For all his humble charm, Pope Francis has been getting under the thin skin of some rich members of his flock.
Kenneth Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot and a major Republican backer, has insinuated that Francis should lighten up on his critiques of the corrupting influence of wealth, the problems of inequality and the trickle-down economic theories that too often do little to aid the poor.
The reason: Langone is leading the effort to raise $180 million for the renovation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, and Pope Francis may be scaring away big donors.
Somehow it’s doubtful that this pope, who has shunned so many of the ornate trappings of the Vatican, is shocked by the continuing backlash to his apostolic exhortation published in late November that contained sharp observations about capitalism, wealth and inequality. And it’s unlikely this will be the last we’ll hear of how the pope’s missives are unnerving people who have become used to the protective screen of entitlement their wealth affords.
Only a small portion of the more than 200-page papal document “Joy of the Gospel” dealt with economics. But the pope raised the issue of how inequality can isolate people and harden their hearts to what any Christian knows is among Jesus’ central teachings: that we must help those in need.
“To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. . . . We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own,” Francis wrote. “The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”
Francis is doing exactly what a religious leader is supposed to do: challenge followers to examine the lives they are leading. The fact that he’s broadening the conversation to include aspects of life that go beyond throwing a few shillings into a collection plate is a good thing.
The problem some conservatives have with the pope is that what he’s saying threatens well-codified systems of power, esteem and privilege.
Pope Francis isn’t criticizing the wealthy for their money. He’s questioning the morality of ever-widening inequality and the way systems develop to shield some people’s wealth at the expense of opportunity for others.
It’s a far more insightful, a more God-filled message, than his critics are willing to hear.