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'Bishop of Bling': Catholics Aren't Alone in Struggle with Wealth

Bishop Franz Peter Tebartz-van Elst greets the parents of the confirmants on May 4, 2013 in Konigstein, Germany.
Bishop Franz Peter Tebartz-van Elst, shown here on May 4, 2013 after a confirmation mass in Germany, has been suspended by the Vatican due to his extreme spending.
CREDIT: Roman Sigaev | Shutterstock

The Vatican has suspended a German bishop over the cost of his home renovation, highlighting religious — and very human — ambivalence over wealth.

Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst spent some $40 million of Catholic Church and German taxpayer money (registered Catholics in the country pay part of their income to the church) improving his private residence, including installing a $20,000 bathtub. Such a showy display apparently displeased Pope Francis, who is known for his austerity. Tebartz-van Elst has since been dubbed "the bishop of bling" by the German media.

The Catholic Church itself, however, is one of the wealthiest institutions on the planet, and some critics argue that the bishop of bling is merely a symptom of a larger problem.

"Tebartz-van Elst is just the tip of the iceberg," Christian Weisner, spokesman for the German branch of the Church reform group We Are Church, told the Religious News Service. "There is a real clash of cultures between Germany's current cardinals and bishops — nominated under John Paul II or Benedict XVI — and Pope Francis." [Papal Primer: History's 10 Most Intriguing Popes]

Catholics aren't the only ones with a wealth problem. Every religion and human philosophy has grappled with inequality in some way or another — and studies suggest that wealth gaps date to the beginnings of agriculture. Meanwhile, even as religion struggles with questions of wealth, belonging to a certain religion can influence how well off a person becomes.

Christianity and wealth

Whatever one's beliefs about wealth, they can probably find a religious theory to match. Among Protestant Christians, for example, wealth has been seen in three ways: as an offense to faith, as an obstacle to faith, and even as an outcome of faith, according to David Miller, the director of the Princeton University Faith & Work Initiative.

In a 2007 talk, Miller laid out the Biblical references to wealth and the philosophies they've engendered. Those who see wealth in direct opposition to faith have pointed to passages like Mark 8:20, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." According to anti-wealth thinkers, if Jesus rejected the material world, his followers should, too. "[W]oe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort," Jesus says in Luke 6:24-25. "Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry."

Others see wealth as an obstacle to faith, but not an insurmountable one. This faction points to Biblical quotes like, "the love of money is the root of all evil," to argue that it's not wealth, but obsession with wealth, that stands between man and faith.

"On the one hand, this Protestant modality recognizes a theologically legitimate role for wealth creation and its subsequent use," Miller wrote. "On the other hand, there is a profound awareness of two ways in which wealth creation becomes an obstacle to faith." [Religious Mysteries: 8 Alleged Relics of Jesus]

Finally, a small but influential group of evangelical Protestants argue that wealth is a sign of God's blessings, and the faithful will find that money comes their way. Figures such as televangelist Oral Roberts and megachurch pastor Joel Osteen preach this "prosperity gospel."

The Catholic Church has also wrestled with wealth, with Popes taking a generally pro-capitalist view since the late 1800s, according to Todd Whitmore, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. Nevertheless, Catholic theologians have condemned consumerism and wealth inequalities. In Redemptor hominis, a 1979 policy blueprint of sorts by Pope John Paul II, the Pope lamented, "We are now dealing with the rich highly developed societies — while the remaining societies — at least broad sectors of them — are suffering from hunger, with many people dying each day of starvation and malnutrition. Hand in hand go a certain abuse of freedom by one group — an abuse linked precisely with a consumer attitude uncontrolled by ethics — and a limitation by it of the freedom of the others, that is to say those suffering marked shortages and being driven to conditions of even worse misery and destitution."

The roots of money

However it's handled, wealth goes way back. According to a 2009 study published in the journal Science, wealth gaps emerge in traditional societies where inheritance matters: agricultural communities and pastoral, herding societies. A child born in the top 10 percent of one of these societies is 11 times more likely to end up in the top 10 percent than a child born in the bottom 10 percent.

Throughout history, hunter-gatherer societies and societies based on primitive slash-and-burn agriculture (without ploughs or land ownership) have been more egalitarian. A child born in the top 10 percent of these societies is still more likely to end up there than a child born in the bottom 10 percent, but only by three times, not 11.

In modern-day society, where a person sits in the social pecking order strongly determines how they'll interact with others. The wealthy are worse at understanding other people's emotions (a skill known as empathy) than the poor, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Psychological Science.

"Upper-class people's interactions are characterized by independence," study researcher Michael Kraus, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told LiveScience. "This can be good, because it provides autonomy from others and freedom from social pressures. It can be a problem in cases where upper-class individuals pay less attention to others' internal states."

Lower-class people live in a more dangerous world of unsafe neighborhoods and lack of ease. For them, Kraus said, understanding others is a matter of survival.  

Kraus has also found the poor are more polite and attentive to the wealthy than vice versa, bolstering the theory that the well-off send a "I don't need you" vibe. But wealth doesn't make people mean across the board. A 1993 study by psychologist Jon Haidt, now at New York University, surveyed rich and poor people in Brazil and found the wealthy were less likely than the poor to demand punishment for offensive but ultimately harmless acts, such as defacing an American flag. Researchers think the poor are quicker to moralize such acts because of the need to hang together.

"Extra moralizing helps protect lower-class group members from inappropriate behaviors that might shatter group cohesion," Kraus said.  

Get rich with God

If Catholic bishops often have spare cash, their followers aren't doing so badly either —at least in the United States. White, non-Latino Catholics ages 35 to 55 have proven to be an upwardly mobile bunch, according to research by Duke University sociologist Lisa Keister. Much of the change is demographic: This group has gained education, sized down families and sent more women to work.

In comparison, conservative Protestants tend to have bigger families and less education, making them among the poorest of religious groups, while Jewish families are, on average, the wealthiest, thanks in part to high levels of education and employment as well as small families. [Saint or Slacker? Test Your Religious Knowledge]

But much of the differences in wealth between religious groups remain unexplained. Keister suspects the teachings of each religion may explain the gaps.

"Religions have a lot of say about money, and people seem to internalize those messages," Keister told LiveScience. One obvious example is tithing: Conservative Christians tend to view money and belonging to God first, Keister said, and most give 10 percent of their income to the church. Tithing automatically cuts down on savings. That alone could explain the Protestant-Catholic wealth gap, Keister said, because U.S. Catholics typically don't tithe.

The wealth gaps even persist when race and other factors are taken into account. Latino Catholics, for example, have less wealth than white, non-Latino Catholics. But Latino Catholics are still better off than Latino conservative Protestants.

Another possibility is that just by attending church, people build social networks that help them accumulate wealth. Perhaps they meet people who might loan them money, or simply chat about investments after services with people wealthier than they.

"If I go to church with those kind of people, and I go a lot, it should matter," Keister said.

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