The Pope and the Koch Brothers?

Nothing quite disturbs an otherwise lovely Sunday morning like opening one’s morning paper and finding a headline that reads: “Following the pope – and the Kochs.” I am sure the headline was meant to be provocative, and it worked. I am provoked. The photo above the headline, of Pope Francis between the two Koch brothers, did not assuage the provocation.

Sometimes, a headline is merely provocative, and overstates the article that follows. In this case, however, two Catholic philanthropists, John and Carol Saeman, do their best to make the case that their charitable donations to the Catholic Church are akin to their donations to “the nonprofit community associated with Charles and David Koch, including Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce.” The Saemans’ speak of “our shared conviction that limited government is most conducive to lifting people out of poverty” and they claim that “Catholic teaching supports our conviction.” In this great, free country of ours, the Saemans are free to think what they want, and to spend their money as they wish. They are not entitled to claim the mantle of Catholic teaching for the conviction that the Koch brothers’ political agenda is the least little bit consistent with what the Catholic Church teaches about social justice.                                                                                                                 

Let me stipulate, for the sake of argument, that the Saemans are generous, good-hearted people and that we should all commend them for their charitable donations. They note that when they met the pope, he spoke about the importance of charity. Indeed, as we all know, Pope Benedict XVI introduced the idea of charity as integral to Catholic Social Teaching in his masterful encyclical Caritas in Veritate. But, for both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, charity has a deeper meaning than writing tax deductible checks at year’s end. Charity is not a privatized activity of the rich, but a disposition of the heart and mind that should infuse both individual and societal behavior. Charity does not displace or replace justice in Benedict’s or Francis’ writings, but actually increases the demands on us all, urging us to not only work for social justice but to insist that the poor and the marginalized deserve more than justice. They deserve our love as well as our work for a more just society. In the writings of both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, the charity to which we are called is directly opposed to the dominant capitalist, consumer culture the Koch brothers and their friends champion. This could not be more clear in Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, released one year ago. There, the pope wrote:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

The “laws of competition” are at the heart of the capitalism the Kochs believe make us free. The Holy Father has a different understanding of their effect.

Nor, from my perspective, are the activities and idea of the Koch brothers consistent with what is best about America. I went to the website of Freedom Partners and found this claim in their mission statement:

Freedom Partners believes that the bedrock of the American republic is the ingenuity of its entrepreneurs and innovators. The free market is the lifeblood of innovation and a conduit for the infinite potential of human aspiration. We face a critical juncture in American history, as an increasingly cumbersome government bureaucracy erodes the freedoms that support a prosperous society. Only by getting the government out of the way will individuals be able to build a free and strong society.

Is “entrepreneurship” the “bedrock of the American republic”? I may have missed mention of it in the Declaration of Independence. The preamble to the U.S. Constitution speaks of the need to “promote the general welfare” but, strangely, does not mention commerce and its demands as essential, bedrock of the republic. It speaks of the need to “establish justice” too, and while late 18th century Americans probably understood that in a strictly juridical sense, in the early 21st century, we Americans, or at least we Catholics, have understood that justice makes claims upon the distribution of goods and the organization of economic relations as well as on the enactment of particular laws. Of course, the preamble also speaks of liberty, and the Church has long upheld the right to private property, with the caveat, unacknowledged by the Saemans or the Kochs, that there is a social mortgage on all private property, the denial of which is fraught with moral danger. “The culture of prosperity deadens us,” Pope Francis warned in Evangelii Gaudium.

The whole article by the Saemans has an Orwellian quality to it. The words of Pope Francis are gutted of their obvious meaning and made to justify a libertarian agenda. Words like “limited government” mean something different to a libertarian than they do to most people. President Obama is not without his faults, but he is hardly a totalitarian. The Koch brothers and the “nonprofit community” with which they are associated focuses on destroying the Affordable Care Act, they are opposed to environmental regulations, they have led the charge on anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 and on efforts in multiple states to make it harder for poor people and minorities to vote. Certainly in Catholic Social Teaching, health care is a right and, following the principle of subsidiarity, if other social actors have repeatedly failed to provide it, the government must step in and do so. We can argue about the method, about this legislative action or that government regulation, but nowhere on the Koch agenda does one see any demonstrable effort to propose a real alternative to the ACA. Certainly, in the social doctrine of Pope Benedict, concern for environmental protection was dynamically embraced and brilliantly rooted in aspects of Christian scholarship that had not previously been used to address that issue. We all know Pope Francis’ commitment to immigrants and his repeated, explicit denunciations of a “culture of exclusion.” If I were looking for a particular example of a “culture of exclusion,” I would point to the Koch’s efforts at making it more difficult to vote. It is repugnant in the extreme. To believe that the teachings of the church can be reconciled with the Koch brothers’ agenda is Alice in Wonderland-quality foolishness.

Nor is the difference mere application of church teaching to discrete issues about which there can be reasonable disagreement among Catholics. David Koch ran as the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential candidate and Charles Koch helped found the CATO Institute. How does libertarian ideology fare in this statement of Pope Francis from just last week, when he addressed the European parliament:

Promoting the dignity of the person means recognizing that he or she possesses inalienable rights which no one may take away arbitrarily, much less for the sake of economic interests.

At the same time, however, care must be taken not to fall into certain errors which can arise from a misunderstanding of the concept of human rights and from its misuse. Today there is a tendency to claim ever broader individual rights – I am tempted to say individualistic; underlying this is a conception of the human person as detached from all social and anthropological contexts, as if the person were a "monad" (μονάς), increasingly unconcerned with other surrounding "monads". The equally essential and complementary concept of duty no longer seems to be linked to such a concept of rights. As a result, the rights of the individual are upheld, without regard for the fact that each human being is part of a social context wherein his or her rights and duties are bound up with those of others and with the common good of society itself.

If that is consistent with libertarianism, I am a cucumber.

I have heard many and diverse justifications given for tax cuts, but the Saemans offered me a new one. “Washington’s insatiable growth annually siphons trillions of dollars from the economy – some of which philanthropists like us could use to give to local charities and businesses could use to create jobs the poor desperately need.” This is rich – the adjective suggests itself. A quick look at current profit margins shows that a lack of capital on-hand is not the reason companies are not hiring more people. And, the idea that we should cut tax rates on the rich so that they can give more money to the charities of their choice does not exactly reflect what the church means by “the common good.” I am guessing some rich folk would also use their tax refunds for bigger and gaudier mansions, for more first class flight tickets, more beluga caviar, and whatever else rich people do with their money.

Still, I do not want to sound like Scrooge so many days before Christmas. I am glad people like the Saemans give money to charities. But, I also found Mr. Saeman’s remarks about crony capitalism interesting. This has become a rightwing bugaboo – and, to be sure, no one is in favor of crony capitalism, of rich people using their access and influence to get the government or other social actors to give them preferential treatment. Right? Except that according to this 2004 story in The New York Times, Mr. Saeman got into trouble with the IRS because he reportedly was steering money from a foundation on which he served towards one of his own companies. The Times report states:

The controversy has attracted greater scrutiny of the fund's governance and its investments, like a $10 million loan it made to a real estate company owned by Mr. Saeman and a Denver developer, Bill Pauls. Mr. Saeman owned enough of the company to have run afoul of Internal Revenue Service rules on self-dealing, which subject foundations to fines if they invest in entities in which a trustee has a stake of at least 35 percent.

But Mr. Saeman used a complex transaction to reduce his stake in the company to 34 percent so the fund could make the loan, he said in a telephone interview, taking a financial hit even though the Pauls’ company could simply have gotten a bank loan.

Is that crony capitalism?

Or is this crony capitalism? In an interview with the Philanthropy Roundtable in 2010, Saeman said this about how his family foundation supports Catholic higher education:

Right now, we mostly practice deferred giving. Say my alma mater asks for $1 million. We will not give $1 million to their endowment. What we will do is commit to giving them the earnings on $1 million of capital, subject to the provision that they continue to act in accordance with our wishes as donors. In effect, we’ll give them, say, $50,000 per year, but the underlying assets remain in our possession and under our control. If the institution fails to live up to the letter of what we expected and agreed to, we hold the assets and stop giving the earnings.

That gives us a tremendous ability to continue to influence our funds in a manner consistent with our wishes. It keeps us at the table.

You will pardon me for suggesting that while they should have influence over their funds, I am a lot less comfortable with the idea of donors routinely exercising influence over the institutions to which they give and about which they may know precious little. Obviously, it would be ironic if the Saemans decided to fund a program in Catholic Social Teaching only to find out they have it all wrong! The idea that somehow rich people should be able to influence any and all areas of life is an idea that should be checked if we are serious about wanting to praise holy freedom.

The problem with crony capitalism is not that it violates some pristine economic laws but that it corrupts public life. The problem that the relationship some rich people develop with leaders of the church is similar. Will Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, or his predecessor, Archbishop Charles Chaput, who lavishes such praise upon them in the preface to the interview cited above, explain to the Saemans that they mischaracterize Catholic Social Teaching in this very public article? And risk however much they contribute to the annual archbishops’ appeal? Risk whatever they give to the schools program? You can bet if someone wrote an article suggesting that Planned Parenthood’s mission is consistent with Catholic thought, so that, as a Catholic, they give to Planned Parenthood, the bishops would be quick to speak up. The sad fact is that many U.S. bishops do not prioritize Catholic social teaching and do not care enough to risk losing a donor to defend it.

Having said all that, I wish the Saemans well. I hope they will continue to donate large sums of money to the charities of the church. I hope, too, that they will come to recognize that the libertarian ideology of the Koch brothers is precisely the “poisoned spring” about which Pope Pius XI spoke, the “erroneous autonomy” about which Pope Paul VI spoke, and the hyper-individualistic, materialistic consumer culture against which Pope Francis could scarcely be more clear in his denunciations. Hope springeth eternal. But, I would not publish their nonsensical arguments in the pages of The Washington Post and I would suggest to Pope Francis that when he comes to the U.S. next year, he recognizes just how ambiguous, and dangerous, a word like “freedom” has become in American political discourse. In actual fact, the chains of Catholic Social Teaching are binding, but they bind in order to liberate. Freedom shorn of solidarity is a false freedom for the Christian. And the Koch brothers and their friends are peddling a false freedom. 

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here