The article is not shy about making the link between the prosperity gospel and the crisis of globalization — political, social and economic.
Exactly one year ago the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica (LCC) published a very important article on the peculiar political ecumenism being forged in the United States between a subset of Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants. It sparked an interesting debate, to say the least.
Conservative Catholics were especially scathing in their criticism of the LCC article because it struck them at both the theological level (their own convergence with Protestantism) and political level (their alignment of a political ecumenism and conservative politics, that has resulted in a religious blessing of the Trump movement).
Now a year later, the Jesuits that produce the journal in Rome are at it again.
The same authors of the original article – Antonio Spadaro SJ (the LCC editor) and Marcelo Figueroa (a Protestant theologian from Argentina who is a friend of Pope Francis and edits the Argentine edition of L’Osservatore Romano) – have now written against the “prosperity gospel” in a July 18 article published simultaneously in Italian and English.
Spadaro and Figueroa examine some of the roots and fruits of the prosperity gospel, and in the final part of the article they shed light on the polar opposition between this new theology and Pope Francis’ theology.
The article is not shy about making the link between the prosperity gospel and the crisis of globalization – political, social and economic.
“In recent decades this ‘theology’ has spread across the world thanks to massive media campaigns by evangelical movements and ministries, especially neo-charismatic ones. The aim of our reflection is to illustrate and evaluate the phenomenon, which is used as a theological justification for economic neo-liberalism,” the authors say.
Based on recent specialized literature published especially in the United States, Spadaro and Figueroa offer a concise theological analysis of the prosperity gospel.
“The pillars of the prosperity gospel […] are essentially two: economic well-being and health. This accentuation is the fruit of a literalist exegesis of some biblical texts that are taken within a reductionist hermeneutic,” they say.
The authors critique not only the biblical hermeneutic supporting the prosperity gospel, but also the consequences of this theology: “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 person thinks 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.”
Spadaro and Figueroa call the effects of the prosperity gospel on the poor “perverse.”
The prosperity gospel “not only exasperates individualism and knocks down the sense of solidarity, but it pushes people to adopt a miracle-centered outlook, because faith alone – not social or political commitment – can procure prosperity.”
“So the risk is that the poor who are fascinated by this pseudo-Gospel remain dazzled in a socio-political emptiness that easily allows other forces to shape their world, making them innocuous and defenseless,” the authors say.
They then denounce the opposition between the prosperity gospel and the teaching of the Catholic Church: “The prosperity gospel is not a cause of real change, a fundamental aspect of the vision that is innate to the social doctrine of the Church.”
The perversion of the prosperity gospel, they continue, lies in looking at God’s promises in financial terms.
“The spiritual principle of the seed and the harvest, in this evangelical interpretation that takes it completely out of context, states that giving is above all an economic act that is measured in terms of return on investment,” the authors say, hinting at the support that the prosperity gospel gives to supremacist views.
“In these theologies, the filial belonging of Christians as children of God is reinterpreted as that of ‘Children of the King’: sonship that brings rights and privileges, especially material ones to those who recognize and preach it,” they say.
Spadaro and Figueroa map the areas of the world where the prosperity gospel has changed the features of Christianity in the last few years. They include countries in Africa (Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa), Asia (India, South Korea and China) and Latin America (Guatemala and Costa Rica; Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil).
But the real focus of the article is the dominant country of North America:
“In the United States millions of people regularly go to the mega-churches that spread the prosperity gospel. The preachers, prophets and apostles who have joined this branch of neo-Pentecostalism have taken up more and more important posts in the mass media, published an enormous quantity of books that have rapidly become best-sellers, and given speeches that are often transmitted to millions of people via the internet and social media.”
It is obvious that this new article is directed towards an American theology supportive of Donald Trump. It is well known that proponents of the prosperity gospel are also some of the most vocal defenders of the U.S. president.
For instance, there is Paula White, the Pentecostal evangelist of a mega-church, who recently tried to defend the Trump administration’s separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border by saying that Jesus never broke immigration laws.
In La Civiltà Cattolica’s newly published article we see a clear critique of, not just the prosperity gospel’s support of a certain economic ideology, but also its blessing of the militarism that supports this ideology.
The article makes special mention of Mr. Trump’s very first “State of the Union Address” this past January:
“President Donald Trump stated, in order to describe the identity of the country: ‘Together, we are rediscovering the American way.’ And he went on: ‘In America, we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of the American life. Our motto is ‘in God we trust.’ And we celebrate our police, our military and our amazing veterans as heroes who deserve our total and unwavering support.”
Spadaro and Figueroa then comment: “In just a few lines we see God, the army and the American Dream.”
The final part of the article draws a comparison between Pope Francis’ theology and the prosperity gospel. The two authors quote several papal speeches and homilies to show the pope’s clear opposition to this kind of theology.
“Since the beginning of his pontificate Francis has been aware of the ‘different gospel’ of prosperity theology and, criticizing it, has applied the classical social doctrine of the Church,” they note.
The article frames the pope’s opposition to the prosperity gospel in the context of his critique of the two heresies of our time, Pelagianism and Gnosticism. This critique was given official institutional weight when the Congregation for the Doctrine for the Faith took up the theme in a document published a few months ago called Placuit Deo.
The two articles that Spadaro and Figueroa have now published in La Civiltà Cattolica do not represent the official position of the journal, the Jesuits or the Holy See.
But the Vatican’s Secretary of State vets the content before publication, and this article is yet another sign of the difficult relationship between Francis’ pontificate and the United States.
This new LCC article on the prosperity gospel has an importance similar to last year’s stunning denunciation of the perversions of political-theological ecumenism in America.
It highlights the essential opposition between Francis’ pontificate and some key features of American Christianity today: an opposition that is not just political, policy-based or geopolitical, but on one that is also theological and religious.
Compared to last year’s article, this new piece is less critical of American Catholicism – at least directly.
But it can also be read as a message to the members of Francis’ flock in the United States, given that a certain Americanization of U.S. Catholicism exposes Catholic culture to the temptations of the prosperity gospel – especially if we look at the way monetary influence has an impact on Church politics.
There is also a geopolitical consideration to make. The article was published two days after the Helsinki summit between Mr. Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
The Trump presidency has not upset only the geopolitical relations between USA and Russia, but also between USA and the Vatican.
The Holy See has somehow been forced into a dialogue with Russia (despite the political and ecclesial situation in Ukraine), because Putin has taken up the role – in a disingenuous and manipulative way – of being the defender of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
This dialogue is part of Vatican realpolitik.
But it is harder to find common ground between this pontificate and Trump’s America, no matter what we make of the diplomatic niceties.
The real problem is that the prosperity gospel has contributed to the rise of a new conservativism in the United Sates and the election of Donald Trump. It’s a theology that will not disappear with the end of his presidency.
Spadaro and Figueroa help us understand how the Vatican, and the wider Catholic world based in Rome, are currently looking at the United States. Rome clearly is facing an “American problem.” And it is one that is theological no less than political.
This article was published by La Croix International on the 18th of July 2018. It was written by Massimo Faggioli.