Unsolicited advice for the Church

Ever since the death of John Paul II, people have been generously offering to help plan the future of the Catholic Church.  They recognize that the Church occupies a unique position in the world, and they want it to succeed. [Snort, cough, giggle.]

Okay,  they just want to graft their own agenda onto the Church's robust root stock and grow their own fruit upon it.

The British atheist Matthew Parris wants the Church to become amiably feeble like the Church of England, and the left wants it to incorporate its secular sacraments of abortion, women in the priesthood, contraception, condoms, and gay marriage into the already substantial list of seven sacraments:
baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance and reconciliation, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony.

All this free advice would be comical if it weren't so outrageous.  How in the world does a secular journalist imagine that she has standing to advise the Conclave of the College of Cardinals on the content of the Catholic faith?  Strictly speaking, of course, nobody has standing, since the Church has always been a top—down church, a magisterium.  If you prefer bottom—up religion, Protestant churches offer a different approach.

But there is one way in which we interfering opiners can help.  We can apply our Yankee ingenuity to the market share issue.  It may seem sacrilegious to apply the crass reasoning of the marketplace to the Godly realm of religion. But churches are also institutions which rely on economic inputs to maintain their activities. The Catholic Church is the oldest organization in the world, and it has survived this long by being both spiritual and pragmatic, though the two imperatives are often in tension.

Assume for the sake of discussion that the Catholic Church wants to remain the market leader in the global religion industry: what should it do to stay No. 1?

The U.S. is home to a coterie of academic sociologists that has studied just this problem:  How does a church find the 'sweet spot' in the religious market, and grow to become market leader? That is what sociologist Rodney Stark and his collaborators have done.

Suppose you think in terms of supply and demand for religion, and symbolize religious organizations as 'religious firms' led by 'religious entrepreneurs.'  What then?  You could think of a big, corporate religious firm as a 'church,' and a start—up religious firm as a 'sect' or 'cult.'

The whole point of a church, as Will Herberg advised in 1966, is to take its stand 'against the spirit of the age—because the world and the age are always, to a degree, to an important degree, in rebellion against God.'  There should be, and there usually is, a 'tension' between a church and society.  A church should keep a certain distance from the secular world to demonstrate the distance between what is and what should be.

Some religious firms, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, keep a large distance from the secular world, maintaining a separate community in 'high tension' with secular society.  Sects usually impose heavy costs and prohibitions upon their members.  Others, like the average Pentecostal or 'fundamentalist' church, maintain a medium tension with godless, secular society and impose fewer costs and prohibitions upon their members.  There are others, liberal religious firms like the Unitarian Universalist Church, that maintain almost no tension with the dominant secular society and the educated, secular elite.  For their members there is almost no cost to membership.

Church members usually understand that to get a really superior product you have to pay more.

For budding religious entrepreneurs or CEOs, the question arises: Is there a 'best' level of tension?  In Acts of Faith Rodney Stark and Roger Finke asked just this question, and they found that there is a Bell Curve associated with religious tension or strictness.  Very strict and very liberal churches are usually small.  The 'sweet spot' with the biggest churches is the moderately strict religious market niche in moderate tension with secular society.

The Catholic Church used to have a reputation for strictness.  It was a church that was notorious (or renowned, depending on your perspective) for imposing substantial costs upon its adherents, in particular upon its clergy, the male celibate priests and female celibate nuns.  But in the 1960s the Catholic Church suddenly decided to reduce its tension with the rest of society, and 'updated' its doctrines and its beliefs.  It reduced the cost of being a Catholic (by relaxing the threat of excommunication, the requirements to attend church, and meatless Fridays) and it reduced the benefit of being a religious priest or nun (mainly by annihilating the feeling of being set apart, according to Stark, 'in a special state of holiness').  All of a sudden, the churches started to empty and some of the religiously inclined lost their vocations.

Fortunately, along came John Paul II who made the church stricter.  The Catholic Church started to grow again except, of course, in Old Europe.

You can understand what the unpaid, un—solicited secular advisers are proposing for the Catholic Church.  They are proposing that it reduce its 'tension' with secular society. They are proposing that it become smaller.

Christopher Chantrill (mailto:chrischantrill@msn.com) blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.  His Road to the Middle Class is forthcoming.