Tim Busch, the Koch brothers, capitalism and Catholicism

by Michael Sean Winters

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It appears I am going for the MSW v. Conservative (neo- or paleo-) trifecta this week. First, Professor Robbie George's obvious attempt to diminish the significance of Pope Francis' anticipated encyclical on the environment and celebration of climate change deniers. Then, yesterday, George Weigel's manifesto about "evangelical Catholicism," albeit while staying in a defensive crouch the entire time. Now, it is Tim Busch's turn.

Mr. Busch is a lawyer and businessman from Southern California. His law firm, according to a very friendly article at Breitbart, "handles estate planning, real estate and business transactions, taxes and litigation for high-net-worth individuals." Busch also looks to those "high-net-worth individuals" to be customers at his eight hotels or at his swanky Meritage Resort in Napa. And those same "high-net-worth individuals," if they are Catholic, are recruited to join Busch's Napa Institute, about which my colleague Dan Morris-Young wrote a couple of months ago. Mr. Busch is also a member of the board of trustees at The Catholic University of America, and it is this association that has me scratching my head the past few days.

Last week, the university announced a $3 million gift to its School of Business that Mr. Busch helped put together. The gift garnered some media attention because fully half of it came from the Charles Koch Foundation. The Kochs gave a $1 million gift to the school last year, and many on the left criticized the university for taking money from such a disreputable source. I was not one of those critics. As I said at the time, and repeat now, with a tip of the biretta to Jerry Falwell when it was disclosed he had taken money from the Moonies, "The Devil has had that money long enough."

I will note, in passing, the irony that groups like the American Life League and the Lepanto Institute get people all riled up when the bishops' anti-poverty program, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, makes a grant to organizations that are affiliated with groups that promote issues like same-sex marriage or abortion rights, but they have been strangely silent on CUA taking money from Mr. Koch, who announced to the world, or at least to Barbara Walters (the effect is the same), that he is both pro-same-sex marriage and pro-choice on abortion. But irony is rarely a thing to be bothered about.

No, what bothered me was a quote from Mr. Busch in the press release announcing the gift. He said, "I am proud to donate to CUA's vision for an educational program that shows how capitalism and Catholicism can work hand in hand."

I am troubled by those words first because they mischaracterize what a university does. We do not buttress propaganda. If Mr. Busch had added, at the end of that sentence, "and how they can't," all would be fine. University professors spend a great deal of time looking at how belief systems interact with social and economic and political systems. But universities do not prejudge their assessment of that interaction. Certainly, there are ways that a free-market economy, which is not exactly the same thing as capitalism, can go "hand in hand" with our Catholic faith, but surely there are also ways that our Catholic faith must repudiate or challenge certain features of the free-market economy. Mr. Busch appears merely interested in finding religious justification for the activities of his "high-net-worth individuals," and that is unworthy of any university, Catholic or otherwise.

Second, Mr. Busch seems not to recognize that the Catholic intellectual tradition is not merely deeply suspicious of capitalism, it is suspicious of all "-isms," and St. Pope John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have all warned repeatedly against ideology, any ideology, corrupting the faith and distorting the common good. In this blog, I have frequently complained about the ways certain expressions (and essences) of liberalism are, at root, incompatible with our Catholic faith. Obviously, the same can be said of certain expressions (and essences) of capitalism, perhaps all expressions. Certainly, a business school at a Catholic university should set out to answer the question posed by theologian David Schindler as to whether or not the creation of material wealth in modern capitalism is coincident with the creation of spiritual poverty.

The next day, Mr. Busch published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. Here was an opportunity for him to clarify his intentions, perhaps differentiate between capitalism as an ideology and the free-market system as a practical way of economic functioning. Alas, he vacillated between the two. His essay posits a binary choice between capitalism and collectivism, which only makes sense if you see capitalism as an ideology. This construction has an additional problem: It erects a straw man. There are no more collectivist economies to speak of. Josef Stalin is dead. Mao Zedong is dead. One suspects that when Busch writes "collectivist," he means President Barack Obama.

When Mr. Busch understands capitalism in less ideological terms, merely as a designation for the economic system we have today, he seems less like a propagandist and more like a cheerleader. He writes that capitalism "is also the single most effective means of alleviating poverty. In the past 20 years alone, it has lifted more than a billion people out of extreme poverty, according to the Economist. It is also single-handedly responsible for creating a global two-billion-person middle class over the past 300 years."

Single-handedly? Does Busch really think economic systems are so untethered to other cultural and political factors that capitalism should get all the credit? Why not give at least some credit to the social welfare state, or is that too "collectivist"? Perhaps some of the credit for the alleviation of poverty has to do with increased food production and other technological advances, many of which got their start in public universities. And, if capitalism is to get all the credit for the economic advances of the past 20 years -- or past 300 years -- should it not also shoulder the blame for the millions of people who remain stuck in extreme poverty or whose condition has become worse, and not because of crony capitalism but because of rapacious trade policies of the kind advocated by his friends the Koch brothers?

But what really made my blood boil was Mr. Busch's attempt to claim the mantle of Pope Francis. He writes: "But free markets only work within a moral culture. When business is unmoored from a concern for the common good, capitalism can slide into cronyism and corruption -- exactly what Pope Francis has critiqued in recent months. It is such perversions of a free-market economy that do not fit Catholic teaching."

It is true that Pope Francis criticizes cronyism and corruption. It is true, too, that he opposes immorality per se, and not just because of its ill effects on the pristine workings of the market. But Pope Francis is a bit more blunt about the actual capitalist economy of today than Busch lets on.

"This economy kills," Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium. In an address to workers in Sardinia, Pope Francis said, "We must say, 'We want a just system! A system that enables everyone to get on.' We must say: 'We don't want this globalized economic system which does us so much harm!' Men and women must be at the center as God desires, and not money!"

The pope's critique is deeper than a concern about morality buttressing markets. His concern is that the current economic system, let's call it capitalism, is radically unjust and incapable of introducing moral considerations.

"Where there is no work, there is no dignity! And this is not only a problem in Sardinia -- but it is serious here! -- it is not only a problem in Italy or in certain European countries, it is the result of a global decision, of an economic system which leads to this tragedy; an economic system centered on an idol called 'money.' God did not want an idol to be at the center of the world but man, men and women who would keep the world going with their work. Yet now, in this system devoid of ethics, at the center, there is an idol, and the world has become an idolater of this 'god-money.' "

Excuse me for thinking that these trenchant comments from the pope are not easily dismissed by Busch's smarmy talk about all the good capitalism has achieved. Go to the link and read Pope Francis' entire text -- you do not have to be a theologian to see the incongruity between his words and Mr. Busch's. 

In the same press release that announced the new gift, Dean Andrew Abela said the goal of CUA's new business school is "exploring how we can make business and economics more humane." That is a goal that is worthy of a Catholic business school, though I do not know if that would be how I would characterize the many and varied activities of the Koch family. My colleague Grant Gallicho at Commonweal comments on that issue. My concern, however, is that the dean's vision and the donor's vision are not the same, and no one wants to let Mr. Busch and his "high-net-worth" friends in on the secret that Catholic social teaching has been, is now, and will always remain deeply suspicious of capitalism.

And I have an additional concern: The bishops do not appear particularly worried about Tim Busch's efforts to turn the bishops' own university into a center for propaganda for capitalism and, just so, resistance to the social doctrine of the Church. If the U.S. bishops think they are getting a bum rap when they are portrayed as hostile to the pope, there are things they can do about it, and one of those things is insist that their university reflects the teachings of the Church, not the capitalist enthusiasms of Tim Busch and the Koch brothers.

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