Pope Francis, Fat Cats and So-So Seats at St. Patrick’s


Pope Francis has earned a rep for not being a big fan of capitalism. He compares its excesses to the “dung of the devil.” He hasn’t spent a lot of time praising the way it’s mostly practiced here in the U.S., though it has led to more people being lifted out of poverty than through any Catholic charity ever.

So when he speaks Thursday at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Vespers, an evening prayer service, he might not realize that the place looks pretty good these days—thanks to a $175 million restoration financed largely not by the unwashed masses, but by a bunch of financiers and real estate developers who helped make the religious landmark something that it deserves to be: grand and idyllic.

And he would miss this because the fat cats will be sitting in the equivalent of the cheap seats rather than being given what they deserve—a pat on the back.

Are some of these guys ticked off about their seating? As I was first to report on Fox News, I hear “disappointed” is the best way to describe their feelings.

Do they deserve to be angry? My opinion: Absolutely.

In this country, capitalism—for all its excesses—does some really good things. Putting people to work is one of those; expanded tax rolls to pay for all that welfare Pope Francis loves is another.

And charitable giving is yet another.

Of course, St. Patrick’s receives a whole lot of envelopes with donations of all sizes from all sorts of people; and I am not that much of a lapsed Catholic to forget the church’s humble message and admonition to those who put wealth above all else. (“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."—Matthew 19:23-26.)

But a little context is needed here: The Catholic Church itself isn’t quite the selfless charitable institution that it portends. As the Pope pleads for income equality, he runs a budget of more than $170 billion, “as big as any company in America,” according to the Economist. The Church spends a lot on charities, to be sure, but it also makes money on investments. As the Economist points out, the Catholic Church is widely regarded as New York’s largest landowner, if not the largest owner of some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

A little more context: Because of rich people, New York City (the place where the church owns all that land, including St. Patrick’s, which boasts a prized 5th Avenue address) itself offers more to more people than just about any place else in this country and most of the world. Because of rich people, charities have money, poor kids go to charter schools here in the city, and working people have jobs—which is something I would like Pope Francis to point out next time the cameras are rolling at the White House.

Case in point: New York University’s hospital system is named after capitalist Ken Langone, who raised and donated countless millions to build and repair its infrastructure. He did this after helping to create Home Depot (NYSE:HD), which made him very rich (so rich that he paid a lot of taxes) but also employed countless thousands of people and made others rich as well (who in turn paid a lot of taxes).

There’s a business school named after him, too, at NYU. He has raised so much money for various charities that I can’t even name them all.

More recently, Langone has been behind the effort to raise money for the Cathedral’s renovation. As one New York financier put it, “Ken twisted a lot of arms” to get the money necessary for the three-year project, which included what has been described as a “$25 million top-to-bottom scrub down which began in May 2012, after golf-ball-sized chunks of stone began to fall off the Gothic cathedral. If anyone deserves a seat next to the Pope at the prayer service, it’s Langone.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York says Cathedral benefactors like Langone will have “good seating” for the event, even if “you can make the case that everyone has a good seat.” (Through his assistant, Langone declined comment other than to say he will attend the service.)

And for the record, Langone and I aren’t exactly best of friends. He has taken shots at me, and I have questioned some of his actions, mainly in the political arena.

Langone has also publicly butted heads with the Pope, causing a stir when he began criticizing the Pontiff’s views on capitalism, which may be behind his seating status.

And of course you can make the point that no benefactor should expect anything in return for their charity. But that’s not how the world or the Catholic Church for that matter really works. Try attending an Easter Sunday mass at St. Patrick’s; as most Catholics know, the tickets aren’t handed out to those who take the vow of poverty, but instead to those with connections to the Archdiocese, according to sources. Regular folks can try to score a ticket by writing to St. Patrick’s anytime after Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

All of which is why you have to admire a man who instead of sitting on his yacht spends as much time as he does twisting arms to raise money for charities, including those that benefit the Catholic Church and the Pope.

Langone is hardly alone among the charity-minded financiers and real estate moguls in New York. For that, he and the other fat cats who help rebuild the Cathedral deserve not just a better seat, but a handshake from the Holy Father himself.