What is Lamont's thesis? Simply put, that: "What will be necessary for ... a revival [in the Catholic Church] is for strict standards to be required, not just permitted (emphasis added)." In other words, the apparent present policy of merely reiterating Church teaching through repeated Vatican instructions and declarations, of promulgation without enforcement, may well be fatal for the future of Catholicism.
The thesis is not particularly novel in itself. There are ample precedents. The socio-economical argument for it, however, is not only quite interesting, but quite compelling; so let us have a look at Lamont's analysis.
Just one caveat: the explanatory models employed by sociologists of religion offer an account of religion purely from an external vantage point, so please be advised to have patience with a vocabulary and perspective utterly foreign to religious experience from a perspective internal to the Catholic Faith.
Lamont starts with the often-asked question, "Why do more Americans go to church regularly than people in any other country in the world?" What is interesting about this phenomenon is that it runs counter to the classic Durkheimian "secularization thesis" about the decline of religious practice as we moved from a traditional agrarian society to a modern industrialized and technically advanced one. Religious practice in the United States actually grew and flourished with industrialization and technical advance.
In order to explain this American phenomenon, sociologists have turned to accounts that apply principles of free-market capitalism to religion. This, of course, yielded the well-known argument that the "free market" of religions in the U.S. has permitted religious groups that adopt successful strategies and flourish at the expense of those which fail, while the history of established churches in Europe, each holding a monopoly within its state, has prevented competition in the religious marketplace, leaving declining, progressively secularized and unattractive religions as the only options for potential believers. This new school of sociologists of religion borrows from rational-choice theories of economics in developing its ideas and has thus come to be known as the "rational choice" school.
The rational-choice school explains American religious exceptionalism by a general theory of religious behavior comprised of two principal components. The first is a market model of religious competition, which focuses on the behavior of religious "consumers." The second is a supply-side analysis of the success of particular religions, which focuses on religious "firms" rather than merely upon religious "consumers."
The market model holds "that, when a religion enjoys a monopoly in a given market, its leaders, lacking the spur of competition, will not try very hard to make religious practice an attractive option," says Lamont. By contrast, "when a competitive market in religions replaces a monopoly, not only will the spur of competition be present, there also will be a process of natural selection among religions, with the more attractive religions gaining at the expense of the less attractive ones."
This (market model) is the model typically used by the rational-choice school to explain American religious exceptionalism. On its face, it offers a powerful explanation. In Lamont's words, it represents "a considerable achievement." Before the American Revolution, most of the colonies had established churches, and, by all accounts, Americans were not very religious. After the Revolution, however, these churches no longer had established status and had to compete for members in a free market. As Roger Finke and Rodney Stark show, in The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy(cited by Lamont), less than one-fifth of the American population at the time of the American Revolution claimed church membership. The rate rose to more than one-third in the mid-nineteenth century and to more than one-half today. This is what they refer to as the "churching of America." The claim is that the "free competition" of religions made the average church more effective at getting members, which led to an increased rise in church attendance throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the U.S., in contrast to Europe, where church attendance has steadily dwindled.
The problem with the market model, however, is that as a universal explanation of the strength of religious practice within societies, it does not fit the data. Lamont writes:
The market model predicts that that societies in which one religion has a monopoly will be religiously lax. But societies as varied as the Byzantine Empire, sixteenth-century Spain, Tibet under the Dalai Lama, Malta until the late twentieth-century, and many Islamic countries throughout history were not lacking in religious fervor. In general, prior to the American Revolution, free markets in religion were scarce or nonexistent, but religiously fervent societies, while not universal, were not uncommon.Furthermore, Lamont points out, Reginald Bibby has shown, in his books Fragmented Gods: The Poverty and Potential of Religion in Canada(1987), Unknown Gods: The Ongoing Story of Religion in Canada(1993), and Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada(2003) that the Canadian experience furnishes especially clear evidence against the universal efficacy of a free market in religion.
Nor is it true that a free market in religion always leads to increased religiosity. Most areas of Western Europe have not had an established church for over a hundred years. The religiosity of these lands was significantly higher when they did possess established churches, and the removal of establishment has not produced any of the positive effects that the free-market component of the rational-choice school predicts.
Such a free market has existed in Canada since the British conquest in 1759, and, until the post-World War II period, Canadian religious observance seemed to confirm the free-market model. As recently as 1956, Canadians were considerably more religious than Americans, with an average claimed weekly church-attendance rate of 61 percent. After 1956, however, the rate of reported weekly church attendance in Canada fell below the American rate and has now stabilized at about 25 percent.... The drop in religious observance in Canada did not happen as a result of the existence of an established religion. As Bibby has found, the fall resulted largely from Canadian's continuing to have some attachment to a religion but ceasing to practice it.The reason for the failure of the free-market model to explain religious practice in Western Europe and Canada, suggests Lamont, most likely stems from the fact that, for such a model to apply, "people have to think of a religious commitment as analogous to a purchasing decision, and to think of different religions as analogous to competing sellers of goods." While such thinking may apply to a large portion of American society, it is not universal. "Belonging to a particular religion often has been thought of as analogous to (or part of) membership in a family or an ethnic group, neither of which can be chosen or renounced," writes Lamont.
The other component of the rational-choice school -- its supply-side analysis of the success of religions -- offers a more promising model than the free-market component, according to Lamont. Based on the supply-side macroeconomic theory that emerged in the 1970s, in response to the failure of then dominant Keynesian ideas, the rational-choice school borrowed the idea of focusing on the supply of religion rather than the demand for it.
Lamont identifies two claims in the supply-side analysis. The first claim is that "religious practice involves effort, and reward for this effort largely depends on the existence and activity of the supernatural being or beings toward whom the effort is directed." In other words, to provide an incentive to make this effort, a religion must place great emphasis on the existence and power of these supernatural beings. Thus, "the more overtly and insistently otherworldly a religion is, the more successful it will be (emphasis added)."
The second claim is even more startling: religions succeed if they make "distinctive and demanding requirements of their adherents." Since the rewards of religion are supernatural and, therefore, unseen, religious commitment involves taking a risk, and "one's perception of this risk is lessened if the other members of one's religious community are zealous and committed." Lamont offers an illustration of the claim that a high average level of enthusiasm makes collective religious activities more rewarding: "compare, for example, singing hymns in a small and listless congregation with singing as a part of a large, enthusiastic group."
Only religions with zeal and commitment can overcome the "free rider" problem that plagues voluntary organizations and provide an appealing moral framework to structure one's life. Such a framework of moral principles are most effective when one sees that most of the people around one are following them. "Thus, a church has to set high standards for membership in order to be attractive, and churches that set high standards are churches that will grow." This is why, as Finke and Stark assert, "the churching of America was accomplished by agressive churches committed to vivid otherworldliness."
Finke and Stark offer, in addition to their supply-side analysis, an explanation of why religions tend to forsake the demanding recipe of success:
Because of the long-term exchange relations that religious organizations require, people are forever paying the costs in the here and now while most of the rewards are to be realized elsewhere and later. As a result, humans are prone to backslide, to get behind on their payments.... Thus, other things being equal, people will always be in favor of a modest reduction in their costs. In this fashion, humans begin to bargain with their churches for lower tension and fewer sacrifices. They usually succeed, both because it is those with the most influence -- the clergy and the leading laity -- who most desire to lower the level of sacrifice and because each reduction seems so small and engenders widespread approval.This lowering of standards has the immediate effect of pleasing people, but the long-term effect of driving them away. Finke and Stark's analysis offers a compelling supply-side model that explains why mainstream Protestant churches that make negligible demands of their members have declining memberships, while more demanding evangelical or Pentecostal churches continue to grow. In contrast to the free-market model, their supply-side model fits all the data, not only that of the American experience.
This supply-side analysis also explains why Canadians were significantly more religious than Americans at the close of the Second World War in 1945: they were stricter. Canadian Methodists, for example, were outraged when they discovered that card playing was widespread among Canadian troops. The French Canadian Catholic Church was formatively shaped by the strict conservative outlook stemming from the nineteenth-century arrival of priests fleeing the French Revolution. Instead of putting people off, such strict standards led to high standards of religious observance for reasons explained by the rational-choice theory. Following the Second World War, however, Canadian Protestants and Catholics liberalized more rapidly than their American counterparts, as a result of which Canadian churches had less to offer their members than American churches, and Canadian church attendance fell off quickly to a level well below that of the United States -- again, as the rational-choice theory predicts.
Lamont points out that the situation in Western Europe following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) offers a close parallel:
The post-conciliar changes (and, to a debated extent, the conciliar documents themselves) tried to erase, as far as possible, the many distinctions between Catholics and non-Catholics. This involved the abandonment of strict rules and distinctive dress for clergy and religious, the replacement of a distinctive liturgy by one that resembled Protestant worship, the legitimation of dissent on moral teaching, and the downplaying of strict Catholic doctrine in religious instruction. According to rational-choice theory, these were the best possible steps that could have been taken to diminish European Catholicism, and this prediction has been confirmed by events. The most vigorous religious movement in Europe today is extremist Islam -- a form of religion whose success is also predicted by rational-choice theory.Fink and Stark comment on the devastating effect this abandonment of demands and distinctiveness by the Catholic Church particularly had on priests and nuns: "... many of the most distinctive aspects of Catholic liturgy, theology, and practice, abandoned by the Council, turned out to have been crucial for generating and sustaining vocations, especially vocations sufficient to meet the high costs of Catholic religious life." They predict that "no longer in tension with the surrounding culture, the church will generate less commitment from its membership and will gradually fail to compete with a new generation of upstart sects."
In assessing this prediction, says Lamont, one should bear in mind that the secularization school and the rational-choice school are the only serious positions currently to be found in sociology of religion. "There is no sociological theory or sociological evidence to support the claim that religions can preserve or increase their influence while lowering their standards and submitting to the society around them," he writes. Yet, as far as he knows, Lamont says, "the important discoveries of the rational-choice school are completely unknown to religious leaders." How do these religious leaders' policies and strategies stack up in light of these discoveries?
Muslims, whose extremism is increasing, are doing the right thing, as are Hasidic Jews and Protestants who preserve their otherworldy doctrines and strict standards. Liberal Protestant denominations generally seem not to be salvageable: It is easier for believers who seek stricter standards to move to another church than it is to try to reimpose such standards on a resistant institution. Benedict XVI has made some movement toward a revival of Catholic distinctiveness by encouraging traditionalism, but the rational-choice theory does not predict that this will cause a general revival within the Church.Talk about food for thought! Your thoughts?
What will be necessary for such a revival is for strict standards to be required, not just permitted. This, however, would be antithetical to the pope's approach, which focuses on gentle persuasion. On a brighter note, Benedict's attempts to clarify the teachings of the Second Vatican Council open possibilities. In the decades since the council, its teachings have been widely understood as mandating an abandonment of Catholic distinctiveness and virtual surrender to the modern secular world. What is needed now, in contrast, is an interpretation of council teachings that upholds traditional Catholic distinctiveness. If such an interpretation is not vigorously enforced as well as promulgated, howver, no Catholic revival is to be expected. Instead, the pressures of secularism and competing religions will continue to erode Catholic membership. This is what the supply-side analysis predicts, and its predictions cannot be faulted so far. In short, if the Catholic Church is to thrive, a revival of zeal and reimposition of doctrine within it is urgently necessary.