Eight days before the inauguration of Donald Trump as the new U.S. president, a panel at Georgetown University that included a variety of Catholic participants encouraged the new president and new Congress to work together for the common good to help bring unity to a divided nation.
Joan Rosenhauer, the executive vice president of U.S. operations for Catholic Relief Services, offered a Catholic slant on a catch phrase used by Trump throughout his winning campaign for president.
“We have to help define what it looks like to ‘make America great again,’” she said, warning that the country must not turn away from the poor and suffering at home and around the world or stop seeking just solutions to challenges like immigration or climate change. “If that’s what the nation does, we will not be great,” she added.
She was among five panelists at a Jan. 12 forum on “Faithful Priorities in a Time of Trump,” sponsored by Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.
John Carr, the initiative’s director, asked the panelists to discuss the challenges, opportunities and responsibilities for religious communities and Catholic leaders in lifting up the needs of the poor and vulnerable to the new administration and Congress. “It’s the poor and vulnerable who are often left behind. We want to look at some of these issues through their eyes,” he said.
Noting that issues like poverty and homelessness did not seem to come up much in the recent presidential campaign, Monsignor John Enzler, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, underscored the importance of Catholics emphasizing the “preferential option for the poor” that is a hallmark of Catholic social teaching, which he said offers a blueprint for the Church’s advocacy efforts in the public square.
Representative Francis Rooney, a Republican from Florida and a new member of the U.S. House of Representatives, stressed the importance of educational opportunities and job training programs to help lift people out of poverty and better equip the next generation to find good jobs, noting “globalization and technological changes have radically altered our workforce… The jobs of tomorrow are going to need a lot of people with skills.”
Rooney, a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See who served on the Catholic advisory committee for the campaign of President-elect Trump, noted, “The country is very polarized. We need to work together to defuse the harsh rhetoric.”
Speaking of the new Congress, he added, “There’s a sense of urgency to drive the country forward and put this division behind.”
Another panelist, Sister Simone Campbell, who serves as the executive director of NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobby, said she senses that many people feel “a high level of ambiguity and fear” regarding the new leadership in Washington. “That challenges people of faith to do things differently,” she said, noting that advocates representing faith communities must still rely on prayer, reflection and action to make a difference in the political sphere.
She noted that nearly two thirds of U.S. households living in poverty include at least one adult working full-time, highlighting the importance of better wages for low-income workers.
The member of the Sisters of Social Service who gained fame for her group’s “Nuns on the Bus” tour across the United States promoting social justice issues, said she believes providing access to health care for all Americans is a “pro-life issue.”
Since the new Congress came into session at the beginning of the new year, the Republican majorities in the U.S. House and Senate have been working to repeal the Affordable Care Act, while critics have warned that scuttling Obamacare without instituting a replacement plan could endanger the access to health care for the more than 20 million Americans who gained health insurance for the first time under the program.
President-elect Trump has said he believes Obamacare can be repealed and replaced almost simultaneously, but specific replacement plans have not yet been introduced in Congress.
Campbell said that in her travels across the United States, she learned of a woman who lost her job and health insurance during the 2008 recession, and after delaying seeking medical care, that woman died of colon cancer.
The head of NETWORK said she believes that in the richest nation on Earth, all people should have access to health care, but she expressed concern that sometimes an attitude of extreme individualism causes some Americans to focus on just their needs and not be concerned about the plight of others.
Commenting on what Congress is doing regarding the Affordable Care Act, Rooney said, “No one wants anyone to be uninsured and not have coverage,” but he said people disagree on what role the government and free enterprise should play in making health insurance more accessible to Americans.
The congressman said he believes Trump’s publicly stated opposition to abortion and the strong pro-life stance of some of his key cabinet appointments and of Vice President-elect Mike Pence indicate that “he will protect life.”
Trump has vowed to nominate people to the Supreme Court who would reflect the jurisprudence of the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who opposed abortion on constitutional grounds.
Rooney said he expects that the new administration and Congress will also be supportive of religious liberty issues.
This proved to be controversial for the Obama administration when the Little Sisters of the Poor and other Catholic institutions brought a case to the Supreme Court challenging the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate under the Affordable Care Act.
They said it required them to violate their faith by providing employee health insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, contraception and sterilization procedures.
Another panelist, Jessica Chilin-Hernández, works for Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, and is an advocate for undocumented immigrants at the university. She emphasized the importance of the new administration and Congress working together on immigration reform that would provide a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
“No human being is illegal,” she said.
During the campaign, Trump said that all immigrants who have entered the country illegally should be subject to deportation, but he said his priority would be to deport undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes.
Recently more than 100 Catholic college and university presidents have urged the new leadership in Washington to continue protected status for undocumented students, which Chilin-Hernández also advocated.
She herself is a native of El Salvador who immigrated to the United States as a child with her family, and graduated from the College of William & Mary as a “Dreamer” student.
She noted that she is able to remain in the United States through the Temporary Protected Status program, but she urged that lawmakers and the administration seek a permanent solution that would “uphold the dignity of migrants and support their journey as new Americans.”
Chilin-Hernández said that following Trump’s election as president, “I felt fear unlike any I had felt before…The U.S. Department of Homeland Security knows where I live,” she said, expressing her fear of being deported. She added that the uncertainty of her status made her feel “marginalized from the American dream.”
Ending that protected status for the undocumented immigrants attending school would be “most unfair to our students, their dreams and their hopes,” she said.
The importance of seeing the humanity of the world’s 65 million migrants and refugees was emphasized by Rosenhauer of Catholic Relief Services, who said, “Refugees are not our enemies. They are our struggling brothers and sisters,” who often don’t have access to essential things like clean water and food.
“They’re not a burden, they’re not too far away to matter to us,” she added.
Rooney said he agreed with the importance of finding a just resolution for the nation’s immigrants. “No one wants to harm people who are here, and not respect their human rights,” he said. “…We have to overhaul our immigration system to deal responsibly with people here, and also secure our borders so we have territorial integrity.”
The head of Catholic Charities in Washington said he was disheartened by the acrimony and some of the statements made during the presidential campaign, and he added that he found some of Trump’s comments about women especially troubling. But he has hope that things will get better as the new president takes office.
“We can still find ways to listen to those we disagree with and find common ground,” Enzler said.
That point was echoed by Rosenhauer, who said, “We must stand up for what we believe with those who disagree, but do it with kindness.”
Chilin-Hernández said that rather than always looking to debate issues, and seeking to defeat an opponent, it would be better to seek to dialogue with them and find common ground.
That search for the common good was also emphasized by Campbell, who said, “We the people of the United States, all of us, can solve problems if we work together.”
The panel ended on a lighter note, when the participants were asked to imagine what they might tweet to the new president, who is known for using Twitter to voice his views.
Expressing hope for immigration reform and citizenship for the nation’s undocumented residents, Chilin-Hernández said she would sign her tweet, #HeretoStay.
Rosenhauer said her tweet would encourage the new president to remember each day how his policies affect the least among us, and she would sign it #Matthew25.
Enzler, noting that Catholic Charities’ headquarters is not far from the new Trump Hotel in downtown Washington, said in his tweet he would invite the new president to meet with homeless families served by the agency.