Ken Langone, the billionaire founder of Home Depot, is worried Pope Francis’ recent criticism of the wealthy and capitalism will be a “hurdle” for rich donors.
Langone is heading up an effort to raise $180 million for the restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and told CNBC that at at least one potential seven-figure donor was “concerned” about the Pope’s remarks. He’s apparently brought the issue up more than once with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York: “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,’” Langone said, adding that “you get more with honey than with vinegar.”
Neither Langone nor Dolan, who appeared on the network separately, revealed the identity of the donor in question.The statements that have them worried came from Evangelii Gaudium, the first major written statement of Francis’ papacy:
Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor…
Dolan said he assured Langone that “the pope loves poor people” and “also loves rich people,” and that the donor had misunderstood Francis’ message. Langone himself suggested the pope’s view of capitalism has been skewed by his experiences in Argentina, arguing there’s a “vast difference” between that experience “and how we are in America.”
But this misses the point. As Elizabeth Stoker points out, the Pope’s point is fundamentally theological, not political, and thus policy differences between capitalism in Argentina and in American are irrelevant. Blind defense of free market capitalism “compromises fellowship between people by perpetuating the wedge of inequality” — and as of 2011, the United States was even more economically unequal than Egypt.
The idea that possessing significant wealth inherently makes it harder to behave morally is a bedrock part of Christian ethical thought. In a well-known passage from the New Testament, a rich man asks Christ what he must do to fully follow God’s law. When Christ responds “sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor,” the man walks away dejected, prompting Christ to observe that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”