The BBC’s David Willey recently reported on Pope Francis’ first major speech on the global financial crisis, saying he “has called on world leaders to end the ‘cult of money’ and to do more for the poor.” He urged for immediate ethical financial reform by making the important distinction that “Money has to serve, not to rule.” He is not just pointing fingers, though, but taking his own steps toward reform in the Vatican. For the first time, the Vatican’s own bank said they would publish its annual report to increase transparency. Willey writes of one of the world’s most secretive banks, “The Institute for Works of Religion, which has been at the centre of various financial scandals in recent years, is to hire an external accountancy firm to ensure it meets international standards against money laundering.” And when Pope Francis speaks of the poor, he is not only talking about countries far away that are struggling. He reminds us that people in countries rich and poor are suffering.
Pope Francis referenced the golden calf idol from the Bible and added, “People struggle to live, and frequently in an undignified way, under dictatorship of an economy which lacks any real human goal.” His words are calling on some important statements coming out of the Vatican over the years on economic violence. Following his election as Pope, he said, “I would like a Church that is poor and is for the poor.”
Since moving to New York City, I have found myself confronted with the golden calf and cult of money every day. Some of the richest people in the world live in New York City while others sit on benches and in subways homeless and hungry. I want my Church to work with me to address this, and Pope Francis is. A few months after moving to New York City, a friend who was in town for business invited my spouse and me to come over to his brother-in-laws place where he was staying for the weekend. We walked around the apartment overlooking Central Park with our mouths open wide, stunned. Our friend said it was worth $20 million, and the couple who owns it lives in Chicago. This residence is just a place to stay when they are in town. We returned home to our little apartment, where we felt much more comfortable, but still think of people living in extreme poverty every day. My eyes were open even more to the extremes of money.
In the United States and all around the world, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. In the May 19th New York Times, Charles V. Bagli reported on an 84 story tower being built on 432 Park Avenue. Upon completion, it will be the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere. A golden calf. The top penthouse apartment is already under contract for $95 million, and apartments on lower floors are going for almost that much. He writes, “While their identities are not known, it is likely that many are the rootless superrich: Russian metals barons, Latin American tycoons, Arab sheiks and Asian billionaires.” In the same May 19th New York Times, Timothy Noah wrote, “Since 1979, the one-percenters have doubled their share of the nation’s collective income from about 10 percent to about 20 percent.” Between 2009-2011, their average income rose by 11 percent. It is easy to blame the richest of the rich four our economic problems and wait for them to become more generous. But that is not the whole story. Noah argues another part of the problem in the United States is the growing gap between people who have a college or graduate degree and those who stopped school after high school. Unions used to protect the skilled working class by demanding fair wages and humane hours and conditions. It kept the gap more in check. “Only about 7 percent of the private sector labor force is covered by union contracts. Six decades ago it was nearly 40 percent…the middle classes aren’t getting pay increases commensurate with the wealth they create for their bosses. The bosses aren’t going to fix the problem.” But unions may be able to.
Pope Francis is right.
The gap between the rich and the poor keeps growing in the United States and all over the world. Money has become a cult. Wealth is a golden calf. One of the seven themes in Catholic Social Teaching is The Dignity of Work and the Rights of the Workers. This tenant came out of the Industrial Revolution, when workers were not being treated with dignity. It says that the economy must serve the people, not the other way around. It also promotes the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, and to organize in unions. Pope Francis appears ready to lift up our social teaching and hold his Church to a higher economic standard where we prioritize people over profit.