WaPo OpEd: Pope Francis and the Koch Bros Love and Serve the Poor Together

In case you were worried that the Koch Brothers were just money-grubbing industrialists hell-bent on excavating the ever-growing income gap between the one percent and everyone else, it turns out you couldn’t be more wrong. They are, in fact, practically handmaidens of Pope Francis and Catholic social justice teaching, working to help the poor by freeing them from the shackles of big government—or so say John and Carol Saeman in an op-ed in the Washington Post that must have mistakenly migrated from The Onion.

The Saemans are Catholics who claim to “adhere to the Holy Father’s vision” of a preferential option for the poor. As part of their charitable activities, they donate to Charles and David Koch’s Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, also known as the Koch brothers’ “secret bank.” They are among some 200 largely unidentified big-money donors to the previously shadowy organization, through which the billionaire brothers funnel money to a host of conservative interest groups and causes.

It’s through their association with Freedom Partners that the Saemans have become aware of the Koch brothers’ “deep concern for the least fortunate,” which they express by supporting organizations that “bear the common mission of advancing free enterprise and free societies.” The Saemans write that “promoting limited government alongside the Kochs is an important part of heeding Pope Francis’s call to love and serve the poor.” This despite Francis’ unequivocal statements almost exactly a year ago in opposition to the “free enterprise” ideology:

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” Francis wrote in the papal statement. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

“Meanwhile,” he added, “the excluded are still waiting.”

Yet according to the Saemans, the best way to love the poor is to dismantle inefficient, big government social safety net programs like welfare that “undermine human dignity” and encourage “dependency” and devolve them to local programs and governments who will “reform” them to give the poor a dose of the tough love they need to get off their keisters and get a job.

The Kochs must really, really love the poor, because among the ways that Freedom Partners has sought to help them out is by funneling $115 million to the Center to Protect Patients Rights, which sought to destroy the Affordable Care Act, which hooked low-income Americans on getting regular medical care. According to the Commonwealth Fund, the uninsured rate dropped from 35 percent to 24 percent among adults with incomes under 138 percent of the poverty level as a result of the ACA.

Freedom Partners is also helping out the poor by making them less dependent on eating. It funnels money to the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity, which was a key player earlier this year in getting $8 billion slashed from the Food Stamp program while at the same time preserving millions in subsidies to Koch-owned companies and exempting them from several key environmental regulations.

I guess when Pope Francis said two weeks ago that access to food is a basic human right he didn’t understand the danger of money being “lost in Washington’s alphabet soup of government agencies” like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which according to the Census Bureau, lifted 5 million Americans, including 2.2 million children, out of poverty in 2012 through Food Stamps.

The Saeman’s reading of Catholic social justice teaching is highly selective, especially their reliance on the principle of subsidiarity as a justification for dismantling federal safety net programs. Subsidiarity, which dates back to the first Vatican Council, says that social problems should be dealt with at the most localized level consistent with their solution, not just devolved for the sake of being devolved.

For instance, local food banks found themselves completely overwhelmed during the recent financial crisis and subsequent recession; many reported turning people away. It was the federal SNAP/Food Stamp program that took up the slack; enrollment soared from just over 25 million in 2006 to nearly 50 million in 2014.

The real problem, according to the Saemans, isn’t that the benefits of the economy are increasingly flowing upward to the likes of the Koch brothers. Its that government centralization, which “conflates big government with the common good,” leads to corrupt crony capitalism in which “politicians and bureaucrats hold the keys to the kingdom.” And from that, only Pope Francis and Saints Charles and David Koch can save us.