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Commentary: The pope hoes long, uphill row

by on April 09, 2014 10:30 AM

I like Pope Francis, too, though I won’t be thoroughly smitten by him until he changes his mind on celibacy, contraception and equality for women in the church.

Still, he seems like a good man, and his humility and modesty appear to be having a healthy influence on his flock.

Recently, Francis rid the church of Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the so-called “Bishop of Bling,” for billing the Vatican and German taxpayers for $42 million to renovate his Limburg residence, including $620,000 for artwork and $1.1 million for landscaping. The Los Angeles Times reports that when the bishop went to India to minister to the poor, he flew, of course, first class.

Others took notice of the bishop’s dismissal. Last week Archbishop William Gregory, of Atlanta, decided that spending $2.2 million for a 6,400-square-foot, Tudor-style mansion to serve as his residence wasn’t such a good idea. And Archbishop John Myers, of Newark, N.J., is facing considerable criticism for planning a $500,000 renovation to his luxurious retirement home, including another elevator, an indoor therapy pool and an office library.

The Catholic Church is renowned for its opulence and pomp, but it has no monopoly on failure to consider the lilies. Western Protestants often forget that it’s the meek who will inherit the earth and that the rich will have an easier time getting through the eye of a needle than into the kingdom.

In fact, for world-class misplaced, materialistic religious values, consider the “prosperity gospel,” the dubious notion that God means for us to be wealthy — or at least comfortable — and that righteousness is rewarded with money. An Internet search of the term immediately produces references to the ministries of Joel Osteen, of Houston, and Kenneth Copeland, of Fort Worth, Texas.

Osteen, smooth and well groomed, and the folksy Copeland run tax-exempt, multimillion-dollar televangelical enterprises that depend on contributions from the needy in spirit and pocketbook.

The New York Times reports that the average contribution at Osteen’s church is a million dollars per week and an additional $20 million or so are donated every year by mail. Estimates of Osteen’s net worth range from $40 million to $58 million, and he lives in a $10.5 million mansion.

Copeland’s public claim in 2008 to be a billionaire “in the Kingdom of God” might be an exaggeration, but his $20 million jet, private airport and sumptuous properties indicate that the prosperity gospel has been very, very good to him.

So why are Copeland, Osteen and the pope in the same column? In February, charismatic Catholic Tony Palmer, a self-proclaimed friend of the pope, brought a video reputedly sent by Pope Francis to a meeting of evangelicals hosted in Dallas by Copeland. In the video Francis delivers gentle, friendly bromides promoting unity and brotherhood.

Having risen to the top of the Catholic hierarchy, Francis is probably anything but naive. Still, one wonders how much he knew about his audience and their evangelical wealth. Or whether he knows that, after the pope’s message, Copeland broke into mysterious unknown tongues that sounded strangely like Italian.

Christianity has always had an uncomfortable relationship with wealth. It emerged in a world of poverty and oppression, but it was never interested in improving its adherents’ financial status. The rich don’t fare well in the New Testament, more apt to be tossed into the lake of fire than to make their way into the kingdom. In the Bible’s most-ignored verse, Jesus disappoints a smug rich man: “If thou will be perfect go and sell that thou hast, and give it to the poor, and thou shall have treasure in heaven.”

In fact, is there any element of the Gospel that comfortable, wealthy Western Christians — and their leadership — have gotten more wrong than their failure to rely on the biblical injunction to lay up your treasures in heaven, not on earth? Pope Francis has his work cut out for him.

John M. Crisp teaches English at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. His column is distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.
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