Cardinal SeanO’Malley, center, speaks with President of the AFL-CIO Rochard Trumka, right, during the Erroneous Autonomy conference in Washington, D.C, on Jan. 10, 2017. Photo courtesy of The Catholic University of America/Dana Rene Bowler.

Trump’s rise and GOP economics may shift Catholic Church’s priorities

WASHINGTON (RNS) For much of its long history in the U.S., the Catholic Church was known as the champion of the working class, a community of immigrants whose leaders were steadfast in support of organized labor and economic justice – a faith-based agenda that helped provide a path to success for its largely working-class flock.

In recent decades, as those ethnic European Catholics assimilated and grew wealthier, and as the concerns of the American hierarchy shifted to battles over moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage, traditional pocketbook issues took a back seat.

Now, however, with the surprise election of Donald Trump and the Republican sweep of Congress signaling a new era of free-market and anti-immigration policies, the U.S. church and its bishops may be set to recalibrate their priorities.

The latest sign of such a shift came this week at a conference at Catholic University of America, co-sponsored by the AFL-CIO, that featured leading voices in the hierarchy and Catholic academia calling on the church to work together to confront what one bishop called “the growing imperialism of market mechanisms within American public life.”

In his keynote address, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy delivered a powerful warning about the current economic imbalances in American society. His remarks also served as a kind of prebuttal to Republican financial and budgetary plans that would, he argued, make the situation worse by undermining organized labor and privatizing basic government services for the poor and elderly.

“It cannot be said too strongly that using market mechanisms for the establishment of benefit levels in American society for our most vulnerable populations will unleash a series of silent killers in our nation that are all the more invidious because they are aimed at those without power,” McElroy said at the event on Tuesday (Jan. 10).

The conference was the third in a series on free market capitalism and church teaching organized by the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at CUA; this one was titled, “Erroneous Autonomy: The Dignity of Work.”

McElroy is a vocal proponent of the comprehensive approach to social justice and moral issues that has been a hallmark of Pope Francis’ ministry. But it’s an approach that is still struggling to gain a foothold in the wider U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which remains dominated by appointees of previous popes.

In the closing address of the conference, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley — a top adviser to Francis — bookended McElroy’s remarks by extolling the church’s long alliance with organized labor, in both the public and private sectors.

O’Malley said Catholics are called to support the right of all workers “to organize and be represented in the marketplace and in negotiations by an institution, the union, which gives workers leverage and a voice” against the pressures of business owners and free-market forces.

He cited the pope’s tough talk against income inequality, the rule of finance and an “economy of exclusion,” and he highlighted the need for a moral and regulatory framework to restrain “the unseen forces and invisible hand of the economy.”

In his talk, O’Malley also promoted a “living wage,” lamented stagnating incomes and the exponential growth in the pay of CEOs, called affordable health care “foundational” and warned government leaders that they had a “moral obligation” not to deprive people of health insurance.

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