Biden's Infrastructure Proposal is Catholic Social Teaching
In the face of a global pandemic, racial strife across the country, and massive joblessness, the American Catholic bishops created their own plan to build back better. This is not the bishops’ conference of today, but over 100 years ago, when the American episcopate called upon the federal government, private industry, and organized labor to pool collective resources for a nationwide infrastructure reinvestment strategy in response to historical circumstances. The bishops’ initiative to build back better over a century ago was called “The 1919 Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction.”
President Biden’s three-part infrastructure legislative agenda—The American Rescue Plan, The American Jobs Plan, and The American Families Plan—is aspiring to overcome parallel historical circumstances faced by Americans in the 1920s and 1930s, and the forward-looking vision of his plan is strikingly similar to the 1919 Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction. Build Back Better is a 21st century interventionalist blueprint that reflects traditional Catholic social teaching and the spirit and social critique of the bishops’ proposal in the early 20th.
Build Back Better and The 1919 Bishops' Program: A Comparison
Although 100 years apart, a comparative analysis of the bishops’ program and Biden’s reveals a shared moral framework and organizing principle for social reform: the recognition and prioritization of workers’ God-given worth and fundamental rights to secure the future well-being of themselves and their families.
The 1919 Bishops’ Program described in detail the “principles, evils, and remedies” to address the “social and industrial conditions and needs” facing America at the time. The bishops argued, while the practical applications of their program could be subject to debate, the fundamental principles were based on the traditional teaching of charity and justice “that have always been held and taught by the Catholic church.” The most basic guiding principle described therein was the “inestimable worth” of the human person and the need for federal legislation to recognize that inestimable worth “as more sacred than property.” The bishops outlined three evils of industrial capitalism. These included inefficiency and waste in the production and distribution of goods, insufficient incomes for a large majority of wage earners, and unnecessarily large incomes for a small minority of industrial capitalists. The remedy put forth for the first evil was the establishment of “cooperative productive societies and co-partnership arrangements” for workers to secure a share of ownership of the instruments of production. The bishops argued, as articulated in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, workers have a right to form a union and participate in the management of capital. A remedy for the second economic evil included not only the obvious increase in wages, but “universal living wages,” and a broad program for “labor betterment” that would supplement this wage. These included a federal minimum wage, wages capable of supporting whole families, affordable housing, unemployment and other social insurance, various welfare and worker programs, including access to vocational training, educational and cultural development, and events for recreation and rest. All of this, the bishops argued, would assist with the “more just distribution of wealth in the interest of the laborer.” To remedy the last economic evil—excessive gains by monopoly capitalists—the bishops emphasized that government regulation and good public policy was necessary in order to restore and maintain genuine competition among businesses. Adequate government regulation was needed to prevent “monopolistic control of commodities.” Good public policy included “heavy taxation of incomes, excess profits, and inheritances.” Directly addressing the war debt incurred from WWI, and expressing an unabashed critical attitude towards economic inequity as a matter of the tax code, the bishops promoted progressive taxation: “Our immense war debt constitutes a particular reason why incomes and excess profits should continue to be heavily taxed. In this way, two important ends will be attained: the poor will be relieved of injurious tax burdens, and the small class of privileged capitalists will be compelled to return a part of their unearned gains to society.”
The principles, evils, and remedies articulated in the 1919 Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction are cornerstones of Biden’s infrastructure proposal for social reconstruction today. Shortly before the 2020 presidential election, Biden wrote an article for The Christian Post. In it he writes, “My Catholic faith drilled into me a core truth—that every person on earth is equal in rights and dignity, because we are all beloved children of God. We are all created “imago Dei”—beautifully, uniquely, in the image of God, with inherent worth.” Biden’s theology of imago Dei is the bishops' theology of imago Dei, both of which express the fundamental organizing principle of each proposal for social reconstruction: the inestimable worth of the human person and the need for federal legislation to recognize that inestimable worth.
“[W]e’re facing numerous crises,” Biden wrote, “including threats to the very idea of imago Dei.” These threats to imago Dei are the same threats the Catholic bishops addressed over 100 years ago: hundreds of thousands of Americans dead from a global pandemic, tens of millions of workers unemployed, and anti-Black, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant violence sweeping the country at furious pace. The evils Biden admonishes today are the same evils listed by the bishops then. He captures the intersecting evils of injustice—economic, racial, and social—given stark relief by the conflagration of the aforementioned contemporary events, and made exponentially worse by the absence of a national plan of action to tackle COVID-19 head on early on. Biden argues that American workers still face the “pervasive evil of poverty” today despite living in one of the most GDP- and resource-rich countries on earth. An unbeknownst reference to the bishops second and third economic evils, Biden laments that “too many working families struggle to pay for basic necessities while the rewards of our economy are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few.”
The bishops’ program laid out remedies to address the fundamental defects in the American economy in 1919, defects the bishops called “economic evils,” and evils they believed could and should be expressly addressed through large-scale government intervention. The American Jobs Plan and The American Families Plan provides an analogous remedy for the very same economic evils that exist in today’s radically inequitable economy. The American Jobs Plan mobilizes a 21st century working army to meet the devastating economic challenges by reimagining and rebuilding a more charitable and just market economy by creating millions of “good quality jobs that pay prevailing wages,” modernizing highways, ports, and transit systems, innovating new infrastructure to address the climate crisis, and most importantly, empowering workers and unions by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.* It proposes historic public investment, similar to the bishops’ call for labor betterment, comparable elements of which include access to resources that are necessary for familial life and well-being, like clean drinking water, affordable housing, reliable utility grids, safe and healthy public schools, vocational training, community college, upgraded VA hospitals, and securing better wages and benefits for essential home care workers—shamefully, some of the lowest paid workers in our economy.
The American Families Plan addresses the “pervasive evil of poverty,” particularly child poverty, that Biden and the bishops find equally unconscionable as a matter of their faith. The American Families Plan centers economic investment on women and their families—what should be referred to as “social infrastructure.” Social infrastructure is not only an economic concept, but also a theological one, and it must be part and parcel of any national infrastructure investment that seeks to achieve authentic integral development for the most basic unit of American society—the family—and the common good.
The American Families Plan also addresses abortion, albeit from a traditional social justice approach rather than the divisive criminalization approach that a supermajority of bishops have pushed since the mid-1970s. The unborn, living children, and working mothers directly suffer from the myriad defects of our neoliberal economy, most notably, the moral hazard of super-concentrated wealth. Social infrastructure not only will “help families cover the basic expenses that so many struggle with now, lowering health insurance premiums, and continuing the American Rescue Plan’s historic reductions in child poverty,” but it also will drastically reduce the massive economic burden that the majority of women cite as the number one reason for terminating a pregnancy. If passed, The American Families Plan will do more to help working women “chose life” than 50-plus years of Catholic pressure politics for the criminalization of abortion. Large-scale federal investment in working women and their future families is evidence-based best practice and policymaking in a pluralistic democracy for what Catholics call a “culture of life.”
Not Socialism; A 21st Century Catholic Program of Social Reconstruction
Attacks from socialism are a favorite diversion of the GOP in response to broad-based federal infrastructure investment, including from House Republicans like Steve Scalise, Jim Jordan, and Matt Gaetz. Scalise went as far as calling everything in Biden’s infrastructure bills other than roads and bridges “Soviet-style infrastructure.” Mitch McConnell has already vowed to fight Biden every step of the way, and Kevin McCarthy has called Bidenomics “blind faith in government spending and regulations, blank checks for left-wing ideologues, and far less money and freedom for families, small businesses, and workers.” These prominent Republicans attack Biden’s infrastructure plan as being “socialistic,” and this isn’t the first time that the traditional teachings of the American Catholic church have been attacked as such.
Writing in 1944, Monsignor John A. Ryan—author of the 1919 Bishops’ Program—pointed out then, that because commenters attacked the bishops’ document as “too radical,” it wasn’t until the country faced severe economic fallout from the Great Depression that a majority of the measures recommended in the program had obtained either partial or complete passage. Ryan had been so concerned about these attacks that he wrote extensively on the topic, explicating the “attitude of the Catholic church towards socialism, and toward certain industrial proposals which are improperly called socialism.”
One of the major controversies over Biden’s infrastructure plan that has prompted this attack is how he wants to pay for it: increased corporate taxes. The American Jobs Plan and The American Families Plan purportedly will be paid for in 15 years’ time via increased GDP and The Made in American Tax Plan baked into these bills. It resets the corporate tax rate to 28%, enacts a minimum corporate tax rate of 15%, and ramps up enforcement on corporate evasion of tax liabilities, among others. In all, Biden’s tax plan attempts to reform the corporate tax code to make it fairer, relieving the poor and working classes of what the bishops’ program called “injurious tax burdens,” and securing a “more just distribution of wealth in the interest of the laborer.”**
And 21st century American labor agrees with these reforms. The interest of the American worker has changed very little since the bishops wrote on these issues in the early 20th century. A comparison of the interests of workers then and now can be deduced from contemporary American Dream surveys conducted over the last several decades. These surveys have asked workers if they still believe the American Dream is attainable. A majority answer yes, and the fundamental pillars of which they name are a good job, affordable health care, education opportunities for their kids, and a retirement plan. These are not radical economic ideas. Yet, millions of Americans have yet to attain even one.
For all of the media attention given to the palpable tension between the bishops’ conference of today and the Biden Administration over the politics of abortion and "eucharistic consistency," more should be given to an even deeper doctrinal division, and that is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' incremental abandonment of its 20th century teachings on social and economic justice. The social reconstruction tradition embedded within American Catholic Social Teaching is bookended with the 1919 Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction and the bishops’ 1986 social encyclical, Economic Justice for All. The politics of abortion has overshadowed the bishops' call for "economic justice for all," and this anti-Christian politics is perpetuated by an unfortunate culture of clericalism run amuck in the American Catholic hierarchy today. American Catholics have been pit against one another by their bishops, as “intrinsically good Republicans” versus “intrinsically evil Democrats." This is a Carl Schmitt-stylized political decisionism that has no theological basis in the Catholic social teaching tradition or the Gospel message of Christ.
Paul Weyrich's Political Strategy; Not Catholic Social Teaching
The schism in the American Catholic church visible to all Americans today was brought to a symbolic head in the bishops’ task force on Biden, but it is a direct outgrowth of a 1980s political strategy designed by well-funded operatives, the likes of New Right and Moral Majority founder Paul Weyrich, to co-opt the Catholic right-to-life movement for extreme right-wing electoral wins. There is a straight line of electoral wins, from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, as a consequence of a supermajority of bishops’ alignment with the Republican Party’s pro-life pressure-group politics to criminalize abortion, but not without paying an institutional price. The Catholic church has yet to stop hemorrhaging adherents.
Monsignor George G. Higgins, a labor priest and leading Catholic figure for over 60 years, pointed out as early as 1980, “The political calculation that led to the decision to focus on social issues like abortion rather than on bread-and-butter economic issues is not a matter of conjecture. In its essence, this strategy is simply to establish a New Right political apparatus that conceals the political economics program of the right-wing and focuses on social issues that have an emotional appeal to groups that have traditionally voted for more progressive candidates.” Paul Weyrich even admitted such when he publicly stated, “The New Right is looking for issues that people care about, and social issues, at least for the present, fit the bill. We talk about issues that people care about like gun control, abortion, taxes, and crime. Yes, they’re emotional issues, but that’s better than talking about capital formation.”
Higgins explicitly warned Catholic right-to-lifers, including prominent bishops leading the right-to-life movement in the late 1970s and 1980s, that New Right intents were not in the best interest of the institutional church. Rather, lay Catholics and the American public were being misled to believe that the bishops’ conference endorsed the New Right’s politics. He argued all “should be aware that the church’s respect-life agenda includes a wide range of social justice issues, and that in the vast majority of cases, the political program of the New Right is virtually the antithesis of the church’s position.” This has been the argument of progressive American Catholics for decades. Higgins was no progressive, but he was clear-eyed on the fact that this opportunistic political strategy was suspect, and he reminded the church it was also used in the Richard Nixon and George Wallace presidential campaigns—a formidable point about how the politics of abortion, anti-Black politics, and anti-democratic forces overlap. Even today, this is a problem not reckoned with adequately by the bishops’ conference or a majority of white Catholics who voted for Donald Trump not once, but twice.
In the end, Higgins’ warnings went unheeded. This is evidenced by the bishops’ relative silence on economic and social justice, their conspicuous backpedaling of support for the rights of organized labor, and their ignorance of workers’ immediate needs today compared to their cohort in 1919. Then, the bishops were innovating a new American economic paradigm for democracy that centered the needs of workers, their families, and unions. This paradigm was based on the newly developing social teaching tradition of the Catholic church on the priority of labor over capital and the belief in the moral duty of government intervention to remedy economic evils perpetuated by the indiscriminate extremes of both godless communism and godless capitalism. Both reductively distort the inestimable worth of persons and destroy the Christian understanding of the dignity of work and the rights of workers. Today, the bishops are busy developing pastorals for denying communion to high-profile Catholic Democratic politicians and suing local governments over religious exemptions to wearing masks at the height of a global pandemic.
Build Back Better and Bidenomics is a Catholic Faith that Does Justice
The 1919 Bishops Program of Social Reconstruction wasn’t just a faith-based call to the reconstruction of America’s roads and bridges. From the Catholic understanding of the dignity of work and the priority of labor over capital, economic intervention and development must prioritize the human person over property. The teachings of the Catholic church on economic justice requires authentic integral development, and this concept was recontextualized by Pope Francis’ recent call to “integral ecology” in his social encyclical, Laudato Si’. Integral ecology means infrastructure isn’t only about roads and bridges, but also about the workers that build those roads and bridges, and the natural environment those roads and bridges traverse. In this way, Biden is reviving not only the economic and social justice tradition of the Catholic church. He’s reintroducing the American public to the power of what the economic and social justice tradition of the church means in action.
No, Build Back Better isn’t socialism. Rather, it’s a revival of the 20th century Catholic tradition of social reconstruction. This tradition includes a prioritization of persons over property and capital formation, which means the prioritization of the American working family over the American millionaire and billionaire class' interest, and it does so as a matter of a faith that does justice.
The Bishops' Program of 1919 was a moderate economic infrastructure proposal that became the building blocks of FDR’s New Deal. Build Back Better is a moderate legislative and regulatory schema that builds upon that New Deal legacy, a legacy that progressive Catholics are proud to call their own. Only this time, it wasn’t the bishops that led the day, but a social justice-oriented and Vatican II-inspired lay Catholic who galvanized his country to recognize the inestimable worth of us all. This lay Catholic just happens to be the second Catholic President of these United States.
*If you are a faith leader/activist, please sign the Interreligious Network for Worker Solidarity's (IN4WS) PRO Act Letter of Support.
**To learn more about tax justice from a Catholic perspective, please see the resources created by NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice here.