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How Catholics are falling for the Prosperity Gospel

The cover for the November 30, 2018 issue (Christian Adams)

Increasing numbers of Catholics are embracing the belief that money can buy divine rewards

Outwardly, it looks like a typical African Mass. But after Holy Communion, the priest does not dismiss the congregation. Instead, he launches into a new “liturgy” that would be unfamiliar to millions of Catholics around the world. “It’s quite strange,” reports Fr Donald Zagoré, a priest of the Society for African Missions. “After the post-Communion prayer which should mark the end of the Liturgy of the Eucharist – and evidently the end of the whole Mass, save the closing rites – another liturgy starts, sometimes even longer than the Liturgy of the Eucharist: the liturgy of money.”

Fr Zagoré is describing what happens when Catholics adopt the so-called “prosperity gospel”, a theological movement that originated in Pentecostalism. In a recent essay for La Croix, the priest explained that during the “liturgy of money” lay people urge the congregation to make donations. The greater the gift, they say, the greater will be the divine reward.

Fr Zagoré pointed out that this practice is sharply at odds with traditional Catholic theology. Referring to Christ’s teaching, in Matthew 6:24, that it is impossible to serve both God and money, he wrote: “No one can deny the fact that money is necessary for the wellbeing of all structures, but making it the centre of our liturgical celebrations is, frankly, exaggerated.”

Fr Zagoré is not the only priest worried that prosperity theology is making inroads into the Catholic Church. In September, at a theological congress in Ivory Coast, clergy lambasted Africa’s prosperity gospel preachers. Bishop Ignace Bessi Dogbo, president of the Ivory Coast bishops’ conference, urged Catholic leaders to confront the “heresies” promoted by “communities which mushroom everywhere by roadsides claiming to be Christian, but which deny the centrality of the Cross, and preach that prosperity could come like a magic wand”.

Earlier in the summer, papal confidant Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ issued a similar warning in the Vatican-approved periodical La Civiltà Cattolica. Noting that the prosperity gospel had spread from its birthplace in the United States to Latin America, Africa and Asia, he said that “Pope Francis has often warned against the perils of this theology that can ‘overshadow the Gospel of Christ’.”

Since the 1950s, when the prosperity gospel was first preached by Pentecostals in America, it has proliferated with astonishing speed across the Christian world, finding a particularly receptive audience in developing countries. Although initially limited to the Pentecostal flock, through a process of osmosis the prosperity gospel has entered the teachings of many Catholic clergymen.

Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, South Africa and Uganda are among those nations in Africa where Neo-charismatic movements have flourished, magnifying their message through televangelism and social media activities. Many African nations are afflicted by poverty and disease, and struggle with high unemployment rates and political instability. Given that there are limited institutional resources to resolve health problems and other difficulties, many Africans seek succour in spirituality.

The prosperity gospel is a particularly popular option. It teaches that precariousness is a curse, and that sickness and scarcity can be overcome if one is willing to tithe generously and faithfully attend services where, through the person of the priest, the Holy Spirit manifests itself, offering miracles ranging from healing to abundant wealth.

One of Africa’s most prominent advocates of the prosperity gospel is the Nigerian pastor Chris Oyakhilome. Known as Pastor Chris, he disseminates his charismatic credo via Facebook to more than two million followers and thousands of subscribers on YouTube. Combined with his three satellite TV channels, this ensures that his reach extends beyond Africa, including to Britain, where he has a large following. With his own hotel, fast-food chain and mansions, Pastor Chris has amassed a fortune. In 2011, Forbes Magazine estimated his net worth at $30-50 million (£23-30 million).

Pastor Chris encourages his flock to make confessions and affirmations during services. He also leads healing sessions where he claims to cure everything from cancer to HIV by exorcising demons and imparting the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Thousands attend his services, many fuelled by the desperate hope that he will not only offer them an explanation for their tribulations but also allow them to extricate themselves.

Evangelisation is an essential part of both Charismatic Catholic and Pentecostal movements, accounting for the burgeoning numbers of faithful. Pastor Chris encourages his congregants to convert others. In one of his leaflets on the subject, Pastor Chris urges churchgoers to identify “spiritual thirst” in their entourage and cultivate it to save their friends and acquaintances from “heading to hell”. In keeping with the zeitgeist, he also encourages followers to become digital evangelists, using computers and smartphones to spread the word of God.

African Catholic clergy are, as we have seen, appalled by pastors who promise believers that the more money they give to the Church, the more they will receive. They argue that in this heretical version of faith Jesus Christ is seen as holding the keys to a cosmic supermarket where he gives out freebees to the faithful. The Holy Spirit is regarded as a kind of supernatural servant who responds to the worldly desires of individuals.

Yet the expansion of churches promoting the prosperity gospel has been almost impossible to thwart and is not limited to Africa. In Latin America too this seductive theology has found notoriety and success.

Home to both the world’s largest Catholic and Pentecostal populations, Latin America is the region where the health and wealth gospel first found traction beyond the US and where it has most flourished. Over the past four decades the theology has quickly morphed from a controversial set of beliefs and practices on the margins of mainstream Christianity into a hegemonic dogma in Latin American Pentecostalism. It has become common currency among Catholics, especially those who belong to the Charismatic Renewal.

More than any other Pentecostal denomination, Brazil’s controversial Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has been at the vanguard of propagating prosperity theology throughout the region. The Church was founded in the late 1970s by a former employee at the state lottery of Rio de Janeiro, Bishop Edir Macedo (now a billionaire). The Neo-Pentecostal denomination promises to turn poverty-related affliction into wealth and health. To this end, in both Spanish-speaking Latin America and in the US, the denomination employs a different name for the Church: Pare de Sufrir (“Stop Suffering”).

Historically, Pentecostalism has been most popular among the poorest sectors of the region. Research in Brazil reveals that the Universal Church attracts among the very poorest Brazilians.

In Latin America and much of the Global South, believers typically seek to receive divine blessings by forming contractual relations with sacred figures. For example, grassroots Catholics make a promise or vow to a saint or the Virgin Mary in return for a favour generally involving health, wealth or love.

The same logic operates among Pentecostals, who say they deal directly with God instead of saintly mediators. At the Universal Church, and in prosperity theology in general, pastors encourage congregants to “make a challenge with God” in which they aggressively request, if not demand, that He deliver on their particular petition. To increase the chances of God answering requests, pastors encourage congregants to prove their faith in the Almighty through tithes and offerings.

During Universal Church services in Brazil, pastors spend up to a third of a two-hour worship service soliciting donations, starting with the highest denomination of Brazilian currency and working their way down to the lowest. Congregants often place their cash donations on an open Bible placed strategically at the altar. Soliciting donations is of such importance at the Universal Church that an oft-heard joke in Brazil is that the founder Bishop Macedo increased the tithe from 10 to 30 per cent, with 10 per cent each for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Since the 1990s, the health and wealth gospel has grown in influence within Catholicism, most significantly through the Charismatic Renewal, which has adopted myriad Pentecostal beliefs and practices. Some Catholic churches in Brazil now hold “tithers’ Masses” which imitate Pentecostal fundraising tactics, albeit with a less hard-sell approach.

The benefits of global capitalism and modernity have not extended uniformly across the planet but have created spaces of exclusion, particularly in the developing world. While many people are privy via the media to a global flow of images, allowing them to consume luxury items and lavish lifestyles visually, most are unable to enjoy them in reality. Additionally, access to basic services such as healthcare is often rudimentary, meaning that many in the Global South live in great uncertainty, yearning for affluence and wellbeing.

It is in this context that the prosperity gospel flourishes. Its axioms mimic those of 21st-century economics. Just as stocks are expected to yield dividends for the shareholder, so the believer who tithes generously, prays regularly and proselytises expects to see a return on investment in the form of abundant health and wealth from God.

Catholic clergy push back against the prosperity gospel by citing Mark 4:19, that “the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the Word, making it unfruitful”. Yet for those suffering economic and physical hardship, hope is the only thing that springs eternal.

Dr Kate Kingsbury is an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta. Dr Andrew Chesnut is Bishop Walter F Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University