Gov. Bobby Jindal’s New York Times opinion piece last week about gay marriage and religious freedom has been widely noticed and broadly panned.
I won’t wade into the debate over marriage equality and the proposed Marriage and Conscience Act that Jindal championed in his commentary. I doubt I could say anything that anyone else hasn’t said already.
But there’s one sentence there that struck me.
In warning businesses not to oppose the legislation, as they did similar bills in Arkansas and Indiana, Jindal wrote, “The left-wing ideologues who oppose religious freedom are the same ones who seek to tax and regulate businesses out of existence.” Jindal claimed these same people “think that profit-making is vulgar.”
When he talked about those who believe profit is obscene, I wonder if the governor was thinking about this quote: “To exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine.”
Well, we know those words weren’t written by Karl Marx, because he would have considered the notion of a divine law as simply folly, religion being the opiate of the people and all.
No, those words belong to Pope Leo XIII. He wrote them in 1891 in the groundbreaking encyclical “Rerum Novarum.”
In the encyclical, Leo lamented “the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.” He complained that economic power was concentrated in “the hands of comparatively few,” allowing “a small number of very rich men … to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”
Or maybe Jindal was thinking of the words of Pope John XXIII, who wrote in the encyclical “Mater et Magistra” in 1961, “Any adjustment between wages and profits must take into account the demands of the common good of the particular country and of the whole human family.”
The papacies of Leo XIII and John XXIII were long ago and are easily forgotten today. But Pope Francis has continued in that tradition of Catholic social justice and in the process has angered many political conservatives.
Like Leo, Francis is concerned about gaping economic disparities.
“While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few,” Francis wrote in an apostolic exhortation eight months after becoming pope in 2013.
“In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market.”
The thoughts of those three popes represent just a tiny slice of Catholic thinking on social justice. They may not have come right out and said that profit is “vulgar,” but it’s obvious that profit doesn’t rank high in their spiritual hierarchies.
While the “prosperity gospel” may be popular in some corners of the Christian world — especially those corners that only a $65 million Gulfstream can reach — Jindal, a convert, has placed himself in the Catholic tradition, which takes a different, guarded view of the economically powerful.
WWJD — “What would Jesus do?” — is a question a lot of devout Christians like to ask. I couldn’t begin to summon enough hubris to think I could answer it.
But can’t we all agree that if Jesus were here today, it’s not likely he would be harrowing the corporate boardrooms, exhorting company directors to increase profits by putting the squeeze on the people who work for them?
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.