How Trump’s “America First” Budget Violates 5 Key Justice Principles of Catholic Social Teaching

This post began as a “top 5 shockingly immoral aspects of President Trump’s budget proposal.” The problem is that virtually the entire budget is shockingly immoral and unjust. Instead, I want to highlight 5 touchstones of Catholic Social Teaching on justice. I will provide one example of its violation; however, for every single one, you can find at least five instances of its violation in Trump’s ‘America First’ budget.

Human dignity can only be lived, realized, and promoted in community. The overarching frame for justice is justice as participation: Basic justice demands the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the life of the human community for all persons.” (Economic Justice for All, 77).

  1. Environmental Justice: “We’re not funding that anymore”

In Laudato Si, Pope Francis states, “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life” (23). In addition to acknowledging the scientific consensus, Pope Francis clearly articulates the obligation to care for creation, to protect access to needed resources for the poor and future generations – and to do so with extreme urgency. It is hard to imagine an American budget proposal more antithetical to Laudato Si than President Trump’s budget.  OMB Director Mick Mulvaney calls all programs addressing climate change “a waste of money,” and simply stated, “We’re not funding that anymore.” While the 30% proposed cut to the Environmental Protection Agency garners headlines, a closer look at the proposal shows that virtually every single program addressing climate change and rising sea levels—no matter the department—is on the chopping block.

  1. Distributive Justice: “Cannot justify their existence”

In Catholic theology, distributive justice is not optional. The Second Vatican Council stated: “The right to have a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone. The fathers and doctors of the Church held this view, teaching that we are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of our superfluous goods”(26). Repeatedly, the Trump administration seems to claim that we cannot afford many of the social protection programs aimed at distributive justice. The budget calls for eliminating the Community Development Block Grant program and $1 billion in programs aimed at low-income housing, home ownership, and community development from HUD. When he visited Washington, DC, Pope Francis could not have been clearer “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.” The cuts to Housing and Urban Development are just one example of many violations of distributive justice in this budget.

In 1986, Economic Justice for All explained the moral requirements of distributive justice and it remains applicable today:  “Minimum material resources are an absolute necessity for human life. If persons are to be recognized as members of the human community, then the community has an obligation to help fulfill these basic needs unless an absolute scarcity of resources makes this strictly impossible. No such scarcity exists in the United States today” (70). Read More


See, Judge, Act: Racism, Structural Sin, and Infant Mortality

At the beginning of each semester, I introduce my students to modern Catholic social teaching by emphasizing its dialogue with a changing world. We often start with Rerum Novarum, which was a moral reflection and response to a particular historical context in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of new working conditions. According to Leo XIII, “Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is, and at the same time to seek elsewhere…for the solace to its troubles” (18).

Gaudium et Spes asserts strongly and simply that the duty of the Church (and of moral theology)  lies in “scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (4).

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis urged all communities to engage in reading the signs of the times: “This is in fact a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanization which would then be hard to reverse. We need to distinguish clearly what might be a fruit of the kingdom from what runs counter to God’s plan” (51).

The common thread here emphasizes the primary methodology of Catholic social teaching, which was officially emphasized by Vatican II and can be boiled down to three words: See. Judge. Act.

Looking upon the world as it really is and scrutinizing the signs of the times requires seeing and listening. If we do not fully and accurately see the complexities of our world, we are virtually guaranteed to judge incompletely and act incorrectly.  Seeing clearly is the palpable drive behind Pope Francis’ Laudato Si.

In his recent speech to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in California, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego expanded on the “See, judge, act” theme, explaining that these mean “seeing clearly the situation, judging with principles that foster the integral development of people and acting in a way which implements these principles in the light of everyone’s unique situation.” He went on to call for greater attention and renewal of “these words — which carry with them such a powerful history of social transformation around the world in service to the dignity of the human person.”

“Seeing” and listening can seem overwhelming. In an era of social media and alternative facts, I know that I feel like I am constantly on overload. Yet, as Christians, we must persist in seeking the truth and working to better understand the world in which we live. While we often look at economics and politics, one area Catholic social teaching should engage more is public health. In particular, recent research on racism and public health should be part of Catholic social teaching’s reflection on both racism and more broadly, social sin.

Racism, Structural Sin, & Infant Mortality

For at least ten years, public health experts have been researching the high prematurity and infant mortality rates within the African American community. I first encountered this research in the documentary Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality making us Sick? The current issue of The Nation has two in-depth articles on the current state of this research: “What’s Killing America’s Black Infants?” and “What It’s Like to Be Black and Pregnant When You Know How Dangerous That Can Be.”

Education, regular medical checkups, and a healthy lifestyle should reduce the risk for premature delivery, low birthrate, and infant mortality. In the US, however, an African American woman with a college degree has a higher risk for these outcomes than a white woman without a high school diploma. Controlling for genetic and socioeconomic causes, public health experts have identified the long-term experience of systemic racism as a significant cause of high infant mortality within the African American community.

This research is important for Catholic social teaching for two reasons. First, the life course perspective in public health urging attention to health and well-being from before birth throughout one’s life is deeply consonant with a Catholic consistent ethic of life. Attention to maternal-child health begins not with pregnancy, but with a woman’s development in utero and the health of her mother. Public health on racism and childbearing demonstrates the incredible importance of an intergenerational approach.

Second, this research provides a significant challenge to the standard Catholic social teaching approach to social or structural sin. In contrast to liberation theology, John Paul II and Benedict XVI emphasized that while the impact of social sin exceeded individual actions, we were still fundamentally talking about personal sin (An excellent primer on this debate is Kristin Heyer’s “Social Sin and Immigration: Good Fences Make for Bad Neighbors.”). Pope Francis has revitalized official Catholic social teaching’s attention to social structures, especially inequality. This growing public health research on racism also provides new evidence for rethinking and deepening our understanding of social sin.  It reminds us of the importance of preventative care throughout one’s life alongside maternity care, anti-poverty and nutrition programs, and civil rights. “Seeing” this information clearly has wide ranging relevance for our “judging” –policy formation and actions to implement them.


The Normalization of Violence: Week One in the Trump Era

It has been a week, only a week, since President Donald Trump took office. As I look back at the previous week, I cannot believe it has only been one week. Constant tweeting and talk about crowd sizes is dangerous misdirection – the overwhelming theme of the week, in my opinion, was violence.

The World Health Association defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” This is what we are seeing.

Last Friday, I sat and watched the inauguration online during my office hours. I did not vote for Donald Trump, but he is now my president. As someone who takes the idea of Faithful Citizenship very seriously, I felt a responsibility to watch. And so I listened to a nationalist speech laying out a vision I cannot support. Using the phrase “American carnage,” he reiterated racially charged stereotypes about inner cities and maligned all of public education.  But the most violent part of the speech was the claim that the United States is somehow a global victim.   “America will start winning again and winning like never before.” What does that even mean? There is no interpretation of that line which leads to greater peace and justice. Read More


The US Church’s Failure to Stand Against Sexual Assault

A month before the election, a 2005 video of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women on an Access Hollywood taping surfaced. As I listened to Donald Trump joke about how his celebrity allowed him to assault women without consequence, I felt sick to my stomach.  Here we had a presidential candidate actively boasting about sexually assaulting women, dismissing it simply as “regrettable locker room talk,” and clearly demonstrating that he did not take violence against women seriously.

Violence against women and sexual assault are largely invisible and ignored in the public political discourse from the USCCB and most American church leaders. There was no public outrage from the US Catholic Church over Donald Trump’s recorded joking about sexual assault. No actual acknowledgement that the behavior described is in fact sexual assault. A few bishops lamented that Trump has “disrespected women” but never anything stronger.  In a statement titled, “The Gospel Serves the Common Good, Not Political Agendas,” Conference President Archbishop Kurtz began with a condemnation of the Podesta emails stolen by Wikileaks, which appeared to be the purpose of the statement, and ended by simply asserting, “Too much of our current political discourse has demeaned women and marginalized people of faith.” The strongest statement simply acknowledged that political discourse had demeaned women without any further comment.

These statements miss the crucial element – in the video, Trump was describing assaulting women.  The Department of Justice definition of sexual assault explicitly describes it as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient,” including fondling.

After the Access Hollywood tape leaked, a dozen women came forward to accuse and detail different incidents of sexual harassment and assault by Trump. And still, there was no added concern from the public voice of the American Catholic Church. Speaking to the Boston Globe, theologian James Bretzke, SJ called the silence “deafening.” Many bishops and priests continued to privately and publicly advocate voting for Trump.  In America Magazine, Michael O’Loughlin details just a few cases where parishes were told that Clinton “hates Catholics.” In my own diocese, the Bishop released a letter that came very close to outright calling Donald Trump the “prolife, pro-family, pro-truth” candidate. Read More


Unity in Trump’s America Must Begin with Protecting Vulnerable Communities

Catholic high school girls in Queens, NY harassing African-Americans on a NYC bus, suggesting they move to the back of the bus now that Trump is president.

The Muslim center at New York University being vandalized.

Multiple stories from across the nation of young Muslim women having their hijabs pulled off and ethnic slurs thrown at them.

Parents telling their children not to speak Spanish in public because it is not safe.

A classroom of middle school children asking their teacher if they’re going to be deported because they are Muslim or because they are Indian and “look Muslim.” Even though they are citizens, they are afraid of being kicked out because of religion.

Gay, lesbian, and transgender students afraid to leave their dorm room on college campuses.

Human walls being created at schools to block the entrance of Latino and Latina children.

It is morning in Trump’s America.

I have no words. I spent the morning rereading stories friends posted and looking through @ShaunKing’s important twitter collection of stories from across the country.  I can’t manage to write this post without being overwhelmed to the point of paralysis and tears.

In Florida, “colored” and “whites only” signs were posted on school water fountains. At Canisius College in Buffalo, the lynching of a black doll was staged on campus.

Yet on the news and on social media, I see growing calls for unity, being open-minded, and building bridges.  We need to move forward. We need a plan to work together over the next four years. Abstractly, I understand the sentiment – Donald Trump is the President-elect.  This is the political reality. But this is not and cannot be politics as usual. Read More


5 Things to Look for in Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love)

Pope Francis has released his much anticipated apostolic exhortation on the family and it’s 263 pages!! Before you give up and just turn to Chapter 8 for the “juicy stuff,” like divorced and remarried Catholics or treatment of LGBT persons, let me offer 5 points to note and urge you to stick with the 269 pages.

1. Biblical Reflection on Marriage, Family, and Humanity

“The Bible is full of families, births, love stories and family crises. This is true from its very first page, with the appearance of Adam and Eve’s family with all its burden of violence but also its enduring strength (cf. Gen 4) to its very last page, where we behold the wedding feast of the Bride and the Lamb (Rev 21:2, 9)” (8).

It is no surprise that Francis begins with the Bible and weaves biblical reflection throughout the 263 pages. He literally begins with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. And it is significant that he includes Cain and Abel, because the Bible is not a fairy tale or romantic comedy.  Pain, suffering, even violence are woven into the biblical narrative and human life.  Highlighting biblical truth and the revealed word of God, highlighting the Good News requires two things: facing the reality of the text in all its complexity and facing human existence in all its messiness. Francis does this artfully when parsing out the influence of patriarchal cultures in St. Paul while lifting out the revealed truths contained within the text.  A full evaluation of the biblical exegesis requires a biblical scholar, and I am a mere moral theologian…but his pastoral use of the bible is something to pay attention to.

2. 1 Corinthians 13: Rethinking the worlds most popular wedding reading

OK, so we all know the text: Love is Patient, Love is Kind….we’ve all heard it read at almost every Catholic wedding we’ve attended.  1 Corinthians is a beautiful text. Yet, it often feels played out or trendy – everyone uses it and so we stop really listening to it.  Refocusing our attention, Francis chooses this passage as a major section of Amoris Laetitia.  Weaving Greek and biblical exegesis, Francis lays out a vision of love beginning with marriage but expanding to love within the human community.

Love is not jealous includes “Love inspires a sincere esteem for every human being and the recognition of his or her own right to happiness. I love this person, and I see him or her with the eyes of God, who gives us everything “for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17). As a result, I feel a deep sense of happiness and peace. This same deeply rooted love also leads me to reject the injustice whereby some possess too much and others too little. It moves me to find ways of helping society’s outcasts to find a modicum of joy. That is not envy, but the desire for equality” (96).

3. Who is my family? Towards the One Human Family

Catholic “family” conversations often drive me crazy. Too often our discussions of family are driven by contemporary American society and its obsession with the nuclear family (marriage and parent/child). My friend and fellow theologian Kathryn Getek has highlighted this as a cause for the seeming disconnect internalized by many between teachings on the family and Catholic social teaching, which begins with the image of the one human family as equal brothers and sisters in Christ.  Looking at Life within the Wider Family, Francis examines the importance not only of parents and children but also siblings and grandparents.

I was blessed to know my grandparents and they were a profound influence on the person I became. I appreciate Francis’ call to care for the elderly but also to recognize the importance of grandparents within the family. He cautions, “A family that fails to respect and cherish its grandparents, who are its living memory, is already in decline, whereas a family that remembers has a future” (193).

Similarly, he attends to the importance of siblings and the role of siblings in teaching us how to live in a community. Finally, we are all part of a wider family – the one human family which includes our neighbors and in-laws and is an ever-expanding community.

4. Discernment and Conscience: A Reminder Our Pope Is a Jesuit

This document is an important reminder for the Church and moral theology to realign its priorities. Early on he states, “We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life . . .  We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.” (37). The call not only to form consciences but to respect and trust the consciences of married couples is an important aspect of this document. This does not change Church teaching, but Francis clearly asserts it is not enough to just state that those not conforming or living up to the rules are just in a state of mortal sin. (check out 42, 222, 298-301…to name a few).

Discernment is the crucial tool when discussing conscience and it may be where Francis is at his most Ignatian.  Throughout the long section dealing with pastoral concerns and “irregular situations,” Francis spends the most time on discernment—recognizing the individual persons and complexities of each context—and turns to Thomas Aquinas. He writes, “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being” (304).  He does not change specific doctrinal rules, but failure to live up to that rule in itself does not signify moral culpability, does not negate the persons conscience, discernment process, or that one is a member of the Body of Christ. For this same reason, he clarifies, “At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule.” (304). The entire Chapter 8 (which is most of the “hot button questions”) is treated through this attention to the call of discernment.

5. Don’t Put the Mercy of God in a Box

Finally—in what is clearly the overarching message of the Jubilee of Mercy—we don’t get to put God’s Mercy in a box.  He explains:

“At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. It is true, for example, that mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth. For this reason, we should always consider “inadequate any theological conception which in the end puts in doubt the omnipotence of God and, especially, his mercy”(311).

This is the logic of pastoral mercy as the section is titled.  If you’ve been watching and listening to Pope Francis on mercy for the last year…a very clear, integrated vision has emerged. When reading the final section of the exhortation, I could not help but envision the culminating scene to Dirty Dancing. If there is one overarching message Pope Francis is hammering home, it is that no one puts God’s mercy in a corner.

 


Remembering the Oppression of the Irish and Rejecting Injustice Today

There is something deeply appropriate to me about celebrating St Patrick’s Day in the midst of Lent. Celebrating the resilience of my ancestors’ faith and spirit in the face of colonialism, imposed starvation, and forced migration seems fitting during this season. May this make today’s Irish-Americans pause and remember that today is not about green beer or bagels but a long and painful history of oppression and community. May it remind us to reject the injustice and oppression present in the world today (at a time when few Syrian refugees are free to enter this country to escape repression) and stand for the dignity of all.