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"Woe to ye rich"

Like Eduardo and Mollie, I was disappointed to read this story about a wealthy Catholic donor who may decide not to contribute to the restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral because he is upset about some of Pope Francis’ comments about wealth, poverty, and capitalism.

Now as it happens, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to some of the donor’s concerns.  Evangelii Gaudium might well have benefitted from a more nuanced take on how market forces have helped move millions of people out of poverty in certain parts of the developing world (e.g. China).  More about that another time.

Nor am I in a particularly good position to be casting the first stone.  Indeed, one of the ironies here is that I came across this story while doing some research on whether the stocks of certain European cement manufacturers would be a good investment in 2014.  While my resources pale in comparison the founder of Home Depot and his colleagues, any just assessment of my finances--particularly if that assessment was global in its scope--would be more likely to place me in the company of the “rich” rather than the “poor.”

Nevertheless, the idea that one would suggest, even implicitly, that the Church should trim its prophetic sails in order to avoid losing the confidence of wealthy donors rather breaktaking in its arrogance.  The appropriate response of a person of means when asked to contribute to the restoration of a great cathedral is to thank Almighty God for the privilege of contributing in some small way to His proper worship.

It’s true, as Cardinal Dolan suggests in the article, that “God loves rich people” too.  Of course He does.  But scripture and tradition are fairly clear (one might even say emphatic) about the serious spiritual dangers associated with both the pursuit and possession of wealth. In perhaps His most famous statement on the subject, Jesus suggested that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” (Lk 18:25).

Anyone who prays the Liturgy of the Hours regularly gets hammered with this material. Psalm 49 warns against the wicked who “trust in their wealth; the abundance of their riches is their boast.”  In Psalm 73, the author admits he is envious of those whose “bodies are sound and sleek...and free from the burdens of mortals” and he is ultimately consoled (!) by the thought that God sets them “on a slippery road; you hurl them down to ruin” (Ps 73:18).  And, of course, we have Mary’s Magnificat every evening, which praises a God who has “cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.  The hungry He has filled with good things, the rich He has sent away empty (Lk 1:52-53).”  A wealthy Christian may not be a contradiction in terms, but wealth should make us approach the judgment seat of the Lord with an appropriate degree of "fear and trembling." 

What ultimately seems to be operative here is a desire that the Church not make its members feel uncomfortable.  In fairness, this is not a problem confined the wealthy.   There are large groups of Catholics who would prefer not to be reminded of the Church’s views on everything from immigration to sexual ethics to the use of military force.  We all have an issue or two that we would prefer our pastor--let alone the Pope--pass over in silence on Sunday.  In the end, however, the Gospel should make us uncomfortable, particularly if we are among the privileged and powerful.  If it doesn’t, we probably haven’t heard it correctly.



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ISTM that wealth can have two functions, private and public.  When a person has lots of money then, yes, some of it is for his/her own use and pleasure, but in a capitalist system  the excess must be viewed as having a pubic function in the economic system, viz. it's for investment to make the economy grow.

The question then becomes: when should it be invested?  If you're a good Keynesian your answer must be that  a recession is the time when the capital is most needed (because the economy is stagnant), so that hte capitalist is morally bound to  risk his/her money in bad times especially.  Unfortunately, that can be particularly risky, so capitalists turn chicken in recessions.  Maybe there should be a chicken tax on cash that isn't being invested when it's particularly needed.

Today in the American great recession there is a mountain of capital in the hands of the very rich, but they aren't investing as the system needs it to.  (See Paul Krugman's NYT blog practically any day of the week this year, about this.)  Wait, I take that back.  I saw a headline today that many superrich are buying super-expensive cars.  Sheesh.  Where were they when General Motors needed them?

I can't thelp thinking that Francis could apply his words about wealth to the church itself.  According to a past article in The Economist, the church in the US only gives 2.7% of its money to charity, and of that, over half of the money is provided by US government agencies ....

I need to say four diverse things in response.

1. From tradition and Scripture, we know that Lazarus was rich and influential (John 12:10) and that Jesus loved Lazarus a lot. But all of his wealth couldn't keep Lazarus from dying. And that would have been the end of him had he not responded to the call of the Lord.

2. This month's general intention in the Apostolate of Prayer is "That all may promote authentic economic development that respects the dignity of all peoples." These intentions are proposed by the pope. But they are written more than a year in advance, so the current one was phrased not by Francis, offender of the rich, but by Benedict XVI, defender of the true faith.

3. Today is the feast of St. Basil the Great, who asked, inter alia, "Why are you wealthy when another is poor?" And who answered himself: "Why else but so that you might receive the reward of benevolence and faithful stewardship, while the poor are honored for patient endurance in their struggles? But you, stuffing everything into the bottomless pockets of your greed, assume that you wrong no one;  yet how many do you in fact dispossess?"

4. Pope Francis's clarity, which resists watering down by interpretation, is causing real pain among fellow Catholics who were assurred -- by themselves and others -- that the world belongs to them and that their Church approved of that set-up. I think those of us who have felt the lash of misunderstanding in the past on one point or another need to be gentle in truth and in charity with those who are suffering now.

Tom -- Your remarks raise excellent questions.

1 -- What is "wealth"?  I've always loved Ruskin's definition:  "the possession of the valuable by the valiant."  (He juxtaposed it to "illth," that "which causes devastation in all directions."  But it also leads to the questions, "what is poverty"?  and "what is the sort of poverty Christians are called, not to relieve, but to emulate"?  As a middle-class professor, I struggle with this; my income, like Peter's, certainly doesn't put me among "the poor," and yet Christians are called to imitate the poor, are we not?  

2 --  What is "authentic economic development"?  Even if many Chinese have been "lifted out of poverty," isn't it also true that China's attempt to emulate Western development is a prime contributor to ecological destruction?

3 -- I'm never sure how to take St. Basil's second question.  Is he affirming both the wealthy in their "benevolence and faithful stewardship" and the poor in their "patient endurance"?  It seems that he is, but I can't help but feel that such an affirmation -- if that's what it is -- ends up as a blessing on oppression.  (You're so wonderful, you benevolent stewards; you're so patient, you poor wretches.)  Or is he being ironic, which would add force to his concluding question ("How many do you in fact dispossess?")

4 -- When does being "gentle in truth and in charity" become ineffectual social criticism?  When does "civility in argument" become evasion of the truth so as to keep the political temperature at "room"?  Let's recall that Martin Luther King, Jr., was castigated early on for being "uncharitable" toward white supremacists.    

Thanks for this post (and indeed, for this series of posts and the threads accompanying them).

It seems worth emphasizing that it is (or at least, it's one reasonable interpretation) precisely because Jesus loves the rich that he often directs such urgent and harsh words to them about the dangers of hoarding their wealth.

There is a hymn whose refrain is:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

One of its verses is often omitted today:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

We do have to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary poverty. Only voluntary poverty is meritorious. Involuntary poverty is an injustice that needs to be addressed culturally and politically. I was uneasy with Benedict's encyclical where he identified the virtue of charity or love as the primary one when dealing with issues of economic disparity. It is not an issue of charity but of justice.

Involuntary poverty should be one of the sins that cry to heaven for vengeance and we, collectively, reap the benefits of workers in the second and third world. We also collectively support the political class who perpetuates this institutional violence. The "Church" (i.e. us) needs to raise this much more forcefully.

And we need to get beyond the boring labels of liberal and conservatives. In fact, I read where George Washington aruges against political parties and in this he had a wise intuition. Nietzsche said that the party person was by definition a liar and in this he was correct.

Would suggest, as a start, that every Catholic change their voter i.d. to independent and anlayze voters on both item by item and totality of positionality. That is one concrete thing we could do.

Second, yes be exposed to the writings and ideas of the radical left as Gene writes but also the radical right. We have to have a dialogue and not a name calling, screaming match. And it is the function of the Church to facilitate such dialogue; a kind of secular court of the Gentiles.

Finally, there is according to Mihaly Csikeszentimihalyi, a certain point at which income no longer correlates to personal happiness but income still correlates to happiness. I am reading his book "Flow" right now but I have not been able to find that exact calculus yet. However, the University of Illinois did a study comparing the results of survey among the our hundred richest Americans with the Americans of average wealth. Unsurprisingly, the very wealth group reported being happy 25% more often than the lower. The point is that while income is not the only deciding factor around personal happiness, it is a factor that we should address.

Fr. Komonchak -- And it's rightly omitted.  

George D -- I'm not sure who you mean by the "radical right," but I've certainly learned a lot from distributists such as Chesterton, Belloc, and Gill.  The Chesterbelloc's support for patriarchy is indefensible, but their accounts of the rise of capitalism -- especially in Belloc's The Servile State (1912) -- bear remarkable affinities with Marxist accounts of "primitive accumulation":  dispossession of peasants and artisans, the degradation of artisanal skill by industrial machinery, the concentration of economic and political power in corporate combines.  

One point on which there is a convergence among some radical left and market-friendly thinkers is the idea of a basic or minimum income.  In short, since capitalism seems to be producing ever more low-wage jobs, the only way to keep the economy humming is to literally give people free money. On the right, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek supported it, as did the French Marxist Andre Gorz.  For different reasons, obviously:  Friedman and Hayek in order to abolish the minimum wage, Gorz as a step toward the abolition of wage labor altogether.  

Pope Francis has had a real effect in my parish church. For the first time ever that I witnessed, last week while at mass ,I saw a homeless man lying on a pew sleeping. In the past homeless people were shooed  away,[literally shooed away like pests] not by the clergy but  by the "community's" respectable  lay gate keepers in the church.I know that nothing tests  christian charity more then the stink of another person but we do have a bath room where the homeless could wash.

If only now the parish church would keep its doors open round the clock or at least throughout the day.Who knows how many people estranged from the church have walked by and on impulse felt like going inside a  church only to find it locked[as happened to me]. Perhaps they become New Agers simply because their desire for God was answered with a closed door  of a church.


Three threads in a row bashing the “rich” on the very first day of the year—no group-think going on here, huh?  If one of the New Year’s resolutions of the editors was to moderate their attacks on the rich in 2014—to focus on what the poor truly need rather than what the rich have—then you’re off to a very “poor” start indeed!  

Jesus’ words to the rich young man, if you notice, did not really focus on the poor, or “inequality,” but rather on what the rich man needed for eternal life.   Jesus did not see the man’s riches as something to confiscate so that the poor would be better off—he focused on the rich man as a child of God, in need of redemption just like everyone else (wholly consistent with the theme of the hymn Father K quotes).

Sadly, I don’t see these threads as focusing on the rich, or even the poor, the way Jesus has taught us.   I see bitterness and envy.   Perhaps some people have looked at their year-end 401(k) balances and are cursing themselves for moving money out of the stock market this time last year?

No bashing, envy, bitterness  do I see .. only as noted on cable news this morning is that SOME rich want more ecclesial love and respect.....  along with their riches..And  Isn't that why they all seem to hire flacks?

In the Business section of today's NY Times, an article on the surge in the salves of luxury automobiles. "In 2008, luxury was a dirty word," said someone at a magazine that caters to wealthy readers. "Luxury is not a dirty word anymore."

@Mark Proska (1/2, 1:00 pm)  In the oldest account (Mark 10:17 ff.) we have of Jesus' encounter with the rich man, it seems that it's because of Jesus' love for the man that Jesus says to him, "You are lacking in one thing.  Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 

True, "Jesus did not see the man’s riches as something to confiscate so that the poor would be better off...".  Rather, Jesus apparently saw the man's riches as the great obstacle remaining in his life and instructed him to give his riches to the poor.


The early church always was concerned with the poor. The church in the watershed fourth and fifth centuries was obsessed with how to treat the poor. Unfortunately, very bad habits started then affected us throughout the centuries. Paulinus of Nola thought that the best way to help the poor was to build umongous cathedrals and shrines. This way the poor had a place to worship. I guess food and shelter coulc wait. Augustine and Jerome argued that the wealthy should not give to the poor directly but to them. They would then help the poor. We suffer from those critical errors. The church forgot its mission so much that at the French Revolution the starving populace murdered many priests and religious who were eating much better than them. 

Thanks to Crystal we see the paucity of the American church's help for the poor. A scandal of mammoth proportions. From the Economist, referring to the American Catholic Church: "The Economist estimates that annual spending by the church and entities owned by the church was around $170 billion in 2010 (the church does not release such figures). We think 57% of this goes on health-care networks, followed by 28% on colleges, with parish and diocesan day-to-day operations accounting for just 6% and national charitable activities just 2.7%.

2.7% for the poor. Looks like we need a better way to get the money to the poor. Disciples of Jesus should be politicking the wealthy to help the needy. Not build cathedrals. 

Further to Fr. K's story. That the sales of luxury items is increasing seems to suggest that Francis' message isn't quite sinking in. Awhile back Hummers seemed to be all the rage. I knew someone, a distant acquaintance who I literally overheard saying that he would not take it on a certain gravel road as he was concerned with rock chips!!!!! Crazy.

There will always be symbols of status for the powerful but aren't we called to eschew any and all of those symbols? While we cannot all be monks, a certain simplicity is surely not an unreasonable demand.

At any rate, my personal view is that there should be a luxury tax imposed on those items. I know that we will end up in a never ending debate around how to define luxury but it is a bit like pornography, I know it when I see it!!

I just try to keep reminding myself, though modest my income might be compared to millionaires, I might as well be a millionaire myself compared to how so many other people live.  I'm as put off as the next girl by the apparent whining of some wealthy Catholics, but I think the best thing we can do with Pope Francis' exhortation is ask how it applies in our own lives. 

I also don't see this thread as in any way bashing the rich.  

Groan.  That Economist article was discredited a long time ago.  Don't let's do it all over again.


I'll say it:  The reason there are so many more poor people than there used to be in the U. S. is because the American population votes in politicians who favor the very rich through tax laws.  See Krugman's post today, "Disinformation on Inequality".  Since about 1980 the income of the 1% has increased 300%, while the income of the bottom 20% has actually decreased about 2%.  Reduction in income *turns lower middle class people poor* when wages are not increased with inflation.   Over a period of 30 years, if inflaations were at just 2% inflation that would be a reduction of wages by 60%.  



I'll say it:  The reason there are so many more poor people than there used to be in the U. S. is because the American population votes in politicians who favor the very rich through tax laws.  See Krugman's post today, "Disinformation on Inequality".  Since about 1980 the income of the 1% has increased 300%, while the income of the bottom 20% has actually decreased about 2%.  Reduction in income *turns lower middle class people poor* when wages are not increased with inflation.   Over a period of 30 years, if inflaations were at just 2% inflation that would be a reduction of wages by 60%.  



Jim P, At least give the reference or relevant facts. 


The fact is that most of us fawn upon the wealthy and pity the poor. The poor may be blessed. But not amongst us. We fret more over our 401k than the hungry and homeless. The message to the rich is still that their sins are expiated by their giving. (Not to the poor directly but to church officials.) Dolan and company dine more with the 1% than the needy. Greed may not be good but it is admired. 

No question that the rich will have a difficult time entering. There is no denying. But the way to redemption  is not to court bishops , hospitals and university heads. It is to free the captives. If 1/10th the time was spend on the downtrodden than with the religious rights campaign the impoverished would be a lot better off. 

The biggest lie is that Francis comes from a country where there is total corruption and he does not understand capitalism. What about DiBlasio then?  How will we excuse that?

Another fallacy is if you criticize the rich you are accused of being Marxist. One can be for a regulated capitialism and still stress the preferential option for the poor. Matthew 25: 36-41 cannot be clearer. Unless you claim to be infallible.


I agree with every word you said, including the bold and italics.   So I have 1 question:

Do you think that it was because of the contributors’ love for Langone that they posted these threads?

Note, having read this thread again, I agree with Irene.   It is not rich-bashing, but actually a thoughtful reflection (though there are important parts of it that I think are misreading the situation) and I should not have lumped it in with the other two.

"The fact is that most of us fawn upon the wealthy and pity the poor."

In the immortal words of Tonto to the Lone Ranger: "What do you mean 'we,' white man?"

Jim P, At least give the reference or relevant facts. 

That Economist article was the subject of a blog post here on these very airwaves.  In the conversation that ensued, Jim McCrea provided a link to this blog post from Georgetown's CARA center that explains the problems with the Economist piece.


"The fact is that most of us fawn upon the wealthy and pity the poor."

In the immortal words of Tonto to the Lone Ranger: "What do you mean 'we,' white man?"

Joe K,

This Sunday give the Sermon on Jesus' preferential option for the poor. Look at the reactions of the parishioners. visit your local Holy Name Society and tell them that it is a priority to help the downtrodden. Tell me what they say. Revisit the French Revolution. 

Read the words of Contributor J. Peter Nixon who tells us that many think he is strange by hanging out with the poor. Ask New York's largest real estate owner, Timothy Dolan, how many of his buildings,  serve the poor. Percentage wise? Is his preferetial option clear?


I've preached on the Sermon on the Mount for fifty years now, and haven't seen parishioners rise up in revolt. Most of the folks in the pews are not wealthy, but they are generous. All of the members of the Holy Name Society whom I've met have been alert to the needs of the downtrodden.

Who are the "most of us" who "fawn upon the wealthy and pity the poor." 

Perhaps one day a week is a small sample to judge the matter. One can be easily fooled when not in the trenches. It is like saying the hierarchy has been good throughout the centuries. But don't worry. You have a lot of company. 

To the best of my knowledge, this is the only time J. K. Rowling ventured into the op-ed genre.

I admire her noblesse oblige.  America's one percent need more of it.


Bill:   I love the way you just sweep people into your generalizations--like members of the Holy Name Society.

And, by the way, fifty years of once-a-week homilies adds up.

Who are the "most of us" who "fawn upon the wealthy and pity the poor."

IMO it is easy enough to convince oneself the bulk of what presents itself as "news" or "entertainment" on television these days can fairly be described as both relying and expanding upon the Jerry Springer model.  Without sufficient viewers shows don't survive.  We are the "most of us".  I doubt anyone would dispute the assertion the amount of time most of us spend in church pales in comparison to that spent glued to the screen.

As for capitalism there is quite simply nothing "free" about it just as there is nothing "free" about Christianity.  In character they are, however, as different in justification and necessary actions as they can be.  Perhaps if we stop requiring our priest be gifted business executives and our business executives be gifted priests we will find their speeches and writings less confusing.

There is no such a thing as a materially wealthy successful Christian.  Likewise there is no such thing as an materially poor successful capitalist unless, of course. we are waxing poetic or are discussing the life of a once materially wealthy capitalist who, like most before them, could no longer deny their mortality.   That we recognize God is important certainly but sometimes recognizing one's inablity to escape the humanity we all share is sufficient.

I am being reminded of Tevye’s song “If I Were a Rich Man” in “Fiddler on the Roof”:


I'd build a big tall house with rooms by the dozen,
Right in the middle of the town.
A fine tin roof with real wooden floors below.
There would be one long staircase just going up,
And one even longer coming down,
And one more leading nowhere, just for show.

I'd fill my yard with chicks and turkeys and geese and ducks
For the town to see and hear.
Squawking just as noisily as they can.
With each loud "quack" and "cluck" and "gobble" and "honk"Will land like a trumpet on the ear,
As if to say "Here lives a wealthy man."

The most important men in town would come to fawn on me!
They would ask me to advise them,
Like a Solomon the Wise.
"If you please, Reb Tevye..."
"Pardon me, Reb Tevye..."
Posing problems that would cross a rabbi's eyes!

And it won't make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong.
When you're rich, they think you really know!

Maybe it's left out because in today's world we realize this smacks of no free will?  And God says we have free will?  God may have a hand in making some high and some low but does He really not expect us humans to make things better for all?  Witht the thinking of those verses, I shouldn't bother giving to Catholic Relief because all the people they help overseas are where and how they are supposed to be??  Really?

Peter - the thread perhaps has drifted, as things are wont to do around here, but I just want to comment that this post was outstanding.  I agree wholeheartedly about how Evening Prayer hammers the theme home.  I'd add that, for folks who engage with the Lectionary cycles to preach on Sundays, the pounding is reinforced and amplified.  As I mentioned in a previous comment, I hope that this foundation of prayerful egagement has formed Cardinal Dolan, too, and that when he meets with wealthy donors he is heralding this good news.

[Peter --

[This is way offtopic, but you do mention some of the lessons of The Book of Hours, so I'll go ahead and say this -- I've been wanting to say it for  years, but the topic never comes up.

[The Book of Hours seems to me to have been prepared for a very different set of people from the ordinary Westerner.  Take the lessons on greed.  Yes, "the West" is rich, but that doesn't make all the individual Westerners rich.  True, one can be quite greedy and middle-class (or even greedy and poor), but there are other sins which are, it seems to me, just as important and probably more common that serious greed.  So we need more prayers having to do with those other tempatations.  For instance,  inclinations to gossip and backbiting, to snark and envy, to sloth,  pride and other garden variety deadly and not so deadly sins.  .Another one of my complaints is that there are so many prayers in the Hours asking to be delivered from "my enemies".  I don't think I *have* any enemies.  Sure, the Psalmist did, but I don't.  It's enough to make one paranoid.

[My plea is to the liturgists out there to make the Hours more relevant to 21st century life.  Something that the young people especially can relate to, the ones who are interested in spirituality if not religion.

[Now back to considering other people's sins.] 

Ann - that's an extremely interesting comment, and suggests that you have tried to engage with the Liturgy of the Hours.  Bravo (or brava).  I've commented elsewhere that I think this is one of the primary reasons that the 2nd Vatican Council's wish that more laypersons pray the Hours hasn't really come to fruition: it requires a level of engagement/participation that many of us aren't willing to take on voluntarily.

If you happen to have a spiritual director, I'd think some of the points you raise here could make for fruitful discussions and contemplation, e.g. "Why is the psalmist so concerned about delivery from enemies when that seems so irrelevant to me?"  Hope you don't mind my making a suggestion like that.

JIm P. ==

I welcome your suggestions!  Now that the faithful can read, the Church is missing the boat by not encouragins more prayer, contemplative and otherwise.  One off the great blessings of my life was hearing a talk about prayer by a nice, smart old Jesuit named Fr. John LaFargue.  I was just in high school then, but later I learned that he was known as an outstanding teacher. Two other great blessings were a couple of workshops with Fr. Thomas Keating, the Trappist of Centering Prayer fame.  Wonderful, wonderful teacher.

I suspect that the Book of Hours would have to be thoroughly renovated.  And I doubt that  a prayer program with half-a-dozen required segments is practical for today, but who knows.  But -- again -- I think the Church will have to call on the poets and writers to help inventing new prayers.  The Church can't pull a Psalmist out of the air, but who knows what the Holy Spirit might have in store for us if we but try.  I bet Pope Francis could write some splendid short prayers -- his metaphors are amazingly expressive.)

Yeah -- somebody please start a thread about this sometime.  We need to look at both the strengths and weaknesses of the old Hours. 

P. S.  Yes, I try to do two readings a day, but I jump around the offerings -- some just aren't relevant to my life.  And there are too many self-congratulations implicit in the readings.  I mean sort of stuff that says, "O don't let me be like those sinners!"  Highly Pharaisaical, it seems to me.  Sometimes I wonder if the breviary contributed to some of the pride of clericalism.  You read enough "I'm not like them" and you start to think you're a saint.  

I suspect that the Book of Hours would have to be thoroughly renovated.

Right - it was actually reformed (and simplified) in the wake of Vatican II, just as mass was.  There is a new translation in the works now, I'm told, just as the mass was recently retranslated.  (I realize this will not be greeted as good news in all quarters around here).

I don't pray all the hours every day.  That would be quite a burden for me - in fact, it wouldn't be possible.  I do pray Morning and Evening Prayer, which is what I'm required to do.  Even that can seem burdensome from time to time (it's surprising how difficult it can be to carve a 15-20 minute segment from a morning and an evening).  Actually, I'm going to stop reading dotCom in a moment and go do Evening Prayer, as I've let it slide too long today.  My suggestion for someone not obligated to pray the Hours but who is interested, to start with one or two - morning and/or evening prayer.  

I hope you, and everyone, had a blessed Epiphany.



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