Is the Church a “Lazy Monopoly”? To What Extent?

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels reports that “one out of every three Americans raised in the church is no longer a Catholic.”  She looks to economist Albert O. Hirschman’s study Exit, Voice, and Loyalty for a potential explanation for this exodus.  In the study, Hirschman argues that “lazy monopolies” are organizations that fail to satisfy their members (who either “exit” or stay but “voice” their displeasure) and yet do little to address the concerns of their (ex) constituents.

Steinfels correctly points out that the Church differs from other monopolistic organizations because of its role as guardian of immutable truths.  Indeed, its inherent credibility is based on upholding doctrines regardless of the will of a given era.  At the same time, though, one can’t help but feel there hasn’t been enough of an outreach to more effectively address the root causes of why the faithful are leaving.

According to Steinfels, 12 million people have moved from Catholicism to other religions and 12 million more are unaffiliated with any religious group.  I would like to see further subdivisions of these numbers that identify specific reasons for people exiting the Church.  Is it because they no longer believe in God or the divinity of Jesus, or was their faith poisoned by specific policies or errors such as the errant handling of the child sex abuse scandal?

I think the Church is guilty of being a “lazy monopoly” to different extents in each of these cases.  A loss of belief in the former is usually spurred by doubts about fundamental Church doctrine or theory, meaning the Church is less culpable- its credibility on guarding eternal truths is nullified if they’re constantly changing.  But if millions of people are leaving because they no longer believe in God, the Church does bear responsibility for failing to engage in convincing dialogue with its body.  It needs to provide clear, strong, and well-argued answers to Catholicism’s toughest critiques, and it needs to make these answers readily available to the people.

A difference of opinion as to what constitutes fundamental doctrine or theory may itself be a cause of abandoning Catholicism, too.  The Church’s unwavering stance in the substance of the Eucharist is one thing, but taking a hard-line doctrinal approach to issues such as banning women priests or gay marriage could be a substantial deterrent for some faithful.  I realize that policy shifts on these issues could be judged as undermining the Church’s credibility as discussed above, but it would seem the Church’s emphatic rejection of ongoing debate about these issues is symptomatic of the “lazy monopoly” model, especially if coherent arguments are paired with popular support of the banned practices.  (See John Paul II’s letter on the ordination of women for reference and take note of the absolutist tone of the final sentence.)

In the case of the faithful leaving because of events like the sex abuse scandal, the Church has acted as a lazy monopoly.  It did not take forceful action against the offending parties and it suffered deserving criticisms of hypocrisy as a result.  The Church has certainly undergone changes in the past to better suit the will of the people (the English mass after Vatican II comes to mind), but given that many have left recently in the wake of poor response to internal crises, a better job still needs to be done to restore confidence.

I hope Matt weighs in on this issue and evaluates Steinfels’ article beyond what I’ve jotted down here.  Matt has done extensive research on choice theory among religions, and I think he’ll provide us with some insightful commentary about Hirschman’s model.

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