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.

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