Poor little rich Catholics

Eduardo Penalver has already flagged my favorite holiday report on the Francis effect (published just in time to influence year-end charitable giving). And as we ring in the New Year, let's spare a thought for the persecuted rich. It's bad enough Francis keeps talking about the poor all the time, but now he's suggesting that someone other than those same poor people may be responsible for their poverty -- and worse, that Catholics are called on to work for a more just distribution of the world's goods. He wants us to change the system, but has he given any thought to how that might affect the people who currently benefit most from that system? CNBC is on it:

[Home Depot founder Ken] Langone said he's raised the issue more than once with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, most recently at a breakfast in early December at which he updated him on fundraising progress."I've told the cardinal, 'Your Eminence, this is one more hurdle I hope we don't have to deal with. You want to be careful about generalities. Rich people in one country don't act the same as rich people in another country,' " he said.

One of the things that makes this story so jaw-dropping is the presumption -- on the part of Langone, and as ever on the part of CNBC -- that those who see or read it will sympathize with the petulant wealthy. Do you really want to make things harder for people who are so much wealthier and more successful than you? CNBC constantly asks its viewers. Do you think we can afford to let them get upset?

I do feel for Cardinal Dolan, caught between the demands of fundraising in a wealthy city and the clear teaching of a very popular pope. I wouldn't want to be explaining Evangelii Gaudium to any prospective donors over breakfast. Still, I'd like to think that, if pressed, I could do a little bit better than "The pope loves poor people. He also loves rich people. He loves people, alright? He's not into the condemning game."

I do not think CNBC's reporting on this story was motivated by a desire to get people thinking about how relying on the goodwill of wealthy donors compromises the integrity of the church. But that's where this story left me. What might it mean if bishops like Dolan had to square off with a few sulking multimillionaires and tell them, Look, here's the social teaching of the church, and here's a chart demonstrating how income inequality has increased, and if all that makes you feel less generous then I'll just have to ask someone else? Historians of the church in New York often point out that its many beautiful parishes -- which some now consider an embarrassment of riches -- were built by immigrants giving from what little they had. And hey, maybe that wasn't such a bad system. The widow's mite doesn't go quite as far, but at least it doesn't carry with it the obligation of downplaying the spiritual risks of wealth and soft-pedaling the cry of the poor. The widow, unlike her seven-figure-donor coreligionists, would probably like what the pope has to say.

There are, of course, great minds working hard to make sure it doesn't come to that.

Langone said he is also on a campaign to explain "the vast difference between the pope's experience in Argentina and how we are in America."...

Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank that promotes free markets, said he agrees that the pope's beliefs are likely informed by his Argentine heritage.

"In places like Argentina, what they call free enterprise is a combination of socialism and crony capitalism," he said.

Brooks, also a practicing Catholic who has read the pope's exhortation in its original Spanish, said that "taken as a whole, the exhortation is good and right and beautiful. But it's limited in its understanding of economics from the American context." He noted that Francis "is not an economist and not an American."

See, when the pope says,

we have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion.

...he is obviously talking about less developed parts of the world, because as you know, here in the United States the problems of the homeless are recognized as an urgent priority by everyone (and every news outlet), while it is the rare news organization that bothers to cover the stock market's ups and downs. And when he directly criticizes proponents of "trickle-down theories of economic growth" -- well, if you read that in the original Spanish it doesn't sound anything like what AEI argues in its policy papers.

And when the pope says this:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.

You'll have to excuse the crudeness of his worldview -- remember, he's not an American. As Robert Christian writes at Millenial:

The pope couldn’t possibly be reiterating over 120 years of Catholic social teaching. No, he lived in Argentina, the North Korea of South America, where there is no information on the outside world.

Someone looking to make trouble might point out that what Francis is saying about inequality and the trouble with capitalism and globalization is not fundamentally all that different from what Benedict said. And yet somehow Pope Francis is harder to ignore. (Benedict, for one thing, was more "careful about generalizations.") As a result, his fellow bishops are being asked to smooth some ruffled feathers. Maybe it would be better to wait and see what happens if those feathers stay ruffled a little bit longer?

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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