Party platforms are strange beasts. They are no guarantee of how a party’s nominee for president might govern — especially not in an election year such as this one, when both major parties are so internally divided. And the specific planks of a party platform don’t necessarily play a big role in a typical voter’s selections.
Nonetheless, platforms are a reflection of the principles and priorities of a party’s base, and they can be a good indication of where the party stands and where it might be going. For this reason, they’re worthy of close scrutiny through the lens of the Church’s social teaching.
But instead of analyzing the policy prescriptions of the Democrats and Republicans on their consistency with the individual principles of Catholic social teaching, it can be more illustrative and helpful to consider how they might affect the social unit that the Church maintains is most foundational: the family.
The Center of Social Life
The Church considers the dignity of the human person to be the foundation of all its social teaching, but it’s an understanding of the human person as fundamentally social. Considering an individual apart from his or her social context is, therefore, nonsensical and unhelpful.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church tells us that the family is “the first natural society” and places it at “the center of social life.” The natural family, or the “domestic church,” is the context in which all men and women either live out their vocations or are prepared for them.
What’s good for the family, then, is good for both the individual and for wider society. All good public policy is, therefore, “family policy,” and our political parties should pursue laws and programs that promote the well-being and integrity of the family, both at home and abroad.
This is especially needed now, at a time when the family in America is being ripped asunder by a multitude of social and market forces. All the crises our nations faces — from identity to economic — are either caused by the breakdown of the family or directly contribute to it.
If, as Pope Francis says in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), “the welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church” (31), we need to seriously consider the vision of the family offered by the Republican and the Democratic Parties, as well as how the planks of their platforms will help or hurt families.
Republican Platform: Well-Intended, but Inconsistent
The GOP refers to “family” or “families” 72 times in its 50-plus-page platform and affirms the family as the “cornerstone of civil society.” The platform also makes clear that the family is based on marriage between one man and one woman. But while the Republican Party recognizes the proper nature of the family and the pivotal role it plays in society, which is a fundamental aspect of Catholic social teaching, the platform has an inconsistent record of advocating for policies that protect and promote the family.
In some areas, the connection between the well-being of the family and particular policy prescriptions is strong. For instance, the Republican Party platform uses language to talk about education policy that could have been lifted straight out of Church documents. The platform emphasizes that parents “have primary responsibility for the education of their children” and have the right to “direct their children’s education, care and upbringing.” It calls for increasing access to non-public schools so that more parents can place their children in settings that will reinforce their moral and religious values, a policy position that receives consistent support from the U.S. bishops.
The Republicans’ push for more limited government is also presented with the family’s ability to exercise its responsibilities in mind and is consistent with Pope Francis’ observation in Amoris Laetitia that “the organization of ordinary life [is] increasingly thwarted by a bureaucracy completely removed from fundamental human bonds” (183). The party also remains committed to resisting legal recognition of same-sex “marriage,” a practice that it believes is a direct assault on the integrity of the family in America.
The GOP platform promotes the well-being of the family in several other instances, even ones in which it doesn’t explicitly recognize a connection between its policy proposals and the good of the family. It affirms, for instance, the importance of protecting religious liberty and rights of conscience. These protections are important for the family, because they’re necessary for the Church to be who she is meant to be. If the Catholic Church’s public witness is curtailed, families will be inadequately formed and cannot appropriately serve as the societal leaven that they are called to be. Furthermore, the livelihoods of entire families are jeopardized when the state requires businesses and individuals to violate their consciences as a requisite for participating in commerce or a profession.
The GOP platform also stands firm against abortion, a disturbing instance of violence that takes the lives of the most vulnerable members of the human family; takes a bold position against pornography, which it rightly recognizes as a public-health risk that destroys lives and families; and also acknowledges the toll an imbalanced criminal-justice system can take on the children of those who are imprisoned for lengthy and often unnecessary sentences. In many ways, the family is either the direct or indirect beneficiary of a number of GOP-proposed policies. But there are several other instances when the well-being of the family seems to have failed to enter the conversation or is not considered in a consistent way.
Take the platform’s position on environmental regulations. The GOP opposes serious efforts to curb environmental degradation, on the grounds that these regulations will hurt families now by increasing energy prices and eliminating jobs. These concerns are valid, and any necessary transitions or new regulations should be implemented with the aim of causing as little harm to present-day families as possible. But at the same time, the GOP fails to consider how environmental inaction today could harm families in the future, a clear absence of intergenerational solidarity.
The GOP platform also applies this inconsistent thinking to its immigration proposals. While the party states that its immigration policies — which include constructing a wall along our border with Mexico and denying undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship — are proposed with the interest of families in mind, they certainly aren’t proposed with the interest of immigrant families in mind. The U.S. bishops have been emphatic in their insistence that immigration reform, while upholding the importance of the rule of law and the sovereignty of a nation to protect its borders, must also make efforts to keep immigrant families intact and refrain from separating parents from their children. The GOP platform shows no such regard. The party platform seems to reflect a single-minded concern with American interests and a failure to acknowledge how our actions might affect the well-being of families in different countries. From trade agreements to foreign assistance, the GOP platform consistently seems to fail to consider if justice has been served for all parties involved.
As Pope Francis, quoting Pope Benedict XVI, reaffirmed in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), “We need to be convinced that charity ‘is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups), but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones)’” (205).
Democratic Platform: Family Out of Focus
The Democratic Party platform (a draft version was released on July 1) proposes many policies that, in a practical sense, advance and protect the well-being of the family. For instance, the party is committed to taking “ambitious, immediate action” to curb environmental degradation with the understanding that “[w]e cannot leave our children a planet that has been profoundly damaged.”
With regard to immigration, the prioritization of family integrity serves as a guiding principle for reform. The platform states the need to “urgently fix our broken immigration system — which tears families apart and keeps workers in the shadows — and create a path to citizenship for law-abiding families who are here, making a better life for their families and contributing to their communities and our country.” There is also a pledge to end “raids and roundups of [immigrant] children and families” and instead focus on “those who pose a threat to the safety of our communities.”
The Democratic Party platform also suggests many policies that would help remove some of the economic burdens that serve as a roadblock for young people getting married and having children. The party, for example, supports a number of changes to make paying back college loans easier for recent graduates, while also cutting interest rates for future undergraduates. Additionally, the party also supports 12 weeks of paid family leave, which could be used to take care of a new child or be with a family member during a time of illness.
The platform also advocates for an increase to the minimum wage and for indexing it so it adjusts to inflation. “The current minimum wage,” the platform states, “is a starvation wage and must be increased to a living wage. No one who works full time should have to raise a family in poverty.”
This is consistent with the USCCB’s position, which states that “a living wage is a fundamental right of workers and moral imperative of employers because it provides workers with the means and resources to form and support a family.” The Democrats also prioritize other measures to assist low-income families, such as affordable housing programs and efforts to curtail predatory lending.
But though the Democrats provide numerous proposals that provide tangible and immediate support to families, their platform is unfortunately characterized by a fundamental lack of understanding of what the family is. The vision of the family they advance is utterly at odds with what the Church teaches, and it threatens to undermine the integrity of authentic family life in the United States.
The Democratic Party is emphatic and uncompromising in its commitment to legally recognized same-sex “marriage,” undermining the foundation on which families are to be built. Instead of prioritizing the essential role of the family as the place where children are conceived, born and raised, the Democrats’ vision of marriage emphasizes the feelings and desires of adults. Much of U.S. society has been complicit in the spread of this distorted view of marriage through acceptance of divorce and contraception, but the redefinition of marriage marks a clear and unacceptable lurch down this dangerous path, making an authentic view of marriage and family even more difficult to recover. Furthermore, the platform makes no allowances for a legitimate diversity of opinions on this issue within the party.
The Democratic Party’s unreserved push for abortion on demand and widespread contraception is another indication that their conception of the family is distorted. Again, it prioritizes the desires of adults over the well-being, or, in this case, the very lives, of unborn children, and it advances a paradigm of radical individualism that is cancerous to both the family and society. This stance is truly radical and unprecedented for the Democratic Party’s platform, as it removes language that suggests abortions should be “rare,” calls for an end to the Hyde Amendment and no longer acknowledges that pro-lifers have a place within the party. Furthermore, the platform states the party’s intent to promote these anti-life, anti-family policies in other parts of the world, a clear instantiation of what Pope Francis has called “ideological colonization.”
Defending the Family
This analysis of the major parties’ platforms, by no means exhaustive, nonetheless reveals a difficult, though unsurprising, truth: Neither party is committed to the family in the same way or to the same extent to which Catholic social teaching demands.
Republicans, while implying an understanding of the nature of the family and its centrality to society, fail to consider its well-being consistently across the board. Democrats on the other hand, support some policies that provide needed relief to families, but this comes almost in spite of the severely flawed, individualistic, adult-centric vision of family life and marriage that they advance.
The lack of either parties’ consistent commitment to the integrity of family life is a problem, a problem that demands several responses.
Praying for our elected officials becomes key, in the hope that they will develop a more profound reverence for the family and commit themselves to protecting and promoting it. Further, Catholics must also continue to strengthen families in the culture and in our own communities, recognizing that public policy alone cannot solve the crisis of family life in this country.
Finally, Catholics across our country must acknowledge that much-needed changes in the political landscape will not come without our active participation, if not leadership, in the public life of our communities, states and nation.
Jonathan Liedl is a graduate student in Catholic studies
at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.