"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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Saint John Chrysostom

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