By M. Jefferson Hale*
A recent article on the internet, “Inside Castel Gandolfo, Pope Benedict’s spectacular temporary retirement home,” written by M. Alex Johnson of NBC News, could not be a better exposé of insecurity on the part of the masses and insensitivity on the part of the Church. In the comments section of the site, one contributor opined, “. . . religion helps more people than any other institutions [sic] in the world.”
Many religious organizations, including the Catholic Church, do indeed help with disaster aid, building and staffing sectarian schools, building hospitals, managing soup kitchens and nursing homes. Nevertheless, at least for wealthy religious institutions, how many schools (in poor neighborhoods, free of tuition, and with well-paid, qualified teachers), hospitals (with free services in poor neighborhoods), and nursing homes (free of fees and open to the poor), could they build and staff with the money that goes into maintaining the opulence surrounding the Church hierarchy? Is this empathy or just good, sound business practice? When the average person visits those monuments of human insecurity such as a grand cathedral or the Sistine Chapel, what does she think? Is she awed with God’s apparent splendor? Does it strengthen her faith? Should the Church spend billions for the psychological effect that bends one’s mind to impotence and piety when those dollars could do much more for the masses in the way of health aid and education?
“But,” one might argue, “many of these institutions do not charge for some of their services.” This is true, but who is it that would not gladly spend a billion dollars of other people’s money to help the less fortunate in return for living a worry-free life of power, splendor, and comfort? The difference between aid given and rewards reaped constitutes a cost-to-benefit ratio that must be the envy of many a Wall Street CEO.
Nevertheless, would it be right to call the benefits offered to the masses, “empathy?” Whoever wrote the Gospel of Matthew attributed to Jesus the words; “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me,” and; “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”
How many who preach those words actually follow them? It matters not who “owns” the sumptuousness in which one lives so long as one is guaranteed to reap its benefits for life, and pay no taxes. Didn’t the Pope, past and present, take a vow of poverty? Is he living in a state of true poverty?
But this isn’t only about the Catholic church, although they are the wealthiest in the God business. Protestant ministers who preach Jesus’ words of empathy from the pulpits of their grand megachurches and their luxurious television settings promote the concept of “prosperity theology,” to justify their wealth. “God rewards those who give,” they often say. “God will bless you in this life or in heaven if you give this church what you have.”
For all those who preach the empathetic side of the philosophy of Jesus, should not empathy be their primary motivating force instead of a carefree life of luxury and power? Is it empathetic to live worry-free in so much opulence at the expense of those who have little or nothing? Whatever happened to, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”—Matthew 6:19-21
True empathy would never gather and possess “treasures on earth.” True empathy would be about dividing all the wealth they’ve gathered among those in need. The hierarchy of all faiths would don the clothing of ordinary people, leave their cathedrals to be museums of a misguided past, establish a simple headquarters, and then proceed with the business of gathering converts and improving the lives of the least among us. Heck, were they to do so, I might even consider joining them.
* M. Jefferson Hale is the lead character in the novel, The Empathy Imperative, by Max T. Furr