Serious Problems at Catholic University's Business School

There’s something rotten at Catholic University’s business school. When it comes to authentic Catholic social teaching, its approach seems to follow that of Seinfeld’s George Costanza— “do the opposite.”

When Pope Francis is speaking passionately about how this economy kills, excludes, and destroys mother earth, this school is taking large sums of money from some of the most unvirtuous business interests in the US—the Koch brothers and other libertarians—and then taking positions favorable to their donors’ interests. In too many instances, the gospel they proclaim is the liberating power of free markets.

The most scandalous aspect of this is that the business school hosts an outspoken climate change denier—a professor by the name of Jay Richards. His positions on this topic are beyond offensive. He argues that we shouldn’t believe the warnings about climate change because they come from dubious assumptions built into computer models. This is nonsense. There is no debate in the science. The close link between global temperatures and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been shown for the past 800,000 years. And the science behind this is not based on new-fangled computer models. Back in 1896, the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius accurately predicted what would happen to temperatures from a doubling of carbon dioxide—and he did this with pen and paper!

Richards also parrots another tried-and-tested Kochian claim there has been no warming since 1998—this is a deliberate attempt to obscure the difference between trends and cycles around trends. And since 1998 was a big El Nino year, let’s see how this talking point adjusts now that we have a bumper El Nino this year! The bottom line is that 2015 is the warmest year on record, and each year seems to surpass the last.

Richards’ arguments are really quite dreadful. On twitter, he attacked the world bishops’ endorsement of decarbonization because, he claimed, it would kill millions of people. Talk about getting it backwards! We are currently on course for a 4-6 degree increase in global temperatures over pre-industrial levels. Our human civilization won’t survive that, and the poor will be decimated.

Yet these arguments look depressingly familiar. Back in April, I helped organize an event at the Vatican on climate change, which the Heartland Institute attempted to hijack. Heartland is really the worst of the worst in terms of climate denialism. They are famous for arguing that smoking doesn’t cause cancer—using the exact same quack science. Yet I don’t see much daylight between the arguments of Heartland and the arguments coming from corners of Catholic University’s business school.

Let’s be blunt here. At a time when Pope Francis has put climate change and environmental concerns right at the top of the moral agenda, a leading Catholic university is directly opposing him. And not just any Catholic university, but a pontifical university.

Pope Francis has strong words for attitudes like this in Laudato Si’. He condemns “powerful opposition” and “obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers” that “can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions”. He condemns those concerned with “masking the problems or concealing their symptoms”.

The worst part of this is the scandalous lack of solidarity. When you listen to bishops from the developing world talking from the front lines of climate change, you can hear the heartbreak and anguish in their voices. When wealthy and privileged Catholics from the US—the country most responsible for imposing this “ecological debt” on the world’s poor—tell them they have nothing to worry about, this is heartless and offensive. It’s scandalous.

Of course, we all know that climate denialism is a game. Exxon has known it for decades. But they, and others like them, play this corrupt and decadent game for selfish financial reasons. Others cheer the game from the sidelines for reasons of ideology—more specifically, the rigid anti-government ideology of libertarianism, the ideology of self-centeredness and self-absorption. This ideology finds special resonance in the US, on the strength of what Pope Francis calls the “bondage of individualism” (or what Pope Pius XI referred to more ominously as the “evil individualistic spirit”). It’s no surprise, therefore, that Jay Richards—like others at Catholic University’s business school—identifies with strong free market tendencies. “Free Market Jay” is his twitter handle.

Let me be quite clear here. I am sure that Jay Richards and his colleagues are sincere in their belief that they are promoting the common good. They are not Exxon. But this brand of libertarianism is simply not compatible with authentic, traditional, and orthodox Catholic teaching.

Ironically, Catholic University itself has been on the forefront of showing precisely how Catholicism and libertarianism don’t match—the excellent Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies has hosted a number of conferences under the banner of “erroneous autonomy”. They do great work under the leadership of Stephen Schneck. It’s good to see orthodox Catholic social teaching alive and well at Catholic University. John A. Ryan might not turn in his grave after all!

But in the meantime, we can only hope and pray for some serious reform at the business school. They are taking tainted money and tainted money always taints. Is it too much to ask a pontifical university to stand with the pope on a moral issue so dear to his heart?

Anthony Annett is a climate change and sustainable development advisor at the Center for Sustainable Development - Earth Institute at Columbia University and in this position is affiliated with Religions for Peace.

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