Question: Fr Paul A.V.
The health-and-wealth gospel preached in certain circles thinks that God rewards increasing levels of faith with greater amounts of wealth. Does this mentality creep into the Catholic Church and corrupt its clergy and bishops?
Answer: Jacob Parappally MSFS
It is not the belief in one God or monotheism that rules the world. But it is the “ moneytheism!” Money is made into an idol and it has usurped the position of God in the lives of many humans. With a prophetic vision Jesus had said, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25). However, his followers made Caesar a god and reduced God to Caesar and so finally, Caesar has both. He has what belongs to him as well as God’s. Jesus’ liberating imperative was to save humans from the tragedy of an enslaving and unholy alliance between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. Caesar or any unscrupulous power can deceive, manipulate, exploit and subjugate people and systems not only with their power to dominate and control but also by making others believe that they are doing it for God or to fulfil divine purposes. The worst tragedy for Christians is that they are made to believe by some preachers of all Churches and denominations that health, wealth and whatever contributing to the prosperity of a person are direct blessings of God for his or her faithfulness in practising religion meticulously. Ill-health, poverty and misery that one experiences in life are a curse or punishment of God. This falsification of the image of God revealed through Jesus Christ is the central teaching of those who preach a prosperity gospel.
Gospel of Jesus versus Prosperity Gospel
The gospel of Jesus is the good news of liberation or wholeness. It is a call to recognize, accept and celebrate God’s reign within and amidst people who are open to God and are docile to the Holy Spirit. It is a call to repent and turn to God who is infinitely merciful. For this God who is revealed in and through Jesus Christ humans are the centre of His concern and He loves and forgives them unconditionally. The gospel of Jesus remains always the good news for all humans at all times. It may be considered as a bad news by those who close themselves against God and have become a law unto themselves. They create systems and structures that oppress, exploit and discriminate humans in order to secure power to subjugate and enslave people and exploit natural resources to feed their insatiable greed. The prophetic challenge of Jesus to such people is to repent and become authentically human. But such a good news of liberation is also bad news for them. The gospel is accepted with joy by the poor, the marginalized, the exploited and the discriminated because Jesus accepted, recognized, respected and loved them as humans. In His presence they experienced wholeness or liberation as they were healed from physical, psychological, social and spiritual sicknesses. Their dignity as humans was restored by Jesus and His liberating message. What has become of Jesus and His message in our times? It has been used, misused and misinterpreted to mean that the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about material blessings and prosperity to those who follow the teachings of the gospel as interpreted by the preachers of the prosperity gospel. According to Pope Francis, such a preaching “overshadows the Gospel of Christ.”
The prosperity gospel preached by those who claim to be evangelists and tele-evangelists of the United States and other countries promise material blessings to those who are eagerly longing for material prosperity because of their painful experiences of poverty and misery. Therefore, a large majority of those who believe in the prosperity gospel are from Africa, Asia and Latin America. The believers are prepared to offer even their meagre income they have to the preachers to fulfil their plans and projects hoping that in turn the believers would receive a hundred fold of wealth and other material benefits as well as good health.
In July 2018, the Catholic journal La Civilita Catholica of Italy exposed the dangers of following the prosperity gospel and strongly warned against such a superficial and distorted faith-understanding. The authors, Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit and Marcelo Figueroa, an Argentinian Presbyterian pastor analysed the sources of the prosperity gospel and its dangerous consequences. According to these authors, “prosperous televangelists mix marketing, strategic direction and preaching, concentrating more on personal success than on salvation or eternal life,” The preachers of the prosperity gospel emphasise on “economic well-being and health, along with a limiting of the Holy Spirit to one’s individual desires, have distorted the fullness of the Christian [life].” There is a massive appeal for this prosperity gospel that it has attracted millions of American believers led by the likes of Kenneth Copeland, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, and Joyce Meyer. According to Spadaro and Figueroa the prosperity gospel “puts the accent on the faith as a ‘merit’ to climb the social ladder,” which they condemn as “unjust and radically anti-evangelical.” The authors criticize the believers of prosperity gospel highlighting specifically the lack of compassion for the poor, marginalized and the exploited because they believe that the poverty of those who are on the margins of the society is a sign of their neglecting or not paying heed to the divine teaching and therefore they are not loved by God.
The tele-evangelists and some charismatic preachers prefer to take the narratives and commands of the Old Testament to show how God blesses those who keep His laws and decrees with material blessings and how cursed are they who have violated God’s commands bringing curses even to their future generations. They hide conveniently the revelation of God’s unconditional love and friendship offered to everyone through Jesus Christ. Some preachers convince people how the sins and failures of their parents or grand-parents or even a few generations before them influence negatively the present situation of their lives and bring misery, sickness and poverty to them as a punishment for the sins of their forefathers. The only way out is to follow faithfully all commands of God as interpreted by the preachers and donate generously whatever money they have, in order to receive unimaginable benefits from God.
According to the critics of the prosperity gospel “Material victory places the believer in a position of pride due to the power of their ‘faith.’ On the contrary, poverty hits them with a blow that is unbearable for two reasons: first, the persons think their faith is unable to move the providential hands of God; second, their miserable situation is a divine imposition, a relentless punishment to be accepted in submission.” Pope Francis criticized many times both directly and indirectly the prosperity gospel emphasizing the gratuitous nature of salvation in Jesus Christ. Wholeness or liberation is always a gift. According to Spadaro and Figueroa, “The vision of faith offered by the prosperity gospel is a clear contradiction to the concept of a humanity marked by sin with a need for eschatological salvation, tied to Jesus Christ as saviour and not to the success of its own works.”
The proclamation of the gospel in the Catholic Church by bishops and priests is not a direct preaching of a prosperity gospel. However, the theological content of their preaching, catechizing, prayer and rituals may indirectly communicate to the faithful that there is an intrinsic relationship between the financial offerings they make to build churches and church institutions and to conduct feasts and other rituals with great pomposity and spectacular programmes bring them both material and spiritual blessings in this world and in the world to come. Such misguided understandings of the Scripture by the preachers themselves as well as an exaggerated and superstitious way of understanding of it by the faithful distort the authentic message of the gospel. In fact, some Catholic preachers have the temerity to preach a prosperity gospel and directly demand financial contributions as a means to secure divine blessings. The practice of simony and the selling of indulgences in the middle ages appear in different forms in our times when the ministers of the Word and the Sacrament succumb to the temptation to possess Mammon. The gospel of Jesus Christ demands only a conversion of hearts to believe and live the values of the Kingdom in the community of the Church.
Money and Power- Abominable Idols in the Church
In the history of the Church we find that whenever money and power tried to reduce the centrality of Christ or replace Christ and His message we find the decadence of the office of the leaders of the Church. As in the world money and power corrupt people and as they lose sight of who they are, what they are called to become and how they relate with other humans, so too in the Church they bring in corruption of the office and the perversion of thought and action. Even the sacred office, the preaching of the gospel and the celebration of the sacraments and other sacred rituals may be abused for the sake of money and power. Paul reminds Timothy about such dangers when he says, “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.
For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses (1 Timothy 6:9-12).
The scandalous life of a few leaders of the Church is inextricably linked to their inordinate attachment to money and power and their desire to secure them through means fair or foul. The leaders of the Church need to take initiative to destroy those idols of Mammon and power and make the Church a house of worship for the true God.
Paul says, “Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4). Everybody knows that the sacred power vested in the Church leaders is not for themselves or for securing economic or political power and social positions. However, when the leaders of the Church misuse the sacred power vested in them to dominate and control people and manipulate systems and structures to their advantage they fail God who called them to be the ministers or the servants of the people of God. The liberating power of the gospel needs to be experienced by those who proclaim it. If not they proclaim themselves and promote the idolatry of Mammon and power and thus do a disservice to the liberating and humanizing gospel of Jesus Christ. Any gospel that negates the cross and the self-emptying love Christ is not the true gospel of Christ!