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Paul James MacraeDecember 04, 2023
U.S. Senator J. D. Vance speaks at the 2023 Turning Point Action Conference in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons)U.S. Senator J. D. Vance speaks at the 2023 Turning Point Action Conference in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons)

In his 1901 encyclical “Graves de Communi Re,” known in English as “On Christian Democracy,” Pope Leo XIII described some of the “excellent undertakings” of governments that looked to Christian teaching (rather than socialism) to improve society: “for instance, the popular bureaus which supply information to the uneducated; the rural banks which make loans to small farmers; the societies for mutual help or relief; the unions of working men and other associations or institutions of the same kind…” (No. 3).

The freshman senator J.D. Vance, a Republican from Ohio, may be heeding Leo’s call. Described by the news site Semafor as the “MAGA Dealmaker,” Mr. Vance has surprised observers by frequently partnering with progressive stalwart Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, to criticize large corporations; when Silicon Valley Bank collapsed earlier this year, he called them out for concentrating its business on “private jet financing and other goodies that are basically beneficial only to the very wealthy.” He is leading legislative efforts to penalize executives who oversee bank failures and to protect smaller “community” lenders; and he is backing legislation to lower the fees credit card companies charge small businesses.

He voiced support for the United Auto Workers strike a few weeks before it was settled in October with the three largest U.S. auto companies agreeing to the biggest pay raises in decades. Before the strike ended, Mr. Vance said that U.A.W. workers had gotten “the short end of the stick”—though he did not endorse unionization efforts in general and did not criticize the management of the auto companies, instead saying the Biden administration’s push for “the premature transition to electric vehicles” was “destroying the American car industry.”

Mr. Vance has surprised observers by frequently partnering with progressive stalwart Elizabeth Warren to criticize large corporations.

Mr. Vance is also championing a new rail safety bill, after a train derailment that caused a toxic chemical leak and devastating fire in the small town of East Palestine, Ohio. In a statement to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, he said: “Any ideology which defends inaction in the face of communities being wiped off the map through environmental happenstance is not conservative, but radical. It necessarily subordinates human life and community to a false ideal of the market somehow existing independent of our society.” Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas, was not so sympathetic to the bill, saying its tougher safety regulations would drive up energy costs and would empower “the radical Green Movement.”

Does Mr. Vance, who converted to Catholicism in 2019, hope to prove that some of the principles of Catholic social teaching can find a home in the Republican Party, which has long advocated for less regulation and less government?

His positions in the Senate are not really surprising to those who have followed his career. For several years, Mr. Vance has been associated with the “post-liberal right,” a predominantly Catholic group of intellectuals including Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari and Adrian Vermeule. Influenced by papal encyclicals, they mix social conservatism with communitarian values deeply skeptical of capitalism and globalization. Mr. Vance himself has said the overlap between his political views and Catholic social teaching was key in his conversion to Catholicism.

Mr. Vance has said the overlap between his political views and Catholic social teaching was key in his conversion to Catholicism.

For decades the church has stood uncomfortably between the two major political parties: the Democrats, with their increasingly stringent secularism and absolutist stance on abortion, and the Republicans, with their equally dogmatic belief in capitalism and a hawkish foreign policy. Politicians who express support for the church’s full range of social teaching are almost nonexistent, to the frustration of many faithful intellectuals and church leaders, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Archbishop Emeritus Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia.

Mr. Vance’s economic populist streak, combined with his pro-life views and support for religious liberty, offers a refreshing alternative to the current choices in American politics. But there are still three major issues where Mr. Vance stands in contrast to church leaders in the United States.

The first is guns. For decades, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has supported gun control measures, including a ban on assault weapons, comprehensive background checks and a higher minimum purchasing age. But since his run for the Senate in 2022, Mr. Vance has opposed additional gun control measures and supported abolishing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, long the ire of gun rights groups.

The second issue is immigration. The church, historically an advocate for immigrants, tends to favor less restrictive immigration policies and pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Mr. Vance stands in contrast to Catholic social teaching here; he has instead called for the extension of the border wall with Mexico and crackdowns on illegal immigration.

Finally, there is the war in Ukraine. Mr. Vance, like many post-liberals, has been skeptical of continuing U.S. aid to Ukraine and has warned of an “indefinite war” there. In contrast, most U.S. church leaders have argued that Ukraine’s military response to the invasion by Russia is generally compatible with just war theory.

Despite these differences, if Mr. Vance continues his current path, he could help at least some elements of Catholic social teaching to get a hearing in the Republican Party. In October 2021, former congressman Dan Lipinski—who, along with Congressman Chris Smith, was once a standard bearer for Catholic social teaching in Congress—praised Mr. Vance as a “common good Republican.” (Note: I have previously been a campaign worker for Mr. Lipinski.) That is a description that Mr. Vance, a potential presidential candidate in 2028 or beyond, should aspire to.

[Read next: “Why Some Catholics Love to Hate-Read Ross Douthat”]

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