Koch-hold at Catholic University

Koch-hold at Catholic University February 24, 2014

Recently, the new business school at the Catholic University of America (CUA) received a decent donation from the Koch Brothers. In response to a barrage of justifiable criticism, university president John Garvey and business school dean Andrew Abela penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal declaring that they would keep the money and that their accusers could take a flying leap.

If this is an exaggeration, it is only a slight one. The tone of the piece is petulant and hyper-defensive. Clearly, the critics have hit a nerve.

The substance of the piece is little better. For a start, what could have possibly prompted the authors to choose the Wall Street Journal editorial page as their outlet? As everyone knows, this is the intellectual ground zero for the libertarian virus that has infected the body politic for the past few decades. It wallows in the self-righteous and quasi-religious doctrine that the rich are graced with the rewards of virtue and that only the salvific grace of the free market can set us free.

On almost every economic issue, it stands squarely against Catholic social teaching, in both principle and practice. And yet this is the chosen venue of Garvey and Abela to claim that they will not be influenced by Koch positions. This is like taking money from the Cold War-era Soviet Union and choosing a communist newspaper to defend yourself against improper taint!

So much for the outlet. It gets much worse when you actually get into the substance. The op-ed starts by taking a term intrinsically linked to Catholic social teaching—“social justice”—and mocking it. We are told that CUA will not cave into the demands of the “liberal social justice movement”—by which they mean the clear and non-negotiable teachings of the Church on economic matters. This rhetoric is par for the course at the Wall Street Journal, of course, but highly disappointing for the academic leaders of a preeminent Catholic institution.

Beyond the snark, the fundamental problem with the op-ed is that it deliberately misrepresents the issue. Garvey and Abela claim that the problem is not that “the Charles Koch Foundation is a bad actor because it funds improper activity elsewhere”. But that is precisely the problem, and it goes far deeper and dirtier than the Koch’s attempt to quash public sector unions in Wisconsin, the only example they bring up. Let’s just put this out there: the whole Koch philosophy of unbridled libertarianism and me-first individualism is completely and utterly opposed to authentic Catholic social teaching. Of this, there can be no doubt.

Even worse, the Koch brothers use their money for poisonous purposes, in ways that do substantial harm to the common good. They are among the country’s biggest polluters, and they use their money to oppose all efforts to combat climate change, even to the extent of funding liars who claim that it does not exist. On the other hand, Pope Francis is about to pen an encyclical on the environment.

 The Kochs seek to deliberately and maliciously keep millions of people without health insurance, putting ideology over peoples’ lives, in part by attempting to sabotage the Affordable Care Act. On the other hand, the Church sees basic health care as a human right that should be, as far as possible, “cheap or even free of charge”.

And then there is the question of unions. The Kochs are on the front line of attempts to quash collective bargaining and the power of organized labor in the US. As a recent example, they were involved—behind the scenes as usual—in efforts to keep unions out of Volkswagen, even though German industrial relations are built on the principle of co-determination, a principle that springs directly from Catholic social teaching.

For while the Kochs see strong unions as an impediment to economic freedom, the Church sees them the embodiment of a natural right to association, an “indispensible element of social life”. More than that, they are a “mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice” and a means to protect workers “just rights vis-à-vis entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production”.  So yes, the Church has a lot to say about unions, and yes, this teaching is non-negotiable.

Garvey and Abela pull out the tired old canard that the Church has never said anything about unionization in the public sector, but neither has it said anything explicitly about unionization in other sectors of the economy either. A natural right to association does not cease to be a natural right because the government rather than a private enterprise is the employer.  To claim otherwise is illogical and disingenuous.

When you think about it, the authors could have actually made a half-decent case for their position in this op-ed. They could have argued along the following lines: we need the money to fulfill our mission, we recognize the problems with the Koch Brothers, but we assure you that our business school will uphold traditional Catholic social teaching.

But they don’t make this argument. They don’t make any effort whatsoever to defend traditional and orthodox Catholic social teaching beyond a banal statement that the economy “exists to serve humans and not the other way around”. Instead, they engage in a curious balancing act—decrying “guilt by association” and claiming purity on one hand, and deriding their “social justice progressive” critics and winking at the libertarian worldview on the other.

In doing so, they seem to tilt their hand—not toward traditional and orthodox Catholic social teaching, but towards the heterodox free-market innovation much favored by the Acton Institute (and which surely warms the hearts of Charles and David Koch!).

We know that Andrew Abela has links with Acton—he has received an award from them, and published in their house journal (making the case that the principle of subsidiarity argues against raising the federal minimum wage!). This is a major red flag for a business school at a university under the direct jurisdiction of the US Catholic bishops.

It is also a major double standard. We all know that, if Planned Parenthood were giving the money, the shoe would be on the other foot. It would no longer be sufficient to claim that the money would be used for noble purposes and to decry “guilt by association”.

But unfortunately, Catholic social teaching is held to a far lower standard. I think we know why. For decades now, people like George Weigel, Richard Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and Robert Sirico have been trying to remake Catholic social teaching in the image of Protestant and liberal America, and re-baptize it in the stagnant waters of economic Darwinism.

 It is time to end this willful distortion, as well as the hypocrisy and the double standards. It is time to stand firm and reclaim our legacy.

And yes, Catholic social teaching has a truly great legacy at CUA, and his name is Msgr. John A. Ryan. His was once the face of Catholic social teaching in this country—not Sirico, and certainly not the Koch brothers. I can only hope and pray that CUA will come back to its senses.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I strongly disagree with this progressive diatribe. The Catholic University had their say and you have had yours. I hope you feel better now. God bless.

  • Well, I predict that it will either “come back to its senses” or get dragged back to its senses by the kinds of Catholic bishops that Pope Francis is likely to appoint in America. I predict that, if this pope lives out for a substantial pontificate, the American Catholic episcopate is in for a rough ride.

    • Christian Schmemann

      I predict that Pope Francis will preside over a schism between the American ‘Roman Catholic’ Church and the rest of the Catholic World and the rest of the Catholic World. The American bishops definitely are doubling down on the theocon position, in open defiance against the Vatican and the Holy Father; this can only portend schism.

      When this happens, much of the concerns that certain Orthodox bishops (namely Russian Orthodox bishops) have about unity with the Catholics Church will disappear, and Pope Francis would effectively see Russia supplant Brazil as the world’s largest Catholic nation (albeit a Byzantine-rite Catholic nation with its own Patriarch).

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


    while I cannot disagree with what you wrote, I wonder if a better way to engage with this WSJ essay would be to challenge the authors on the very subject that the money is being given for: the study of “principled entrepreneurship.” This is a curious subject, and I really am not sure what it means. For the most part, I see the word entrepreneurship as a buzzword of the economic libertarian right, a word that seems designed to invoke images of prosperous shopkeepers and small business owners, but which provides cover for policies and practices that do not benefit them but rather large corporations and the uber-wealthy elite. So the useful contrast would be: what does Catholic Social Teaching have to say about entrepreneurship, and what principles should be used to judge it? And are these the principles that the Koch Brothers hope to have promoted by their gift? The latter question is harder to answer since we cannot see into their hearts, but we can certainly examine their many business practices and ask if they are in conformity with these principles.

    • trellis smith

      I agree David. And while I believe you would be hard pressed to find a nation more brimming with an entrepreneurial spirit than as found in America and that few Americans have much resentment against the sometimes enormous success of entrepreneurs.

      The authors are disingenuous in their defense of the Koch brothers who are the purveyors of corporatism and the public subsidy thereof rather than somehow emblematic of true wealth creation. While they deride welfare queens they themselves are pigs at the public trough. Their core business is nothing more than a creation of government interference.They are hypocrites in the true sense of the word as they actively finance and engage in their con.

  • Kurt

    As a patron of the Lincoln Center and PBS, the Koch donation by itself is not something I would launch a crusade against. But MM is right that not so much the donation but the weak and self-indicting defense made of it in the WSJ is very troubling.

    I wish I had Dismas’ confidence that the future will bring better in the quality of American episcopates. I don’t. I’ve never fully bought the argument that JP2 and BXVI are primarily responsible for the right wing hacks we have today as the American episcopate. Rather, I believe it was due to an unfortunate combination of events — 1) the fleeing departure of working class Catholics from the Church resulting in an upper middle class laity and bishops who do not know a single manual worker, 2) the crisis in financial giving resulting from the child abuse scandal; 3) the early 1990s alliance of Catholic social conservative political activists with wealthy economic conservatives and businessmen and their program to use the Church’s financial dependency on them to push their political agenda and episcopal candidates favorable to them.

    The result is that the American Church is financially dependent on them. Absent a Kirchensteuer, things are not likely to improve much. Not all who give something to the fiddler are asking for tunes. But among a right wing cabal, they want their songs sung.

    • I’ve never fully bought the argument that JP2 and BXVI are primarily responsible for the right wing hacks we have today as the American episcopate.

      Both those pontiffs were veterans of the wars among ideological rivals that went on in academia and both were more interested in doctrinal rigidity than in any kind of pastoral harvesting of the better fruits of Vatican II, which were left to languish on the tree. (However, I always took comfort in the recorded history of all councils of the Universal Church–that they had always taken at least thirty years for their works to be realized.)

      Influenced largely by their backgrounds in academic politics, they appointed nothing but “yes” men to the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy in what is basically a Protestant society in which Catholicism has always been at a cultural and intellectual disadvantage. This has contributed to the reduction of Catholic intellectual–and, I would argue, artistic–life to the level of mediocrity. The bishops began to behave as little more than an ideological police force. I would argue that men of towering intellect and moral force could have functioned creatively and assertively no matter how great the financial advantages of their parishioners. Do you imagine that a John Henry Newman was ever intimidated by a Duke of Norfolk?

      I am willing to bet my life’s savings that the ex-Jesuit Francis I Bergoglio will be different.

      • Cojuanco

        There’s nothing wrong with doctrinal orthodoxy. And the downside of a church tax (aside from the fact it would violate American civil law) is that it would make the problem worse.

        Also, to be precise, under the 1983 Code, Francis remains a Jesuit in name as well as in fact, though dispensed to a limited extent from some of his vows (to allow him as first Bishop, then Pope, to own property on behalf of the Church).

        As to the larger topic, it tends to vary, and I think the problem is not so much doctrinal rigidity (looking at the pamphlets passed out by the Catholic Truth Society in, say, England and Wales, they were very, very traditional, yet were very very infused with CST – like where they denounced, along with – of course – artificial contraception and abortion, things like sweatshop labor, and unequal wages between men and women – in 1952, no less! – one gets the sense this would not have happened in America*), or that the wealthy are over-represented in gifts to Holy Mother Church (that’s been the case for several centuries). It’s that the donors are just as assimilated into liberal American consensus social positions as the other dissenters, only a different part. I think the problem in the American Church is that so many of us still are aching too much to assimilate into American culture, instead of transforming it.

        • I think the problem in the American Church is that so many of us still are aching too much to assimilate into American culture, instead of transforming it.

          It CANNOT be “transformed”; the human anthropology that is intrinsic to the Enlightenment philosophy that informs the founding documents of the American Republic is contrary to the Church’s anthropology. There is a fundamental difference in the beliefs regarding what life is FOR. Catholics in America MUST be, by definition, counter-cultural. This was not apparent during what some writers call the “American Catholic Renaissance,” but now it is plainly obvious.

  • Roger

    Just another university that is “catholic” in name only. Ho hum.

    The Koch Bros should have known better.