WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump set out his domestic agenda in his first joint address to Congress, which outlined a number of policy priorities that dovetail with Catholic social teaching, even with the fraught issue of immigration.
The speech also showed where the U.S. bishops and the president may find common ground between his agenda and the Church’s social teaching, such as stronger wages and jobs, paid leave for parents, educational choice and health care reform, despite important differences on immigration.
At the beginning of his hour-long speech, the president said he wanted to give a “message of unity and strength” to the nation. He painted with broad strokes a rich portrait of what he wanted to achieve: reviving dying American industries; caring for U.S. veterans; increasing military spending; replacing crumbling infrastructure; slowing and ultimately stopping the drug epidemic; and seeing a rebirth of U.S. urban centers.
Omar Gutierrez, special adviser to Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha, Nebraska, told the Register that Trump’s speech outlined several objectives long held by the U.S. bishops. But the bishops would have to study whether the president’s policy prescriptions are something they could support.
The most fraught policy area, of course, is immigration. But while the U.S. bishops have strenuously opposed some of the key elements of Trump’s escalated policy on immigration enforcement, Gutierrez pointed out Trump and the bishops do share some common ground on the social teaching, such as the need to enforce laws evenly and fairly.
Gutierrez said the president’s insistence that U.S. citizens have access to low-skilled, well-paying jobs is “one of the foundations of Catholic social teaching that goes all the way back to Leo XIII [in Rerum Novarum].”
“In terms of school choice, he’s got the issue right and the policy prescription, it seems,” Gutierrez added, referencing Trump’s call for “an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children.”
Denise Donahue, deputy director of K-12 educational programs at the Cardinal Newman Society, told the Register the president’s initiative could usher in a wave of states introducing school-choice programs and be a real boon to large families living on modest incomes, including those who home school.
But it could also be a “two-edged sword for Catholic schools.”
“On the one hand, money students receive for education through the form of enhanced school vouchers from state and federal resources can easily assist more financially struggling families wanting a private Catholic education in diocesan or independent schools,” she said.
But the growth of charter schools that also receive these funds, she said, could also “significantly hurt Catholic schools,” since studies have shown that new charter schools reduce Catholic student populations needed to sustain Catholic schools.
Dignity of Work
While the U.S. is deeply divided politically, John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, told the Register that Catholic social teaching can provide the needed common ground to move forward.
He found the most promising line of Trump’s speech, from a Catholic point of view, was a reminder: “True love for our people requires us to find common ground, to advance the common good and to cooperate on behalf of every American child who deserves a much brighter future.”
Carr, a former director for the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said the president has made an important contribution by refocusing the national discussion back on the dignity of work.
“Work is not enough part of the Washington conversation, and that is what the country is hungry for: decent jobs and decent wages,” he said.
Carr added he felt encouraged to see a Republican president pick up the torch to advance paid parental leave, which the U.S. bishops have supported for more than 30 years.
“For those of us concerned about family values, it’s time to invest in it,” he said.
Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar in economic policy studies at the D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute, told the Register that Trump appears to have evolved on paid leave to include all new parents.
According to Mathur, the available economic research shows that paid leave has both social and economic benefits, particularly for low-income workers. Paid family leave, she said, helps women return to the workforce after having a child, supports a mother and child’s health, and encourages parental bonding.
Mathur said the challenge for Trump will be convincing enough Republicans to come on board with the six-week policy, once the details of the proposal have been worked out. But it will provide a threshold for states to do more.
“It encourages states to add weeks on top of that, if they think that workers need longer periods of leave,” Mathur said.
As to Trump’s job focus, Mathur said that while infrastructure repairs were absolutely needed, reforming the tax code was likely to be a bigger sustained driver of job creation.
She noted some U.S. companies have relocated recently to the United Kingdom and Canada, shifting profit out of the country, because the corporate tax rate is too high. Reducing the corporate tax burden to 20%, she said, would incentivize companies to invest in the U.S. and create jobs with middle-class wages.
Health Care Reform and Other Issues
The president also outlined his goals for health care reform in his speech: making sure those with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage, taking care of Americans already enrolled in the health-care exchanges, making coverage affordable through tax credits and expanded Health Savings Accounts, reforming the legal system to protect patients and doctors, and allowing Americans to purchase insurance across state lines.
Trump has now signaled his support for the House GOP’s replacement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), shepherded by House Speaker Paul Ryan. The legislation, unveiled March 6, would do away with the individual mandate, replacing it with refundable tax credits for individuals to purchase their own insurance. It would also retool Medicaid and defund Planned Parenthood. It seeks to maintain the protections for people with pre-existing conditions, the same as the ACA, but would allow insurers to charge higher premiums to individuals whose coverage has lapsed.
The USCCB is studying the proposal, but made clear its own criteria in a March 8 letter to congressional leaders that any repeal of legislation needs to be concurrent with replacement legislation. The letter stated that any health care reform must respect human life and dignity, honor conscience rights, ensure universal access for all, including for those left out of the Affordable Care Act, be truly affordable, and be comprehensive and of high quality.
Catholics will have to closely scrutinize the president’s policies as the administration rolls them out. For his part, Carr said that some items in Trump’s speech left him “impressed and encouraged,” but a number of them fell short of Catholic social teaching.
Carr found it particularly concerning that Trump mentioned neither the plight of unborn children nor religious liberty in the course of an hour of laying out his priorities. Those two particular areas of concern for the Church, he said, were deciding factors in the last election for “a lot of Catholics [who] supported him.”
He also argued that cutting domestic programs the poor rely upon in order to pay for these policies, or Trump’s plan to divert $50 billion of foreign aid to military spending, would violate the Church’s teaching on human solidarity.
“You can rightfully say that we have an obligation to our sisters and brothers in this country,” he said. “But it is wrong to say that we don’t have an obligation to the children of God around the world who are suffering from hunger, persecution or desperate poverty.”
As the Church dialogues with the administration, Gutierrez, of the Archdiocese of Omaha, explained that the bishops will have to resist the temptation to speak out on policies before they closely assess them. The Church, he said, will have to address Trump’s “America first” nationalism by clearly showing its teachings both on the duty of government to care for the common good and its obligations to human solidarity.
Trump’s concepts of “fair trade” need to be closely examined to make sure that they are both good for the U.S. and for other countries that may have more fragile economies, he added.
Above all, he said, the bishops will have to be savvy in navigating the polarized national scene, so the Church’s message does not get dismissed as partisan politicking.
“As much as possible, [the bishops] need to craft their messages, so they appeal to the Gospel and the Church’s teaching principles and that they don’t follow the timeline of the political news cycle.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.