Many Vatican-watchers interpreted the election of Pope Francis as Rome’s counter-offensive against the rise of neo-Pentecostalism in the global South. Pentecostalism is the fastest growing sect in the Latin America, where a third of the world’s Catholics live, and is giving the established Roman Church a run for its money -- so to speak.
The latest figures show that the numbers of Pentecostals throughout Latin America has soared since 1970 -- when they represented a mere 4 percent of the population -- to nearly 30 percent. In Guatemala it is estimated that four in ten are Pentecostals.
Reasons for the rise of evangelical Protestant denominations are legion, but one popular theory states that the poor benighted masses, many of whom recently left rural areas and relocated to crowded urban centers, are drawn to neo-Pentecostalism’s prosperity gospel with its charismatic leaders, boisterous worship services, emphasis on signs and wonders, and promise of certain riches. Join our church and God will make you rich, powerful, successful, etc. It is a message with all of the grace of a casino billboard. It is the opposite of indulgences. This time it is God who is pulling out his wallet.
The idea is that God wants the righteous to be happy and blessed. While this means all the usual stuff: grace, forgiveness of sins, salvation, eternal paradise, it also means happiness for the here and now in the mundane form of cash, cars, boats, vacation homes. In a word, mammon. Exhibit A is the Rev. Joel Osteen, one of the most vocal proponents of the prosperity gospel (though he doesn’t like the term) whose net worth is estimated at $40 million. Now that’s living right.
In direct opposition to the prosperity preachers stands Francis, the first pope to take the name of Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century nobleman who was something of a radical in the Middle Ages, embracing poverty while the Church wallowed in its own crapulence. St. Francis, legend has it, was inspired to devote himself to a life of poverty upon hearing the gospel of Matthew in which Christ tells his disciples to go forth and proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. They should take no money with them, nor even a walking stick or shoes for the road. Apparently, the name Francis has been taboo in the Vatican until now, but if one hopes to stem the tide of the prosperity gospel in your homeland, the symbolism is irresistible.
THE GOSPEL OF PROSPERITY has been around for decades. It has flourished in good times and -- oddly enough -- in bad. It was first expounded in the 1950s by Oral Roberts in books like God's Formula for Success and Prosperity, but it wasn’t until the charismatic Oral Roberts University-educated Osteen took up the cause that the gospel really started to pay off.
Proponents cite chapter and verse to bolster the legitimacy of their message. The Parable of the Talents. Much of Deuteronomy. Opponents likewise evoke the Sermon on the Plain (“Blessed are the poor for yours is the kingdom of God”), St. Paul (“I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties”), and the Book of Job in which the righteous man loses everything. Between these two gospels, the gospel of prosperity and the gospel of the cross, there is a great gulf. Perhaps Beliefnet’s Scot McKnight said it best: “The problem with the prosperity gospel is it focuses on ‘getting our wants.’ The cross gospel focuses on ‘giving ourselves.’”
Living a Christian life would seem to be self-evidently beneficial to success. That is if success means more than wealth and power. A Christian life theoretically means you are living a pious, selfless existence, while committing few of the vices that would seem to militate against wealth and success, like sloth, greed, lust, wrath, and envy. In other words, a man living a virtuous life is guaranteed a better chance at success than the lazy drunkard who cheats on his wife and gambles away her paycheck.
Jesus certainly promised riches to those who followed his way. But they were riches of a permanent kind. They were riches you can take with you. Perhaps, eventually, the converts will realize that the prosperity they were promised has failed to materialize and they may as well return to their original homes where the emphasis is not on material riches, nor on romanticizing poverty, but on advocating for the dignity for the poor.