The Catholic University of America’s president and business school dean say criticism of a $1 million grant from the Koch Foundation is unfounded and treats debatable positions as official Church teaching.
“We think the groups complaining about the Koch Foundation gift are suggesting a litmus test that neither we nor they would want to apply to other cases,” university president John Garvey and Dean Andrew Abela of the university’s School of Business and Economics said in a Feb. 20 Wall Street Journal essay.
“We welcome constructive criticism, but we believe it would be a mistake to stifle debate by pretending that genuinely controversial positions are official church teaching.”
In January 2013, The Catholic University of America created a separate business school for business, finance and economics-related courses drawn from its School of Arts and Sciences. The new business school later received a $1 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.
The grant has drawn objections from Faith in Public Life, a Democratic-leaning communications strategy organization. The group’s affiliate Faithful America organized a petition drive asking the university to reject the grant. The pro-labor union group Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice was also critical.
The Faithful America petition said that brothers Charles and David Koch’s political efforts are “clearly out of step with Catholic social teaching,” claiming that they are “the biggest funders” of the Tea Party movement, and “anti-government think tanks” that are “waging war on anti-poverty programs.”
The petition claims that the Charles Koch used his influence to veto professor hires at another university.
The online petition had 33,000 signatures as of Feb. 21, an increase from 28,000 in mid-December.
However, Garvey and Abela suggested that the criticism stems not from any improper activity being funded by the Koch Foundation, but because the critics believe the Koch brothers “hold some views that we should reject.”
“This objection is a rather strong form of guilt by association,” the university leaders said.
They went on to argue that it would “surely” not be wrong to accept a malaria vaccine research grant from the Gates Foundation, which supports artificial contraception, nor would it be wrong to accept a grant from a foundation simply because one of its founders personally donated to abortion provider Planned Parenthood.
Garvey and Abela also considered that objections might derive from concerns that the business school would entertain or justify “ideas at odds with Catholic social teaching.” They noted the Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice’s objection that the grant may give the impression that Catholic Church does not support public sector unions, given the Koch brothers’ support for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who limited bargaining rights for some such unions.
“The grant we received is not concerned with public unions. Even if it were, we wouldn't turn it away as a project unfit for study at a Catholic university,” Garvey and Abela said.
They noted that the Catholic Church “has long supported unions” in its social teaching, including Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum,” which taught that workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively. At the same time, this encyclical said this subject depends on “practice and experience” and on “the nature and aim of the work to be done,” among other circumstances.
Garvey and Abela said that Leo XIII and his successors never advanced an official Church position on government worker unions, which “should be as open to debate at the Catholic University of America as at Columbia, Stanford or any other serious university.”
They also pointed out that 25 Catholic universities are among the 270 U.S. universities to have received Koch Foundation grants. They suggested that the controversy over this particular grant is related to The Catholic University of America’s status as the national university of the Catholic Church.
Garvey and Abela said the university is “grateful” for the grant and is keeping it because “it would be an unhealthy precedent for a university to refuse support for valuable research because the money, somewhere back up the line, once belonged to a donor whose views on other subjects were unpopular within the academic community.”
The university had previously defended the grant in a Dec. 16 statement which said the negative attention “has all been externally driven by organizations with a political agenda.”
The grant critic Faith in Public Life has been involved in several Catholic-related media campaigns. A leaked June 2012 email from the organization revealed it had been circulating talking points and adversarial questions for the media to ask Catholic bishops in the controversy over federal mandates of health coverage for sterilization and contraception, including some drugs that can cause abortions.
The email urged the media to reject as a “fiction” the Catholic Church’s position that the mandate poses a serious threat to religious liberty.
The organization Faithful America has run several petition campaigns critical of Catholic Church actions, such as the firing of a Catholic school teacher who contracted a same-sex “marriage.” A July 2013 petition from the group called on Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York to resign, alleging that he concealed Church funds from abuse lawsuit settlements.