US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Catholics push back on billionaire Ken Langone's comments about the rich

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Billionaire Home Depot cofounder Ken Langone was sure to ruffle some feathers when he complained in an interview with CNBC last month about Pope Francis’ comments on the wealthy. But rather than fire back at Langone, a group of Catholics are now asking him to prove that, as he put it, “rich people in one country don’t act the same as rich people in another country.”

Ralph Nader’s Time for a Raise campaign, in a letter cosigned by a number of prominent Catholics, has asked Langone to join their efforts to push for a national hike in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $11—which is where the minimum wage of 1968 would be today had it kept up with inflation. The letter, penned by Nader aide Pete Davis, includes among its signatories Glenmary Father Les Schmidt, Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice chair Joseph Fahey, theologian Elizabeth Johnson, and professors from a number of notable Catholic and non-Catholic schools.

Langone had told CNBC that a potential donor to the $180 million renovation of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral was bothered by the pope’s critique of market capitalism. It is no secret that Francis is a pope for the poor who sees the limitless accumulation of wealth by some while others starve to be one of the world’s greatest injustices. And Francis’ continued emphasis of this point has made wealthy Catholics like Langone a little uncomfortable, prompting him to have a discussion with his friend Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who assured him that the pope is just misunderstood and that he fully appreciates the generosity of wealthy American Catholics.

But since Langone laments the negativity of Pope Francis’ message and argues that he could “get more with honey than with vinegar,” Davis and company are calling on Langone to show a positive example of what the wealthy and powerful can do for the poor by putting his voice behind the effort to raise minimum wage. The letter notes some of the benefits of doing so, including that a higher minimum wage puts more spending power in the hands of consumers to shop at stores like Home Depot. And it points out that taxpayers are hurt by the low minimum wage because many low-wage workers must rely on government assistance to get by while corporations rake in massive profits. (Read the full letter here.)

But if Langone doesn’t want to listen to the Catholic thinkers who signed on with the Nader campaign, and if he’s not pleased with the pope’s message, there are plenty of other Catholic voices he can turn to for input on the minimum wage question. For instance, there’s Bishop Stephen Blaire, who testified before a Senate committee last year on behalf of the U.S. Catholic bishops, decrying the fact that working families can’t earn enough to get out of poverty. “It is a scandal that the richest country world has allowed over 23 million children in working poor families to become the norm,” Blaire said.

Or there is Archbishop Thomas Wenski, chair of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, who just last week joined Catholic Charities USA president Father Larry Snyder in asking the Senate to raise the minimum wage to “a just wage that allows [workers] to live in dignity, form and support families, and contribute to the common good.” That concept, of course, is nothing new in Catholic teaching, since it dates all the way back to Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, which argued that “ wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.”

Or maybe, Langone will turn to his friend Cardinal Dolan, who has also been a vocal proponent of an increased minimum wage, saying in 2012 that “an increase in the minimum wage is a matter of fairness and justice.” In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find an American Catholic bishop who—at least publicly—has come out in opposition to increasing the minimum wage (though plenty of other Catholics are more than willing to go on the record opposing higher wages for workers).

Thus far, Langone has offered no response to the letter. But if he wishes to show that the rich in America do in fact stand in solidarity with the poor, offering his support to the campaign for a just, living wage for all might be a good place to start.