In the fall of 2013, the Catholic University of America announced a $1 million pledge from the Koch Foundation, one of the many not-for-profit outfits with strong ties to the billionaire libertarians David and Charles Koch. The money, according to the university, would go to the business school, allowing it to hire professors and offer a course on "principled entrepreneurship." You may remember the Kochs from their charitable efforts to undermine public-employee unions, to support a campaign against renewable-energy standards, to suppress the vote, or to discredit the minumum wage (which the U.S. bishops want to raise).
A group of about fifty Catholic theologians certainly remembered. They sent a disapproving letter to Catholic University, voicing their concern that by accepting the grant, the university was sending "a confusing message to Catholic students and other faithful Catholics that the Koch brothers’ anti-government, Tea Party ideology has the blessing of a university sanctioned by Catholic bishops." But university president John Garvey and business-school dean Andrew Abela remained unmoved. They replied by pointing out that several of the professors cash paychecks from universities that accept Koch money, and accused them of trying to "score political points."
If any of those theologians were clinging to the hope that, given enough time, Garvey and Abela might come around to the idea that there's something odd about a Catholic business school accepting money from people who are so deeply committed shrinking the social safety net, cutting taxes, weakening environental regulations, ending the minimum wage, and busting unions, they can let go now. Because Catholic University's business school recently accepted another $1.75 million pledge from the Charles Koch Foundation (in addittion to $1.25 million from other donors).
“This new $3 million grant puts our school far along the path of creating a cadre of faculty dedicated to research exploring how we can make business and economics more humane,” Dean Abela said in a press release. “That’s not only the vision for our school; it’s also a moral imperative that Pope Francis has been championing with great passion.”
Passion was also evident in Garvey and Abela's pointed response to the theologians who suggested the priorities of the Koch brothers might not align well with those of a business school sponsored by the U.S. Catholic bishops: "We are confident that our faculty and academic leadership are well versed in Catholic social teaching and well equipped to apply it."
If that's true, then why did Dean Abela tell Religion News Service that “'Catholic social teaching says nothing' about public-sector unions"? The Catholic Church has affirmed the right of all workers to unionize for quite some time. "The most important of all [worker organizations] are workingmen's unions," wrote Pope Leo XIII in Rerum novarum (1891). Every pope since Leo has agreed and taught accordingly. Likewise, the church affirms the right of workers to earn a living wage. Here's John Paul II: "Society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family" (Centisimus annus, 1991). Obviously the Kochs disagree, and spend accordingly.
It's bizarre that anyone who teaches at a Catholic business school--let alone runs one--would tell a news outlet that church teaching is silent on public-sector unions, as though the tradition supports the right of private employees to unionize but turns a blind eye to their counterparts in the public sector. But, given the fact that Abela applied for and won a $10,000 prize from the free-market cultists at the Acton Institute, an organization that itself has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Koch-related charities, and is run by a priest who thinks Ayn Rand is grand, maybe that's not too surprising.
Neither is it surprising that Tim Busch, one of the donors joining the Kochs in their gift to Catholic University, would take to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to tout the effort to "teach capitalism to Catholics." Busch wants to head off any further criticism. "Lest more controversy swirl," he writes, "it is important to point out that the principles behind this initiative and the principled entrepreneurship program are consistent with Catholic teaching." Busch mentions Leo XIII--the same pope who in 1891 affirmed workers' right to form labor unions--and the words "rights and duties of capital and labor," without getting too specific about those rights, or which ones the Kochs have been working to undermine. Nor does he offer much detail about how capitalism can be enriched by Catholic social teaching.
Cronyism and corporate welfare are rampant across the world. Even in the U.S., they are increasingly evident in the interaction between business and politics. Business leaders now regularly and proudly collude with politicians and bureaucrats, boosting their companies’ bottom lines at the expense of economic growth. There are subsidies that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor, handouts, mandates, favorable regulations and so on.
Such collusion leads to the corruption and collectivism that are anathema to Catholic social teaching. It assumes that government intervention is the answer to social and economic problems, misunderstanding the Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. And it subordinates the individual to the state, perverting or ignoring the Catholic understanding of the common good, human dignity and personal freedom.
Instead of detailing specific failures of policy Catholic social teaching might address, Busch blows his Randian dog whistle. Devotees of Ayn Rand's "objectivism"--such as the Koch brothers--will tell you that the great conflict of our age is individualism (good) versus collectivism (bad). Busch himself offers a definition of collectivisim in his op-ed: it "subordinates the individual to the state." This is what Randian libertarians believe is the inevitable result of government intervention, whether in the form of financial assistance or regulation. But the Catholic Church is not against government intervention. The church does not view governmental action as by definition oppressive of individual freedom--in part because individual freedom is not the guiding principle of Catholic anthropology. The teaching is clear: where individual charity (something Ayn Rand found distasteful) fails, government assistance is necessary. It can't replace the need for acts of personal generosity, but those alone do not suffice.
Busch is right that Catholic doctrine is down on crony capitalism and political collusion that degrades human dignity. But you can't drop a few Catholic-friendly terms--human dignity, subsidiarity, the common good--into a blender with Ayn Rand's philosophy and produce something that flows easily into the Catholic tradition. If that is what students of this Catholic business school are being fed, then they're not getting their money's worth. Although the Kochs may be getting theirs.