Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 11, 2017
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 bythe 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.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Richard Booth
6 years 10 months 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
6 years 10 months 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
6 years 10 months 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.
Stuart Meisenzahl
6 years 10 months ago

This America article along with its many similar political critique articles pose the question of qualifications of the sponsors , speaker, and authors.
When the theologians, bishops and cardinals get degrees in economics, or risk starting businesses and meeting those challenges, or even run the risk of raising and educating children , then they will have the credentials to dictate or suggest how things in economic systems, business or the family SHOULD BE DONE.
Until then they are perfectly qualified to comment only from an ethical or moral point on "the results of how these things are being done".
They are also fully within their expertise to opine on the moral necessity to take action to correct perceived immoral results from business operations , economic systems or family dynamics.
They are qualified to exhort correction but they have no qualifications to specify or suggest the actual means of correction.
Seriously what qualifies a theologian to discuss a"carbon tax as a necessary element to fight climate change" and attach a moral imperative to it? Degrees in climatology and economics and tax law?
If Sister Keenan seriously thinks "healthcare is not a market commodity" she had better be prepared to start a network of hospitals that have an all volunteer staff of doctors, aids, nurses etc. And start medical schools that don't charge tuition because it's professors and administrators are volunteers. And assume none of these people have families requiring support. By the way what are her qualifications to comment on the ACA?

A brief look at how the US bishops and cardinals have handled the necessary material aspects of their own dominions demonstrates how just how inadequate their own qualifications in business , economics and family dynamics are.
How else do you explain their systematic closing of Catholic schools and shuttering parishes?....the beating heart of their church! Sure there are demographic shifts etc, but in fact the the availability of economic Catholic resources to sustain these schools and parishes is now logs greater than those resources available from our immigrant forebearers who actually contributed to and built these schools and parishes.
Our "blue collar" ancestors--ditch diggers, hod carriers, masons, bartenders,railroad laborers, barge men ,etc etc- they could build these Cathedrals and parish churches and tuition free schools. But our present white collar professional Catholics- raised up in those very schools and parishes- somehow can't maintain those same facilities.
Yet these same Bishops and Cardinals somehow feel confident in prescribing or approving specific economic fixes, legislative action, specific rules and regulations that should be adopted by economic systems, business and government when they can't maintain, fix or repair their own bailiwicks

Adam Smith perceived the basic human instinct he described in the aggregate as "the invisible hand".......each hand strives for its "own good" and in the aggregate we get economic and societal systems that serve the best interests of the majority.
It is the theologians, bishops and cardinals job to preach, lead and convince each EACH human component of the Smith "invisible hand" just what it's own ethical moral good should be or is.
Then an economic system will evolve reflecting such shared ethical values, and business will be conducted reflecting those values and families raised to their perpetuate those values. I would also bet that parishes will also then thrive and schools and churches be maintained with enthusiasm.
These are leadership fixes that work from the bottom up! It's necessarily granular but not grand. It's long hard work... in the pulpit, visiting individuals, going to parish halls, etc not to conferences of bishops and theologians.
The theologians, bishops and cardinals seemingly prefer the easy route of dictating grand action via the government .... from the top down. It won't work!

Chuck Kotlarz
6 years 10 months ago

The “invisible hand” perhaps can use help from the church. Right-To-Work states have 50% more traffic fatalities, 30% more homicides and 15% more suicides than states without R-T-W. Trump won twenty-four of twenty-six R-T-W states. Trump’s supporters believe R-T-W states won’t be left behind. I hope they are correct.

Stuart Meisenzahl
6 years 9 months ago

Are you seriously suggesting that RTW has anything to do with traffic accident fatalities, homicide rates and suicide rates? The connection is what ? So Trump was elected by accident prone, homicidal , suicidal citizens?.
Yes "the Adam Smith invisible hand" can surely be influenced by clerical involvement in educating the indiviuals, who are the components of the invisible hand, in the " moral implications" of their choices. But the relationship to RTW is what?

JR Cosgrove
6 years 10 months ago

“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.

There is only one moral way to distribute economic goods to the masses. That is "Free Market Capitalism." Any other way ends up with the favoring of one group over another and the poor end up the losers. Here is a short video on why the Free Market is best


There are many forms of capitalism and the "Free Market" form is the most equitable way to distribute goods Free means that each participant in a transaction enters it willingly, If one side is coerced in any way then the transaction is no longer free. Too many people conflate other forms of capitalism where one side has an strong advantage with free market capitalism. Another misconception is that free markets forces people into poverty where it is just the opposite. There is less poverty where free markets prevail. And the free market celebrates ways to help the unfortunate.

Doesn't anyone else see the irony of this article? And the litany of other articles appearing on this site criticizing free market capitalism.

Here we have bishops talking about the imperialism of market mechanisms, whatever that is, but doing everything in their power to encourage and enable people to escape cultures where there are no free market mechanisms to come to a country which celebrates it. We live at a time and place in history where the world has never been richer and more generous to its people. And the bishops are upset because we don't have more.

I think some of the bishops have to do some introspection before what they recommend kills the golden goose.

Chuck Kotlarz
6 years 10 months ago

“Too many people conflate other forms of capitalism where one side has a strong advantage with free market capitalism.”

Would 10,000 Washington DC lobbyists perhaps give one side a strong advantage? “For every dollar spent on lobbying by labor unions and public-interest groups together, large corporations and their associations now spend $34.”


The latest from america

Perhaps no thinker influenced Catholic theology in the 20th century more than Yves Congar, O.P.
James T. KeaneDecember 05, 2023
Catholic leaders in Scotland recently joined their Presbyterian Church of Scotland counterparts in advocacy for fair pay for workers in this increasingly essential sector of health care givers for the elderly.
David StewartDecember 05, 2023
In his new apostolic letter, Pope Francis called for a new hermeneutical and methodological framework that is not averse to confronting the complexities, fragilities and vulnerabilities of our times.
In 1967, Patrick Granfield, O.S.B., conducted this wide-ranging interview with Yves Congar, O.P., the great theologian of Vatican II.
Patrick GranfieldDecember 05, 2023