Church Groups Positioned to Influence Trade Talks

Article excerpt

Roles were reversed Dec. 1 when Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, no stranger to White House visits under this president or his predecessor, sat down with George W. Bush. International trade--specifically the upcoming meeting of trade ministers negotiating the so-called "Doha Development Round"--was the topic.

The 75-year-old McCarrick, a Brooklyn-born prelate whose aw-shucks demeanor (he frequently refers to his brother bishops as "the fellas") belies finely honed political instincts, is not above being used for a good cause. During the Clinton years, the then-archbishop of Newark, N.J., was summoned for a presidential photo-op to defuse criticism leveled at the president by New York Cardinal John O'Connor. Amid the camera flashes, and suffering none of the star-struck paralysis known to afflict oval Office visitors, McCarrick used the opportunity to press Clinton and get commitments on several issues being pushed by the church hierarchy.

This time it was Bush asking for a favor. He wanted vocal church support for at least one aspect of the administration's agenda at the Dec. 13-18 Hong Kong ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization--a meeting in which the trade-related agricultural needs of developing nations topped the agenda. Like the bishops, the administration favors reducing subsidies to U.S. farmers. That Bush and the bishops came to the same position for different reasons--the free trade ideology of the administration versus the church's concern for poor countries hit hardest by the cheap products made possible by "trade distorting" U.S. government subsidies-was of little concern.

A decade ago, the notion that a U.S. cardinal's views on economic distortions created by subsidized agricultural products would be considered worthy of presidential time was unlikely. Today, it's the norm. Following the half-hour presidential meeting, McCarrick joined 13 other religious leaders--Muslim, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic--to make the faith community's case on trade to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Since the 1995 advent of the World Trade Organization--the organization charged with facilitating trade agreements among more than 150 nations--the religious community in general, and the Catholic church in particular, has gotten serious about trade. Prior to WTO and the Doha Development Round, said Emily Byers, senior trade policy analyst at the Bread for the World Institute, "poverty wasn't a consideration" in international trade negotiations, leaving faith-based groups with little to say about the way international commerce is regulated. Today, antipoverty-driven trade policies are among a triad of international development issues--debt relief and foreign aid being the other two--that unite a wide spectrum of churches and faith communities. And the Catholic church, with a billion-plus adherents worldwide and an organizational structure in both rich and poor countries, finds itself uniquely situated to influence the debate.

The church's argument was succinctly made by the Catholic bishops of England, Scotland and Wales in their 2003 joint statement on "Trade and Solidarity": "Countries cannot emerge from poverty on the basis of debt relief and international aid, in the absence of just trade relationships. Despite all the efforts made to transform the situation, the economic and trade relationships between the wealthy and the poor countries of the world remain deeply unjust."

Political trends, both here and abroad, have enhanced the faith community's opportunity for influence. Though a staple of elite editorial pages and presidential administrations for more than a generation, support for "free trade" is waning in the United States. For example, the controversial 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement NAFTA passed the House by a vote of 234-200, with 102 Democrats supporting the pact. Last year, the Central America Free Trade Agreement--CAFTA--passed by a vote of 217-215 only after Republican leaders cajoled and coaxed enough members to turn the vote the president's way. …