The Republican Party has, for the most part, worshipped contentedly in the church of free-market fundamentalism for the last four decades. Guided by its pro-business, anti-government doctrines, they have crippled unions, undercut workers’ rights, and pushed tax cuts that benefit the wealthiest Americans. But every few years an enterprising conservative politician recognizes that extreme inequality and stagnant wages might be testing voters’ faith in such policies—and proposes a supposedly more creative and compassionate economic alternative. During his last term in office, for example, former House speaker Paul Ryan drew on his Catholic faith to launch a campaign touted by the Atlantic as a “much-ballyhooed push to get his party talking about poverty.” Now another Republican, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, is appealing to Catholic teaching to advocate for what he calls “common-good capitalism.” As with Ryan before him, Rubio’s effort has some laudable goals, but he delivered slogans more than a substantive break with GOP orthodoxy.
Rubio put forward his new economic vision in a speech last week at The Catholic University of America’s business school in Washington, D.C., titled “Catholic Social Doctrine and the Dignity of Work.” He began by citing Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 social encyclical, Rerum novarum, written to address the intense debates over workers’ rights and the responsibilities of businesses that followed the industrial revolution. “I wanted to revisit what he wrote because we are once again in the midst of transformative and disruptive economic change, and we once again face rising calls for socialism,” he said.
Throughout his speech, Rubio especially went out of his way to emphasize that he understands the anger and fear of struggling Americans. During his campaign for the Republican nomination in 2016, Rubio said he “learned the hard way” why so many people didn’t share the optimism he had as an “unabashed believer in American exceptionalism.” He sometimes used language that would draw cheers at a Bernie Sanders rally, talking about “a system that has been rigged” against young people burdened by student debt and railing against “the people who brazenly adopted the motto ‘greed is good’ in the 1980s, but then caused a catastrophic financial crisis.” Rubio noted that while corporate profits have soared over the past forty years, “investment of those profits back into the companies’ workers” has dramatically declined. “This is what it looks like when, as Pope Francis warned, ‘finance overwhelms the real economy,’” he said.
Rubio deserves some credit for criticizing a profit-only corporate mentality and acknowledging that markets alone are not enough to serve the common good. But he neglected to mention unions or a living wage even once—scandalous omissions for a speech taking a Catholic approach to the dignity of work. This was, however, consistent with Rubio’s legislative record of opposing increases to the minimum wage, supporting so-called “right-to-work” laws, and working to pass tax cuts that benefit corporations and the rich—all priorities more in line with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce than Catholic social teaching. Even as he quoted liberally from papal documents, Rubio conveniently refused to confront his own legislative complicity in some of the same trends he denounced. It’s no surprise that Rubio ignored St. John Paul II’s admonition that labor unions are “an indispensable element” in “the struggle for social justice.”
The setting for Rubio’s speech was also telling. The business school at Catholic University has received nearly $13 million from the Charles Koch Foundation in recent years, drawing challenges from some Catholic activists and scholars who argue that the Koch brothers’ deep pockets have been used to advance libertarian policies that clash with Catholic social teaching on economic and environmental justice. And of course the business school is named for Timothy Busch, a Catholic CEO and attorney who specializes in estate planning for wealthy clients. Rubio surely felt comfortable sidestepping the possibility of raising the minimum wage in a building named for someone who once called any floor for what workers are paid “an anti-market regulation that leads to unemployment” and does “great harm” to workers.