The Vatican is warning about the perils of the prosperity gospel, the belief that true followers of God are rich, healthy and happy.
The prosperity gospel has been around since the 19th century but the continuing global growth of Pentecostalism, especially in Catholic dominated regions of the world, could be one of the reasons why the Vatican is being more vocal about this “pseudo-gospel.”
In the latest edition of the Vatican-approved Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, two of the pope’s communication advisers wrote an article about the damage caused by the prosperity gospel, “a well-known theological current emerging from the neo-Pentecostal evangelical movements.”
“The risk of this form of religious anthropocentrism, which puts humans and their well-being at the center, is that it transforms God into a power at our service, the Church into a supermarket of faith, and religion into a utilitarian phenomenon that is eminently sensationalist and pragmatic.”
Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa trace the history of the movement in America, its spread globally and its relationship to the “American Dream.”
The authors point out that such a theology makes God “in the image and likeness of the people and their situation, and not according to the biblical model” and causes its adherents to view poverty, sickness and unhappiness as a lack of faith.
They contend that such beliefs foster pride in those who have succeeded materially or physically and condemnation of those in poverty or poor health.
“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.”
Prosperity Gospel Harms the Church
They warn the belief can “overshadow the Gospel of Christ.”
Spadaro and Figueroa also see the “heresy” infecting the church. They quote Pope Francis who told the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean that “a sort of prosperity gospel” at the level of pastoral work creates churches “concerned with efficacy, success, quantifiable results and good statistics. The Church ends up being run like a business in a misleading way that keeps people away from the mystery of faith.”
In Korea, the pope told bishops, “The devil must not be allowed to sow these weeds, this temptation to remove the poor from very prophetic structure of the Church and to make you become an affluent Church for the affluent, a Church of the well-to-do—perhaps not to the point of developing a ‘theology of prosperity’—but a Church of mediocrity.”
While the authors point out that the origins of the prosperity gospel are complex, they see its roots in America, specifically in positive thinking, exceptionalism and admiration of those who have success stories over compassion for the poor.
Priests Tie Prosperity Gospel to Evangelicalism
While Spadaro and Figueroa acknowledge that the prosperity gospel has been harshly criticized by most Evangelicals, they suggest evangelicalism as a whole has been infected with the theology by mixing it with economics and politics. The claim also helps them differentiate evangelicalism from catholicism.
“One of the conclusions made by exponents of this theological tradition is geopolitical and economic in nature, and tied to the place of origin of the prosperity gospel. It leads to the conclusion that the United States has grown as a nation under the blessing of the providential God of the Evangelical movement. Meanwhile, those who dwell south of the Rio Grande are sinking in poverty because the Catholic Church has a different, opposed vision exalting poverty. From political connotations, it is even possible to verify the link between these positions and the integralist and fundamentalist temptations.”
Meanwhile, in many parts of the world, where Pentecostals are gaining in number to Catholics, the Catholic church is attempting to appeal to people by mixing in charismatic components of Pentecostalism that have more emotional elements and catchier music but devoid of the dangers of the health and wealth theology.