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workersThe folks at CNBC found some of their pinstripes ruffled recently as some critics argued over the merits of the points made by Pope Francis’ Evangelli Gaudium.

It seems that the overall tone of the apostolic exhortation – one that warns about the uncontrolled reach of capitalism – was perceived by some as going too far in criticizing the free enterprise system.

CNBC’s report included warnings from Catholic investor, Ken Langone[1]:

“Langone, who describes himself as a devout Catholic who prays every morning, said he has told the cardinal [NY Cardinal Timothy Dolan] that ‘you get more with honey than with vinegar.’ He said he also wants to make clear that wealthy Americans are some of the biggest donors in the world.”

The context of the report was that wealth Catholic donors may be reconsidering their generosity and their donor practices. It continues to point out that the Pope’s comments are informed by his experience in Argentina, a nation that has a very different idea of what ‘free enterprise’ really means.

The same report quotes Arthur Brooks, from the Free Enterprise Institute, as saying the Pope’s writing is “limited in its understanding of economics from the American context.” Brooks adds that Francis “is not an economist and not an American.” (Do I hear the strains of the national anthem in the background, somewhere?) But in his defense, Brooks does make a compelling case about the value of the free enterprise system[2].

One almost gets the idea that the CNBC perspective is that the Pope really wasn’t talking about us (that’s ‘us’ as in U.S.).

It is easy to see this discussion quickly spin into a debate on economic and political systems, with pundits from all sides of the issue arguing over what the Pope did and didn’t say, did and didn’t mean.

No one needs to re-interpret anything the Pope wrote – his words are clear and cogent, with little required in terms of any political spin.

But his exhortation, and the current ‘hot topics’ that include buzzwords like ‘wage-inequality’ and policy issues involving the minimum wage make for fertile ground to write about the issues that concern this blogger:

  1. There are global economic forces at work that are reducing the number of good paying, middle-class jobs that fueled most of America’s growth through the middle of the 20th century. While this trend threatens American jobs, these same trends do seem to provide value through job creation in third world economies.
  2. As experts such as Mr. Brooks points out, the reduction in the amount of suffering associated with ‘poverty’ may be real, but it is also true that the combined wealth of the world’s richest 85 people is now equivalent to that owned by half of the world’s population – or 3.5 billion of the poorest people[3]. Those are dangerous trends that can easily sow the seeds of political unrest.
  3. The Pope’s words never really target any political or economic system. But they do strike hard at a value system that glamorizes increasingly greater degrees of monetary wealth, especially when the means to such wealth demeans workers and the environment.

Facts 1 and 2 can pretty much be assumed to be fairly accurate observations of what is — one can quibble over facts, statistics, trends and economics, but, generally speaking it’s hard to argue against well measured trends in employment and economic wealth.  I’ll get to point #3 in a bit.

These are also real ‘bread and butter’ issues that we all can identify with. Business leaders are under constant pressure from shareholders to always increase profit (anyone ever hear a CEO tell those attending a stockholder’s meeting that ‘I think we are making enough money’?). Most senior managers live by simple rules: no profit level is good enough, costs are always too high, and competition is to be crushed.

Let’s cut to the chase — this current talk about economic disparity, exhortations, encyclicals, and of course, that quote about the rich making it to heaven after a camel passes through the eye of a needle [4] (I still think that something must have been lost in translation), bring me to ask the questions that summarize the conflict between what we are taught as Catholics, and what we value in our national system:

Does our Church call us to support or challenge the premise that the American free enterprise system is the best system in the world to allow economic prosperity for the greatest number of people?
Answer: our Church calls us to support anything that advances the dignity of the person and calls us to challenge anything that demeans or abuses the person.

The issue of why people work was first addressed in a modern context by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 Rerum Novarum (“The Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor”)[5]. Here he was confronting the most dangerous trends of the time – the merciless abuse of workers at the height of industrialization versus the growth of communism as a response to those abuses. That letter emphasized the keys to a prosperous society that respects Christian teaching: (a) the right of workers to organize and collectively petition for improvement in working conditions, (b) the absolute belief that the ownership of private property was an opportunity to be afforded to all as a key component of the ability to provide for one’s family, and (c) strident warnings against the temptations of unrestrained capitalism (no, Francis wasn’t the first):

“…to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers — that is truly shameful and inhuman….wealthy owners and all masters of labor should be mindful of this — that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine.”

If there is a common theme for both Leo’s and Francis’ letters, it is the fact that people, be they workers or consumers, aren’t things to be abused. Neither letter calls for government takeover or property or government control of economic systems. But both warn that uncontrolled capitalism leads to a distortion of values, a distortion in which financial wealth is its own reward.

As Francis warns:

“The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”

It could be easy for one to interpret such writings as anti-capitalist – but the Pope isn’t here to make one country feel better about itself than the other, his job is to point out injustice as he sees it.

In the end, both popes call on all parties concerned, investors, employers, workers and those who govern to keep a sense of perspective, and to not let the temptation for ever more distort our sense of judgement in treating others.

Or as Francis wrote: “Money should serve, not rule!”

Is being rich really bad?
Answer: What we have isn’t as important as knowing what to do with it.

It is sometimes easy to read scripture and cast a wary eye on any person of significant wealth. Face it, Mark, Luke, Matthew and John didn’t say too many positive things for those in the top tax brackets.

But common sense tells us that we all aren’t meant to be unemployed fishermen, and we all know we have been blessed with talents and gifts that we aspire to develop as we try to be the men and women God intends. Sometimes those talents and gifts take us down a road that leads to financial success. For others, well, their careers may feel more like 40 years in the wilderness.

There are numerous reports of what the very wealthy ended up doing with their fortunes[6]. Some of the fortunate seemed to think that they were ‘taking it with them’ – Sam Walton eschewed formal charity programs, Steve Jobs was private about his philanthropy, although he admitted that his company was all that mattered, and “everything else is a distraction.” Others like Bill Gates target a more lasting legacy with global health and education programs.

And Mr. Langhorne does have it right – there are many wealthy Catholic Christians who have faithfully fulfilled their call to stewardship by contributing very substantial resources to their churches and their communities. Our Catholic schools, universities, hospitals, clinics, and outreach programs are, to a large part, successful because of the important resources contributed by those who have found good fortune in their careers.

Still, for some of those who find success, there may come a time to question if the persistent need to achieve more has become a persistent need to have more. Such a transition may not be easy to recognize – but we are all susceptible to a pull towards the actions that promise immediate, though transient rewards. But I think that all of us, regardless of our station in life, can occasionally take a moment of reflection to ask if we are investing our God given gifts in doing something of meaning, or squandering them on things that make us smaller.

Here, I think Leo nails it:

“As for riches and the other things which men call good and desirable, whether we have them in abundance, or are lacking in them — so far as eternal happiness is concerned — it makes no difference; the only important thing is to use them aright.”





[4] Matthew: 19:24