The Church as an Institutional Ethical Consultant

I enjoyed reading Matt’s recap of Daniel K. Finn’s “Building Better Economies: Why Popes and Economists Need to Talk” lecture at Fordham. One paragraph of Matt’s write-up, in particular, stood out to me:

As Finn concluded his remarks, I was left wondering about what might actually be done to further the sort of dialogue he believes is necessary. Sure, popes have consulted with economists when they want to write about economics; have economists consulted with popes when they want to write about ethics? Do economists ever want to write about ethics? I approached Finn after the talk and asked him what he made of this asymmetry and how he thought it should be addressed. He acknowledged that this was a problem, and offered a few examples of forums and conferences that have modeled the kind of interaction wants to see become more widespread. Yet his examples were events that were sponsored by the Church! My point still stood.

As important as Finn’s thesis is, Matt’s observation speaks to the underlying issue with any sort of ecumenical-economic dialogue: it’s always a one-way discussion. No matter the extent to which the Church incorporates economic theory into papal encyclicals and other official documents, there’s no guarantee major economic institutions will integrate Christian ethical principles into their organizational frameworks.

Matt’s main point still stands, indeed. Not only are most forums for conversation usually initiated by the Church, but most ethical discussions in the business and finance community are reactive in nature. Prosperous environs are not conducive to calls for temperance. It’s clearly not a coincidence that major banks instituted more responsible protocols after the damage of the risk-fueled 2008/2009 crisis had already been done.

So what, if anything, could encourage secular organizations to engage the Church in constructing moral guidelines? Is it ludicrous to even consider this happening on anything more than a miniscule scale?

Perhaps. But the papacy of Francis has presented a unique opportunity for the Church to capitalize on its current favorability and crossover appeal with nonbelievers and non-Christians. And if we think of Francis’ first year as a period in which the papacy regained respect from secular society, it’s possible that the next few years could see the Church itself become a body worth consulting for guidance.

What I’m proposing, in effect, is a scenario wherein the Church heavily promotes itself as a sort of Christian Ethical Consulting Firm, a body that provides advice for organizations looking to reshape their culture. In effect, members of the Church could work with businesses and major economic groups to provide advice for growth and success within a Christian ethical framework.

Why would this scenario appeal to big businesses? The public’s post-crisis perception of most major institutions is still deeply negative; banks, in particular, continue to look for ways to make it seem like they’re working to atone for their sins. The Church could take advantage of this opportunity (be it sincere or simply superficial) and gradually work to advise the company on more responsible practices going forward.

To suggest that big banks would go to a religious institution for advice seems slightly crazy, especially given that the profit-maximization objectives of most financial institutions are in opposition to the Church’s economic philosophy. Without question, there would be limits to the Church’s ability to achieve the kind of economic justice described in Rerum Novarum or John Paul II’s encyclicals. Goldman Sachs would not begin donating its quarterly profits to charity after a brief morality sesh with Timothy Dolan. But the underlying goal would be a gradual integration of Christian ethics into different facets of a bank’s macro workflow, with the intent of achieving responsible outcomes over the long term. Not only is this kind of guidance going to look good from a PR standpoint, but it could engender business practices that might actually lead to more temperate growth and development. I’d bet that, in retrospect, the Bear Stearns board would have jumped at the opportunity to take on the Church as a consultant in exchange for moderately lower short-term profits.

The key to this scenario, of course, is the Church’s ability to employ people for this kind of consulting work who know what they’re talking about. If there is one concrete outcome from this year’s upcoming Synod of Bishops, I hope it’s the elevation of lay Catholic leaders in business, medicine, science, and other professions to more influential roles in the Church. Espousing a theology with effective, measurable outcomes requires the input of those who know their disciplines best and who also have a deep sense of faith and service. Their views should be viewed with equal weight to those of cardinals and bishops, at least in matters of their expertise.

The good news is that this is already happening! Late last year, the Financial Times ran a detailed story of how lay bankers were helping clean up the Vatican Bank’s messy finances. Just a few days ago, the panel of the Vatican’s new Council of the Economy (a sort of “ministry of finance”) was announced, and it includes seven laypeople with backgrounds in financial governance and executive leadership. I’d imagine lay professionals have long been asked to assist in high-level Church initiatives, but Francis has indicated a more extensive and foundational role for these kind of experts going forward. Let’s hope this is the case.

As noted above, there’s no need for this kind of consultation to be limited to business and economic matters. There are plenty of areas where the Church could apply its ethical principles in service of secularists who would otherwise have no interest in learning about Church teaching. Marriage comes to mind as an intriguing case study. The oft-cited statistic is that 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Much has been said of how the Synod will likely tackle the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics later this year, but what if the Church worked to tackle the breakdown of civil marriage as well? Perhaps a consultant board could provide services to couples who are considering getting married, with a message of, “Let us help you make the most of your commitment to each other so that it’s as rewarding as possible.” It could employ lay relationship counselors to provide advice along the journey, advice rooted in secular language with distinctly Christian underlying principles.

The important phrase in the previous paragraph is “in service of.” Right now, one fears that non-Christians might view the Church with an attitude of skepticism for what Pope Francis would call its “legalistic” trends: pronunciations of what not to do combined with a focus on the consequences of these transgressions. The Church as a “consultant” would instead emphasize gradual reformation with a combination of firmness, compassion, and logic. You won’t engage nonbelievers by telling them what they’re doing wrong, but you might get their attention by proving to them the advantages of the Church’s way.

Most studies of Church attendance in the last few months have not found any measurable impact of the so-called “Francis Effect.” That is, there has been no jump in people attending mass despite the Pope’s high favorability. And that makes sense. One man might make people more understanding of the Church as an institution, but it’s difficult to single-handedly convince non-believers that Catholicism’s beliefs and practices are a worthwhile paradigm. Even if the Church doesn’t adopt the measures outlined above, the general conceit should be its priority going forward: engaging more effectively with non-believers on their grounds. This requires the presentation of ideas and beliefs in a way that makes sense on a secular level.

To be frank: my comparison of the Church to an “ethical consultant” is somewhat watered-down and clinical. It strips the mythology of a communion of people into a panel which provides advice sapped of explicit Christian associations. No doubt this would strike many as foolishly ineffective or a betrayal of the Church’s tradition, but I’m finding myself increasingly drawn in the other direction. The Church’s size and ability to unite believers across countries, languages, and governments is an advantage it should leverage. Using that weight to make a concerted push for dialogue with nonbelievers, on their terms, is something the Church can – and should – do.

Returning to Matt’s original question about economists and Christian ethicists: imagining the Church operating in the aforementioned manner wouldn’t turn the one-way street of economic-ecclesiastical dialogue into a two-lane highway. But it would provide a broader and more effective set of tools to make sure that conversation keeps growing and the effects of such dialogue have progressively greater impact. Francis has laid the groundwork for this type of cooperation to begin in earnest; let’s see if we can’t take those next steps to make it happen.

“Why Popes and Economists Need to Talk”

Last Monday after work I made what I was surprised to learn is a very long trek from lower Manhattan to Fordham University in the Bronx to attend a talk by Daniel K. Finn, an economic ethicist at the University of Saint John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota. The lecture, sponsored by Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, was entitled “Building Better Economies: Why Popes and Economists Need to Talk,” and marked the kickoff of a planned two-year series of events to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s economic encyclical Rerum Novarum.

The main objectives of Finn’s talk were a) to encourage economists and theologians/ethicists, particularly within the Catholic academy, to engage in more interdisciplinary discussion, and b) to critique the tendency within academia for different subject areas to self-segregate into inward-looking cliques (he accompanied his introduction of this idea with a nice illustration of silos). As promised by his title, Finn made a compelling case for why popes and economists need to talk, but I had been hoping that he would deal more extensively with what practical steps might be taken to further promote and even institutionalize this kind of dialogue.

In the first half of the lecture, Finn summarized studies from a subfield known as behavioral economics that have sought to illuminate the psychological impacts of poverty. He focused in particular on an observation from the literature that the stress associated with a chronic lack of basic necessities leads to “reduced mental bandwidth,” and to shortsighted decision-making, poor impulse control, and weaker problem-solving abilities. This in turn can generate self-defeating patterns of behavior that can keep someone from rising out of poverty.

Such an empirical finding can have clear implications for public policy. Finn argued, for example, that accepting this understanding of why poverty persists would militate against imposing a fixed lifetime limit on the amount of welfare benefits that can be collected by a given individual, since this sort of restriction misunderstands the nature of “poverty-induced tunneling.” In other words, the intended incentive effects of such a limit will tend to be attenuated by the fact that the poor are focused not on making plans for far in the future, but on short-term subsistence. A better alternative might be to institute a cap on what can be collected during a given spell of poverty or unemployment (e.g. to allow a maximum of X dollars to be collected every Y months).

Although he didn’t deal explicitly with how “popes” might assimilate the fruits of such research into Church teaching, Finn did mention that Pope John Paul II is known to have consulted with economists when writing Centesimus Annus, his landmark social encyclical. At a more practical level, a better understanding of how to break cycles of poverty can assist Church-affiliated organizations like Catholic Relief Services in designing more effective strategies for promoting growth and development.

The latter half of the talk dealt with the contributions that popes and other churchmen, theologians, and ethicists can make to the dialogue with economists. In addition to simply reminding economists that their research ought always to be conducted with an eye toward fostering the common good, the exhortations of Church leaders can contribute to a deeper, more fundamental rethinking of what is possible in the realm of political economy. Finn quoted liberally from Benedict XVI’s 2009 treatise on the global economic order, Caritas in Veritate, to show what form this kind of rethinking might take. We can see hints of the Benedictine (and Franciscan!) vision of “commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursuing social ends” in organizations like credit unions or grocery co-ops or health insurance co-ops, but these types of arrangements remain exceptions to the basic order of capitalism.

As Finn concluded his remarks, I was left wondering about what might actually be done to further the sort of dialogue he believes is necessary. Sure, popes have consulted with economists when they want to write about economics; have economists consulted with popes when they want to write about ethics? Do economists ever want to write about ethics? I approached Finn after the talk and asked him what he made of this asymmetry and how he thought it should be addressed. He acknowledged that this was a problem, and offered a few examples of forums and conferences that have modeled the kind of interaction wants to see become more widespread. Yet his examples were events that were sponsored by the Church! My point still stood.

The 2010 documentary Inside Job, in which Matt Damon explains the financial crisis, features a discussion about the uncomfortably close ties between the financial industry and business school/econ department faculty, and the ways in which these ties can distort and bias economic research. I personally am fortunate enough to work with morally upstanding economists on a daily basis, but the near-universal lack of ethical training as a component of degree programs in business and economics is something that worries me.

As insistent as recent popes have been that their social teaching is generally applicable to the whole of humanity, and rises above the level of ecclesiastical law binding only on Catholics, the Church will nevertheless have to build coalitions with those outside of Catholicism if it hopes to overcome the perception that its forays into discussions about political and economic concerns are driven by narrow sectarian interests.

I think that Finn and others like him have started in a logical place by zeroing in on Catholic universities, though. Kenneth Garcia, in a book called Academic Freedom and the Telos of the Catholic University, argues that Catholic colleges ought to focus more on recruiting intellectuals who are well-trained in both their own particular subject area and the broader philosophical and ethical tradition of the Church. This is a tall order, and at least one reviewer expressed skepticism that there are very many of these strange beasts out there to be recruited (not to mention that previous attempts to accomplish something similar, even at Garcia’s own university, have not necessarily ended well). But if Finn’s exercise in silo-breaking is to succeed, it would seem that these are the places where it will have to get off the ground first.

A day or two after Dan Finn’s talk, I read a review by Michael Sean Winters at the National Catholic Reporter of a forthcoming book by Andrew Abela and Joseph Capizzi entitled A Catechism for Business, which attempts to offer practical advice for Catholics seeking to integrate their moral principles with their professional work. Although Winters is critical of the free-market sympathies of its authors, one a moral theologian at Catholic University of America and the other the dean of CUA’s business school, he nevertheless believes that the book makes a unique contribution:

A Catechism for Business consists of quotes drawn from the Church’s teaching on issues of business and economics and one can only hope that many Catholic businesspeople will better acquaint themselves with that teaching via this medium. They certainly would be inclined to change some of their business practices and, what is more important, the whole way business is conceived in our hyper-commercial U.S. culture…

This Catechism is a worthwhile project and I hope it will be widely distributed and read. And, I believe the conversation between traditional advocates of Catholic social teaching and economists like Abela should continue, if only to convert him from his evident devotion to the fuzzy free-market thinking we associate with the Austrians not the Apostles. But, Abela is sincere, not sinister and his collaboration with Capizzi in producing this Catechism has yielded a fine compendium of Church teachings which, if taken seriously by the business community, could result in a far more humane economy than the one those businessmen have erected on their own.

Winters seems to equivocate about precisely how broad an audience the book might be able to attract, writing first that he hopes it will be read by “many Catholic businesspeople,” but then later that it would be wonderful to see it “taken seriously by the business community [in general].”

My own sense is that a book by two academics at CUA replete with quotations from papal documents will struggle to get a hearing outside of the Church. But in the age of Francis, who knows? People like Finn, Abela, and Capizzi are doing important work, but they should be cognizant of the fact that they may need to use different language when talking to different audiences. A multiplicity of approaches will be required if we really want to “build better economies.”

Will the Geographic Profile of the College of Cardinals Really Change Under Francis?

The Pope’s Promotions

Earlier today, Pope Francis formally elevated 19 Catholic prelates to the rank of cardinal in a ceremony known as a “consistory,” marking the first time that he has made such promotions since his election last March. As with all of Pope Francis’ “firsts,” the announcement of his first picks for the cardinalate had generated a significant amount of buzz in light of his evident intention to dramatically shift the geographic distribution of the red hats.

Since their main responsibility is to elect the next pope, there is naturally a great deal of interest in the cardinals – where they come from, who they are, and what issues they care about. In the run-up to the conclave that elected Francis last March, the Pew Research Center produced a graphic showing how the percentage of cardinals from each region of the world compared to the percentage of the world’s Catholics living in those regions. The visual was stark: while Europe only accounted for less than a quarter of the world’s Catholics as of 2013, it was home to over half of the cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave. Latin America, with nearly 40% of the global Catholic population, could claim only 17% of the cardinal electors as its own.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that Francis is accelerating a trend toward the “de-Italianization” or “de-Europeanization” of the College of Cardinals that has been at work for some time. National Catholic Register‘s Edward Pentin observed in January that “[f]ewer cardinals [from] the Roman Curia [the Vatican bureaucracy] will allow the Pope to choose more widely from the Church’s resident archbishops, thereby giving a more equitable distribution of cardinals from around the world.” In keeping with his emphasis on caring for the poor, Francis’ choices included clerics from developing countries like Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, and Nicaragua. Bishop Chibly Langlois was selected as the first cardinal from Haiti, one of the most impoverished nations in the world.

But looking at how the nationalities of the cardinals have evolved over time only tells half the story. As the Pew graphic emphasized, one also needs to take into account the ratio of cardinals to Catholics in a given region to get a sense of whether that part of the world is represented as fairly as another.

Of course, when I talk about “representation,” I don’t mean to imply that the cardinals represent the laity in the same way that congressmen represent their constituents in the U.S. House of Representatives. While the College is a quasi-democratic institution with a protocol for electing the pope that resembles the protocol used by the Electoral College to elect the President of the United States, the cardinals do not literally poll the faithful on who they want to be pontiff. Moreover, the College’s role in the actual governance of the Church is generally very limited, despite the fact that it is sometimes referred to as the “papal senate” (though the amount of input that its members have varies from papacy to papacy, and may well be reaching a high-water mark under Francis).

That said, there are clear reasons to prefer a distribution of cardinals roughly commensurate with the global distribution of the Catholic population. One is that the issues that appear most pressing to the Church in Rome may not seem all that important or urgent to the Church in the Third World, and vice versa. For example, the European and North American bishops and cardinals are more likely to worry about secularism, church-state conflicts, the aftermath of the sexual abuse crisis, and bioethical controversies than their counterparts elsewhere. In Africa, the most pressing concerns are hunger, genocide, and Islamic extremism. In South America, starvation and poverty again top the list, along with environmental degradation and governmental corruption. A Church that becomes too myopically Eurocentric will be unable to react appropriately to problems in other parts of the world.

I was curious to see whether the geographic distribution of the cardinalate has in fact become significantly more or less equitable over time, so I fired up my copy of Stata 12 and starting crunching the numbers.


Data and Methodology

The first step was to find some data. Fortunately, virtually all of the hard work of compiling information on the College of Cardinals had already been done by Florida International University’s Salvador Miranda, who curates a wonderfully comprehensive website on “The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church.” Since the majority of Catholics lived in Europe for most of the Church’s history, and since the cardinals were almost all of Italian descent until relatively recently, I figured it would be enough to begin my analysis around 1900 (this was also the earliest date for which I could find estimates of the global Catholic population, as I explain below). I pulled data from Miranda’s website going far enough back in time to be sure that I had included all men who were cardinals at the start of the twentieth century.

Counting cardinals at any given point in time is in fact a bit trickier than it might seem. Cardinals can exit the College either by dying, by being elected pope, or (in a couple rare instances) by resigning their position. The pope can also create “secret cardinals” or cardinals in pectore, whose names are kept “in his breast” until such time as he decides to publish them. Although the date of promotion of such cardinals is technically the date the pope promoted other cardinals he chose at the same time, I thought it would make more sense to count only cardinals whose names were known publicly on the date in question.

Moreover, assigning cardinals to a particular region of the world can also get complicated. Many have held positions in the Vatican at the time of their elevation despite having been born and raised elsewhere. I decided to assign cardinals to regions based on where they worked when they were promoted, not on their nationality at birth. Since I argued at the outset that we should care about the geographic distribution of the red hats because it can affect the Church’s global perspective, I figured it was logical to count men working in the Holy See as Italians/Europeans. (That said, I also redid my analysis with nationality at birth, and the results are very similar. These, along with all of my computations, are available on request.)

For population data, I turned to the World Christian Database (WCD), sponsored by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. From the website of the WCD I was able to obtain estimates of the global Catholic population by continent in 1900, 1950, 1970, 2000, and 2010, as well as projections for 2020.

Following some work in the political science literature, I decided to employ the Gini coefficient – most commonly used in economics as a measure of income or wealth disparities – to get a sense of inequality in the geographic distribution of cardinals. I don’t want to bore non-econ geeks with a mathematical discussion of the Gini coefficient*, so I’ll stick to essentials: Gini readings close to zero represent more equal distributions (e.g. every region of the world having a number of cardinals proportional to its share of the global Catholic population) and readings close to one represent unequal distributions (e.g. one region having all the cardinals while the others have none). In other words, the lower the Gini coefficient, the better.

Although the Gini coefficient is constantly in flux as older cardinals pass away and/or as the world population of Catholics changes, I obviously had to limit myself to calculating it at a finite number of points in time. I chose to do so at the times of the consistories when new cardinals are inducted, and at the times of the conclaves when new popes are elected. Because I only have population data at select dates, I used simple linear interpolations to estimate population at the times of the consistories and conclaves (i.e. if I had population data at time t and time t+1, I assumed that population growth between t and t+1 could be modeled with a straight line).

Following the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution Romano Pontifici Eligendo in 1975, not all cardinals are permitted to cast votes for pope during conclaves; that privilege is reserved to those under 80 years of age. Since their right to vote for pope is the primary (but by no means only) reason we are interested in their nationalities, I do my analysis in the post-1975 period on both the entire set of cardinals and on a restricted sample of the sub-octogenarians.



The following figures provide the key takeaways of my investigation.

Fig. 1: Size of the College of Cardinals, 1900 – 2014


Fig. 1 illustrates how the size of the College has increased dramatically since 1900, even as the number of eligible electors has remained relatively constant in recent years (owing to a decree of Pope John Paul II that no more than 120 cardinals may cast ballots in conclave).

Fig. 2: Percentage Share of Cardinals by Continent, 1900 – 2014


Fig. 2 shows how the percentage of cardinals hailing from each continent has evolved over time. While Europeans have lost a lot of ground compared to the early twentieth century, the absolute share of European cardinals has remained roughly constant for the last thirty years or so.

Fig. 3: Estimated Percentage of Global Catholic Population by Continent, 1900 – 2014


Fig. 3 plots the population series I constructed from the WCD data, and gives a rough idea of how the Catholic populations of different parts of the world have changed in the last hundred-odd years. A comparison of Figs. 2 and 3 makes it clear that representation of the non-European continents in the College has not grown in proportion to the growth in their shares of the worldwide population of Catholics.

Fig. 4: Estimated Gini Coefficients for all Cardinals and Cardinal Electors, 1900 – 2020


This final graph presents the estimated Gini coefficients for the College of Cardinals from 1900 to the present. The solid lines denote computations using historical data, while the dashed lines indicate projections for 2020 based on the estimated future Catholic populations of each continent in the WCD data and the assumption that regional representation in the College will remain at current levels going forward.

The pattern seen in this graph runs somewhat counter to the conventional wisdom. The lines drop off sharply at the very end of the series, indicating that Francis’ recent set of picks is indeed moving the College toward geographic equity (the coefficient for all cardinals decreased from 0.359 on March. 13th, 2013 to 0.278 today, and the coefficient for the electors from 0.329 to 0.216). Yet it is also clear that the long-run trend over the past several decades has been toward greater inequity, reversing an earlier trend that stalled out around the time of Paul VI’s reforms. Even though Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI made an effort to extend red hats to bishops from beyond the European continent, this analysis suggests that Catholic population growth outside of Europe has proceeded even faster than the “de-Europeanization” of the College.

On top of that, the projections for 2020 offer some cause for concern. Even if the present diversity of the College is maintained, the Gini coefficient is expected to actually rise modestly over the next few years (to 0.300 for all cardinals and 0.237 for the electors). This would imply that Francis and future popes might have to be even more aggressive about looking to the ends of the Earth for new “Princes of the Church” if they are serious about making the Catholic hierarchy more geographically inclusive.


*Readers interested in the technical details of how the Gini coefficient is computed can check out page 9 of a working paper entitled “How Has the Literature on Gini’s Index Evolved in the Past 80 Years?” by Kuan Xu of the Dalhousie University Department of Economics in Nova Scotia for a lucid, step-by-step derivation.

What Michael Brendan Dougherty Gets Wrong About Our “Vaguely Commie” Pope

Michael Brendan Dougherty, formerly of The American Conservative, took an extended leave of absence from blogging about politics and religion early last year to start the baseball newsletter The Slurve, but he’s finally returned from his hiatus to throw #slatepitches for The Week. On the first anniversary of the announcement of Benedict XVI’s resignation, he makes the case that Pope Francis has indeed changed the tone of the Catholic Church’s engagement with the world – for the worse:

If the church’s tone under Pope Francis has changed at all, it has actually become harder, more lashing, and even snarky.

The story of the last two papacies to which most of the media is slavishly dedicated goes like this: Pope Benedict was a meanie who, in the memorable phrasing of Rolling Stone, “looked like he should be wearing a striped shirt with knife-fingered gloves and menacing teenagers in their nightmares.” By contrast, Pope Francis is your super-chill, vaguely commie friend, who plays with animals and responds to sin with a cool shrug.

The truth is somewhat different. Pope Benedict was a warm and often misunderstood scholar. His views of economics may be even further to the left than his successor’s. His encyclicals and his books are gentle and reflective. His letter to the atheist author Piergiorgio Odifreddi typifies the tone. Even when much of what he offers is criticism, it comes with a light and inviting touch.

The unnoticed part of the “new tone” in the church is that Francis is practically an insult comic. Where Benedict sought to condemn errors in the abstract, Pope Francis makes it personal and attacks tendencies within certain groups of people, usually in highly stylized papal idioms.

He has condemned “airport bishops.” Christians who complain too much, he called “Mr. and Mrs. Whiner.” Can we even imagine how much crap Pope Benedict would have taken from the media if he told nuns not to become “old maids?” Francis said just that, though.

Sometimes it is not exactly clear whom the pope intends to lampoon. The pope has dumped rhetorical acid on “Christians of words,” who “are rigid! This type think that being Christian means being in perpetual mourning”… Catholics of a more traditional bent really cause Francis to bring out the stick. He has called them “triumphalists” and “restorationists.” He dubs those that send him notes enumerating the number of rosaries they have prayed for him “Pelagians,” after the heretic who denied the necessity of divine grace for salvation…

I agree with Dougherty that, at least in some respects, the differences between Benedict and Francis have been dramatically exaggerated in the popular press. Many an internet quiz has attempted to lure readers into misattributing quotations from Benedict to his successor (or to misattributing quotations from his successor to New York City’s “Marxist mayor” Bill de Blasio).

But I think he engages in a similarly unwarranted form of exaggeration when he lauds the pope emeritus for “condemning errors in the abstract” while criticizing the current pontiff for “making it personal.” Are Francis’ attacks really that personal? It isn’t as if he’s called out particular individuals for their transgressions by name, and he must not be that specific if even Dougherty admits that he sometimes can’t figure out “whom the pope intends to lampoon.” Indeed, the fact that Francis has refrained from publicly taking aim at even some of the most flagrantly egregious offenders and limited himself to bemoaning sourpusses and neo-Pelagians could perhaps be interpreted as a mark of admirable restraint.

On top of that, there is really no substantive difference between criticizing “people” who hold ideologies to which the Church is opposed and criticizing the ideologies themselves. Would Dougherty object to Francis reframing Benedict’s famous denunciation of “the dictatorship of relativism” as a denunciation of the actual “relativists” themselves? Arguing that there is any real difference here is an exercise in hair-splitting.

Francis’ “highly stylized papal idioms” and pithy formulations are almost certainly one of the main reasons why he has endeared himself to so many. Far more people will remember a sermon that takes comical shots at “Mr. and Mrs. Whiner” or “sourpusses” than one that drily reminds listeners to maintain a positive outlook on life. Yes, there are ways in which Benedict was unfairly maligned – the Rolling Stone quote about the knife-fingered gloves comes to mind – but his introverted and “wonky” personality did in fact make it hard for him to connect with the average Catholic, in the same way that many conservatives accuse Barack Obama of being hard to relate to because of his “cerebral” and “aloof” demeanor (perhaps Dougherty would agree?). Francis’ use of humor doesn’t detract from his preaching, it enhances it.

Dougherty would likely point out that I’ve failed to show that Francis has “softened” the Church’s tone, only that his putative snarkiness is not as bad as it seems. But the real aim of his argument is to show that Francis’ rhetorical style is counterproductive, and I think it’s abundantly clear from the many and varied manifestations of the “Francis effect” that exactly the opposite is true.

In any case, Francis has already offered us, toward the end of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, a preemptive apology for any infelicitous expressions he might use over the course of his papacy:

If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth. (Evangelii Gaudium, 208)

Maybe Dougherty should stop being a whiny sourpuss. I feel bad for putting it so bluntly, but… the pope said it first!

Ten Bullets on Francis’ Recalibration of Church Engagement

A few loosely organized thoughts on Francis’ recent interview with America magazine, “A Big Heart Open to God.”

Francis did not speak about changes to Church doctrine.

This point has been made by most conservative Catholic commentators in response to Francis’ interview.  And it’s true.  Francis did not imply there are any doctrinal shifts forthcoming on issues such as gay marriage or women priests.  He also strongly condemned abortion while speaking to a group of gynecologists the day after the interview was published.  Catholics hoping for swift changes to the Church’s official policies on these issues should temper their enthusiasm.

But that doesn’t mean nothing has changed.

Although Francis did not announce any modifications of core Church principles, the tone and content of his interview suggests a change of direction in how the Church approaches culture war issues.  This new focus underscores a potentially transformative shift in the Church’s ability to engage in dialogue with a broader scope of peoples and cultures.  Francis is placing a greater emphasis on how the Church can act as a steward to help people find “daily sanctity” as they navigate the confusing, painful, and disappointing annals of daily life.  He is also focusing more on the pastoral role of the Church and placing greater importance on helping the poor and afflicted.

We can see a recalibration of sorts taking shape in Pope Francis’ commentary.  The central themes he discusses of love and helping the poor have always been a part of Church teaching, but he makes a point to contrast these against how the Church has recently (fairly or unfairly) been perceived as focusing on things like homosexuality and contraception.  Perhaps this contrast will be a continuing element of Francis’ papacy.  “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people,” he tells interviewer Antonio Sparado, S.J.  Inclusiveness is the order of the day, with a heightened focus on “the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more.”

I found the Pope’s anecdote about the mother who had an abortion to be a particularly tender manifestation of this idea:

I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?

The quote indicates a refreshingly realistic look (from the highest post of the Church!) at the realities and consequences of living in an imperfect world.  The Pope’s story focuses on helping the woman reconcile her decisions in order to find greater peace in her spiritual life.  A great deal of Catholic commentary on abortion in the U.S. centers on why women are forbidden to have them, but Francis is hinting at an approach that gives deeper consideration to the effects of extremely difficult and painful decisions.  Making a conscious effort to expand the discussion in this manner, even if the core of the discussion is unchanged, is a crucially important step both in helping those in need and demonstrating the rationality of the core.  Again, this does not entail any shifts in doctrine, but simply looking at contentious issues more broadly will go a very long way in revitalizing how most people view the Church.

The concepts might not be revolutionary, but the proclamation of them is.

Last May, Francis made headlines when he said that atheists could be redeemed.  James Martin, S.J., reflected on the Pope’s sermon by noting:

Pope Francis is saying, more clearly than ever before, that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for everyone. That’s always been a Christian belief. You can find St. Paul saying in the First Letter to Timothy that Jesus gave himself as a “ransom for all.” But rarely do you hear it said by Catholics so forcefully, and with such evident joy.

This same forcefulness seems to be a recurring hallmark of Francis’ papacy thus far.  Beyond shifting the conversation on how the Church engages with the public, Francis is also articulating little-known beliefs with greater clarity and compassion.  This was evident in his recent letter to an Italian newspaper responding to an atheist’s columns about the Church, and it’s on full display in “A Big Heart Open to God.”  Francis’ commentary on uncertainty is particularly important for finding common ground with unbelievers:

…in this quest to seek and find God in all things there is still an area of uncertainty. There must be. If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

Hearing the Pope say that uncertainty is an integral part of faith is revelatory, not because it’s an unheard of theological principle but because the point has been made rather poorly of late.  That so many people are reacting so well to the Francis’ words is proof positive of how the Church hasn’t effectively conveyed core principles to nonbelievers (and, often, the laity) in the recent past.  Spreading this kind of testimony that makes faith a more relatable proposition to so many people will hopefully be a constant throughout Francis’ papacy.  This is how the Church wins back the credibility it squandered in the child abuse scandal (in conjunction with a renewed focus on helping those in need and emphasizing grace and love).  “The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return,” he says.  Better engagement with these people by actually addressing their concerns is crucial and it’s wonderful to see Francis acknowledging this.

Spaces vs. Processes

I found the following to be the most interesting part of this extraordinary interview:

…there is a temptation to seek God in the past or in a possible future. God is certainly in the past because we can see the footprints. And God is also in the future as a promise. But the ‘concrete’ God, so to speak, is today. For this reason, complaining never helps us find God. The complaints of today about how ‘barbaric’ the world is—these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defense. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today.

“God manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. Time initiates processes, and space crystallizes them. God is in history, in the processes.

“We must not focus on occupying the spaces where power is exercised, but rather on starting long-run historical processes. We must initiate processes rather than occupy spaces. God manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history. This gives priority to actions that give birth to new historical dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting.

Francis is positing a model for how the Church should act in order to achieve meaningful, lasting, and adaptive change.  He argues that there is a strong temptation to react against new challenges with a reversion to traditional solutions and established rules.  But to more fully engage with God, new frameworks, new methods of solving these new problems, must be established.

Francis’ characterization of how God is “in the processes” of history successfully captures how the amalgamation of our individual strivings for the ideal and the perpetual disappointments that result are one way the divine is manifested in our world.  He’s correct that we need reconsider how our most powerful organizations and institutions (including the Church) influence the moral constructs that govern our coexistence.  It’s a logical philosophy, too.  Trying to affix theological bandages on new barbarisms doesn’t necessarily solve their root causes, but establishing clearer moral paradigms might help reduce some of those problems altogether.

This is a difficult process that will take a great deal of time, and it’s fair to argue this rhetoric of enacting new processes is an ambiguous gambit that could result in negligible moral enhancement.  But it’s exciting to hear Francis discuss the necessity of reevaluating the core bases behind how the Church can be an influence for the good.  Power is not a meaningful tool unless aligned with (and not forced upon) the systems through which people live.  Working to restructure these systems and the actors which shape them is a goal most worthy of the Church’s full engagement.

It’s important that we initiate the historical process of a new theology of women.  But how?

One particular example of a system that warrants reconsideration is the role of women in the Church.  Francis had previously stressed the importance of this question and he revisits it once again in the interview.  “We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman,” he says.  But he has also spoken out against the ordination of female priests.  So what is to be done?

This is admittedly wild speculation on my part, but I wonder if Francis was hinting at the creation of an entirely new role for women in the Church, something that would parallel the position of a priest or bishop.  “Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops,” he says, and also notes that “the feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.”  If women are this critical to the future of the Church, it follows that they need a role with equal power and influence as clergymen.  I’m not sure there is any doctrinal basis on which this new position could be developed and it would likely be met with immense scrutiny and questioning.  But it would essentially end the debate about “women priests” by simply creating an entirely new religious branch of the hierarchy in which women could wield substantial power.

Again, Pope Francis did not say that such a revolution is on the horizon, and this idea is merely an extrapolation of how the Church could best give women such influence without changing core doctrine.  But his words do hint that change is coming.  The question is- when?  And what will that change entail?

Our fear of eventual disappointment in Francis is all the more acute after this interview.

In our original debate series about Francis, Matt had the following cautionary note regarding initial excitement over the Pope’s rhetoric:

I worry that some of the early enthusiasm about Pope Francis has led to unrealistic expectations about his ability to heal the divisions in the Church. I also worry that over time, should Francis fail to deal with the problems of corruption in the Vatican and to burnish the tarnished public image of the Church, his oratorical style will come to be judged much more harshly than it has been thus far. No longer will it be a “most welcome approach to the papacy,” as Chris puts it, but a feeble substitute for action.

Matt expressed the same concern when we spoke recently about this new interview.  I share his concerns now with a greater degree of apprehension than from earlier this summer.  Francis’ words have earned him accolades across the political and social spectrum, but they hinted at few specifics for any potential policy shifts.  The role of women in the Church was addressed, for example, but what will actually be done?  One has to worry that continual soaring rhetoric without tangible change will lead to claims that Francis is all hot air and no action.

Fortunately, Francis has bought himself a good amount of time, especially through his emphasis on discernment.

If we created a word cloud of the most frequent terms used in the Pope’s interview, I’d guess that “discernment” would be at or very close to the top of the list.  Francis hammered home the importance of critical reflection on both a macro and micro level in order to make the wisest, most prudent decisions for both himself and his flock.  He speaks at length about discernment in the interview; for brevity, I’ll cite his reference to John XXIII: “See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.”  The idea of seeing and reflecting on everything but not trying to overhaul the status quo suggests Francis will be a proponent of humble discernment going forward.

It’s important to emphasize that Francis realizes the requisite discernment for overseeing 1 billion Catholics, along with the process of enacting new historical processes, will take time.  He notes that this initiative “requires patience, waiting.”  “I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment,” he says.  This is an important clause that, if repeated often enough, actually gives additional weight to the Pope’s pronouncements.  Let’s tackle these issues as quickly as we can, but let’s make sure we’re trying to solve them correctly before we jump, he seems to be saying.  In conjunction with the amount of goodwill he seems to have earned so far, I think Francis has bought himself a good amount of time before people start criticizing him for a lack of substantial change.

The translators did a wonderful job.

Much credit is due to the translators of the original Italian interview for crafting an easy-to-read yet engaging and beautiful piece.  Lines like the following are almost poetic in their depth and diction: “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”  Truly fantastic work.

Francis’ literature anecdote provides a model for artistic engagement that the Church should follow.

In speaking about his musical and artistic preferences, Francis shares an enlightening anecdote about when he taught young school boys:

Of course, young people wanted to read more ‘racy’ literary works, like the contemporary La Casada Infiel or classics like La Celestina, by Fernando de Rojas. But by reading these things they acquired a taste in literature, poetry, and we went on to other authors. And that was for me a great experience. I completed the program, but in an unstructured way—that is, not ordered according to what we expected in the beginning, but in an order that came naturally by reading these authors.

Is it possible for the Church to extrapolate this model in how it engages with popular culture and contemporary art?  I hope so.  The idea of using familiar material as a jumping point into the divine seems like such a logical way to show people the joy of both faith and art.  More on how this could be accomplished in a future post.

Above all, faith is love made manifest, and this transcends dogma.

“But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.”

I did a double take when I first read that line in the interview.  We’ve already established that Francis did not suggest forthcoming alterations to core doctrine, but this is a succinctly shocking mission statement for the Church in the twenty-first century.  To hear him say that proclaiming God’s love transcends any religious edicts almost seems like subversion of Church authority- and from the Bishop of Rome, no less!

But it’s not, and it reminds us of what the Church’s ultimate goal is: to encourage the love of Jesus and to provide scalable systems that facilitate the transmission of this love.  Its edicts are ultimately ways that are, or were, thought to best encourage this process.  Francis seems to realize the danger of letting these edicts become hardened dogma and get in the way of actually spreading love: “If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing,” he says.

This is why I think it’s appropriate to call “A Big Heart Open to God” a kind of recalibration in how the Church engages with the world.  It’s not that Francis is proclaiming new ideas or concepts, but rather that he’s trying to reframe the discussion (especially that of nonbelievers) around deep connections and agapic love.

A reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog wrote in with a positive impression of the Pope’s interview but ultimately focused on how he “can never return to Christianity because it is, in a phenomenological sense, meaningless.”  I’ve only had limited theological training in my academic career, but it seems to me that Pope Francis is making the absolute strongest argument in this interview why Christianity has as much meaning and importance in contemporary life as any other accepted religious belief or secular principle.  It’s not based on worshipping a big hairy man in the sky; it’s about achieving a divine connection through love, in the hope that we can make these broken things glow and burn a little bit more.  It’s about “common sanctity,” as Francis says- seeing holiness “in the patience of the people of God: a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity.”

Simply making sure that people know this is the core of the Church instead of strict proclamations against contentious issues is an important task.  Despite the myriad of praise, criticism, and commentary it’s received so far, “A Big Heart Open to God” ultimately succeeds because it initiates this process of renewed engagement.  This will be a primary component of Francis’ papacy, and it certainly seems that he’s off to a good start.

Religion and Rational Choice Theory

I think Chris vastly overstates my level of expertise when he says that I’ve done “extensive research” on how people choose their religious affiliation, but it is a topic in which I’m very interested; I wrote my undergraduate thesis on mathematical models that can be used to analyze this question and similar questions in economics and political science. I’ve actually never read the Hirschman book that Margaret Steinfels discusses in the Commonweal column that Chris has linked to, but the framework that she alludes to – conceptualizing religious institutions as something like “firms” competing with one another for adherents in an active “religious marketplace” – is a helpful one for thinking about issues of religious participation in the modern West.

There is a diffuse literature in economics and sociology known as the “rational choice theory of religion” which posits that individuals do not simply decide to remain or to become a member of a religious body because they have been socialized into it or because they feel pressure from their friends and relatives, but rather that they actively weigh costs and benefits in order to determine whether a particular group is right for them.

“Costs” might consist of frequent participation in services, fasting, tithing, volunteering, etc. “Benefits” can be either supernatural (rewards in an afterlife) or more mundane (a sense of spiritual well-being, a feeling of belonging to a supportive community, etc). This helps to explain why fringe cults that the vast majority of people would see as extreme can actually manage to cultivate a following (pun intended): while they may make extraordinarily onerous demands of their followers, they often promise immense otherworldly rewards to those who join the flock.

It turns out that integrating the economic notion of rational-self interest into the study of religion can provide plausible explanations for otherwise puzzling phenomena. Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy advances the theory that religious pluralism ultimately erodes religiosity, since the recognition and acknowledgement of competing theological ontologies and ethical systems causes one to become less sure of one’s own commitments. When one religion is dominant in a given area or among members of a certain population, it casts a “sacred canopy” over even those who do not belong. The emergence of other religious groups discredits not only the hitherto dominant tradition, but those newer groups as well. The canopy that had previously sheltered the very idea of religion from the raging storms of secularism becomes tattered and frayed.

It turns out that there are serious problems with such a view of religion, though. There is actually empirical evidence suggesting that religious pluralism, or what we might call religious competition in the market metaphor, actually promotes religious participation rather than eroding it. The rationale is easy to understand if you think through the implications of the metaphor. Healthy competition among firms is, all else equal, generally thought to lead to the production of higher quality and more affordable goods and services, since producers must give their customers what they demand or risk losing business to a competitor. Monopolies, unburdened by such a constraint, know that they can slack off and still do fairly well.

The United States, which has had a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion since its inception, is the most religious industrialized nation in the world. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, has a state-sponsored church but far lower rates of attendance at services and lower self-reported religiosity. While there are obviously myriad other cultural and historical reasons why religion might play the role that it does in both countries, the apparent inverse relationship between pluralism and participation is suggestive. Richard Dawkins, a fierce advocate of the separation of church and state, has noted that people often ask him why quarantining religion from government seems to have the paradoxical effect of increasing religious activity rather than diminishing or suppressing it. He claims to have no explanation to offer, despite the fact that rational choice logic seems to yield a solution to the apparent conundrum.

In Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion, a comprehensive book-length exposition of the rational choice approach, sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke argue that all human beings have some sort of innate religious preference, and that these preferences tend to follow a bell curve-shaped distribution. Some people have an inborn sense that religion should be strict and should guide every aspect of their lives. Such people will likely be drawn to demanding varieties of religion, like Mormonism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Orthodox Judaism. Others have a preference for more liberal faiths that offer a greater degree of individual autonomy and that leave a wider range of decisions to personal choice.

The majority, however, falls somewhere in between. In America today, both austere sects like the Amish and progressive churches like the Unitarian Universalists command relatively small followings. Although aggregate religious participation has dropped off steeply over the last few decades, it is still the case that the groups dominating the scene are those that are strict, but not too strict. They may require their congregants to attend weekly services or undertake periodic fasts, but they probably don’t ask them to sell all their possessions and become itinerant preachers (well, maybe they do, but they don’t really press the issue).

Where does the notion of the Catholic Church as a “lazy monopoly” fit into this framework? Chris, following Steinfels, suggests that the Church might be growing rather than shrinking if the hierarchy were more responsive to the concerns of the laity, treating them like adults rather than infantilizing them. While Francis might possibly be moving toward a “flatter” vision of the Church (more on that in an upcoming post), Benedict XVI seemed to embrace the idea of a pyramidal ecclesial structure wholeheartedly. He did not see the Church as a lazy monopoly but as a monopoly that knew exactly what it was doing, and mused about whether it might not be better if we ended up with a “smaller, purer Church.”

There is a sense in which this line of argument is beyond critique. Chris rightly points out that there is little an institution that understands itself to be dealing in “immutable truths” can do to appeal to the masses if people are simply nonreceptive to those truths or to the meta-notion that any truth can be immutable. Moreover, there are those who embrace Benedict’s approach but reject his false choice between purity and mass appeal. As Ross Douthat has written, both in his 2012 book Bad Religion and in several of his Sunday New York Times columns, it is the churches that have most enthusiastically embraced the innovations of modernity that have been most seriously impacted by the decline in churchgoing. If you have nothing to offer people that they can’t get from, for example, participation in secular politics, then why would anyone give you a second look? Liberalizing is not as promising an option as it might seem for churches seeking to revitalize themselves.

The problem with this hypothesis is that it fails to account for the idea that individuals might have heterogeneous religious preferences. Another way to think about the prediction that greater competition leads to greater participation is to imagine that there are a variety of “market niches” that are ill-served by the presence of a single religious monopolist but that are more likely to see their personal spiritual needs met when there are a variety of available options.

While some niches may respond negatively to a lack of theological rigor or to a perceived doctrinal flexibility in their religious leaders, others may be drawn to such things (although they would no doubt frame them in more positive terms). Any shift in dogma or practice will please some and offend others. What matters is the relative size of the constituencies that are pleased and offended. So while it could very well be that Episcopalianism would collapse if it adopted every idea ever pushed by John Shelby Spong, it might also be the case that the Amish population would grow if they allowed themselves to start using microwaves.

This argument that liberalization, or what Stark and Finke would call a lessening of “tension with the social environment,” is intrinsically fatal to the robustness of religious congregations carries an implication that there is but one way to reinvigorate religion, and that is to cling firmly to “orthodoxy.” Acts of Faith contains a helpful example that shows why the rational choice approach cannot be used to make definitive recommendations about the path that should be taken by ailing religions. Stark and Finke consider the steep dropoff in vocations to the Catholic priesthood since the mid-1960’s, and conclude that

[t]he collapse of Catholic vocations was self-imposed, not merely incidental to the process of modernity. It was the assembled bishops of the Catholic Church who, after collective deliberations [at Vatican II], withdrew many of the most compelling motivations for the religious life [e.g. intimating in Lumen Gentium that priests and religious are not superior in holiness to the laity], while retaining the most costly aspects of vocations [e.g. celibacy]. Perhaps orthodox Freudians and other proponents of irrational choice theories might have expected that Catholics would still flock to the religious life out of neurotic need. The fact that the “flocking” went in the other direction testifies that humans subject even their most intense forms of religious commitment to reasoned evaluation. This point is additionally confirmed by the exceptions: some dioceses still generate vocations, and some religious orders still attract new members – those able to revivify perceptions of a positive ratio between the costs and rewards of the religious life… We do not propose that the Catholic Church ought to retain its reliance on costly religious vocations – on a church staffed by a corps of what Max Weber called “religious virtuosi.” Centuries of Protestant experience demonstrate the adequacy of less costly vocations.

According to this analysis, the effect of retaining “costly” practices like celibacy while reemphasizing the exalted status of the priest would have a similar effect to abandoning or reforming those practices but continuing to put laypeople and priests/religious on equal footing. The tenor of Francis’ papacy so far, as well as remarks made to reporters by his newly-appointed Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, suggest that the latter path is more likely than the former.

As a budding economist who obviously spends a great deal of time thinking and reading about religion and culture, I worry about attempts to overextend economic logic and to apply it to situations where explanations from sociology or anthropology or other related fields might be more effective. And so even I myself sometimes find it strange that I’m drawn to the approach promoted by people like Stark, Finke, and Hirschman. Yet maybe it isn’t all that unusual. Just as economists need to develop a sense of where and when and in which contexts their preferred assumptions are appropriate and where they break down, so too should scholars of religion appreciate the fact that religious behavior is not entirely unlike other kinds of human behavior. Maybe the sacred and the profane are not mutually exclusive.

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.