Marco Rubio Discovers Catholic Social Teaching

Senator Marco Rubio made quite an impression this month with a speech at Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business – one that questioned the wisdom of the market and invoked Catholic Social Teaching as a corrective. “On the political right, where I come from,” he explained, “we’ve become defenders of the right of business to make a profit…but we have neglected the rights of workers to share in the benefits they create for their employer.” The Catholic internet (and the CLN facebook page) went crazy in response, probably because it’s so vanishingly rare to hear thoughtful discussions of Catholic Social Teaching in mainstream venues.

Rubio’s talk is emblematic of the turmoil in America’s conservative movement right now. American conservatives, unlike those in most of the world, have taken it as an article of faith that free markets are efficient and ethical in their distribution of goods and opportunities. But after Donald Trump won the presidency on a message that global free trade favors elites and robs working families, that faith has been shaken. A growing number of conservative thinkers are floating alternative principles of social organization in place of free markets, some good (e.g. Catholic Social Teaching) and others not-so-good (e.g. blood and soil nationalism). The conservatives’ clash of ideas has been especially prominent in the conservative Catholic magazine First Things, where Rubio first published these thoughts.

Rubio has drawn a lot of skepticism from progressive Catholics, who don’t want to hear about his ideas until he endorses the PRO Act. But I think he deserves some credit for getting people talking about CST, and especially for doing it at the CUA Busch Business School, whose scholars generally idealize the market while trying to reconcile it with the Catholic faith (usually by crediting the free market with all good economic outcomes and blaming distortions of the market for all evil ones). I have to side with John Gehring’s assessment in Commonweal:

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.

For other takes on Rubio’s talk, check out…