I watched the video of Helen Alford’s talk months ago, and I still can’t get it out of my head. A Dominican nun trained in “human-centered technology” who holds a PhD in engineering management from Cambridge regaling a room full of aspiring impact investors on how the Catholic church plans to be the conscience of big business in the coming decades. Even though she notes there are many peace and justice folks who believe wading into human capital impact investing is akin to taking up with the devil, well…circumstances require it, so better just get with the program.
Alford goes on to say how excited she is that the Church will be at the center of social innovation over the next twenty years; it’ll be just like fifteenth century Florence. She describes bishops using innovative approaches to reduce big manuals of moral economic decision-making, which to me smacks frighteningly of religious Blockchain smart contracts. This moment of existential crisis brought on by climate catastrophe and economic uncertainty appears to be the perfect window of opportunity for the Catholic church to usher in a new age of evangelism. Their leaders intend to tap lay people worldwide to spread the church’s teachings through politics, economics and technology.
This truly feels like the logical extension of the Doctrine of Discovery, white western Christianity calling dibs on a dawning age of cloud-based extractivism. Once again the rich and powerful draw up plans to prey on Black and Brown communities, taking resources that are not theirs, extinguishing lives, and erasing cultures. Just as adoption of double-entry bookkeeping in 1494 coincided with expansion of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, so now does the roll out of self-sovereign identity and Blockchain public benefit systems coincide with new forms of digital bondage that have been devised by financiers intent trading in life outcomes of the poor. This time instead of of shackles and whips, those in power plan to exert their domination using Big Data, machine learning, “smart” environments, predictive analytics, algorithms and behavioral economic nudges. Such is the brutal business of human capital finance.
The conference at which Alford presented was held at the Vatican on June 16-18, 2014. I touched upon Sir Ronald Cohen’s participation here. It was the first of three biennial social impact conferences co-hosted by Catholic Relief Services, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame.
Notre Dame has the largest endowment of any Catholic institution of higher education in the United States and is in the top tier of schools nationwide (source). Scott Malpass, appointed an advisor to the Vatican Bank in 2017, knows $8.7 billion is a lot of capital to keep in motion. Supposed “anti-poverty” initiatives that enable the church to advance its missionary purpose while controlling potentially volatile populations probably look like a pretty attractive “social impact” investment option. It’s not surprising the business school would be interested in growing this sector.
Notre Dame also hosts several programs advancing wireless technology, smart sensors, and social network signals intelligence project underwritten by defense and scientific interests. Of course such systems represent critical infrastructure needed to generate and manage real time data flows for speculative human capital investment. South Bend, the home of Notre Dame, is also home to Pete Buttigieg, a darling of the neoliberal think tank crowd. Buttigieg saw the creation of a “City of Lifelong Learning” pilot program in South Bend, a cradle to gray workforce development effort led by the Drucker (Peter) Institute, with distinct social impact investing overtones.
Interactive map of above here.
The idea for the first Vatican impact investing conference, “Investing for the Poor: How Impact Investing Can Serve The Common Good In Light Of Evangelii Gaudium,” was originally pitched by Dr. Carolyn Woo, a professor of global business currently working at Purdue. Woo served as the dean of the Notre Dame business school from 1997 to 2011, then led Catholic Relief Services from 2012 to 2016 (she served on the CRS board from 2004-2010). Purdue was the first university to pilot income sharing agreements (Back a Boiler), has launched a global online degree program, and is a partner in Skillful Indiana. Social impact investments in ed-tech and digital skills training certainly sync with her university’s goals. Another Notre-Dame affiliate who participated in the conference was Roger Huang, a professor of global finance and long-time board member of a Baltimore-area Catholic health system.
There were many attendees, and I won’t list them all, but I do want to point out two additional individuals of interest. The first is Tom Steyer of Farallon Capital Management, a protégé of Robert Rubin a Goldman Sachs guy who served as Treasury Secretary under Clinton. Steyer founded Beneficial Bank with his wife Kathryn Taylor and is a mover and shaker in Democratic circles. He’s also a major force in the “Wrong Kind of Green” environmental movement. Tom’s brother Jim Steyer founded Common Sense Media, a non-profit that vets online content for children and is funded by many ed-tech philanthropies including Omidyar Network. Margie Sullivan worked with Steyer at Farallon for over a decade having built a career in federal contracting working for HUD, Department of the Defense, and the Office of the US Trade Representative. After leaving Farallon, Sullivan landed at USAID. She now manages her own consulting firm.
Interactive map above here.
As you can see from the agenda, the goal was to get everyone on the same page about what social impact investing is and line up next steps to develop that market. One of the outcomes of the gathering was the creation of an Advisory Committee on Impact Investing for Catholic Relief Services with four working groups: Education, Communications, Impact Investments, and Relationship to a Potential Private Equity Fund. Goals included identifying areas for potential investment, developing a framework to evaluate options, and recommending a number of pilot projects. Carolyn Woo served as co-chair along with Patricia Dinneen, social justice chair of the of the Boston Archdiocese pastoral council who not coincidentally is also the impact investing chair for the Emerging Markets Private Equity Association. Including the subcommittees there are over 36 members, which you can explore here. Below is a screenshot of a selection of them.
I do believe the plan is to codify in computer code Old Testament dictates that some will attempt to pass off as spirituality. Their manuals to make “moral” economic decisions will be algorithms. They will sort the “worthy” from the “unworthy” and cast out or smite those unlucky enough to fall into the latter category. They want us to believe that technology is the answer. The Pope has been meeting with folks from Microsoft about using AI to “help” the poor. Catholic University is taking that idea and running with it, pushing a “Catholic Blockchain.” Rick Santorum is developing a Catholic-friendly crypto-currency Cathio. We know technology isn’t the answer. It will simply reinforce the dominant power structures that have been in place for the past four hundred years. Rules will be encoded to maintain existing social order and preference racist ideals and hierarchy and paternalism.
What follows are clips from Alford’s talk with transcripts of the sections that informed my introductory remarks.
Investing for the Poor: How Impact Investing Can Serve The Common Good in the Light of Evangelii Gaudium
June 16-17, 2014: Catholic Relief Services, Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace, and University of Notre Dame Mendoza School of Business
Video 9: Impact Investing in the Light of Evangelii Gaudium: Sister Helen J. Alford
Regarding the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization
Timestamp 16:30 minutes to 19:20
Now just to give you quick background on why this arises, the New Evangelization, why is this? Well as far as I know it started, the first time it was used was in a meeting between Pope John Paul the Second, our canonized Pope John Paul the Second, and the Latin American Bishops in a meeting. And he started in his talk, he talked about this idea for the need of a new evangelization. And then it got picked up much later and finally we have this synod on this topic.
What does it mean “new,” because it seems odd in a way. Isn’t it the sort of core business of the church talking about the gospel and spread the gospel? So what does it mean? Well, I think out of the synod documents if you look at them, three main things come out. Just so you have an idea again, I’ll try to be very quick on why this, what the background to this document.
First of all the New Evangelization renewed commitment, renewed preaching of the gospel in parts of the world that have been evangelized for centuries. Okay? “New” can mean all kinds of things. It can mean new ways of doing it. It could mean entering into new sectors, which is the second. Places where the church perhaps hasn’t really entered as fully as it could have. The gospel hasn’t really entered as fully as it could. Perhaps in economics. Perhaps in politics. Um, perhaps in influencing the way that technological development takes place. These kinds of things saw a pushing out into areas; it’s not that there was never any interest, but perhaps not enough. You know it needs to be deeper, stronger, more pressed the gospel in those things.
And then as was already mentioned widening of the actors that are involved, especially as far as the Catholic Church is concerned. Reformed churches are different in this regard, better in this regard. Lay people, all the baptized being involved in evangelization. Each Christian is a bearer of Christ and is in that sense part of the mission of the church. So also connects with the bringing of the church into economics, into politics. All these baptized Christians in these sectors bringing with them the gospel message.
Perhaps we could say just as the last thing, some people would see the new evangelization as a kind of response to an existential crisis in many levels that we experience in the world today. We have climate crisis. We also have demographic crisis. Aging in many countries and problems of dealing with population changes, that kind of thing. Crisis of morality, how do we handle moral questions? In a pluralistic world, how do hand morals off from parents to children? Transmission? So, lots and lots of aspects of this crisis. The new evangelization is a sort of a response.
Breaking Down the Silos
We have to recognize the crucial role of business and hence in investment in confronting problems of poverty and other social problems. Yesterday, Sir Ronald Cohen was talking about bits of a quick history of how we’ve dealt with social problems. First of all the industrial revolution, and it was largely philanthropy. Then gradually developed the idea that governments should be doing things. Now we’re going through another transformation. It’s just another transformation. The church’s social teachings have dealt with these transformations before and it will deal with this transformation, too.
It’s a new phase in which we’re seeing a break down of these strict divisions between government, business, and civil society. It’s in Caritas Veritate, so we have absolute, you know uh, the seal of approval from the church. If you read Caritas Veritate number 36 around the area around paragraph 40, it’s all about how we need to break down these barriers between these sectors. And we need, for instance, as he calls it a logic of gift coming into business, but we also need business models coming into civil society. We need to learn from each other. Okay? This is a new phase that we’re going into, and the church, we need to take this on board.
You know, Father Seamus, was talking yesterday about how a lot of his justice and peace people would be, you know they’d have their hands up like this at a meeting like this. They never, it’ll be like talking to the devil you know coming in and talking to people who are involved in investment. You know, that kind of thing. You know, I mean, ok. This, we already mentioned, Carolyn mentioned this morning there’s big problems in business. Of course there are big problems, that’s probably why you all are here. So, sort of deal with some of those problems, but this idea that we’ve demonized, that we won’t have anything to do with it, and we should just keep pushing on getting governments to, it’s just, it’s not being realistic about our situation.
Strengths and Weaknesses Analysis
This was looking at things like impact investing in the light of Evangelii Gaudium. Let’s just look at strengths and opportunities, okay? Uses the primary mechanisms we know for poverty elimination-entrepreneurship and markets. Focuses on that, attracts many different investors and entrepreneurs to solving social problems. So we’re really drawing all kinds of resources into dealing with the major problems that from the point of view of the church, from the point of view of society as a whole, we recognize we have to face.
We have opportunities, because there are so many problems to deal with, and through partnership with local government and NGOs we can create integrated solutions. Those are somewhat responding to a weaknesses and threats from the other side. Then also from Catholic social thought what are the learnings that we can get from impact investing? Well we have a very strong focus on dignity of the human person, which can sometimes be lacking in the business sphere.
And precisely because we have an institution called the church, we have a little bit of distance from business, which we can avoid this problem of capture just being absorbed into, we can have a critical distance as a church institution-a good partner, but also providing as well. That’s what good partners do for each other.
We, we as a church I think, several people have said this, we’re going to move even in the next twenty years from a rather defensive position with regard to the modern world to being in the main stream, to being one of the institutions which are going to carry forward social innovation.
It will be more like fifteenth century Florence in the future with the Catholic Church right in the middle of all kinds of innovations. The bishops are reducing big manuals on how to deal with moral problems in economics, you know. I mean this is going to start happening more in the future, just because of the situation that we’re in. And business increasingly recognizes its need for partnership.
Ok last thing, last page. We need to create a more solid dialogue. You can see here, many of you will say that’s a bit naïve some of the little things you said. It’s just the beginning of the time. We need a more solid dialogue between the church and faith communities and impact investing. We need to ask what to the various members in the church need to do to promote a business culture that puts the poor at the center. That puts inclusion right at the center. Okay? How could the business system be converted to serving the poor?