Back to Forum

Catholic Identity and Koch Funding: Concerns About Mission Alignment at Creighton University

For the past two years, Creighton University has been invited to think critically about mission alignment and funding from the Charles Koch Foundation. The invitations have come from Anthony Annett and Nancy MacLean, who respectively delivered the 2022 and 2023 Markoe-DePorres Annual Social Justice Lectures, sponsored by the Justice and Peace Studies Program which I direct. Their insights offer an opportunity for other Catholic and especially Jesuit universities to similarly reflect on mission fidelity and Koch funding.

To advance the Ignatian ideal of “faith that does justice” informed by the wisdom of Catholic social thought, the Justice and Peace Studies Program’s founding director, Roger Bergman, began the Markoe-DePorres Annual Social Justice Lecture Series in 1994. Dr. Bergman named the series after two exemplary figures. Fr. John Markoe, SJ, is a former Creighton professor who started the Omaha DePorres Club in 1947 to advance racial justice.[1] St. Martin DePorres, namesake of Fr. Markoe’s club, is the Catholic patron saint of racial harmony and social justice.

Anthony Annett is a Catholic economist who teaches at Fordham, has advised the Vatican, and spent sixteen years at the International Monetary Fund writing speeches for two Managing Directors. His lecture’s title was “’Idolatry’ of the Market,” a phrase Saint John Paul II used to affirm a century of Catholic critiques of free-market capitalism. Annett spoke from his award-winning book Cathonomics: How Catholic Tradition Can Create a More Just Economy. He outlined how more than 130 years of authoritative and normative Catholic social teaching has consistently denounced core aspects of classical liberalism, neoliberalism, and libertarianism, all predicated on individualism and a minimal state.[2] Annett’s lecture echoed concerns voiced by Pope Francis, along with many throughout Catholic higher education, about libertarianism’s growing influence in that sphere. In a 2017 Vatican speech to Catholic social scientists, Pope Francis reiterated Catholic critiques of core libertarian commitments and concluded, “Finally, I cannot but speak of the serious risks associated with the invasion, at high levels of culture and education in both universities and in schools, of positions of libertarian individualism.”

Here, it is essential to recognize a documented fact: the libertarian expansion that so deeply concerns the Holy Father has not occurred organically or innocently. Rather, it has been largely organized by fossil fuel billionaires Charles and David Koch in partnership with Austrian and public choice economists like James Buchanan and their funded think tanks, like the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.[3]

To help the Creighton community better understand this engineered strategy, Nancy MacLean, the William H. Chafe Distinguished Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, delivered the 2023 Markoe-DePorres Lecture titled “Democracy in Chains…Mission in Chains? Economics, Donors, and Catholic Mission.” As MacLean exhaustively demonstrates in her award-winning book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, the Kochs’ documented strategy is to advance libertarianism for economic and political gain through tactical university donations. These strategic gifts, largely from the Charles Koch Foundation, fund faculty positions, student reading groups and travel, and on-campus events, often featuring speakers from other Koch-funded entities.

Founders and affiliates of the Koch Foundation have spoken openly and frequently about how the Foundation seeks to advance libertarianism for economic and political gain through these tactical university donations. Charles Koch himself stated in a 1974 address that donors should fund “only those programs, departments or schools that contribute in some way to [their] individual companies or to the general welfare of [the] free enterprise system” and to use “the company’s money to insure against the political loss of any opportunity to make a profit.” This address described his strategy to use the “educational route” to produce “scholarly research and writing which will provide us with better understanding of the market system and better arguments in favor of this system” and “develop additional talent capable of doing the research and writing that undergird the popularizing of capitalist ideas.”

More recent leaders of the Charles Koch Foundation have been equally candid about its desire to advance libertarian policies by, in their own words, “leveraging science and the universities.” Richard Fink, former director of the Charles Koch Foundation, described their approach as “an integrated strategy that uses universities, think tanks, and political spending for the implementation of policy change.” As Fink systematically outlined, “At the higher stages we have the investment in the intellectual raw materials, that is, the exploration and production of abstract concepts and theories. These still come primarily (though not exclusively) from the research done by scholars at our universities …In the middle stages, ideas are applied to a relevant context and molded into needed solutions for real-world problems. This is the work of the think tanks and policy institutions… Citizen activist or implementation groups are needed in the final stage to take the policy ideas from the think tanks and translate them into proposals that citizens can understand and act upon.”

Kevin Gentry, vice president of the Charles Koch Foundation, elaborated on how the Foundation sees its educational work as directly fueling its libertarian activism: “The [Koch] network is fully integrated, so it’s not just work at the universities with the students, but it’s also building the state based capabilities and election capabilities, and integrating this talent pipeline.” And Ryan Stowers, executive director of the Charles Koch Foundation, echoes that its higher education programs “act as a talent pipeline. Professors refer the most passionate students from these programs and graduate programs, so they’re training the next generation of the freedom movement.”

The founder and leaders of the Koch Foundation could not be clearer that they seek to support not the disinterested search for truth, but the advancement of a libertarian political economy. Since this agenda is incongruent with Catholic social teaching, Koch funding does not support activities fully aligned with true academic freedom as understood by the Church. As Saint John Paul II taught in his apostolic exhortation Ex corde Ecclesiae, academic freedom in Catholic higher education searches for insight “within the confines of the truth and the common good.”[4] This understanding of academic freedom enables faculty members to teach and research in directions that, guided by individual conscience, lead them to question Catholic doctrine. Academic freedom does not enable faculty members to support their work with funding from foundations whose documented strategy is to subversively undermine Catholic doctrine. Even if the donor of such funds was not explicitly controlling faculty hiring, curricula, or research, it would be reasonable to infer that they gave to a particular institute or scholar because they saw potential to “leverage science and universities” for their agenda. This would be an especially reasonable inference if, as with the Charles Koch Foundation, there was an extensively documented history of this goal.[5]

Several other dynamics make Koch funding at Catholic institutions deeply problematic vis-à-vis mission alignment. Unless students are made aware of both the Kochs’ documented agenda and its incongruence with Catholic social teaching, they lack the knowledge with which to conscientiously consent to participate in the Kochs’ “talent pipeline” strategy and including them in this strategy is exploitative. Furthermore, Koch Family Foundations are one of the largest funders of climate change denial and obstruction in human history.[6] Pope Francis has stressed that climate change is “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day” and explicitly condemned “all attempts to deny, conceal, gloss over or relativize the issue.”[7]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil” (no. 2284). Considering how Aquinas describes that “evil is privation of good” (ST I, q. 49, a. 3, ad. 2), and since Catholic social teaching denounces core aspects of libertarianism as incompatible with the good, Koch funding is scandalous insofar as it leads students away from the good, suggesting that libertarianism is morally correct and that climate denial is not evil. “Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it,” (no. 2285) especially when scandal is given “by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others” (Ibid.) Senior university officials and trustees have authority to reject Koch funding and a responsibility to teach and educate students free from funded agendas that seek to undermine Catholic doctrine.

The scandal of Koch funding at Catholic colleges and universities might be said to constitute a social sin, the Catechism’s term for choices that produce and sustain “social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness” and “lead their victims to do evil in their turn” (no. 1869). As such, “Anyone who uses the power at [their] disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong”—in this case, through acceptance of Koch funds intended to form students in libertarianism—“becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that [they have] directly or indirectly encouraged” (no. 2287). In my view, this guilt is not likely mitigated by invincible ignorance whereby a person is not morally culpable since they could not have known all the facts (Catechism, no. 1793). University leaders should have all the resources they need to sufficiently know the documented history and agenda of potential donors.

In 2014, Creighton opened the Institute for Economic Inquiry in the Heider College of Business. Half of the $4.5 million dollar founding gift came from the Charles Koch Foundation, which maintains an active relationship with Creighton. The other half came from Gail Werner-Robertson, now vice chair of Creighton’s board of trustees and the person who first approached Creighton about bringing a Koch-funded entity to campus.[8] In 2021, the University accepted a gift from the John and Fay Menard family to, in the University’s words, “expand the institute’s programs, reach and impact.” Today, the entity is the Menard Family Institute for Economic Inquiry.

Since Creighton, of course, is a Catholic university whose mission and identity are normatively grounded in Catholic social teaching, a growing number of Creighton faculty, staff, and students are deeply concerned about Koch funding and mission alignment at the university. The concern is that Koch funding does not support faculty presenting disputed ideas under true academic freedom and in the spirit of Creighton’s mission that invites “pursuit of truth in all its forms.” Rather, it is a potential circumstance of our community being used by persons whose documented strategy is, in their own words, to “leverage science and universities” through tactical funding so as to advance an ideology that is explicitly denounced by Creighton’s authoritative and normative Catholic identity. This is particularly concerning since it involves students who are potentially unaware of the Kochs’ history and the Catholic Church’s consistent denunciation of core libertarian commitments.

Here, I think it is important to emphasize Ignatian positive intent and not ascribe malicious motivation to all those who initiated or maintain Koch funding at Catholic colleges and universities. At the heart of these issues are often conflicting visions of the good and right pathways to that end. At the same time, prophetic witness out of love for Catholic higher education and the Church requires charitably but candidly naming potential gaps between who we are and who we need to be in terms of our normative identity.[9]

Today, Creighton celebrates the legacy of Fr. Markoe and his Omaha DePorres Club. In the 1940s, however, their prophetic activism was so controversial that Creighton banned them from meeting on campus. As Fr. Bryan Massingale pointed out in Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, the Catholic tradition at Fr. Markoe’s time offered little in the way of normative teaching on racial justice. The same cannot be said for Catholic teaching on libertarianism.[x] More than 130 years of authoritative and normative Catholic social teaching clearly opposes the ideology’s fundamental understanding of persons, rights and responsibilities, the state, and the common good. Still, as the DePorres Club found, doing the right thing is not always easy. I hope and pray that leaders of Catholic, and especially Jesuit, universities will uphold the Catholic social tradition and refuse further Koch funding to mitigate the engineered insertion of libertarian ideas into the heart of the educational mission of our universities.

Works Cited

Annett, Anthony. Cathonomics: How Catholic Tradition Can Create a More Just Economy. Georgetown University Press, 2022.

Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. Translated by Dominican Fathers of the English Province. London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1921.

Brulle, Robert J., Galen Hall, Loredana Loy, and Kennedy Schell-Smith. “Obstructing Action: Foundation Funding and US Climate Change Counter-Movement Organizations.” Climatic Change 166, no. 1 (May 15, 2021): 17.

Catechism of the Catholic Church. Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993.

Cathleen Kaveny. Prophecy without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Fink, Richard. “The Structure of Social Change,” October 18, 2012.

Fletcher, Adam F. C. “A Timeline of the Omaha DePorres Club.” North Omaha History (blog), February 21, 2018.

Francis. “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” May 24, 2015.

Francis, Pope. “‘Laudate Deum’: Apostolic Exhortation to All People of Good Will on the Climate Crisis,” October 4, 2023.

———. “Message from the Holy Father to the Participants in the Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (28 April – 2 May 2017),” April 24, 2017.

Greenpeace USA. “Koch Industries: Secretly Funding the Climate Denial Machine,” June 25, 2015.

Himes, Michael J. Doing the Truth in Love: Conversations about God, Relationships and Service. Paulist Press, 1995.

Holland, Matt. Ahead of Their Time: The Story of the Omaha DePorres Club. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.

John Paul II. “Centesimus Annus,” May 1, 1991.

———. “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” August 15, 1990.

Jordon, Steve. “Of Two Minds on Economics: Does Teaching at Creighton Institute Contradict Catholic Social Thought?” Omaha World-Herald, December 8, 2014.

Kelly, Thomas M. “A House Divided: Catholic Libertarian Economics and Catholic Social Thought.” Journal of Religion and Society Supplement Series 14 (n.d.): 58–79.

Koch, Charles. Anti-Capitalism and Business. Institute for Humane Studies, 1974.

Levinthal, Dave. “Koch Brothers’ Higher-Ed Investments Advance Political Goals.” Center for Public Integrity, October 30, 2015.

MacLean, Nancy. Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. Later Printing edition. New York: Viking, 2017.

———. “Democracy in Chains…Mission in Chains? Economics, Donors, and Catholic Mission.” Presented at the Markoe-De Porres Annual Social Justice Lecture, Creighton University, September 19, 2023.

———. “Orion Magazine – The Disinformation Machine.” Orion Magazine. Accessed October 23, 2023.

Massingale, Bryan N. Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010.

Stowers, Ryan, Brian Hooks, Adam Millsap, Diana Thomas, and Jim Otteson. “Freedom Partners Leveraging Science and Universities,” June 15, 2014.

Wilson, Mardell A. “Provost Digest.” Creighton University, February 28, 2022.

Winters, Michael Sean. “Review: Angus Sibley’s \”The ‘Poisoned Spring’ of Economic Libertarianism.” National Catholic Reporter, July 6, 2011.

[1] Matt Holland has chronicled Fr. Markoe in The Rarest Kind of Courage: The Extraordinary Life of Fr. John Markoe and the DePorres Club in Ahead of Their Time: The Story of the Omaha DePorres Club.

[2] This is especially true of the so-called “Austrian” school of libertarianism. These discrepancies are exhaustively outlined in the book The “Poisoned Spring” of Economic Libertarianism: Menger, Mises, Hayek, Rothbard: A Critique from Catholic Social Teaching of the ‘Austrian School’ of Economics, by Catholic author and actuary Angus Sibley. My Creighton colleague Thomas Kelly has built on Sibley’s work in “A House Divided: Catholic Libertarian Economics and Catholic Social Thought.”

[3] Notably, mercatus is Latin for “markets.”

[4] The full citation reads: “The identity of a Catholic University is essentially linked to the quality of its teachers and to respect for Catholic doctrine…’Academic freedom’ is the guarantee given to those involved in teaching and research that, within their specific specialized branch of knowledge, and according to the methods proper to that specific area, they may search for the truth wherever analysis and evidence leads them, and may teach and publish the results of this search, keeping in mind the cited criteria, that is, safeguarding the rights of the individual and of society within the confines of the truth and the common good” (fn. 15, emph. added).

[5] It would also be true even if a given Koch-funded faculty member did not personally believe their work would potentially advance the Koch agenda or if not all activities by a Koch-funded entity directly supported libertarianism. Given their documented history, the Charles Koch Foundation would not fund a faculty member or an entity if they did not see significant potential to advance their agenda.

[6] Thanks to my Creighton colleague Richard Miller for this point. Between 1997 and 2018, “Koch Family Foundations have spent $145,555,197 directly financing 90 groups that have attacked climate change science and policy solutions.”

[7] Laudato Si’ no. 25; Laudate Deum no. 5.

[8] Steve Jordon, “Of Two Minds on Economics: Does Teaching at Creighton Institute Contradict Catholic Social Thought?,” Omaha World-Herald, December 8, 2014,

[9] This is, I think, what Fr. Michael Himes called Doing the Truth in Love and what Cathleen Kaveny describes asProphecy without Contempt.

[10] Thanks to Kate Ward for highlighting this insightful paradox.