The Candidates and Economics: Whose Plan Is ‘More Catholic’?

Experts agree that the economy should serve persons and families, but differ on the presidential candidates and policies to get the job done.

How do the economic policies of Trump and Biden compare?
How do the economic policies of Trump and Biden compare? (photo: Shutterstock)

Editor’s Note: The Register’s Election 2020 series covers a range of key issues, including abortion, economy, education, environment/energy, marriage/family and religious liberty.

Professors Kate Ward and Catherine Pakaluk don’t necessarily see eye to eye on everything. Ward, a scholar of Christian ethics at Marquette University, and Pakaluk, a Catholic University of America economist with a specialty in Catholic social teaching, are set to debate, just days before the 2020 election, whether proposals for a universal basic income meet the Catholic demand for a just wage.

But while Ward and Pakaluk take different positions on that issue, their responses when asked why the Church cares about economic matters were strikingly similar. Both referred to the link between economic life and human flourishing and emphasized that the well-being of persons, families and communities — not simply economic metrics — should guide policy decisions.

This uniformity confirms that, contrary to some popular but mistaken notions, the Church’s social teaching includes firmly established principles that anchor its teachings in the realm of economic life. Scripture, for instance, includes the unjust treatment of workers and oppression of the poor among the sins “that cry to heaven for vengeance.” The universal destination of goods, a natural right to private property, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, the preferential option for the poor, and the right to a living wage are all inseparable elements of the Church’s social vision, flowing from her commitment to human dignity and the common good (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2401-2463).

Still, when it comes to evaluating economic policies — and the presidential candidates who vie to put them into effect in the United States — in light of these criteria, Catholic experts who agree on the principles come to sharply different conclusions on the practical details. These differences reflect, at least in part, the variables of economic realities and in turn the complexity of applying prudential judgments to those realities.


Refocus on the Family, but How?

In “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S. bishops express their “growing concern” with what the Catechism describes as “excessive economic and social disparity” (1938) — the gap between the haves and the have-nots — which the Church teaches “militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.” 

While the rich have increased their share of American wealth over the past 50 years, middle-class incomes have stagnated. And that was already before the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, which has had an especially dire impact on those already in economically vulnerable positions.

The largely bipartisan economic orthodoxy that has overseen these trends — characterized by globalization and a deregulated market — has “failed to take into account the needs of the whole person,” says Brian Burch, the executive director of Catholic Vote. Burch points to a litany of troubling developments for the American working class, from lowered life expectancies connected to suicide and opioid addiction to a decline in families’ ability to have one parent stay home to care for children. 

“We need to ask what type of economic changes ought we be pursuing that will reinvigorate the economic life of our communities such that families can thrive again,” he said.

Stephen Schneck, who directs the Franciscan Action Network, agrees. He says “gross inequality” of wealth spills into inequality in terms of political representation and societal respect for the dignity of the person. He also points out that economic realities have increasingly made marriage a luxury for couples outside the upper class.

“As Catholics who should be concerned about the family, that should really be a big warning sign about what’s wrong with this economy,” he said.

But while the two men agree that the economic status quo for so long has not worked for many American families, they differ on both the policies and the president to correct course.

Burch, author of the forthcoming A New Catholic Moment: Donald Trump and the Politics of the Common Good, favors the incumbent. He says Trump has made it a priority to go after the biggest factor in America’s deleterious economic decline: China, and, more broadly, the outsourcing of American jobs. 

For years, Burch says, America traded away production and meaningful work “in exchange for cheaper goods and more of a consumerist economy,” noting that Biden’s time in public office, beginning when he was elected to the Senate in 1972, makes him complicit in this trend. 

He believes Trump, who campaigned as a populist, is seeking an economic “third way” between unrestricted capitalism and socialism that would use business incentives and protectionist trade policy to “reorganize” the U.S. economy for the good of middle-class families. Trump’s listed goals for his second term include “Enact Fair Trade Deals that Protect American Jobs” and tax credits for companies that produce “Made in America” products.

Burch is aware of criticisms that Trump didn’t do enough in this regard during his first term, for instance, delaying his declaration of China as a “currency manipulator” and producing mixed results in “onshoring” U.S. production. 

But the Catholic Vote founder highlighted Trump’s renegotiation of international trade agreements to be more favorable for American workers, as well as boosts to child tax credits that went into effect in 2017. He adds immediate results shouldn’t necessarily be expected, “especially when we’re talking about the types of significant structural changes to the economy that we think are necessary here.”

Schneck, a former chairman of The Catholic University of America’s Department of Politics who is currently a co-chairman of “Catholics for Biden,” says the economic populism that Trump ran on in 2016 has not translated into his presidency. In fact, he argues that Trump’s economic policy has been more “geared to Wall Street rather Main Street,” citing the president’s signing of 2017 legislation that, while including tax cuts for the majority of Americans, also dramatically reduced the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%.

While he characterizes Trump’s populist appeal as more cultural than economic, Schneck says Biden has a “shovel ready” infrastructure program focused on developing a “clean energy” economy, which would translate to meaningful work for millions by spring if the former vice president is elected. 

Biden also makes a point to connect his Catholic faith to his policies, at least in the economic realm. On a part of his website designated for Catholics, a preface explaining the former vice president’s religious inspiration gives way to policy proposals with titles like “Build an economy where everyone comes along and we protect the ‘least of these,’” and “Respect the dignity of work and give workers back the power to earn what they’re worth.” Concretely, Biden’s proposals include raising the minimum wage to $15 and strengthening the bargaining power of unions; he proposes paying for additional government expenditures by “making sure the super-wealthy and corporations pay their fair share.” 

Schneck also dismisses claims that Biden is unduly influenced by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who self-identifies as a democratic socialist.

“I think that that regulated capitalism is probably the best kind of economic system that we can have,” said Schneck. “And it seems to me that’s the direction that Joe Biden wants to go.” 


Concerns About Socialism

Still, recent polling indicates that socialism is ascending on the left, with 50% of Democrats viewing the political-economic theory favorably, compared to only 28% of all adults. This has some Catholics concerned, pointing to the Church’s historic condemnation of socialist theory, which emphasizes communal control or ownership of capital and property. 

Pope Leo XIII, for instance, forcibly condemned the main tenet of socialism, “a community of goods,” on the basis that it is “directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind,” including the inviolability of private property.

CUA’s Pakaluk co-wrote a book entitled Can a Catholic Be a Socialist? She thinks the answer is “No.” Pakaluk says that while America is not heading to socialism “at large,” some progressive causes — like national rent control, wage and price controls, and socialized health care and college education — “share a strong intuition, or directive agenda, with socialism.” 

Pakaluk argues that these “quasi-socialist” policies may appear to be harmless quick fixes to real problems, but would likely lead to an inevitable increase in government bureaucracy and national debt, which would negatively impact the common good.

“There’s no such thing as a little bit of a bad thing being a good thing; socialism is a bad thing, and there isn’t some small compromise we can make with it,” she said.

Ward at Marquette, however, argues that critiques like Pakaluk’s miss an important distinction, namely that the Catholic Church’s condemnations of socialism in the late 19th and early 20th century were directed at a totalitarian form, which was associated with atheistic materialism. 

By contrast, she says, democratic socialism, which combines collective ownership of the means of production with democratic governance, has received approval from Catholic authorities. 

For instance, in a 2006 essay for First Things, Pope Benedict XVI said democratic socialism, as practiced by Catholics in England and Germany, “was and is close to Catholic social doctrine and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.”

Ward suggests that Catholic critics of contemporary democratic socialism in America are either misinformed, or “just don’t want to pay higher taxes to help the government provide goods like universal health care.” 


Wider Populist Trend

Today, democratic socialism is championed by prominent practicing Catholics, like Elizabeth Bruenig, a New York Times columnist who has drawn criticism from secular socialists for her opposition to abortion. During the Democratic primaries, Bruenig supported Sanders, who commentators have described as a kind of ideological mirror to Trump, championing a populism of the left.

In fact, this moment in America’s political history is marked by dual-populist movements, stemming from widespread growing dissatisfaction with economics as they have been.

It has led Catholics like Catholic Vote’s Burch to move beyond what were once standard tenets of mainstream conservative economic thought, such as low taxes and deregulation, championed in Catholic circles by the likes of the late Michael Novak. Burch says that those principles can only contribute to the common good when society is infused with what he calls a “Christian sensibility,” which temper the excesses of capitalism.

That’s not the situation today. And Burch sees room for a more proactive government that can help “reorient” the economy toward the interests of American families, without redistributing wealth.

“The economy is out of balance, and more economic growth is not going to solve that problem alone,” said Burch, who acknowledged that his views have changed over the past 10 years. He added that this shift in economic focus is not only an appropriate application of Church teaching, it’s also politically expedient.

“The winning political formula in America is some type of populist program,” he said.

The view has grown in prominence in a Republican Party realigning itself, in some ways, to meet the populist views of those who elected Trump. Popular Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, for instance, has criticized the U.S. economic system as “the enemy of a healthy society” and once praised the economic plan of Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., which emphasized protecting U.S. workers. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has increasingly referred to the Church’s social teaching in his calls for a “common-good capitalism,” including in a 2019 speech to students at CUA’s Busch School of Business.

Schneck was in attendance, and while he had profound disagreements with some of Rubio’s application of Catholic social teaching, he gave the speech “two cheers” at the time.

Regarding populist tendencies on both sides of the aisle that emphasize “reshoring” jobs, Ward says she wouldn’t necessarily celebrate that an American has a job instead of someone foreign, “because both people are precious and deserve the dignity of work.”

“But if ‘reshoring’ jobs means someone has a job with a living wage, safety protection and the right to form a union, instead of a job without any of those rights, an improvement has taken place,” said Ward, who also adds that she’d like to see more focus on addressing poverty from both major-party presidential contenders.

Pakaluk also expresses some skepticism about the economy’s nationalist realignment, but for different reasons. She believes that “health and robust international trade” is generally good. Certain sectors and industries have always come and gone, and adaptation to market dynamics, rather than recalcitrance and regulations, is the mode that she believes promotes human flourishing best.

Pakaluk agrees that certain elements of globalism, such as elites and corporations without ties to a particular place and people, are “naturally repugnant.” But she differs from populists who might advocate for government measures like sanctions or tariffs. She believes increasing information available to consumers can help promote a more ethical market, using successful informational campaigns against cigarettes as an example.

“Nothing about ‘economics’ forces us to buy cheap foreign-made goods or cheap meat produced 10 states away from us,” she said, also noting the role grace has as a corrective for sinful tastes and preferences.


Beyond Mere Economics

Pakaluk’s point about grace highlights an important fact: While economic factors certainly affect other aspects of one’s life, other factors, like the strength of faith and family life, also have an impact on the economy. For instance, she points to a common theme of papal teaching, from 1850 to 1950, which emphasized the devastating effects divorce would have on a nation’s economy and civil society.

Pakaluk suggests that simply living out one’s faith can also have a positive economic impact.

“Evangelization remains the most important task for Christians and has consequences in every area of temporal life,” she said, noting that an economy is reflective of the choices of the individuals who make it up. “First, seek holiness!”

Ward is more adamant about the need for government intervention to correct the economy’s “systemic dysfunction,” exemplified by the high number of people who work hard but are unable to achieve stability for themselves and their families. She’d like Catholics to support policies like universal health care and universal child care, which she says “fit with Catholics’ innate concern for mothers, children and families,” while also promoting work.

Like Pakaluk, though, Ward acknowledges that Catholics can contribute to a more just economy through simple daily actions.

“Work, care for those who need it, donate, and pray,” she said. “I’ll add one more: Read the newspaper.”

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to supporters during a campaign rally at West Allis Central High School on July 23 in West Allis, Wisconsin.

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