WASHINGTON – Fifty prominent Catholics have signed a letter to The Catholic University of America questioning the decision to accept a $1 million pledge from the Charles Koch Foundation to help fund a new business school.

The letter released Dec. 16 contrasts the ideological agenda of industrialists Charles and David Koch with Catholic social teaching.

The billionaire brothers “fund organizations that advance public policies that directly contradict Catholic teaching on a range of moral issues from economic justice to environmental stewardship,” said the letter, which was directed to Catholic University President John Garvey and Andrew Abela, dean of the School of Business and Economics, which was established in January.

It highlighted Catholic social teachings’ principles of “a positive role for government, an indispensable role for unions, just tax policies and the need for prudent regulation of financial markets in service of the common good. We are concerned that by accepting such a donation you send a confusing message to Catholic students and other faithful Catholics that the Koch brothers’ anti-government, Tea Party ideology has the blessing of a university sanctioned by Catholic bishops.”

It went on to note that while the Koch brothers “lobby for sweeping deregulation of industries and markets, Pope Francis has criticized trickle-down economic theories and insists on the need for stronger oversight of global financial markets to protect workers from what he calls ‘the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.'”

The letter observed that the U.S. bishops advocate for Medicaid expansion, but the Koch brother’s “primary political arm, Americans for Prosperity, has aggressively opposed Medicaid expansion in several states,” and demonized elected officials who support it.

A Dec. 16 response released by the university’s public affairs office called the letter “an unfortunate effort to manufacture controversy and score political points at the expense of” the university.

However, the response went on to answer some points raised in the letter, including questions about whether the Koch foundation would retain any control over how its donation is spent. The letter from critics cited a “troubling track record the foundation has in making gifts to universities that in some cases include unacceptable meddling in academic content and the hiring process of faculty,” and urged Catholic University “to be more transparent about the details of this grant.”

The university’s response said the grant will enable research into “the role principled entrepreneurship should play in improving society’s well-being.” It also said the university will control the search, recruitment and selection process for all positions funded in the agreement and that it will select all faculty and staff related to the grant, under existing university hiring policy. It added that the university publicized the grant in a Nov. 12 press release, which remains posted on its website.

In a Dec. 16 phone interview with Catholic News Service, Abela said he was told by Koch foundation employees that once Catholic University queried about possible funding for the business school, they “spent a day” studying the Catholic social encyclicals to inform their decision-making.

Abela said his dealings have been with the Koch foundation, not with the family members. He said he’s frustrated that he hadn’t been contacted directly by any on-campus critics of the Koch grant. He said he went to a faculty Senate meeting last week to address the question about whether strings were attached to the funds.

He said the letter, which was circulated by the organization Faith in Public Life, makes unreasonable claims about Catholic teaching.

“I don’t think anyone can reasonably say the things they listed in the letter are against Catholic social teaching,” he said. “Catholic social teaching affirms care and respect for the environment. It doesn’t say if you question global warming or climate change that’s a sin.”

Abela added that the church’s long history of support for the right to unionize doesn’t necessarily extend to the issue of public sector unions, which the Koch brothers have worked against, notably by funding efforts in Wisconsin to limit them.

“Catholic social teaching says nothing about specifically the issue of public sector unions,” Abela said. “There’s much there that can be discussed. But they (in the letter) make definitive judgments that are completely unfounded.”

Several academics who signed the letter told CNS their concerns about the Koch foundation grant raise questions simply because as a pontifical institution, Catholic University must be scrupulous about its ties.

William Barbieri Jr., associate professor in Catholic University’s school of theology and religious studies and a signer of the letter, said there might be a small difference in the ethical issues if the recipient was another Catholic institution.

“But the national Catholic university has a responsibility to be prudent with whom it allies itself.”

John Sniegocki, associate professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University in Cincinnati and another signatory, said it would be unrealistic to expect a university to monitor the origins of all funds it receives. “But here the concern was the public nature of the donors as representing a contrast to Catholic teaching.”

He said he was encouraged by the university’s response about the funds not having any strings attached. But even the designation of the donation as being for entrepreneurship raises questions about what kind of entrepreneurship will be encouraged. For instance, he questioned, might there be an unofficial effort to meet the expectations of a significant donor whose economic principles are widely known by skewing perspectives to suit them?

Another signatory is Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen, a visiting professor at Boston College, who is a former editor of America magazine and a former adviser on foreign policy to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He said although the university’s response about the no-strings status of the grant answers some questions, he still thinks accepting the grant is “a question of the Koch brothers having a conscious role in the culture wars and the university being a part of that.”

Fr. Christiansen said there’s a legitimate question of bringing scandal to the university when an organization connected to the institution “is constantly promoting criticism of Catholic social teaching.”

He said he thinks a business school could be particularly vulnerable to getting off on a wrong track because of outside influence, “because the various disciplines involved seem to proceed from different principles than Catholic social teaching.”

Fr. Christiansen said the University of St. Thomas business school in St. Paul, Minn., offers a strong positive example. He said the school collaborated with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in putting together a set of guidelines for business principles based on Catholic social teaching.

According to a November list from the Koch foundation, several Catholic colleges and universities have received foundation grants, including Jesuit-run College of the Holy Cross, Georgetown University, Loyola University New Orleans and the University of San Francisco.

Abela told CNS the business school at Catholic University was created with the mission of promoting a “person-centered economy. The economy must serve the person, not the other way around. The whole point is to make Catholic social doctrine the heart of the school.”

Others who signed the letter include Jesuit Father Stephen Privett, president of the University of San Francisco; former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See Miguel Diaz; Jesuit Father Fred Kammer, director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University, New Orleans; Ken Pennington, law professor at Catholic University; Frederick Ahearn Jr., professor in the National Catholic School of Social Service at Catholic University; William D’Antonio, senior fellow at Catholic’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies; and professors on the faculties of Duquesne University School of Law, Manhattan College, LaSalle University, the University of Dayton, Fordham University, Villanova University, St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary and Loyola University in Chicago and New Orleans.
The text of Catholic University of America’s response to the letter about the Koch foundation grant can be found here: http://publicaffairs.cua.edu/releases/2013/koch-statement.cfm.