In case there was any doubt about the matter, two weeks ago, Catholic’s president John Garvey and Dean Abela confirmed their decision to keep the gift in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “[I]t 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,” they declared.
This might be the end of this current controversy. But we should expect similar ones in the years to come—at least if history is any guide. We are living, we are frequently told, in a new Gilded Age. The historical parallel is carted out most often in discussions of the nation’s mounting income inequality or of the populist backlash that has accompanied the trend—phenomena that distinguished the decades bracketing the turn of the last century as well.
The age’s more welcome associations are also invoked, with references to the flowering of modern philanthropy, the emergence of major public benefactors like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. In their place today we have Bill Gates and a corps of social entrepreneurs flush with tech and finance wealth and the willingness to siphon off some of it toward the public good. There is yet another hallmark of the Gilded Age, a product of these others, that also marks our own: the development of a robust public debate about the relationship between the giver, his gift, and the public’s responsibility in policing it.
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In fact, the controversy at Catholic University strongly echoes another that broke at the turn of the last century and that first catapulted that debate into public prominence. It began in March 1905 with the announcement of a contribution of $100,000 by John D. Rockefeller to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the missionary arm of the Congregational Church. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil magnate whose ruthless pursuit of corporate consolidation was matched by his embrace of a homely Christian piety, was at the time one of the richest and most hated men in America. And so, when news of the gift spread, a faction within the denomination quickly rose up to denounce it and insist that the American Board return the money.
The faction was led by a Congregational minister from Columbus, Ohio, named Washington Gladden, who a decade before had targeted a Rockefeller gift to the University of Chicago by railing against “tainted money.” Now the phrase became the protesters’ watchword. Standard Oil, they declared, “stands before the public under repeated and recent formidable indictment in specific terms for methods which are morally iniquitous and socially destructive.” In order for the Church to serve as a “moral educator,” and to “arouse the moral reprobation of the general conscience” against its grossest offenders, it must “stand entirely clear of any implication in the evil it is set to condemn.” The acceptance of a gift from John D. Rockefeller compromised this obligation, for it involved the Board “in a relationship implying honor toward the donor.”