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The Prophets of Profits


This week we give thanks for what we have, even while recognizing the work ahead to achieve and accept other graces. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, counting our blessings, we may also take comfort in the action of a man whose business is blessings. And CEOs of U.S. corporations may also take notice.

Pope Francis recently assigned German Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst to a leave of absence elsewhere. A priest who came to be known as the “Bishop of Bling,” his extravagances ranged from a $20,000 bathtub to a $42 million renovation of his diocesan residence. Tebartz-van Elst’s luxuries, like his $1.1 million garden landscaping, came at the expense of diocesan programs, say thousands in the Diocese of Limburg.

His lavish lifestyle is reminiscent of the excessive compensation of too many corporate princes, says United Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard, “such as John Thain, the Merrill Lynch chief executive who bought a $35,000 toilet while spending $1.2 million on office renovations just months before confessing to $56 billion in losses.”

It was probably difficult for the Bishop of Rome to criticize a fellow Bishop, but it’s easy for the labor leader to blast private-sector “princes.” Gerard said, “Pope Francis is beloved for his asceticism. He lives in spartan rooms and drives a 1984 Renault. He runs an organization as big as any American corporation, yet he doesn't demand millions in pay and perks.”

American CEOs, by contrast, place themselves on pricey ‘thrones,’ for decades contributing to an income inequality that’s corrosive to the ideal of an egalitarian society free of royalty. Gerard said. Indeed, outside the church, workers’ pay and executive compensation can seem as far apart as Heaven and Hell. CEOs of major corporations took home 354 times more pay than the average rank-and-file U.S. worker last year, according to the AFL-CIO’s Executive PayWatch data base.

But the Pontiff HAD to criticize his brother Bishop. Pope Francis wants righteousness – he NEEDS it.

Father James McKarns, a Youngstown, Ohio, priest and the author of the book “Saints and Seasons,” said, “Righteousness is a synonym for justice. St. Paul told the Romans to be slaves of righteousness, proclaiming that they must act justly.”

Father McKarns added, “In the Beatitudes, Jesus spoke of righteousness, explaining we should not only desire it but that we should hunger and thirst for it.”

The Beatitudes is in the Gospel of Luke, which reports on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil …”

Luke continues with “the rest of the story,” quoting Jesus as warning people, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated false prophets.”

Today’s “prophets of profits” are making out like bandits, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning financial journalist David Cay Johnston. He reported, “Last year the median wage hit its lowest level since 1998, revealing that at least half of American workers are being left behind as the economy slowly recovers from the Great Recession. But at the top, wages soared … with income gains going to top earners while the majority of workers see stagnant or falling wages.

Likewise, Johnston says there’s a huge imbalance in the growth of corporate profits compared to the struggle of most American workers – for those fortunate enough to have a job. He said, “Since 2000, corporate pretax profits, adjusted for inflation, have more than doubled, reaching record levels. During the same period, total real wages grew by just 7 percent.”

This holiday season – and in the future – corporate boards of directors might behave more like Pope Francis, banishing imperial executives and rejecting royal pay-package demands. If they did, the boards wouldn't be ashamed when pay-ratio numbers are revealed.

Even with our genuine gratitude about having a job, family, health and other blessings, and any Thanksgiving bounty to be shared with loved ones, everyday working people should still hunger and thirst for justice.

Father McKarns said, “We are to be motivated not by what is expedient, clever or profitable, but by what is true and right.”  

Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.