Arthur Brooks and Carly Fiorina speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland (Wikimedia Commons)

The wife of billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, former Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, and prominent free-market champion Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute were the headliners at a $2,000-a-ticket “Principled Entrepreneurship and Dignity of Work” conference hosted by the business school at Catholic University in Washington this week. The conference, with sessions held at the Mayflower Hotel and the Museum of the Bible, is the latest in a series of elite gatherings coordinated by Catholic’s business school in partnership with the Napa Institute, an influential network of wealthy Catholic philanthropists from the right, conservative bishops, and some Republican Catholic politicians.

“Principled entrepreneurship” seems a laudatory concept. I would prefer entrepreneurs to be principled rather than unscrupulous. But the phrase “Principled Entrepreneurship” is also legally trademarked by Koch Industries, the conglomerate of businesses founded by libertarian powerbrokers Charles and David Koch. The relationship between the nation’s only Vatican-chartered university and the nation’s most influential funders of the conservative political movement seems cozier than ever these days. Catholic University’s business school has benefited from more than $14 million from the Charles Koch Foundation over the past five years, a curious wellspring of resources given that the Kochs’ vast conservative political networks and front-groups promote libertarian policy goals that stand in contrast to traditional Catholic social teaching on labor, the role of government, and the environment. At the American Cardinal’s Dinner in June, a high-profile fundraiser for the university, the foundation was honored for making another $2 million commitment to open a new branch campus in Tucson, Arizona, with a focus on reaching underserved Latino students.

The university’s business school is named after Timothy Busch, an Orange County, California, attorney who owns several luxury resorts and Trinitas Cellars, which sells an $80 bottle of Cabernet named after Pope Francis (Cabernet FRANCis). The megadonor to various Catholic causes gave the university $15 million, its largest ever donation, in 2016. Busch, who is also cofounder and chairman of the board at the Napa Institute, once boasted that he is “making Catholic University great again.” His politics seem firmly in sync with the Koch brothers, whom he has praised as influencing his business philosophy. Busch has called the minimum wage an “anti-market regulation that leads to unemployment.” A few years ago, one of the Kochs’ top political strategists argued the minimum wage can lead to fascism.

Busch, who is also co-founder and chairman of the board at the Napa Institute, once boasted that he is “making Catholic University great again”

Catholic teaching, in contrast, has stood behind living wages and the right of all workers to organize since at least 1891, when Pope Leo XIII released the encyclical Rerum novarum. Catholic University itself also holds a special place in the struggle for workers’ rights. Msgr. John Ryan, who became a key advisor in helping President Franklin D. Roosevelt shape New Deal social reforms, wrote his doctoral dissertation at the university, and his seminal book, A Living Wage, applied the principles of Rerum novarum to the practical matters of work and family life.

Busch is an ambitious political player. Last spring, the Napa Institute hosted a $1,250-a-ticket meeting at the Trump International Hotel in Washington billed as an exclusive gathering of “Catholic leaders, clergy, and important D.C. insiders.” At that event, there wasn’t any mention of the Kochs’ well-funded attacks on public-sector unions or the GOP’s efforts to pass right-to-work legislation that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops strongly opposes. Instead, Busch consistently praised the Trump administration as the most “pro-life” presidency in history.

While in recent years there has been a rekindling of old ties between the Catholic Church and the labor movement, only one local labor leader appears on the Principled Entrepreneurship agenda this week. David Hendrick, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 2463, which represents Smithsonian Institution employees, is a former business owner and self-described conservative. “The time has come for the unions to stop their expansive and failed policy of being the rich uncle for the Democratic party,” Hendrick wrote in June. “Quit allowing others to put our face on the milk cartons of government waste.” Carly Fiorina, scheduled to speak on “work and spirituality,” has blamed “unions” and “government bureaucracies” for the pay gap between men and women.

Another conference speaker, Jay Richards, an assistant professor at the business school who goes by the handle “Free-Market Jay” on Twitter, has warned that “socialism is a perennial temptation” and touts what he calls “economic freedom” as the moral option for Christians. During a 2016 lecture at the Acton Institute, a free-market advocacy group led by the Catholic priest Rev. Robert Sirico, Richards scoffed at the Paris climate accords, questioned the impact of global warming, and maligned mainstream efforts to address climate change. Carbon dioxide has “very positive effects on the atmosphere,” he said: “the nature of Big Science leads to groupthink. There are no global policies to date that make any sense at all.” Given the priority Pope Francis has placed on the need to tackle climate change, and his critique of free-market fundamentalism as an ideology that often puts the profits of multinational corporations before environmental stewardship, it seemed an odd message from a professor at a Catholic university. Steve Green, President of Hobby Lobby, the national crafts store chain, and founder of the recently opened Museum of the Bible—a 430,000-square-foot building in downtown Washington where some conference sessions are being hosted—is speaking about the Bible as a “Guide for Work.” Hobby Lobby won a controversial U.S. Supreme Court case in 2014, which found the $4 billion company did not have to provide contraception coverage to its 32,000 workers. While lauded by some conservatives as a win for religious liberty, the decision also represented a victory for corporations at a time when the gap between worker pay and CEO wealth is at Gilded-Age levels. Conference speaker Arthur Brooks has carved out a reputation in some circles as a “compassionate conservative,” a go-to intellectual on the right. A convert to Catholicism, he is also comfortable in the hardball political culture that the Koch brothers have cultivated at exclusive, invitation-only events held in luxury locales, where movement-building strategy sessions and networking are paired. In a leaked agenda from a 2010 Koch conference, Brooks is listed as speaking on the topic, “Winning the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government.” In teaser language to his address, the program warns that “freedom is under relentless attack,” and describes free enterprise as “more than an economic system—it is a moral imperative, and we must defend it at all costs.” This messianic faith in the free market and knee-jerk hostility to nearly any governmental efforts to reign in the worst excesses of capitalism is anathema to traditional Catholic teaching on striking a proper balance between the market and the state.

Catholic University President John Garvey and Provost Andrew Abela penned a 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed defending their decision to accept money from the Kochs, writing that they "won't cave to demands made by the liberal social-justice movement." Garvey and Abela say they welcome "constructive criticism" but argue "it would be a mistake to stifle debate by pretending that genuinely controversial positions are official church teaching." Abela, a former dean of the business school, is not slated to speak at the conference but has been a key player in courting big conservative donors, according to faculty. In a 2013 interview with Catholic News Service, amid criticism of the Koch donations, Abela strangely argued that “Catholic social teaching says nothing specifically about the issue of public sector unions.” Perhaps that was the voice of the Koch brothers whispering in his ear. The Koch network has poured considerable money into fighting public-sector unions in states like Wisconsin, not to mention into anti-democratic efforts to suppress voting rights. Abela might want to check in with Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago. In a 2015 speech at Plumbers Union Hall, the cardinal noted the Church has “never made a distinction between private and public sector unions.” A “consistent ethic of solidarity,” the cardinal said, situates the Church’s respect for unions in the continuum of human dignity that includes “feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, protecting the unborn, caring for the sick, and welcoming immigrants.”

Several pointed to the hypocrisy of hosting a $2,000-a-person conference at a time when many professors feel disrespected

The exorbitant cost to attend an event focused on the “dignity of work,” along with the ideological leanings of many speakers, are emblematic of broader trends at Catholic University that prioritize the interests of conservative donors and favor a particular type of Catholic identity, according to interviews with current and former faculty. Several pointed to the hypocrisy of hosting a $2,000-a-person conference at a time when many professors feel disrespected by an administration they describe as ideologically driven and managerially incompetent. The Faculty Assembly reported an overwhelming vote of “no confidence” in President John Garvey and Provost Andrew Abela’s leadership in the spring. A group called “Save Catholic,” made up of current and past professors, along with students and alumni, cite steadily falling enrollment, deep budget cuts, pressure to take early retirements, and an unacceptable discrepancy between the salaries of top administrators and staff. While a conference about “workers’ rights” was being planned, employees note, teaching assistants, adjunct faculty, and other staff without tenure worked nearly a month into the school year without contracts until they were mailed in the last few days.  

“You can tell when the board of trustees are meeting because all the fancy cars line up,” said Steve McKenna, a tenured professor who chairs the media studies department. “I haven’t had an office assistant in eight months, and we were told we were not allowed to have individual printers in our office because toner is expensive. Where is all the money going?” McKenna worries about a lack of transparency with the influx of funds from the Charles Koch Foundation and other conservative donors who have powered what he calls the “well-funded juggernauts” of the business school, and new centers such as the Institute for Human Ecology. At George Mason University, he notes, a public entity where the Kochs have poured vast sums of money into shaping ideological centers focused on law and the economy, students filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that have uncovered strings-attached funding, meddling in hiring decisions, and other ethically problematic practices. “We’re a private university and we can’t do that, so at Catholic we just have to take the word of the president and the provost that that’s not happening here,” McKenna said. “If you know how the Kochs operate that just doesn’t pass the smell test.” McKenna said the connection between the Koch-funded business school and ideologically aligned outside organizations has led to academic-hiring searches in which a favored candidate is put forward outside the normal vetting process. “It’s a way to make these ideological hires,” McKenna said.

Even before Koch money started flowing to the university, McKenna recalls being pressured by Garvey to hire a Catholic for a position in his department. “The president told me that he was cancelling our search for a faculty member in the area of media and religion because our final candidates were not Catholic. He said, ‘We can only have a Catholic.’ I said I wouldn’t have undertaken the search if that were a precondition—it wasn’t—and that I didn’t know how to hire only Catholics. He told me I'd just have to figure it out, saying ‘What I liken it to is the homosexuals—all the homosexuals know who the other homosexuals are. You just go to conferences and talks and all the Catholics find each other.’”

William Barbieri, a professor of theology and religious studies at the school, recognizes that universities like Catholic are obliged to seek potential resources from a variety of places. “But we need to think very carefully about a couple of problems accompanying the prospect of working together, especially with these kinds of groups,” Barbieri said. “The first is the possibility of ceding inordinate influence to donors who, of course, may have their own interests in pursuing this relationship. Despite our administration’s assurances to the contrary, I have never been fully convinced that our faculty appointments and curricular programs have been successfully insulated from the influence of these donors. Even if this influence is only indirect, it’s hard not to see it at work in the staffing and programming of recent additions to the university. At some point it becomes imprudent for any university to associate itself too strongly with highly politicized groups, and that goes double for the national Catholic university, which has a responsibility to provide a big tent while maintaining a certain institutional impartiality.”

A former Catholic University professor who left because he felt pressure to make hiring decisions described a climate of micromanagement and ideological intimidation. But he thinks the influence of big conservative money only gets at half the picture. “We have to be careful not just to put the blame on the Kochs,” the professor said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The fact is Catholic was in such a vulnerable situation and needed to raise money. It made the university susceptible to this kind of influence.”

It’s this influence that has a distorting effect well beyond the campus of Catholic University, according to Miguel Diaz, the John Courtney Murray University Chair in Public Service at Loyola University Chicago, and a former ambassador to the Vatican during the Obama administration. “Many progressive Catholics over the years gave up on the institutional church, and that left a vacuum for more conservative ideological influences,” said Diaz. “This means the donors now are primarily coming from one side of the ideological spectrum. And money is power.” Diaz noted that this year is the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark 1968 Latin American bishops meeting in Medellin, Colombia, where the concept of the church having a “preferential option” for the poor took root. “We can only hope for the day when wealth does not determine power in the Church,” Diaz said. “As Pope Francis has reminded us, the ‘business’ of the Church is to exist preferentially from and for the sake of the poor.”

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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