So Ken Langone, the billionaire founder of Home Depot and self-appointed speaker for other rich donors, is citing an anonymous donor who claims Pope Francis is alienating the rich by his talk about income disparity, the poor, and heres the kicker, that money isolates the rich from feeling compassion for the poor. Therefore, Langone is publicly noting the threat of an embargo on donations to the Catholic church (specifically concerning the restoration of St. Patricks cathedral, but does not appear limited to St. Patricks). Unfortunately Langone and others simply say that Francis was thinking about Argentina, not the US, and was mistranslated. Of course the embargo and redirection is just making Francis’s point; the depths and breadth of poverty in the US are not seen from the heights of a condo in a tower in Manhattan’s midtown. Langone and other donors, however, are not just proving the accuracy of Francis’s analysis but also Scripture. One should not forget that it is the riches of the rich man that make it difficult––as the camel through the eye of the needle––to enter the kingdom of God. So often we simply stop at the love of money as the root of many sins, but forget that wealth is still more subtle and dangerous. Wealth alienates (*cough*white flight*cough*), and capitalist wealth doubly so. But alienation sets us in a fundamental opposition to the interconnectedness of trinitarian life. Historically the Catholic church and many other denominations have often been guilty of alienation and the love of money. Pope Francis, like his name sake, represents the hope of renewal that also occurs in the history of Christianity: work to live with the poor, like Jesus; do not live apart from the poor.
I’m sure you all saw the tape of Colbert addressing the congressional hearing on immigration. However, what seems less known is the answer Colbert gives for why he is focusing on the issue of immigrant workers. His answer is obviously not from the character that he has constructed. This is Colbert without the mask, and his answer is excellent. Here is something I can rarely say of public figures, much less celebrities: I’m proud of Colbert and his work to live out his identification with Jesus.
COLBERT: [Takes a pause of two or three beats to think before answering, dropping character] I like talking about people who don’t have any power, and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come in and do our work, but don’t have any rights as a result. And yet, we still ask them to come here, and at the same time, ask them to leave. And that’s an interesting contradiction to me, and um… You know, “whatsoever you did for the least of my brothers,” and these seemed like the least of my brothers, right now. A lot of people are “least brothers” right now, with the economy so hard, and I don’t want to take anyone’s hardship away from them or diminish it or anything like that. But migrant workers suffer, and have no rights.
Last month there was a sensational story in all the New York papers, and probably reprinted all over the country, about two brothers, Langley and Homer Cohyer, who were misers and accumulators and who met with a horrible end. ON receipt of a telephone call, police broke into a house on upper Fifth Avenue in the Harlem section, a four story house which in this housing shortage could have been converted into homes for four families. They found Homer, who had been blind and helpless, dead from starvation. His brother had disappeared. The house was so filled with junk that Langley had had to tunnel his way through to go in and out of the house to make their few purchases. In fear of intrusion, he made booby traps with hundreds of pounds of old iron ready to fall on whoever threatened their privacy. One of these booby traps caught Langley who smothered to death within a few feet of his blind brother, who on account of the junk, could not reach either his brother or the window to call for help.
He slowly starved to death, while listening to the rats feeding on the corpse of Langley a few feet away.
This story seems to me, a vision of hell, a very literal and appalling sample of the hell that awaits the acquisitive, the greedy, the accumulators, the seekers after markets, wealth, power, prestige, exclusiveness, empire, dominion, of everything opposed to the common good. Here were two old men who epitomized to the nth degree suspicion and hatred of their fellows, and a desire to gather together to themselves everything they could lay their hands on. “They were worth $100,000” the newspapers reported. What a strange use of words! They spent little. Among the things they collected were six grand pianos, dismantled cars, babies’ cribs.
Peter, on the other hand, has accumulated nothing in his life. He has nothing but the suit on his back, the shoes on his feet. He has lived on Bowerys and Skid Roads all his life, not believing that his dignity needed to be maintained by residence at a decent address, or by stopping at a good hotel. To reach one’s fellows by the practice of the works of mercy, AT A PERSONAL SACRIFICE — this meant embracing voluntary poverty. Voluntary poverty as a means to an end, to publish a paper, to put out leaflets, to live on the land, to sever one’s fellows. He has lived these ideas.
By Dorothy Day, “A Letter to Our Readers at the Beginning of our Fifteenth Year” The Catholic Worker (May 1947): 1-3), found in American Catholic Religious Thought: The Shaping of a Theological and Social Tradition, edited by Patrick Carey, 414-415.