NEW YORK — During his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Donald Trump declared this to be a “new American moment,” in a speech he described as a bid for bipartisanship, but which elicited reactions that broke along largely predictable partisan lines — a split that also characterized immediate Catholic reaction.
Chad Pecknold, professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America, told Crux that the speech was “surprisingly good,” and he was pleased at the ways in which it extolled “the values and virtues of the American character itself.”
“For faithful Catholics, there were hopeful lines about the importance of faith and family, and the importance of hope that is expressed through the love of children,” said Pecknold.
Meanwhile, other Catholics warned that for all of his talk about faith and family, there were some serious inconsistencies with which Trump’s administration must reckon.
Economic growth and Catholic concerns
Out of the gate, the president hailed his “righteous mission to make America great again for all Americans,” crediting the 2.4 million new jobs, rising wages, and a record low in unemployment claims, as clear victories for his administration.
In December of last year, the president signed into law new tax reform legislation, which he upheld as one of his signature accomplishments. According to Trump, tax reform has been a boon to small businesses and working class families, yet the bill was passed with strident opposition from U.S. Catholic bishops, who deemed it “deeply flawed” and warned it would harm the poor.
Following the president’s remarks, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and now Florida congressman Francis Rooney, issued a statement praising Trump’s speech, and singling out his tax reform efforts.
“Americans of every income bracket are reaping the rewards of tax relief,” said Rooney. “Accompanying this tax relief has been equally important regulatory relief that has moved control of our economy away from the grasp of Washington’s bureaucrats and back into the hands of America’s small businesses owners. Some eight billion dollars of costly regulatory oppression has been lifted from the back of the American worker.”
Pecknold, however, told Crux that he believes the president’s boastings on tax reforms were exaggerated, and that they would likely yield “much more modest gains” to middle class families than the president suggested.
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, an opinion columnist at the Washington Post, told Crux that the president’s overall economic strategy seemed to be “tilting toward welfare reform.”
“During the last round of welfare reform, the bishops were pretty skeptical,” Bruenig said, “and I assume they will be this time around, as well.”
She said some of Trump’s language on Tuesday, such as “moving from poverty to prosperity and moving from welfare to work,” was reminiscent of the last time Congress considered welfare reform and that the language was marked by “nudging people toward responsibility.”
Bruenig told Crux that Catholics should be wary of language that implies that welfare recipients are simply entitlement seekers. “The vast majority of people using assistance programs already work,” said Bruenig.
While she said, in theory, she would be enthusiastic about the president’s proposal for paid family leave, she was unconvinced that a proposal put forth by conservatives would benefit working families.
She cited one recent paid leave proposal in the Wall Street Journal that would allow for individuals to draw Social Security early in exchange for working longer.
“That’s extremely inadequate, especially for people who have lots of children and would have to delay retirement,” Bruenig warned. “People with big families are going to be penalized by having much longer working lives.”
“Americans are dreamers too”
As the deadline for finding a solution for DACA — a program for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as minors — fast approaches next month, Catholics leader have been especially anxious as to how the president might address immigration during his speech.
During his address, the president reiterated his four-pronged plan to fix immigration, which includes a path to citizenship for the 1.8 so-called DREAMers without legal status, the building of a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the end of a visa lottery, and terminating family migration, billing it as a common-sense, bipartisan proposal.
Earlier on Tuesday, however, the U.S. bishops issued a statement welcoming the proposed path to citizenship for Dreamers offered by the administration, but warned that such a proposal could not come at the expense of family migration cuts and protections for unaccompanied children.
“For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities,” said Trump. “They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.”
Pecknold told Crux that he believes the president’s description of immigrants was “a missed opportunity” and said he would have liked to hear a “a more balanced treatment on immigration.”
“My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans, to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too,” Trump said, in what was viewed by many as a backhanded insult to undocumented DREAMers seeking a path to citizenship.
Meanwhile, Republican representative Paul Gosar of Arizona announced on Tuesday that he had asked the U.S. Capitol Police and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to arrest any undocumented immigrants present in the Capitol for the president’s remarks.
Over 20 undocumented immigrants were on hand in the galleries at the invitation of various senators and representatives.
Gosar, who is a Catholic, boycotted Pope Francis’s historic 2015 joint address to Congress — the first time a pope had ever given one.
Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas – and one of the U.S. bishops’ most outspoken defenders of immigrants – also lamented the president’s description of immigrants during his address.
“We didn’t hear anything really positive about immigrants, we just heard them characterized,” Seitz told Crux afterwards.
Seitz also echoed the U.S. bishops’ concern about ending family migration and protection for unaccompanied minors who enter the country.
“No one is considered to be potentially an innocent child anymore,” he lamented. “It was sad for me to hear of even unaccompanied children characterized as potential gang members…it shows his perspective that, sadly, compassion is only extended as far as those who managed to already get here”
“To say that we can only choose between caring for ourselves or thinking about others, so we’ll choose the former is a very narrow way of thinking,” said Seitz.
“I don’t think it’s any way reflective of Jesus’ teaching on love of neighbor,” he added.
Religious liberty protections and Pro-life promises
Despite that fact that Trump made history earlier this month by becoming the first president to address the annual March for Life via satellite, he did not make any mention of abortion during his remarks.
Pecknold told Crux that he was disappointed that the president did not mention the Senate’s failure to pass the 20-week ban on abortion on Monday, a measure that the president supported and had pledged to sign into law.
One of his campaign promises, however, was to appoint a “pro-life justice,” and without mentioning him directly by name, Trump touted the confirmation of a “great, new justice” to the Supreme Court.
The April confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the bench was one of the earliest victories of the administration. Four of the nine sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices, including Gorsuch, were in attendance on Tuesday.
Of the five Catholics on the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts was the only one in attendance.
The president also mentioned the “historic actions to protect religious liberty” by his administration, although he did not go into details.
A Catholic rebuttal
Following the State of the Union, thirty-seven year-old Joe Kennedy III, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts offered the official response to the address, in which he specifically attacked the president’s positions on immigration and elimination of certain social programs.
The American promise “is being broken by an administration that decides who makes the cut and who can be bargained away. They are turning American lives into a zero-sum game. For one to win, another must lose. We can guarantee America’s safety if we slash our safety net,” he said describing how he sees the administration’s actions.
Kennedy, a Catholic, is considered one of his party’s rising stars, and his selection to give the official response will likely elevate his platform in the months to come.
While the State of the Union was once a less celebrated event, dating back to George Washington’s first “annual message” in 1790, it has become criticized by some in recent years for being more theatrical than substantive.
Woodrow Wilson became the first president to give the address to a joint session of U.S. Congress and it was televised for the first time in history with President Harry Truman in 1947. In some respects, this year, a president who made his name as a television celebrity, brought the event full circle.
“As long as we have confidence in our values, faith in our citizens, and trust in our God, we will not fail,” Trump concluded. “Our families will thrive. Our people will prosper. And our nation will forever be safe and strong and proud and mighty and free. Thank you, and God bless America.”