7 min read

The successful entrepreneur and Napa Institute founder talks to Michael E. Hartmann about his grantmaking, the importance of a focus on mission, and the continuing relevance of the work of Michael Novak.

Timothy R. Busch is the founder of The Busch Firm, a law firm in Irvine, Calif., that has expertise in real-estate and other commercial transactions and offers estate-planning and family-office services. He also founded the Pacific Hospitality Group, which owns and manages 13 hotels in California and other states.

Busch’s philanthropy reflects his devout Catholicism. He and his wife Steph have helped start two Catholic schools and he founded the Napa Institute, which hosts conferences and sponsors programming for Catholic leaders. He is a major supporter of The Catholic University of America and its Busch School of Business.

Busch was kind enough to join me for a conversation earlier this month, an edited transcript of which is below. We discuss his grantmaking, the importance of a focus on mission, and the continuing relevance of the work of Michael Novak.


Hartmann: How did you generate the wealth that you’re now devoting to philanthropy?

Busch: I was a tax lawyer starting in Michigan and then I moved to California. From there, I began investing in real estate in Michigan and California. I’ve been investing in hotels for almost 40 years. We have a hotel management company. That and other investment wealth is used to fund donations to our foundation.

Hartmann: How’s the hotel business doing, post-Covid, for you?

Busch: It’s doing much better. This year started a little slow in California, but I think we’re going to have a good year.

Hartmann: How would you describe your philanthropic interests and pursuits?

Busch: I’d say 95% of those resources are building organizations that are aligned with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Our support in education dates back to 30 years ago. My wife and I started a private Roman Catholic elementary school in 1992 and a high school in 2003.

I only had six years of Catholic education myself, but it had a major impact on my faith. We’ve impacted thousands of kids in the schools we support. Our commitment is to focus on mission. Non-Catholics are most welcome to the schools, and there are many, but we don’t water down the programs. The programs are authentically Catholic. Because of that, we’re growing very rapidly.

Hartmann: Of the six years of Catholic education, which years were those? Were those high school or pre-high school?

Busch: Elementary. I was in a parochial school. When I was in the sixth grade, and the Archdiocese of Detroit mandated that class size not exceed 45, which is still pretty large. Anybody who wasn’t from the local parish was out of luck. We had to go elsewhere. It was heartbreaking because I really enjoyed the faith-based school. The rest of my education, from Grade 7 through university and law school, was at public schools.

Hartmann: What is the Napa Institute, which you founded?

Busch: It’s a good question. It is a Catholic lifestyle organization. We started out as an annual summer conference. We don’t have any members like Legatus does. Originally, I would say, half the attendees of the conference were members of Legatus.

Hartmann: Does the way in which you go about your philanthropy stand in stark contrast to others in what I’ll call establishment philanthropy in America?

Busch: I guess. I don’t really give to projects that don’t need me. In other words, there’s some great apostolates out there, but they have their own funding. Sometimes, it’s huge. People want our name associated with the funding just so that they can draw others in, and we’ve done some of that, but I really like funding things that are startups, entrepreneurial, and without our funding, they don’t survive. That’s what I look at.

We probably have, I would say, around 30 apostolates that we fund. Probably 10 of them are six-figure or more annual contributions. The rest of it is, you know, you’re part of the game. You put up money to be involved, like supporting the parish. That’s our primary responsibility. But I don’t flood money into the parish, because I don’t want to take away the responsibility of other parishioners, which leads to “Oh, don’t worry about it, because they’ll take care of it.” I think that’s a bad place for a parish to be.

So we do support our parish, but we don’t support other people’s parishes or other people’s schools. This gets out of hand and you just can’t keep track of it, and where would you stop? We do get requests from parishes and schools all over the country, and we just turn them down, so that communicates very clearly that’s not our focus. We have three beautiful schools and we support those.

Hartmann: There’s a business school at The Catholic University of America that has your name on it.

Busch: I think we’re just getting started there. Universities are much more difficult, because there’s a lot of people involved. I’m happy, in the last 24 months, we’re starting to see double-digit enrollment growth at that school.

We have a moral mission in Catholicism. We have very robust, spiritual programs—daily Mass, confessions, daily rosary. This is what builds schools’ culture. At other places, they feel like they’re going to offend somebody if they are too Catholic. This is not what the Holy Spirit’s inspiring us to do. That’s what the devil is inspiring us to do.

We starting to get some traction. It’s been a long time coming. We need to build staff that will support that mission. It’s the biggest value in schools. Too many schools water down the mission. Everybody wants to go spend all kinds of money on marketing and everything else. You grow the school through one word: mission. That’s all it is, very simple. The other things are just distractions.

Hartmann: The Napa Institute had a conference last year on the 40th anniversary of Michael Novak’s book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Mike Novak was a professor at the Busch School and a prominent neoconservative, back to when he was at the American Enterprise Institute. What do Mike Novak and his work have to offer the discussions about what conservatism is today?

Busch: I’ve always been a fan of Michael. I’ve read all of his books. I think he took us down a whole new path as a Catholic capitalist, really stressing the importance of virtue and Catholic social teaching. That doesn’t mean in any way that profit isn’t important. Business is essential to the fabric of society, that was his whole point.

He started out really, like many professors, on the left and he wrote a book about going from left to right. It was very interesting how a guy who was very intelligent thought his way into conservative capitalism. He was able to really have some credibility because he didn’t just have it jammed down his throat.

This idea that business is a noble vocation was not around 35 to 40 years ago, just before he started writing. This is a new teaching. It’s always been true, but it just wasn’t well-articulated. I think that’s what he’s best known for.

Hartmann: Do you think Michael Novak would have better understood, or understood earlier maybe, that which gave rise to the populist conservatism? It seems to me as if he would have been quicker than others to just see what was going on in America.

Busch: Yes, he was ahead of the game, there’s no question.

Hartmann: Among the thinkers that are trying to put intellectual meat on the bones of populist conservatism, how come they don’t pay more attention of Michael Novak?

Busch: You know, I don’t know.

If you look at America and Fortune 500 companies, a disproportionate amount of the CEOs are Catholic. It’s sort of unusual to think about it, but it’s because the capitalist culture is consistent with the virtues of Catholicism, though we don’t really label it that.

Catholics are not perfect. They were born with original sin, just like everybody else, right? They have a structure, but so do other faiths. I tell people in business, we’re going to be tempted more than ever. We need grace, and the sacraments, and you believe that or you don’t. These  graces are what you need in order to pursue your career, your vocation as a businessperson.

I think it’s that simple. We don’t have to be theologians. It’s those graces that protect us from making the wrong decisions in our lives.

ESG is a form of faith, by the way. It’s a heresy and it’s an apostasy and it’s going to get this country in a lot of trouble if we don’t stop all this stuff. It’s watering down our national security, and it’s watering down the hearts and minds of our people. We, as Catholics, as believers, have to push back on this because if we don’t, we won’t be the No. 1 nation in the world.

I think the Church that Jesus Christ founded is perfect because it has been around for 2,000 years and even the mortal leadership of the Church can’t screw it up. They can taint it, but they can’t bring it down. But from an evangelization perspective, I think it’s the laity. It’s the lay apostolates that are going to make a difference because they have better funding, they have smarter money, and they can be much more mobile. There’s not corruption because there’s transparency, and when there is corruption, they’ll be destroyed. The Church, on the other hand, can have corruption and survive. It has for centuries.

You need to follow the teachings of the Church and you need to be tethered to the Church. We’re not out there trying to independently hijack the Church’s teachings and the Church’s responsibility. We’re augmenting it and we’re doing so with people that are in good standing with the Church—priests, professors, religious, and bishops. I think every lay apostolate needs that.

Hartmann: Would non-Catholic conservative philanthropy have a role to play in any of this? Are you not seeking to influence them or to urge them to do anything? How could a non-Catholic conservative philanthropist play a role in philanthropically improving America, either consistent with Michael Novak’s teaching or not?

Busch: Yes, I invite that. We’re dipping our toe into the water on that, inviting non-Catholics to participate in our activities.

People say I’m preaching to the choir. I’m preaching to the choir because I don’t want to lose the choir. The choir is in society, as well, and they can leave the faith just as anybody else can. We need to keep them propped up, we need to keep our priests propped up. We’re losing them at a very scary pace, especially young priests. We have a program to try inspiring and developing them.

Hartmann: Why don’t we finish up there? Thanks so much for your time.

Bush: Thank you very much. I’m very appreciative of what you guys are doing, and God bless you.

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