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The Gospel of Greed

The Prosperity Gospel: How Greed and Bad Philosophy Distorted Christ’s Teaching

By Thomas Storck

Publisher: TAN Books

Pages: 154

Price: $27.95

Review Author: Barbara E. Rose

Barbara E. Rose is Book Review Editor and Web Editor of the NOR.

American Catholics are told we are Protestantized compared to our coreligionists elsewhere, and no doubt this is true. Considering the difficulty of recognizing errors imbibed from our surrounding culture, it is good to have a guide in this matter. As longtime readers will recall, Thomas Storck — a contributing editor of the NOR and author, translator, or editor of ten books and countless articles on Catholic culture — has been explaining Catholic social and economic teaching in this magazine’s pages for decades, providing a veritable education on the subject. In his latest book, The Prosperity Gospel: How Greed and Bad Philosophy Distorted Christ’s Teaching, Storck details the peculiar Protestant heresy that says God rewards believers with “the good things of this life, and in particular with wealth.” The influence of the surrounding Protestant culture on American Catholics has been “immense,” Storck writes, and as the Prosperity Gospel is part of our Protestant culture, even Catholics fall sway to its false promises.

The Prosperity Gospel is rooted in Protestant interpretations of Scripture and in an American political philosophy that, from the get-go, privatized religion. While the privatization of religious belief kept the peace among immigrant peoples, the removal of God from the public square has been a problem, to say the least. Storck takes issue with the very idea of privatized religion. The “fundamental questions that should preoccupy men’s minds,” he writes, such as “our concept of God and of how to please Him, and of our destiny beyond this life,” are necessarily shared, cultural questions — in other words, much more than private matters. But the privatization of religion would go unexamined in a nation full of Protestant gentleman farmers, allowing radical individualism to take hold, leading each citizen to presume to “decide” God’s place and life’s meaning (or not) all on his own.

Storck, with good reason, often returns to U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy’s infamous statement from Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” — as a fitting summary of American radical individualism. Expanding on Christopher Dawson’s idea that each civilization expresses “a faith or a vision of reality which gives the civilization its spiritual unity,” Storck says if this description is correct, then “the seeming lack of a shared worldview for society that appears in Justice Kennedy’s statement turns out in fact to be a worldview.” The American worldview leaves each man believing his conduct is his affair alone and society is “simply a collection of individuals.” Clearly, this is not a Christian view.

With questions of God and meaning taken off the common table and “relegated to private life,” American moral and cultural attitudes settled around the idea that “what is important in life is the material world,” that is, business and politics. As American culture looks away from God, Storck writes, the “real business of living for most people becomes the pursuit of wealth.” History tells us that early Americans were pious; in their descendants’ lives, it appears that, with each passing generation, wealth increased and God decreased. The notion that God Himself was underwriting worldly rewards surely held great appeal.

French commentator Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of Americans in the early 19th century that “one usually finds that love of money is either the chief or a secondary motive at the bottom of everything the Americans do.” He added, “The American will describe as noble and estimable ambition that which our medieval ancestors would have called base cupidity.” Moneymaking and ambition became the game, as it were, and so the play proceeded. Indeed, America produced a new type of character, the man (and now woman, too) who lives for work, and a new ethic took hold. Max Weber, in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), observes that “the summum bonum of this ethic, the earning of more and more money…is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational.” Storck describes this preoccupation as “not always greed, per se, but something more than greed, in fact, a quasi-religious attitude.”

This attitude, wrapped in the attractive idea that prosperity is a gift from God, has marked much of American society. Storck says that “when economic life is no longer seen and treated as an important but subordinate aspect of man’s life, then it tends to take over and distort our social and moral values and alter our perceptions of the good.” This is where Christians run into serious trouble. “Instead of the Gospel judging, ruling, and shaping our desires and passions,” argues Storck, “it becomes the other way around: our disordered desires now determine the contents of the Gospel itself.” He reminds the reader that of course Catholics “do not consider material goods as sinful.” But Christ clearly taught that wealth stirs disordered desires. The Church likewise teaches that economic life “assumes its true worth only when it is firmly placed within the entire hierarchy of human social life” — within, not atop.

Excessive consumption, companion to the quasi-religion of excessive moneymaking, would become part and parcel of American life by the end of the 20th century. Although largely regarded as harmless, fervent consumerism comes to direct men toward having rather than being. Indeed, decadent consumerism consumes its practitioner to the point that he neglects his spiritual and moral welfare. Observing this on a national scale, we see that what began as a removal of religious questions from the public square has morphed into a draining of religion and practically all virtue from Americans’ attention and pursuit, as we certainly see expressed in today’s broader (anti-) culture. Forgetting about God, except occasionally as a Sugar Daddy in the Sky, has left America in the political straits about which founding father John Adams warned: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Old-world Catholic teaching — in other words, standard Christian teaching before the Protestant revolt — included the concept of having enough. Storck says medievals considered avarice a sin and even deemed it “necessary to create concrete practices, institutions, and regulations which restrained greed.” They recognized the moral dimension of economic activity. Church teaching on this hasn’t changed. Not so long ago, Pope St. Paul VI wrote, “Both for nations and for individual men, avarice is the most evident form of moral underdevelopment.” Catholics back then may have appreciated Paul’s statement. These days, avarice and the other six Deadly Sins are regarded as unremarkable — standard business practice, some might say.

Storck acknowledges that during Catholicism’s heyday before Vatican II, American Catholics formed “a much more self-conscious subculture.” Protection of the interests of wage earners and families, industry councils and mediating institutions between family and state, and culture-wide belief in ideas like the family wage and limits to moneymaking (particularly among the professional and managerial class) held for a time but would not last.

Social order according to Catholic doctrine and tradition aims toward holiness and justice. The Church affirms that questions of meaning are concerns of the community as a whole, and that society exists for a purpose: to help men live according to virtue and, per St. Thomas Aquinas, “through virtuous living to attain to enjoyment of God.” Part of virtuous living is to give God His due. When Storck quotes Pope Leo XIII as saying, “It is a public crime to act as though there were no God,” and “We are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will,” the reader comprehends the chasm between Church teaching and liberalism’s conception of order (liberalism here meaning the political philosophy that promotes individualism). Across several chapters, Storck continues tracing the bad philosophy behind the Prosperity Gospel to current prevailing attitudes in applied science, education, and more.

Toward the book’s end, Storck points out that Catholics have allowed themselves “to imbibe erroneous and evil ideas.” Though we Catholics have been significantly influenced by our culture, “we are not altogether trapped” within it. We can make decisions on “acquisition and consumption of material goods” and whether we “prefer material goods to spiritual or intellectual goods.” The Prosperity Gospel promotes unbridled pursuit of riches and justifies greed. The remedy, according to Pope St. John Paul II, “is a concrete commitment to solidarity and charity.” Catholics, exhorts Storck, can aim to make their lives and “our whole society, our culture, reflect the divine hierarchy according to which everything is ordered to God.”

 

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