Perhaps the most appalling aspect of televangelism is what is called “the prosperity gospel;” that is, the conviction that God rewards faithful Christians with money and a prosperous mode of life when they support a ministry financially.
Sums of money that often stretch the finances of the faithful to breaking point are implicitly encouraged by television pastors. By donating “seed” money to the ministry, the congregant is promised a bountiful harvest.
This kind of preaching and fundraising is associated with television evangelists like Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Bishop Eddie Long and Creflo Dollar (that’s his real name!). One or other of the many “prosperity” televangelists may be seen on television virtually every night.
The underlying theology of prosperity preaching is based on passages like Deuteronomy 18:8, which states: “Remember, then, it is the Lord, your God, who gives you the power to acquire wealth.” (Taken out of the context of the whole Bible, this quotation seems to legitimize the televangelist message.)
The fact that prosperity does not materialize for many givers does not seem to trouble them. On the other hand, whatever small financial good appears in their lives is interpreted as God’s gift.
The most scandalous aspect of this mode of evangelism is that the preachers themselves are the recipients of large amounts of money, principally through enormous salaries.
Many commentators complain about the lavish lifestyles of preachers that are funded by “seed” money given by the less prosperous. Creflo Dollar recently purchased a $10 million private jet – and his congregation approved of the move as an indication that Dollar was being blessed by God.
The principle of divine blessing is used to justify the multi-million dollar salaries and benefits (including luxurious homes, lavish vacation properties and private jets.) But they are beyond criticism by adherents, because to criticize them is to questions God’s manifold blessings.
There is also the notion, derived from the Swiss reformer John Calvin (and assumed generally into Protestantism), that material and financial prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing of the righteous. By the same logic, those who are poor and struggle with poverty must be sinners and lack God’s blessing.
I am fairly certain that today there is no incidence of Catholic clergy or organizations directly preaching the prosperity gospel. But a practice not dissimilar to this was present in the scandal that led in part to the Protestant Reformation. Catholic preachers of that era did not promise financial prosperity (or live lavish lifestyles), but they did declare that souls could be delivered from purgatory through financial contributions to the Church.
While the sale of indulgences to support Roman expenditures was expunged from Catholicism after the Council of Trent, there is a danger that parish and diocesan stewardship programs can be tainted with the prosperity gospel and its theology. I myself have heard people give testimony at Mass intimating that their stewardship contributions have brought a substantial improvement in their personal finances.
Collections at Mass and fundraising programs in parishes and dioceses need to avoid assuming the elements of the prosperity gospel. The notion that God gives back financial or material gain in response to donations made to the Church is a travesty of the Gospel of Christ, who was himself poor, and lived frugally on what was offered to him. There is a warning in all this for clergy, who are tempted to acquire personal homes, expensive cars, and styles of life that go against the virtue of poverty incumbent on all Christians.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Parish.