Papal Duplicity and Other Matters

pope high fives copland2

 Pope Francis says his primary mission, and that of the Catholic Church, is to the poor: “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor.” On many nights,he reputedly left Vatican City to personally minister to the poor. Last July (here) he called the poor, “the treasures of the Church,” and said they are at “the heart of the Church,” since Jesus always gave them priority. The Catholic Church, according to Pope Francis, “loves and prefers what Jesus loved and preferred.” He also noted that Jesus said “woe” to the rich.

Pope Francis on the Gospel of Prosperity

In his recent Christmas address (here), Pope Francis denounced the “sheer greed and the idolatry of money, which leads to slavery.” He did not explicitly mention the Gospel of Prosperity, but he implicitly condemned it.

In a homily last May (here), Pope Francis explicitly condemned the Gospel of Prosperity. He called it a false theology that claims “God shows you that you are just if He gives you great riches.” (Prosperity preachers usually claim that if you write them a check, God will reward you financially. The larger the check, the greater the reward.) The Pope said that a problem with this theology lies in being attached to wealth, because “You cannot serve both God and riches.” These become “chains” that “take away the freedom to follow Jesus.”

On February 5, in a Vatican radio talk (here), Pope Francis said that “salvation is not a theology of prosperity” but the “good news” of liberation for all who are oppressed. “This is the mission of the Church, the Church that heals and cures,” he said. Not only did Pope Francis condemn the prosperity gospel, he went further and said preachers should be poor, in accordance with Jesus' instruction to his disciples to “take nothing for the journey but a walking stick -- no food, no sack, no money in their belts.”

If you listen to his words, you get a consistent view of Pope Francis and his conception of the Church. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, it supports the poor and the downtrodden. It condemns the rich, who fail to uphold the Golden Rule. And it condemns the Gospel of Prosperity. But if you look at what Pope Francis actually does, you get a different picture.

 

Does Pope Francis Walk the Walk?

The Meeting is the Message

When Pope Francis met with an important imam (here), reporters asked him what message he was sending about Islam and the Church. He said, “The meeting is the message.” Simply meeting someone is important. It shows a spiritual connection. It is a sign of approval.

When the Pope met with Ken Copeland (as shown in photo above), that was big news. He had a passionate connection with Ken Copeland, and gave him a high-five. Pope Francis did not show such exuberance and passion with leaders of Orthodox Churches, or rabbis, or the imam, or secular leaders. He and Ken Copeland were soul mates. I know of only one other occasion when Pope Francis displayed such an emotional bond, though no photo is available. That was with James Robison, another preacher of the Gospel of Prosperity.

This meeting with Ken Copeland was held about a year after Pope Francis took office. Prior to this meeting, the pope had other meetings with prosperity preachers. These meetings took place well before he had any meetings with victims of priestly sex abuse. Actions speak louder than words. Pope Francis’s priorities are clear.

About Ken Copeland and the Prosperity Preachers

 Ken Copeland is the dean of Prosperity preachers. John Oliver did a great piece on him and his televangelist colleagues. Copeland actually encourages his flock to max out their credit cards and go into debt to send him as much money as possible, promising that God will give them a huge return on their spiritual (and financial) investment.

Recall that Pope Francis, citing the precedent of Jesus, said that preachers of the Christian gospel should live very modestly. Both Francis and Jesus noted heaven had no place for the wealthy. Ken Copeland, James Robison, and many other prosperity preachers are filthy rich, living in mansions (yes, more than one each), flying in their private jets (Copeland has two), and generally resembling Donald Trump much more than Jesus. Years ago, Copeland bragged of having passed the billion dollar mark.

Prosperity preachers are widely considered to be charlatans. About a decade ago, a Senate Committee launched an investigation into their finances. This committee was chaired by a conservative Republican, and largely consisted of conservative Republicans. (At the time, they still displayed moral outrage.) Most of the prosperity preachers, including Ken Copeland and James Robison, refused to cooperate. However, before the Committee got very far, President George W. Bush made his presence felt. Several targets of the investigation were fellow Texans. James Robison was a close friend of President Bush, and effectively his pastor. The investigation was suddenly dropped. Instead, the Senate Committee recommended “self-reform.”

What about Father/Bishop/Cardinal Bergoglio?

What was Pope Francis like before he became Pope? He served for decades in various capacities in Argentina. How did his behavior compare to his (current) preaching? The public record is surprisingly sparse. By all accounts, he personally lived quite simply. Unlike many bishops, he didn’t live in a palace surrounded by bling.

We have some testimony from a former secretary of Bergoglio (here), who reinforces this impression. He also said that Bergoglio spent a good deal of “pastoral time” with the poor in the slums (“villas”). He made no mention of the Gospel of Prosperity.

We also have indirect evidence of the way Bergoglio guided his flock. He was a bishop in Argentina for over twenty years, an archbishop for about fifteen years, and a cardinal for over a decade. He not only knew what the Church was teaching, he played a major role in shaping its teachings.

Shortly after Bergoglio was elected Pope, the Pew Foundation did a major survey of religion in Latin America. One of their questions concerned the Gospel of Prosperity. Recall that Pope Francis condemned it. The Catholic Church considers it heresy. Yet Pew found (here) that more than half (53%) of Argentine Catholics believe the Gospel of Prosperity – that God will enrich the faithful. How could this happen under Bergoglio’s watch? It is inconceivable that he was unaware of it. How could his flock subscribe to a false gospel that he personally condemned in very strong terms?

Under Pope John Paul II, the Church in Latin America is said to have lost over 100 million followers. Many converted to a charismatic form of Protestantism. It’s safe to assume that John Paul’s appointments in Latin America were under orders to stop the bleeding.

When asked about the Church’s massive loss of followers in Latin America, Pope Francis said there were multiple causes. But in an interview (here), he only discussed one of them -- the “Prosperity Gospel.” He said it “has given rise to many religious offerings that people find attractive.” If you can’t lick them, join them. The Church apparently engaged in a doctrinal race to the bottom, preaching heresy to reduce its losses; for them, the end justified the means.

 

More Expediency from Pope Francis

Many Catholic Churches around the world have suffered even greater losses than those in Latin America. While many factors are involved, Church teachings on “family matters” such as divorce and birth control are of major importance. Divorcees are excluded from key church sacraments, and may feel unwelcome. Nearly all adults view Church teachings on contraception as wrong, and many resent them.

It is no accident that Pope Francis’s major policy statement has been his encyclical, the Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia), which covers such family matters. The encyclical seems to encourage bishops to override Church law based on their own consciences, allowing them to offer absolution of sins to divorced people living in what the Church considers a state of adultery. The encyclical seems to provide a back door for bishops to allow their flock to escape the penalties imposed by Church law. Four cardinals have asked Pope Francis for clarification (here), but the Pope has not personally responded (though he seems to have unleashed some attack dogs). Similarly, a canon lawyer has written (here) that the encyclical appears to violate canon law. Since Pope Pius IX pushed through the doctrine of papal infallibility about 150 years ago, I know of no case where a papal encyclical has been charged with violating canon law. While the Pope is not officially above the law, he is the 800-pound primate who gets his way.

Just as the prevalence of the Gospel of Prosperity in Catholic Latin America suggests moral expediency -- a willingness to teach heresy in order to fill as many empty pews as possible -- so Pope Francis’ Joy of Love is another sign of expedience. We seem to have a platitudinous, doctrine-lite papacy and Church. While Pope Francis condemns the Gospel of Prosperity, he repeatedly meets and embraces leading prosperity preachers. Earlier, his Argentine flock studied and practiced the Gospel of Prosperity. But one doctrine that remains unchallenged is the myth of papal infallibility – a doctrine that is responsible for the Church compounding many of its problems. While Pope Francis preaches the centrality of emulating Jesus and serving the poor, his own practices and those of the Church reflect quite different priorities.