is from capital gains with only eight percent from salary. Put this battle in perspective. Obama spent $800 billion (2009 stimulus) to boost the US economy. Twenty-five people spent $7 trillion (stock buybacks from 2004 to 2014) to get richer. The combined income of the twenty-five totals more than all the S&P 500 CEOs together. The primary job of S&P 500 CEOs is to make twenty-five people richer through stock buybacks. From another perspective, forty percent of US workers earn $20,000 or less. A $10,000 a year wage increase would run $500 billion. Twenty US companies have spent a combined total of $500 billion on stock buybacks in the past five years. Absolutely disgusting.

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