Pope Francis tells exploitative employers to keep their donations: Questions?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 02, 2016

Continuing his catechesis on mercy at his Wednesday audiences, today Pope Francis emphasized that true conversion is “not the ritual of sacrifice but rather of justice.” And, indeed, this message appears again and again throughout both the Old and New covenants. The Pope went on to criticize wealthy individuals who exploit their workers but give large donations to the Church: “Please, take back your checks and burn them!”

The Pope’s criticism of such behavior is absolutely legitimate, but it is also legitimate to ask how widespread this behavior is in real life. It’s a significant question both generally and in a specifically Catholic sense.

Generally speaking, there is a perception (which it seems likely the Pope rather instinctively shares, perhaps from personal experiences in Argentina, or perhaps from prejudices endemic to the current Jesuit ecosystem) that businessmen typically become wealthy at the expense of their employees. Is this perception accurate? Within the Church, we must assume that Pope Francis believes this is a common problem, or else he would not make a point of highlighting it. But is it really a common problem among Catholics?

Let’s take the Church first. We would have to do a great deal of research (and make a great many careful judgments) to figure out how many Catholic business owners and CEOs are getting rich by exploiting their employees. But in an age in which it is no longer fashionable to be particularly religious, it would seem unlikely that there are great numbers of such people who contribute large amounts to the Church.

Now let’s take the larger impression that business leaders generally prosper by exploiting their employees. Certainly this is true in some cases, but there does not seem to be a great deal of evidence that it constitutes a general rule. Small businesses frequently involve family and friends, about whom the owners are very concerned. Large businesses frequently have so many employees that even an outrageous salary for the CEO would mean almost nothing if divided equally across the company.

So we must ask whether this exploitative image is really accurate. Is it typically accurate in my region? In yours? I grant that in popular anti-business mythology, the horrors are obvious. But in the real world? Let us take some examples:

  • The CEO of McKesson, who is one of the highest paid in the world, earns $134.2 million. But McKesson has 70,400 employees. So even if the CEO worked for nothing, each employee’s salary could increase by just $155 per month ($1,863 per year). This is not insignificant, but opinions will differ as to whether it is damning. This would depend partly on how much McKesson employees earn.
  • The case of Ralph Lauren is similar. Ralph himself earns $66.7 million per year, his company employs 23,000 workers, and if he worked for free, each employee could be raised $242 per month ($2,900 annually).
  • The picture grows darker when we look at Vornado Realty Trust, where the CEO makes $64.4 million but there are only 4,503 employees, each of whom could earn an addition $1,191 per month ($14,301 per year) if the CEO’s salary were evenly distributed.
  • And things grow even less tolerable over at Discovery Communications, where the CEO’s annual salary of $156.1 million takes $2,371 per month out of the hands of 5,486 employees (or a galvanizing $28,454 on the annual tax return). Of course, we cannot eliminate CEO pay entirely.
  • But wait: There are also major CEOs whom we might prefer to keep flush enough to donate to the Church, like Chipotle’s head, whose annual $28.9 million salary would provide just $41 per month to each of the company’s 59,330 employees ($487 per year).
  • Or what about CVS? The CEO’s salary of $32.4 million, spread out over 225,000 employees, would enrich each one by $12 per month ($144 per year).
  • And then there is that icon of the evil empire, Walmart, whose CEO makes $25.6 million—enough to give each of Walmart’s 2.2 million employees less than $1 per month ($11.63 per year).

Greed is reprehensible, but its practice takes many forms and varies substantially from person to person, country to country, and culture to culture. Where greed exists, it should be denounced as the moral and social evil it is. But the trope of the rapacious employer is misleading. For one thing, it tends to color our political and social attitudes, shifting citizens to favor increased control by the State. I wonder how helpful that is.

Everybody likes to be anti-Scrooge (who, by the way, did not contribute to any church). This establishes our moral credentials and shows our compassion. But what if Scrooge is a caricature? Or what if Catholic Scrooges are exceedingly rare? Or what if most potential Scrooges are contributing generally to an increase in goods, services, wealth and standards of living? Or what if those business owners and CEOs who have more than they need—but not enough to enrich their employees across the board—really did donate their excess to the Church?

What Pope Francis has preached is perfectly true. But assumptions are dangerous, and we must be careful what we wish for.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Terri11 - Mar. 04, 2016 2:44 PM ET USA

    Whether a CEOs pay would make a difference to the employees is irrelevant. The question is not what a CEO makes, but whether he intentionally treats his employees like slave labor. Chipotle's CEO tries to pay a living wage with healthcare benefits and ways to move up in the organization. Certain clothing manufacturers (I thought Ralph Lauren was one of them) have specifically blamed their Asian employees for accepting their lot in life as slave laborers and could care less. HUGE DIFFERENCE!

  • Posted by: dom6938 - Mar. 04, 2016 2:25 PM ET USA

    Most smaller businesses in the US in this day and age are struggling to find, train and keep workers, due to demographics. It's a seller's market, which makes it difficult for employers to exploit workers even if they wanted to.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Mar. 03, 2016 3:31 PM ET USA

    And what's more: custom makes us used to our business practices, so that we consider it a given that the Medievals were simply wrong on, say, the morality of usury. But frankly, the fact that we've been doing things in a certain way for more than 70 years offers me no comfort of its lawfulness, especially now that (in my view) the whole system is blowing up.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Mar. 03, 2016 3:29 PM ET USA

    The problem really is to assume that the "business reality" operates according to rules different from general moral consideration. Thus, if you overlook the fact that you are contracting slave labor, say, in Southeast Asia to produce your goods justifying yourself with business terms and considerations, you would be in the wrong. And that, I think, is quite common even outside Argentina; America itself exported the model.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Mar. 03, 2016 12:58 PM ET USA

    I really do believe Pope Francis means well... but it's exhausting and discouraging to listen to him. Now, I even have to explain, defend, dismiss his statements at work where everyone knows I'm Catholic. How I wish he would do some real homework.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 03, 2016 10:47 AM ET USA

    Speaking of A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present spoke of "Ignorance and Want." This area of assumptions can certainly be problematic, but the danger here lies in the ignorance. This past week the Holy Father entered perilous landscape in a much more overt manner. Life Site News quoted his words of praise as follows: "'True, but never mind,' he said. 'We have to look at people, at what they do.'” So we can turn a blind eye? Ignorance can be dangerous; reality ignored, even more.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Mar. 03, 2016 8:37 AM ET USA

    Amen, Dr. Jeff. I will only add that it is impossible--IMPOSSIBLE--for anyone to become wealthy without helping lots and lots of others along the way, and inheritance is the exception that proves the rule.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Mar. 02, 2016 3:48 PM ET USA

    "Of course, we cannot eliminate CEO pay entirely." I'm glad you added that. I am an executive team member in a small business. At my age, I would gladly set it down and go home, but our 50 staff members would miss their paychecks. Until someone becomes responsible for the welfare of employees and contractors, they cannot know how much work is involved in keeping up an organization. It is real work.