If anyone knows how to ride out a scandal, it’s the Catholic Church; after all they’ve been at it longer than anyone else. This is not to diminish the remarkable contribution of Roman Catholics to both the history and current mission of the Church. But perhaps evangelicals could learn a few things from both Catholic successes and failures in this area. The latest criticism to be leveled at Rome is that it doesn’t really care about the poor. It’s an odd accusation given the Roman Catholic Church has possibly done more for the poor than any organization in history. Still, no one can deny that the Roman Catholic Church likes gold-gilded furniture (almost as much as classic Bond villain Auric Goldfinger and the folks at Trinity Broadcasting Network). The Catholic eye for opulence has sparked this popular meme: No sane man would defend the personal hoarding of wealth, especially not among clergymen. But when the man outside of the Church bemoans the unsold wealth of the Church, he’s not thinking of crooked cardinals or Popes parading as Renaissance princes. He is thinking of the cathedrals and the basilicas, the thrones and tabernacles of gold, the chalices of sliver and the jewel-encrusted robes, the pomp and pageantry of the largest human institution in the world. To summarize the modern axiom: The Catholic Church has gold and refuses to sell it, thus the Church lets the poor starve.A post at the Bad Catholic blog has responded to the accusation with a defense of “nice churches.” First, the author identifies the complaint: Bad Catholic goes on to respond with three points which I synthesize here in my own words. 1. The church does not take from the poor; the poor give freely to the church. 2. The facilities built by the church are for the benefit of the poor. 3. The leaders of the church are not wealthy. On this last point the writer notes that the average priest receives only $20k per year in takehome pay. “And if you’re the Pope, not only does your salary suck, but you don’t get it until you’re dead. Popes get one gold, silver and copper coin for each year of service placed on their coffin. Blessed John Paul II received about $141 dollars.” Of
course he doesn’t factor papal benefits like the palace, jet, servants, and popemobile (a vehicle so dope it inspired the cable program “Pope My Ride” which later changed its name to appeal to non-Catholics). How does this criticism and defense of the Catholic Church relate to evangelicals? Well, first, evangelical churches have gotten much larger and far more elaborate in recent decades. American evangelicalism, which ironically traces its heritage back to the austere Puritans and transient Methodists, has become dominated by megachurches. These facilities cost tens of millions of dollars to build, and while none can match the beauty of the Sistine Chapel or Notre Dame Cathedral, their elaborate multimedia auditoriums and amusement park like children’s areas certainly qualify as opulent. Combine this fact with the growing value of social justice and concern for the poor among younger evangelicals, and you’ve got the makings of a critique not unlike the one facing Catholics: How can evangelical church leaders justify spending millions and millions of dollars on facilities and salaries while the poor suffer? Adding to the challenge for evangelicals is the fact that any defense won’t be as simple as the one articulated by Bad Catholic. For example, Bad Catholic says the opulent facilities erected by the Catholic Church are for the benefit of all including the poor. Now one might argue that a poor person does not need flying buttresses or stained glass as much as fresh bread and a glass of water, but that does not negate Bad Catholic’s argument. The Catholic Church employs a parish model of ministry, meaning a facility is intended to serve all the people within a geographic area–rich and poor alike. Most evangelical mega/gigachurches, on the other hand, are designed to serve a sociographic rather then geographic community. In the 1980s and 90s Willow Creek pioneered this approach by describing their target audience with the fictitious upper middle class, white, suburban couple “unchurched Harry and Mary.” While I am unaware of any megachurch that actively turns away the poor, it’s more challenging to make the case that their facilities were designed specifically for them. Yes, I know megachurches that do really wonderful things to help the underserved and poor, but given the fact that most megachurches exists in the wealthy collar counties around large cities, it’s not as easy to make the case that they are designed “for the poor.” Also unlike the leaders of the Catholic Church, pastors of megachurches have not taken a vow of poverty. A recent survey found that the average senior pastor of a megachurch takes home $147,000 before benefits. The research also found that the average megachurch is suburban, with a budget over $5 million, and employs more than 50 full-time staff. So, I’ll throw the question back at you. Given our culture’s growing sensitivity to economic injustice, including among younger evangelicals, how would you respond to accusations of hypocrisy against megachurches with costly facilities? I may write my own response based on your feedback in the coming days.