The greeting video that Pope Francis sent to Kenneth Copeland’s conference has created a stir. There are the usual Protestant vs. Catholic kinds of issues being brought up, and of course the obvious one: why a Pope who has pushed Catholic social teaching back to the forefront–to the discomfort of American conservatives–would even give a group whose Christian life is tied to their income the time of day, let alone a greeting video.
The Pope, however, has a better handle on what’s really going on outside of Roman Catholicism than many Protestant leaders do. He realises that prosperity teaching, love it or hate it, has a lot of appeal to people who don’t have a lot and either haven’t figured out how to do it the old “American Protestant work ethic” way or don’t live in societies where the way upwards is very transparent. So such a greeting makes more sense than it would seem.
Prosperity teaching has turned Christianity on its head; any dialogue it might have with Roman Catholicism cannot be cast in the usual stereotypes. Getting beyond the ecclesiological and doctrinal problems, the biggest differences between Roman Catholicism and Prosperity Charismatic Christianity can be summed up very simply: they’re polar opposites in their attitude towards human suffering and “the money”.
It’s really a matter of origins. Roman Catholicism came into a world where the attitude was, as cripsly expressed by Tacitus, that “the gods care little for our well-being, but greatly for our chastisement.” Combined with the miserable world that came out of Rome’s fall, Stoicism and the example of Our Lord on the Cross, we had a religion that regarded suffering not only as an part of life but laudable as a spiritual discipline.
Prosperity teaching, however, came out of a world where wealth creation seemed like magic. Taking the example of Our Lord’s resurrection and naïvely uninformed about how the civilisation they lived in actually accomplished all it did, prosperity teachers and their followers live in a world where suffering, far being from a virtue, is generally regarded as the judgement of God on an individual, and prosperity as the sign of blessing.
The situation with “the money” is equally divergent. Roman Catholicism has traditionally regarded money and business with suspicion, its own accrual of wealth notwithstanding. That is reflected in Francis’ “revival” of Catholic social teaching. Its priests and religious take vows of poverty along with chastity and obedience. The “contemplative life” is traditionally considered the highest Christian state on this side of eternity, and that life is one of poverty.
For prosperity charismatics, “the money” is like winning to Vince Lombardi: it’s not everything, it’s the only thing. People used to be shocked at Robert Tilton’s “corrupt” practices, but face it: all he talked about was the money, what did you expect? “The money”, present of future, is what validates the prosperity charismatic, and to say that they’re obsessed with the money is only an understatement because we cannot find an English word to express the reality. That’s spilled over into just about every corner of Full Gospel Christianity. After years of following the Anglican/Episcopal split over homosexuality and belief, to turn to my denomination and find it tearing itself apart over how much went to its centre spoke powerfully to priorities.
And this demonstrates another truth: where the money goes is an important issue. When I became a Roman Catholic, I was warned that I would have to pay to receive forgiveness of sins or just about everything else. In practice I found little of that. My years in a Pentecostal church, however, have been a different story. It’s hard to imagine a spirituality which has wrapped itself around giving more than this one. The sentiment that people who don’t pay tithes are going to hell isn’t as uncommon as one would like. In the face of what gets broadcast about the need and blessings of giving, Tetzel looks like a rank amateur.
So how to bridge these gaps? What Francis is probably banking on is that, sooner or later, prosperity teaching is going to hit the wall. This is for two reasons,
The first is that prosperity teaching doesn’t really account for situations–and everyone has them–when God doesn’t do either according to our expectations or those that are drilled into us from the pulpits or television. When I was growing up, liberals would bawl over how they didn’t believe in God any more because he didn’t do what they expected him to do (remember Gilbert O’Sullivan)? The New Atheists have taken this up with a vengeance: how can there be a God when so many bad things happen? (I deal with this in more depth here). Prosperity teaching plays right into this and, in many ways, atheists and prosperity charismatics are working from the same assumptions, only coming to different conclusions.
The second is that the ability for prosperity charismatics to accumulate wealth has always depended upon an economic system that permits it to the extent that ours has. That’s in jeopardy for two reasons. The first is the growing inequality and class stratification of our society. Prosperity Charismatic Christianity is the preferential option of the poor par excellence; when they find that they have a bulletproof glass ceiling above them, they may change their attitude towards the aspirational spirituality they have adopted. Moreover in the West the heavy hand of the state is tilting against any form of Christianity. That is at the heart over the current fracas over bakers and florists refusing same-sex civil marriages; making economic activity of any kind a matter of conscience, and forcing people to make decisions that will cost them economically, goes straight against prosperity teaching in a way that few other things do.
On the other hand, prosperity charismatics, triumphalistic by nature, may figure that God is on their side and the Pope and the Church under him will come their way. But given current realities and the durability of Roman Catholicism, I wouldn’t put money on the prosperity teachers. They’d probably take it anyway.