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A New Kind of Catholic Republican Faces Old Obstacles

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American Enterprise Institute

Mark Stricherz - published on 03/09/15 - updated on 06/08/17

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WASHINGTON — Dear God, our Father who art in heaven, as I reflect on my day here on earth, am I right to think that free enterprise is fairer to more of Your creatures than socialism? Right? Right on, God, right on. If not, please show me the way, Lord.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last month, Arthur C. Books told an audience he says a similar prayer each night.

"This is my examination of conscience, and I recommend it to you. And what it’s about is free enterprise. This is not about money. It’s not about getting power out of Washington. It’s about fairness and opportunity," Brooks said, standing behind a podium on a large stage at the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Maryland.

Brooks, 50, is the president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., a venerable conservative-leaning think tank. He argues that capitalism has helped the world’s poor more than socialism. He likes to invoke the World-Bank estimate that the share of persons in absolute poverty levels has dropped from 50 percent to 20 percent. "There has been an 80 percent decrease in poverty over the last 40 years," Brooks reminded the audience. "An 80 percent decrease in poverty.”

Since he took over at AEI in 2009, Brooks has hired two policy experts on working- and middle-class Americans. Ramesh Ponnuru, 40, proposes that the federal child tax credit should rise from $1,000 to $5,000 per child. James  C. Capretta proposes scrapping the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with a federal tax credit to those without access to employer coverage. (For Democratic centrists, the steep drop in the country’s jobless rate the figure was 10 percent in October 2009 and 5.5 percent in February — shows that the Obama administration’s economic stimulus plan of 2009 has helped ordinary Americans).

What unites Brooks, Ponnuru, and Capretta is their shared faith as Catholics. Each man draws on Catholic practice or teaching for his ideas.

"Catholic social teaching has a preferential option for the poor, but this means helping the less powerful. It doesn’t mean socialism. Socialism has never helped the poor,” Brooks said in an interview after his speech last month.

“I aspire to have ‘Catholic’ before ‘conservative’ in my life,” Ponnuru told America, a Jesuit magazine, last summer.

“Catholic social teaching is a treasure – a genuine roadmap for building a just society,” Capretta and his co-author, Father Thomas V. Berg, wrote in 2012. Capretta, a Notre Dame alum, is also a former lobbyist for the Catholic Healthcare Association.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a Catholic, has also proposed helping working-class Americans. In his unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign, Santorum proposed tripling the personal deduction for each child and using the federal tax code to help working- and middle-class Americans. Yet Santorum’s proposals have not been resurrected in conservative policy shops, media outlets, or congressional legislation. By contrast, the proposals of Capretta and Ponnuru have.

Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah on March 4 unveiled a tax-reform plan that included increasing the child-tax credit to $2,500 per child. And Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah, John Barrasso of Wyoming and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee on March 2 floated a vague plan similar to Capretta’s that would “provide financial assistance to help Americans keep the coverage they picked for a transition period.” In addition, Ponuru and two other Catholic policy wonks, Ross Douthat of The New York Times and Brad Wilcox, a visiting scholar at AEI

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