It was embarrassing, even cringe-worthy, to read Fr. Anthony Spadaro and Rev. Marcelo Figueroa’s first foray last July into explaining American brands of Christianity entitled Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism.
That piece from a year ago described such movements as Evangelicals and Catholic Together founded by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and the late Charles Colson as an “ecumenism of hate.” It also described faithful Catholics and evangelicals who have found common ground as Manicheans who mirror Islamist fundamentalism in wanting to deliberately bring about the End Times—as if all conservative American Christians, Catholic and non, and are hoping for the Rapture any day now and if they can start a nuclear war to hasten it, well, they won’t let a crisis go to waste, as it were. Because Trump, I guess. I dunno. It included almost all of the anti-Christian tropes one encounters in the mainstream media employed by reporters with no knowledge of religion.
This article received much thoughtful criticism from people who actually know something about America, such as Carl Olsen who in his critique links to several others. I posted on it last summer here with many links to critiques of the article.
Now Fr. Spadaro, the Jesuit confidant of Pope Francis, and his Presbyterian co-author from Argentina are at it again with a new article in La Civilta Cattolica on the American Prosperity Gospel.
The “prosperity gospel” is a well-known theological current emerging from the neo-Pentecostal evangelical movements. At its heart is the belief that God wants his followers to have a prosperous life, that is, to be rich, healthy and happy. This type of Christianity places the well-being of the believer at the center of prayer, and turns God the Creator into someone who makes the thoughts and desires of believers come true.
The risk of this form of religious anthropocentrism, which puts humans and their well-being at the center, is that it transforms God into a power at our service, the Church into a supermarket of faith, and religion into a utilitarian phenomenon that is eminently sensationalist and pragmatic.
This article is not as blatantly bad as the first one, though it paints with an awfully broad brush. I am not unsympathetic to some of the points of view in this critique, because, as our former bishop used to remind us, God is not a cosmic bellhop who does our will. But most serious charismatic Christians, both Catholic and non, don’t believe that either.
The article goes on:
There are some preachers that we can note as following in the theological tradition of Kenyon and Hagin with their communications strategy. The first is Kenneth Copeland – anointed by Hagin as his successor – and his television program Believer’s Voice of Victory, which spread those doctrines around the world. In the same way, Norman Vincent Peale (1889-1993), pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York, gained an enormous following with his books whose titles speak for themselves: The Power of Positive Thinking, You Can If You Think You Can, A Guide to Confident Living. Peale was a successful preacher and managed to mix marketing and preaching.
In the United States millions of people regularly go to the megachurches that spread the prosperity gospel. The preachers, prophets and apostles who have joined this branch of neo-Pentecostalism have taken up more and more important posts in the mass media, published an enormous quantity of books that have rapidly become best-sellers, and given speeches that are often transmitted to millions of people via the internet and social media.
I look forward to some cogent analysis by those well-informed about the various strains of positive thinking, neo-Pentecostalism and so on that, as an article like this may conflate theologies and strains among widely varying movements and not all of them are focused on “getting rich,” though perhaps they might help people stop doing the self-defeating things that keep them poor.
What puzzles me, however, is the fact in 2014 Pope Francis himself reached out to Kenneth Copeland and a host of other big name televangelists with a video recorded on the iPhone of the late Bishop Tony Palmer, who was a missionary for Copeland in Argentina. It was there he became friends with the future Pope when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
If you watch this video, you’ll hear Palmer describe how Pope Francis called him up out of the blue and invited him to visit him at his residence in Casa Santa Marta. After a couple of hours of free form discussion, Pope Francis asked Palmer to help him reach out to evangelicals. Palmer said he would be attending a big leadership conference of American televangelists, so Pope Francis recorded a video message for them on Palmer’s iPhone. If you scroll to the end of this video, you’ll see the Pope’s message. It hardly seems like Pope Francis is condemning them!
That video was made in Feb. 2014. In May or June of that year, Pope Francis, though the agency of Palmer, invited Copeland, John Robison, their wives, John Arnott and his wife Carol, who ran the church where the Toronto Blessing exploded in the early 1990s, and representatives from the World Evangelical Alliance, among them Brian Stiller, an old contact of mine since my CBC television days, to lunch at the Vatican. It was through seeing pictures of the lunch on Stiller’s Facebook page that I found out this unprecedented ecumenical gesture had taken place, though it was not on the Pope’s official schedule.
So, this makes me wonder why the magazine that’s believed to represent so closely Pope Francis’ views—after all Fr. Spadaro is considered one of his confidants—is now attacking some of the very people who attended this luncheon. At the time, in many circles, the meeting was hailed as a move of the Holy Spirit toward Christian unity.
I interviewed Tony Palmer via Skype only about three weeks before he was killed in a motorcycle crash in the UK. Though he had remained close to Copeland, he had moved to an Anglican-styled body called the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches. Pope Francis had him buried with all the honors of a Catholic bishop at a Catholic Requiem, something that disturbed someCatholic traditionalists.
When I first saw Pope Francis step out onto the balcony after his election and ask to be blessed by the crowd, I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, he’s a charismatic!” And many of my charismatic Catholic friends were thrilled by this—that finally their movement would get some respect.
I confess, though, that while I loved Tony Palmer as a Christian brother, I found some of the things he told me disturbing, so much so, that after I got off Skype with him, I had to go pray the Rosary so I could seek God’s peace again.
He told me he was prepared to become Catholic as his wife and family were already practicing Catholics and he spoke to the Pope about it. Pope Francis told him, no, he would be better off where he was for the purposes of bringing about unity.
One of the things that I had to accept was the imperative of belonging to the visible, institutional Catholic Church and being in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Thus to hear that the Bishop of Rome had told Palmer to wait, well, that was disturbing. There were some other things, but a little off topic for this blog post.
Tony Palmer was supposed to speak in Ottawa in August 2014 at a conference entitled Fire and Fusion, part of United in Christ, a movement that aims to bring about Christian Unity through the power of the Holy Spirit—through supernatural signs, wonders, gifts of the Spirit rather than a focus on endless theological discussion.
It has Catholics and Evangelicals together, but of a very charismatic variety—perhaps quite different from the more intellectual approach of Fr. Neuhaus and Chuck Colson.
I know people who are very active in this, including some Catholic priests who are close to me, and in their lives I see good fruit. It’s not my thing. But I did think it was Pope Francis’ thing, that’s why I am surprised by these attacks coming from Fr. Spadaro and Rev. Figueroa.