(August 20, 2020)
Founded in 2010 by Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, SJ and Timothy R. Busch, the Napa Institute aims to provide American Catholic leaders with formation to counteract growing cultural secularism.
The Institute hosts an annual conference at a luxury resort and spa owned by Mr. Busch in the Napa Valley wine country of Northern California. The event often includes conservative Catholic clergymen and laity such as Cardinal Raymond Burke and George Weigel.
Inclusive of the price of accommodation at the luxury resort, attendance at the conference may cost approximately $3,500 per person.
Cigars and free-flowing wine from Mr. Busch’s vineyard are also included in that price tag.
However due to COVID-19, the conference this year – which occurred on August 14-15, 2020 – became a virtual event with a hefty pandemic discounted rate of only $189 per attendee.
This is the first time I have heard of the Napa Institute conference or even of Mr. Busch, even though we both live in Southern California. I am definitely not at “high-roller” status to afford the pre-COVID price tag.
Christopher White at National Catholic Reporter provided an excellent overview of the conference, and since I did not pay the $189 fee for the virtual option, I am relying on his analysis of the event.
Before delving into my second-hand thoughts of the Napa Institute conference, in light of the gospel I am troubled that an organization with a mission to form Catholic leaders is only forming those wealthy enough to afford a conference at a luxury spa, and is only offering a homogenous voice within the Church.
This is hardly “Catholic” (i.e. Universal) since the conference fee alone is an impediment for many Catholics who are educators and leaders of the faith, thereby limiting attendees to a certain socioeconomic strata and potentially excluding persons of color.
Additionally, to have a conservative subset of speakers does not offer “Catholic” formation but right-wing formation.
Moreover, of the nearly 40 speakers, there were only three women, two Black men, and one Latinx person, further signifying the lack of diversity and catholicity.
Based on the criteria of this conference, I do not believe Jesus would have been able to attend this event, nor would He have been welcomed to attend, since His message encompassed inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” to a banquet (Luke 14:13), none of whom would be able to attend the Napa Institute (nor even the virtual event).
If the poor and the marginalized cannot attend, then Christ would not have attended (cf. Matthew 25:40).
In contrast, during His public ministry Jesus spoke at lengths to crowds of people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and did so “without cost” (cf. Isaiah 55:1). Additionally, all four of the Gospels reported that Jesus offered a surplus of bread and fish to a multitude who had been listening to His message (Matthew 14:13-21, 15:32-39; Mark 6:31-44, 8:1-9; Luke 9:12-17; and John 6:1-14).
I would rather listen to Jesus’ message at no cost and receive His free-flowing bread and fish than Mr. Busch’s wine and the Napa Institute’s “gospel.”
This is not to say that the wealthy did not matter to Jesus, but that a rich person’s encounter with Jesus may lead to a call to “go, sell what you have, and give to the poor… then come follow me” (Mark 10:21) as with the Rich Young Man or a desire to give half of one’s possessions to the poor (Luke 19:8) as expressed by Zacchaeus.
However at the Napa Institute, there is neither a clear preferential option for the poor nor a detachment from material wealth, but an offering of “catechesis” to the wealthy without challenging their social beliefs or status quo.
Rather, the attendees are enabled to feel complacent in their wealth and beliefs.
The Institute could have used a portion of the proceeds from the price of the conference to cause supporting the marginalized, which would then bring the Institute’s mission closer to that of the gospel.
Since the Napa Institute is not structurally congruent with this important gospel theme, then Busch’s free-flowing vineyard wine is not the New Wine that Jesus offers (cf. Matthew 9:17).
After reviewing Mr. White’s article, I am also troubled and saddened by the Napa Institute’s attitude towards the Black Lives Matter movement, which included panelists stating that the movement is “atheistic and Marxist” and “probably not about race at all if you dig deep.”
Firstly, this criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement echoes similar statements by right-wing political circles.
Instead of seeking to evolve beyond secularism, the Napa Institute’s catechism is conflating Catholicism with right-wing secularism.
Secondly, I challenge the Napa Institute: Have you met a Black Lives Matter supporter? Have you learned first-hand what the movement is about from an insider and why one is so passionate about this movement?
As opposed to parroting right-wing ideology, wouldn’t it have been sounder to invite supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement to have a panel discussion at the Napa Institute and engage in a dialogue of ideas? (If only there was a conference that could serve as a forum to facilitate this…)
I have met Black Lives Matter supporters, even people close to the movement’s leadership, and I myself am an ardent supporter.
And for all of us, the truth is far simpler than fiction: the Black Lives Matter movement is really about ensuring a world where Black Lives do Matter.
Black Lives Matter supporters have been devastated by the tragic and unnecessary murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among many others, and do not wish to see more Black people unjustly murdered by the police or civilians.
Rather than sympathize with or listen to this core premise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Napa Institute chose to dismiss it altogether.
Even if Black Lives Matter does not matter to the Napa Institute, it matters to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and if the Institute is seeking to position itself as a front organization for Catholicism, it is missing the most important element – the Heart – and thereby the Institute is a lifeless organization.
The Black Lives Matter movement does call for the dismantling of social and political structures that promote inequity.
When one “digs deep,” in the words of the Napa panelist, the crux of why right-wing ideologues and the Napa Institute have a negative reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement is that it calls into question the structures that promote White Privilege and White Supremacy, structures that provide benefits to persons including many of the Napa organizers and its participants.
The Black Lives Matter movement aims to end such unjust structures, which is threatening to these structures’ beneficiaries.
This may come as a surprise to the Napa Institute, but the Catholic Church, including through the words of Pope Saint John Paul II whom the Institute reveres, has named such inequitable structures to be “structures of sin.”
Therefore, the ostensible mission of the Napa Institute to form Catholic leaders to counteract a growing secularism is a façade. The ideologies espoused by the exclusive and elitist Institute are at odds with the gospel as well as the Catholic Church’s social teaching.
Moreover, the Institute is a gathering of wealthy Catholics holding a homogenous ideology.
To be an effective Catholic leader, one must be able to minister to all and not just to those of the same social class and ideology.
Additionally, the Napa Institute cannot combat cultural secularism while adopting right-wing tenets as its own. The Institute’s members enjoy the socioeconomic benefits of secularism, including but not limited to the social and political structures that promote inequity, while not prioritizing the Church’s preferential option for the poor, which in itself is counter-cultural and counter-secular.
Hence, while Mr. Busch’s wine might be enticing and the Napa conference might appear credible, both are counterfeits relative to the New Wine and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.