roman catholic

A Protestant Problem?

Today, in an effort to address the question, “What is Catholic Social Thought (in the class of the same name) and is there a unifying concept or ethos?”, my professor asked, “Why do Protestants have such a difficulty with Health and Wealth Gospels, while the Catholic church seems to not?”

Any opinions? Well, besides the obvious one — that the hierarchy stands in the way. I did start to wonder if the curia functions in such a way…


24 thoughts on “A Protestant Problem?

  1. Wasn’t is Schleiermacher who was said to have attempted to talk about God by talking about humans in a really loud voice? It seems, whatever else the problems may be, that the RC’s have managed in large part to avoid the perils of Health and Wealth Gospels in it’s general avoidance of a hyper-anthropology. In some ways, one could argue that Liberation Theologies are just that, though I think that there is something a little different going on there than what is generally found in Protestant liberalism and the unthinking appropriation of social gospel strains which become health and wealth gospels in many cases. It may also have something to do with the grassroots, non-professionalism that latches onto charismatic personalities rather than well developed systems.

    In all, it seems that this is at least one factor at work from my vantage point. Whaddya think?

  2. I don’t think liberation theology could be a culprit, simply on the basis that it has the preferential option for the poor as a foundational hermeneutic. Nor do I think a social gospel would contribute to prosperity gospels, after all, the social gospel is to help the poor, not to justify the seeking of riches. Although I do think you’re right on the charismatic personalities. People do love to be told that greed is divine from people they’re attracted to.

  3. It is because of many reasons, not least of which is this:protestantism is a form of capitalism, because protestant church are always looking for new markets, always competing with one another (as well as with Hollywood, the political left, and so on), and entrepreneurial-style leadership is both preferred and nourished (when it comes to pastors).

  4. poserorprophet says:

    Sorry, but given the ostentatious luxury of the Vatican, the massive property (and other) holdings of the Roman Catholic Church, and it’s brutal suppression of liberation theology (as well as its pig-headed opposition to most of the major recent alternatives to capitalism), couldn’t we argue that the ‘Health and Wealth’ Gospel is actually quite deeply ingrained within Roman Catholicism? So, couldn’t one (provocatively) argue that the ‘Health and Wealth’ Gospel stands out in Protestantism precisely because it is an anomaly, but does not stand out in Roman Catholicism because it is so deeply integrated within the system?

  5. poserorprophet says:


    Perhaps… although I’m not sure if one could refer to the Roman Catholic Church of the last forty years as ‘Constantinian’ — ‘Constantinian’ in what sense? Indeed, ‘Constantinianism’ is a bit of a worn-out phrase these days so, if it is to have a meaningful use (that goes beyond ideological power-plays), I’d like to see it carefully defined.

    Be that as it may, couldn’t one make the argument that the Health and Wealth Gospel is what occurs when Constantinianism is popularised? That is to say, if Protestantism (on its good days) begins to deconstruct the power structures of the Roman Catholic Church and level the playing field (translating Scripture and liturgy into local languages, developing a stronger sense of the priesthood of all believers, etc.), couldn’t one of the interesting side effects of this be a deconstruction of the way in which the Magisterium hoards the wealth and resources of believers? Thus, if the Protestant (appropriately) says, ‘All believers, and not just the clergy, should have access to Scripture’ the Protestant might also (mistakenly) say, ‘All believers, and not just the clergy, can live a life of luxury and wealth.’ Thus, the Health and Wealth Gospel is revealed as a a Protestant re-appropriation of Constantinianism. Oh snap!

  6. Poserprophet,

    I see what you are saying. I only meant this: while the Magisterium may have lots of resources, it does not really fit with their official teaching, as it does with Protestant Health and Wealth gospel teaching. The latter would be more consistent (to my mind).

    I would say both avoid martyrdom (I mean this in all of its senses, including witness, suffering unto death, and so on), which is what Christ calls his people to. But Protestantism often works with the logic of capitalism (the logic of both has similar genes).

    Thanks for the response,


  7. poserorprophet says:

    Sorry, just to be clear, my “Oh snap!” was intended to be playful… upon rereading what I wrote, I realise that it might have come across as obnoxious.

    That said, I also don’t want to take away from the clearly established connections between Protestantism and capitalism [insert witty quotations from Weber and Tawney at this point]. I just don’t want to rush to let Roman Catholicism off the hook on this point given that the Roman Catholic Church has done a great deal to further the cause of global capitalism… perhaps more than any other single Christian denomination.

  8. poserorprophet says:

    I say “perhaps more than any other single Christian denomination” because, while Protestantism has helped capitalism to flourish in the West, Roman Catholicism has helped capitalism to triumph in places where its domain was contested. Thus, if Protestantism helped bring capitalism into being, Roman Catholicism has helped to ensure that we are left with no alternative to capitalism.

  9. I took the “Oh snap!” with the intended humor, but thanks for making sure. as far as connections between Roman Catholicism and capitalism goes, the book by sociologist Rodney Stark (whose ideology I detest..), The Victory of Reason: How Christianity led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, demonstrates the roots of capitalism in the late middle ages. He thinks he is defending Catholicism in correcting and supplementing Weber (he does not want the Protestants to get all of the credit)! But consistency is again something I want o keep in mind. For example, Calvin was the first to allow usury (which is necessary for current finance capitalism), but the Roman Church did not allow usury – according to Stark, the magisterium just looked the other direction. all this to say: I am against hypocrisy, of course, but I am especially disgusted with flat-out contradicting the call to discipleship (the call to die) with a call to health and wealth. I don’t think I am letting the Romans off of the hook, so I apologize if it looks like I am.

  10. Joe says:

    A couple thoughts:

    First, I would be curious to see if that statement still holds true in the many new, more charismatic Catholic churches.

    Second, beyond the kind of vulgar Weberianism in books like “Culture Matters”, there are definitely many affinities between Protestantism and entrepreneurial capitalism, including ideological factors (voluntarism, personalism, etc.) and both social and political factors (e.g. relationships between Protestant leaders and pro-business political forces, etc.).

    What you do find in Catholic communities is patronage networks, from semi-feudal systems in Latin America to Irish political machines in the United States. Clearly, there are affinities between the Catholic hierarchy and these kind of pre-modern formations.

    Another thing to think about is the difference between the rural and the urban. The health and wealth churches are largely a modern, urban development. Agrarian communities are more often stuck in patron/client relations, both economically and otherwise. Again, it would be interesting to see if the original question holds true for new or growing Catholic churches in urban settings.

    I’d also like to hear your professor’s answer!

  11. Joe, unfortunately the prof didn’t give an answer, primarily because he didn’t have one. He did want to put forward his question gingerly and made a number of attempts to make that clear. It was in an effort to see if there is something that makes Catholic Social thought distinctive.

    I’ll have to give the patronage idea some more thought. That seems to ring true. And I wonder if the “patron” in this case sees part of the justification for their existence in how the church is already established. Its own kind of prosperity gospel…. However, I am slightly hesitant, primarily because that centralized authority seems to parallel the protestants in some ways, while diverge so differently at the same time.

    Also, I’m learning just how voluntaristic the entire American project is, in American Catholic theology under Carey. (And Joe, hes another Union grad. That’s two of them here. Weird!) In fact, voluntarism is one of the key factors for building the Catholic structure so rapidly during the immigration and move west. Protestant or Catholic, if you’re an American, whether you like it or not, you’re a capitalist, or subject to the capitalism like most of the world under its (colonial) shadow.

    Still, I think its a mixed bag. I’m not sure Weberianism is so vulgar (although I’ll have to read more, and if you have any suggestions, let me know), but the patronage is a good point and duly noted.

  12. Thomas,

    I have no idea what you (or, I guess Stark) mean when you say that Calvin was “the first to allow” usury…what exactly are you getting at here? That there was no usury prior to Calvin? Surely not. So, do you (or Stark) mean ecclesiastically, perhaps? But, Calvin didn’t hold any sort of magisterial power…I’m just utterly confused by this statement. And I have to confess, it bothers me quite a bit because it seems to me a kind of ideological move to prop up this worrisome move to identify Protestantism in se with capitalism (that is, that Protestantism seems to evince a health and wealth gospel because both are irreducibly capitalist logics, and thus ultimately collapse into one another in essence). If we trust Weber for what makes Protestantism Protestant (and how such a logic or spirit, or whatever, is irrevocably market-oriented), then I would suggest that what truly distinguishes Protestantism is ultimately lost.

    My answer to this question would be: This is not only the wrong question to ask when seeking the distinctive nature of Catholic Social Teaching, but is ultimately the most ideological of questions.

  13. To clarify,

    That should not be taken as combative as it sounded…at least not against you, Thomas. I do think that the question itself is a way of propping up a certain ideology that persists, and particularly one that is blinded to the real commonalities and distinctions between Protestantism and Catholicism…there are commonalities and there are distinctions…it’s just that this question is a red herring in that discussion, one that only serves to obscure an already clouded matter even further. Obviously I have a stake in this matter, and especially inasmuch as I wish for this discussion to indeed take place, but in the most careful manner possible — and I just happened to find the question as stated to be rather careless and even haphazard. Peace.

  14. Dave B,

    I am not saying that usury did not exist before Calvin, because it obviously did. I am saying that Calvin was the first to allow this “officially.” The Roman church idd not “allow” it, but it happened anyway. I am using a secondary source here, one that might not be correct, so I am open to this correction, but I read that Calvin was the first to make the moral-theology move of justifying usury (I have no stake in being right here). This is why I was commenting on consistency between teaching and practice, and I meant Calvin as only an example.I am not drawing a direct correlation between Calvin and wealth gospels which prevail today, thought I think one can interpret the work ethic known as the “Protestant work ethic” as an actually existing phenomenon, though I would not limit it to Protestants. This does not mean I blame Calvin for the shopping mall, child labor in Nike factories, and Hannah Montana.

    As far as Protestantism goes, and its identification with capitalism, the whole point Stark is after is that Weber is wrong, meaning that capitalism developed centuries before Protestantism existed. Weber’s theory is fantastic, and needs to be seen as his own far-fetched interpretation of history.

    All this said, I do think many, if not most, non-denominational evangelical churches in America follow a very american-capitalist-consumerist-business model, and I think they have lost what “what truly distinguishes Protestantism” (to borrow your words).



  15. Thomas,

    Thanks for the clarification. I think I generally understood what you meant in your original comment…but let me just issue a few more clarifying retorts (or perhaps prodding questions) — and let me state categorically, by the way, that I was not calling your professor an ideologue, or something…I have simply seen this sort of rhetorical questioning used before, and I found it to be utterly wrong-headed, even if well-intentioned; that said, it shouldn’t put an end to dialogue or something…which is why I’m here!

    Part of what my first few questions were intimating was: What does “officially” even mean? You know? I mean, history can be a very messy matter at times, and I feel we must be responsible to it in a sense that does not allow for caricatures and generalized comments that are no more than mere guesses. Nevertheless, to be honest, I don’t really have any stake in whether Calvin was actually the first to allow usury or not. The way it appeared in your comment, however, it seemed to be serving the function of a demonstration of this identification of Protestantism with capitalism…really, it seemed to me just to be serving a scapegoat function, while also subtly exculpating Catholicism…I don’t really see how else the reference to Calvin is meant to function there. I also thought that you were distancing yourself from Stark’s critique, hence the comment about Weber. But, even if you agree that Weber is wrong (however, you do seem to want to suggest that his delineation of the “Protestant work ethic” to be right), your last comment, beginning, “All that said…” seemed to kind of take that back.

    Something else that bothers me about the comment on usury is the implicit anti-Judaic sentiment involved…if Calvin/Protestantism (and Calvin was a second generation Protestant, by the way) is to be collapsed into capitalism (or even to lay ground for it, or whatever), and this can be glimpsed in this example (even if just an example) of Calvin’s “official” allowance of usury in moral apologetic…you equally implicate Jews in such an identification. And it is well worth noting that the Jews served as a kind of “exception” to the Catholic ban…and it is probably also worth noting that the Roman church allowed for a kind of capitalist logic to persist on the side even while it banned it “officially”…again, isn’t this precisely the logic of ideology?

  16. Dave B.,

    I am about to run out the door, but quickly:

    1. I am not in the class and do not know the professor David Horstkoetter is speaking of, so I should make sure to separate myself from rhetorical questions that someone else asked. If I go astray, it may not be where this prof was leading… though eh may go astray a different direction.

    2. I am not sure I made myself clear (lets assume I am at fault), specifically regarding the work-ethic thing. I am saying A WORK ETHIC exists, which Weber identified with Calvinism, but I am not saying it is Protestant in any way any more than it is Catholic or pagan. I do think things simply need to be examined more carefully, which I won’t be able to do for a blog post right now.

    3. I am not saying usury is wrong (though it could be), and I am not saying Protestantism laid the ground for capitalism if I say that it pre-dated the Reformation by several hundred years.

    4. Related to #3, I have no idea how my statement is implicitly anti-Judaic.

    gotta run…

  17. Thomas, I’m sorry that I seem to have misunderstood you…just crossed wires or something. thanks for your clarification.

    For all others interested, Thomas and I have discussed this matter outside this forum already…so I will leave this at that, unless any others are really burning for my response. Peace.

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