On a spring night in downtown Washington earlier this year, hedge fund managers and CEOs mingled with religious scholars and priests at a cigar reception on the 11th floor of the Renaissance Hotel. The occasion was a $1,700-a-person conference, hosted by The Catholic University of America, focused on integrating Catholic social teaching and business.
Among the well-heeled guests was a lobbyist from Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a $130 million trade group aligned with the powerful industrialists Charles and David Koch. As the cocktail chatter turned to complaints about government regulations and the power of markets to help the poor, the scene felt more fitting to a conservative political fundraiser than a conference at the nation’s only Vatican-chartered university.
But free market orthodoxy is becoming a familiar staple at Catholic University’s business school, which has accepted nearly $13 million from the Charles Koch Foundation over the last three years. The money has gone to the Busch School of Business & Economics and has been a source of consternation and controversy among some Catholic scholars. The billionaire brothers aren’t known for making public statements about faith, but rather for their defining creed of “economic liberty,” which they promote with missionary zeal by spending millions to lower corporate taxes, chip away at environmental safeguards, and erode worker’s rights.
It’s a libertarian agenda that stands in stark contrast with the communitarian tradition of Catholicism, and that is also hard to square with the priorities of Pope Francis. The first Jesuit pope and the first from Latin America, Francis has used his pulpit to challenge the moral failings of contemporary global capitalism. He has described inequality as the “root of social evil,” and has called climate change “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”
By contrast, the Kochs champion a far-right ideology that scoffs at climate change and workers’ rights. After the business school at Catholic University announced its first $1 million donation from the Koch Foundation three years ago, 50 Catholic theologians and scholars raised alarms. The Kochs help “advance public policies that directly contradict Catholic teaching on a range of moral issues from economic justice to environmental stewardship,” the scholars stated in an open letter to the university. Another letter from Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice criticized the university’s “potentially misleading message” regarding the church’s commitment to unions and workers’ rights.
Pope Francis during a visit to Korea in 2014
University officials fired back that critics had set out to “manufacture controversy and score political points.” (Full disclosure: I work for Faith in Public Life, which helped promote the Catholic scholars’ letter.) In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the university’s president, John Garvey, and the business school’s founding dean, Andrew Abela, declared that they would not “cave to demands made by the liberal social justice movement,” and wrote that it would be a “mistake to stifle debate by pretending that genuinely controversial positions are official church teaching.”
Catholic is not the only university to take money from the Koch Foundation, which is efficiently building a free-market “talent pipeline” in the nation’s colleges and universities. According to an investigation last year by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, the foundation gave $19.3 million to 210 colleges in 2013 alone. More than two dozen Catholic universities receive funding from the Koch Foundation. Compared with the nearly $13 million Catholic University has hauled in over the past three years, most are relatively small grants. Creighton University, a Catholic, Jesuit institution in Nebraska, has brought in more than $4 million from the Koch Foundation and from the family of an Omaha entrepreneur named C.L. Werner. The money funds the university’s Institute for Economic Inquiry, which cranks out research that advocates for the privatization of state services and touts an economic philosophy more in line with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce than traditional Catholic teaching.
But the influence of the Kochs merits special scrutiny at Catholic University, founded by the U.S. bishops in 1887 with the support of Pope Leo XIII to be the national university of the Catholic Church in America. As one of the wealthiest men in the world, Charles Koch is promoting an agenda that is on a collision course with Pope Francis’s teachings about Catholic stewardship. Francis has sharply challenged what he describes as the “dictatorship of an impersonal economy” and calls for “a legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state.”
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” the pope wrote in his first major teaching document, The Joy of the Gospel, released in 2013. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.”
Francis directly links what he calls “an economy of exclusion” to the global climate crisis, saying that the “cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” are inseparable. In an encyclical last June—the first-ever devoted entirely to ecology—Francis assailed climate deniers and called for a transition away from oil dependency. Koch Industries, meanwhile, is notorious for its abysmal record of covering up toxic spills, and for underwriting well-funded lobbying and disinformation campaigns to cast doubt on the overwhelming scientific consensus about the severe risks of human-induced climate change. The Chicago-based Heartland Institute, which has received Koch funding over the years, spearheaded a press conference before the pope’s first visit to the U.S. last fall to disseminate the message that “Pope Francis’ views on global warming are scientifically in error, and his views on capitalism are outdated and wrong.”
IN “LITTLE ROME,” THE Brookland neighborhood of northeast Washington that houses the university’s campus, a theological college for Dominican friars and headquarters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Kochs have some influential fans. The university’s business school is named for Tim Busch, a Catholic CEO and Orange County, California, attorney who specializes in estate planning for wealthy clients. Busch, a philanthropist who owns several luxury hotels and founded the Napa-based winery Trinitas Cellars, sits on the university’s board of trustees, and recently gave the university $15 million, its largest-ever donation.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve learned a lot from the Koch family,” Busch acknowledged in an interview with The Catholic World Report. “Koch shouldn’t be attacked, but applauded.”
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Busch explained why the university accepted the Koch funding and gushed about the “compatibility of capitalism and Catholicism.” His own economic views—like those of the Kochs— are often in tension with Catholic tradition. One bedrock principle of Catholic social teaching is that workers should receive a living wage. It’s a position that the Catholic Church has officially supported since at least 1891, when Pope Leo XIII affirmed that right and also the right of workers to organize. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explicitly supports raising the federal minimum wage. Busch, in contrast, has called the minimum wage “an anti-market regulation that leads to unemployment” and claims it does “great harm” to workers.
He’s not the only prominent Catholic in the university’s circles philosophically allied with the Kochs. Abela, the founding dean of the business school, struck a less than Francis-like note when he told a Catholic news outlet that while Catholic teaching requires respect for the environment, “it doesn't say if you question global warming or climate change that’s a sin.” In fact, just last month, the pope’s message for the “World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation” specifically noted that 2015 was the warmest year on record. He quoted Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, saying that environmental degradation and the impact of climate change are “a sin against ourselves and a sin against God.”
The glaring contrast between the Kochs’ ideology and both Pope Francis’s priorities and traditional Catholic social teaching is apparently lost on some wealthy conservative Catholics. A year after controversy first erupted around the Koch donations at Catholic University in 2013, two financial contributors to the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce wrote a Washington Post op-ed that unconvincingly attempted to link the Kochs with the pope. “For us, promoting limited government alongside the Kochs is an important part of heeding Pope Francis’ call to love and serve the poor,” they wrote in a column that went on to parrot a litany of Republican talking points about the “insatiable growth” of government.
David Koch, left, laughs as Amway founder Rich DeVos addresses the Defending the American Dream Summit in Orlando on August 30, 2013.
If some conservatives have tried to identify themselves with a popular pope even as they undermine his message, others have directly attacked Francis. Among the speakers to address Creighton University’s Koch-backed Institute for Economic Inquiry is Stephen Moore, an economist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and a campaign adviser to Donald Trump. Moore, a Catholic, last year blasted Pope Francis in Forbes magazine as “a complete disaster when it comes to his policy pronouncements.” The pope, Moore wrote, “has allied himself with the far left and has embraced an ideology that would make people poorer and less free.” On environmental issues, he accuses the pope of aligning himself with a “radical green movement that at its core is anti-Christian, anti-people and anti-progress.” Creighton’s institute invited Moore last fall to give an address about economic issues in the 2016 election.
Some scholars say the Kochs’ ideology can’t be justified in Catholic terms. Stephen Schneck, a professor at Catholic University who organized a conference two years ago at the campus, which highlighted the incompatibility of Catholic teachings and economic libertarianism, says efforts to demonize government and sanctify markets are antithetical to the Catholic moral tradition.
“Radical market ideologies really are heretical,” Schneck, the director of the university’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, told the Prospect. “To yoke human freedom to the same market competition that has given rise to consumerism, materialism, value relativism, and the commodification of labor can’t be squared with the Catholic ideal of human dignity.”
THE KOCHS ARE ONLY TWO of the players in a broader movement spreading a free-market gospel at Catholic institutions. A well-financed network of conservative clergy and Catholic intellectuals on the right churns out research and books, and hosts conferences that often send a decidedly different message than Pope Francis does when it comes to the economy and climate change. One influential figure in this effort is the Reverend Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest who founded the Koch-linked Acton Institute. Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the institute has a Rome office near the Vatican, and also has ties to Catholic University’s business and economics school.
Abela is one of several faculty members who have won Acton’s $10,000 top award for studying the “relationship between religion and economic liberty.” The author of Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for A Free Economy, Sirico is a Brooklyn native with a sharp wit who is as comfortable dishing commentary on Fox News as he is waxing philosophical about Saint Augustine. A onetime activist on the left in the 1960s, Sirico has built a formidable base of operations with the help of the Koch Foundation and the Christian conservative DeVos family, the billionaire heirs to the Amway fortune who are well known for bankrolling Republican candidates, and anti-tax and anti-union campaigns.
People on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., watch as Pope Francis addresses Congress on September 24, 2015.
When adjunct professors at a Catholic university in Pittsburgh, who make near-poverty wages and often lack health insurance, launched an organizing drive, Sirico argued in The New York Times that the church’s historic support for unions was conditional. “In the industrial revolution, the church was concerned about communism and not just capitalism but savage capitalism,” he told The Times. “People were being brutalized. That’s just not the case in Pittsburgh today.”
At a four-day Acton conference in Grand Rapids in June—an annual gathering dubbed “Acton University” that attracts more than a thousand participants from 50 countries—one of the featured lecturers was Jay Richards, a research professor in Catholic University’s business school.
Richards, who goes by “Free Market Jay” on Twitter and is the executive editor of the right-wing news outlet The Stream, delivered an environmental message that went over well with the business leaders, libertarian-leaning college students and aspiring entrepreneurs in the room. “Because God told us to be good stewards, that doesn’t mean we have to drive a Prius or support the Paris climate accords,” Richards quipped. He went on to argue that carbon dioxide has “very positive effects” on the atmosphere, and that many scientists and research organizations are misguided alarmists on climate change.
“The nature of Big Science leads to groupthink,” Richards told the group. “There are no global policies to date that make any sense at all.” He warned of the “expensive public policies” promoted by organizations that have been “co-opted” by radical leftists. Richards finished his lecture by touting the Cornwall Alliance, a Christian evangelical coalition that makes a “moral case” for fossil fuels. As people left, Cornwall pamphlets bearing the message “Forget ‘Climate Change’—Energy Empowers the Poor” were handed out at the door.
It’s striking that over the course of several days Pope Francis rarely came up. Asked directly about the pope’s persistent challenges to the “new tyranny” of unfettered capitalism during one lecture, Acton research director Samuel Gregg, author of the book Tea Party Catholic, offered a dismissive retort. “It’s one thing to critique, but you need to know something about what you’re critiquing,” Gregg said. In National Review, Gregg has described the pope’s arguments about inequality as “less than convincing.” In another conference seminar, Todd Flanders, the headmaster of a pre-K–12 Catholic school in Minnesota, criticized efforts to raise the minimum wage, complained about the “regulatory state” and breezily said of Francis, “Catholics are not required to agree with popes on particular policy questions.”
While officials at Catholic university’s business school and the Acton Institute have tried to dismiss those who raise concerns about the influx of Koch funding at Catholic institutions, some educators warn that big money from right-wing billionaires comes with a cost.
“The Kochs are influential and have money to throw around,” says Thomas Kelly, a Creighton University theology professor. “They put libertarian thought in front of young people, which is very attractive because it’s based on self-interest and individualism. Their dispersion of money into universities is part of a unified, effective political strategy. They want to form a generation that thinks they are only responsible for themselves. At a foundational level, this is the exact opposite of what Catholic teaching says about the common good.”