By Christopher White, National Correspondent
In the final moments before the House of Representatives voted to approve the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act on Tuesday, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, took to the floor and cited the U.S. Catholic bishops in her closing arguments against the bill.
Quoting a recent letter from Bishop Frank Dewane, head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, Pelosi said the bill “appears to be the first federal income tax modification in American history that will raise income taxes on the working poor while simultaneously providing a large tax cut to the wealthy.”
Following the vote, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, praised the bill and hailed it as a victory for middle class Americans that would “unleash a wave of economic growth.”
The implications of the Republican led tax reform has dominated much of the work of the U.S. bishops in recent months – second only to perhaps immigration in terms of the bishops’ conference’s focus.
After its final passage on Wednesday, the U.S. bishops released a statement labeling the bill as “problematic, especially for the poor,” and called on President Donald Trump to work with Congress to produce a more acceptable bill.
Yet while the bishops have been adamant in their concerns, some groups are declaring this bill a triumph for American Catholics.
“We view this broad-based tax bill as a tremendous victory for every American,” said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org.
“In particular, we believe the provisions of the bill aimed at helping families, in particular, the increase in the child tax credit and the refundable portions of that credit for working class families is of particular importance to Catholics,” Burch told The Tablet.
The bill is being heralded as Trump’s first major legislative victory and the first major overhaul of the tax code since 1986. Once enacted, it will double the standard deduction and increase child tax credits, measures that have been lauded by the U.S. bishops. However, it will also create a larger budget deficit and is estimated to lead to a significant decrease in annual charitable giving, which the bishops have sharply criticized.
Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, a think-tank focused on free-market ideas and religious principles, said that the bishops are right to teach on the broad principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, but that the implementation of those principles should be left up to experts and politicians.
“Anything the bishops’ conference might say is not magisterial but simply a prudential application,” Father Sirico said. “We can disagree on those prudential applications, and I do. The social teaching of the Church is not like the doctrine of the Holy Trinity that is at the core of Catholic belief.”
“From (the bishops’) perspective, the concerns of the poor and the vulnerable require direct subsidies and set-asides to assist them, which means higher levels of taxation as a percentage of higher-income earners so that money can be redistributed and adjudicated according to needs,” said Father Sirico.
“That’s the perspective of the bishops’ conference as well as the perspective of many economic progressives and soft socialists in the United States. That is not my approach, nor the approach of many faithful Catholics.”
Meanwhile, other Catholic leaders have expressed outrage over the bill, saying it contradicts Pope Francis’s message to lawmakers during his September 2015 speech to congress and also called out Speaker Paul Ryan, a Catholic, for lending his support to a bill the bishops have consistently opposed.
“Speaker Ryan has talked to me about how it matters to him to go to church on Sunday with his family, but what this proves is that he doesn’t have a clue about the mandate of the gospel to care for those who are left out,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice.
“I think it demonstrates that he never learned to apply his faith to action,” she added.
“The most damning part of the bill is the incredible increase in the income and wealth disparity, the gross shift of money to those who need it least, and the utter disregard for working poor families in our nation,” she told The Tablet.
Similarly, John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, said the bill was incompatible with the gospel command to care for the most marginalized in society.
“Lawmakers who often talk a big game about their faith just passed a morally grotesque tax package that is antithetical to Christian values,” said Gehring.
“When Pope Francis addressed Congress, he urged representatives to put the common good and those on margins before special interests and ideology. This tax policy does the opposite. It rewards corporations, campaign donors and the wealthiest few at the expense of working families and the poor.”
According to Burch, however, Catholics should applaud the bill for granting greater economic liberty to individuals, which “recognizes the potential of the human person to create economic growth.”
Burch said he doesn’t believe this is a matter of letting the wealthy off the hook for caring for the poor, but rather creating an opportunity for individual stewardship.
“To the extent the benefits of this reform put more money in people’s pockets, including the wealthy, it is incumbent upon the beneficiaries of this reform to be good stewards of that wealth and use it to improve not only their individual lives but also those around them,” said Burch.
The bishops have called on Trump to work with Congress to improve the “dramatic negative consequences” of the bill before signing it into law. However, on Wednesday the president hosted a celebratory event to mark the passage of the bill. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said President Trump would sign the bill into law once several technical matters were sorted out.
Meanwhile, Catholic leaders opposed to the bill are encouraging lay Catholics to continue to elevate the concerns of those that will be most affected by its passage.
“We must stay engaged and lift up the stories of the people in our community who will suffer because of this,” said Sister Simone. “We must not believe the lie that we do not have enough money to care about the least in our society.”