Friday, May 07, 2010

A supply-side argument for a more demanding and disciplined Catholicism

John Lamont has done it again. He has written a very provocative article about which I've been intending to write a post for some time. The article, I'm convinced, has not received sufficient attention as yet, in part because of its playful but oblique title, which obscures his thesis, and in part because his thesis is not explicitly stated until his conclusion. The article is entitled "The Prophet Motive" (First Things, April, 2010). Clever, but what does it mean? The print edition of the article carries the following editorial header: "Why do so many Americans go to church? John Lamont argues that supply-side economics provides an explanation." The header points to one of the economic models used to explain American religious habits, but does not really get at his thesis.

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.

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.
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.
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.

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.
Talk about food for thought! Your thoughts?


Ralph Roister-Doister said...

"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."

Yes, that is the nub of it all. For all the lionizing of post-v2 popes (even the deplorable Paul VI has his own bio-prop movie now), they have been moving the Church in the wrong direction. Benedict continues to do so, albeit, more slowly. All the neo-Cath blather in the world cannot change that fact.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

" an interpretation of council teachings that upholds traditional Catholic distinctiveness."

Would this not be like the little pig who built his house of straw? Romano Amerio referred to the marbling of V2 documents with "inexact formulations [which] were deliberately introduced so that post-conciliar hermeneutics could gloss or reinforce whichever ideas it liked." V2 busybody Schillebeeckx, among so many others, avowed that he and his co-conspirators would "express [the positions of the council] in a diplomatic [!] way, but afer the council we will draw out the implicit conclusions."

In other words, the thousands of pages of V2 documents were deliberately designed to be meaningless in themselves -- nothing more than ambiguously "diplomatic" verbiage from which any conclusions could be drawn. For fifty years the Church has suffered under the yoke of a "progressive" reading. Now we will have a "mainstream" reading? And how many others?

Throw it out!

Build your "demanding and disciplined Catholicism" from the clear and unambiguous documents from which it sprang in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I tried to respond to this article. I have much to say. Much more than is allowed on this reply. I wish that I were sitting around a table with other Catholics (and maybe a few ex-Catholics starting with my family)for the purpose of a discussion on this topic.


Lutheran said...


Dr. Jones has been sorting out these very same interests for some years on behalf of the Methodists in a vast array of books, manuals, etc., all of which can afford decent further reading on the topic.

Sheldon said...

Hear, hear, Dr. Lamont. Hear, hear, Ralph. Great post, PP. What I've read of Lamont on your blog, I have liked too. He seems to be "constructively critical" (if that's the right expression) of the Vatican II project (documents included), not just of the "aftermath." I'm convinced that this is the place to which the debate will have to be taken before any real progress is made in reforming (restoring) the church.

Anonymous said...

While I wholeheartedly agree regarding scrapping Vatican II due to its ambiguity, I am not sure the whole “tough line” would help. I suppose when I was with the SSPX, I believed in it. But my own impression in reading this article is that there is something very wrong, and dare I say it, “un-Catholic”, in comparing religion to the functioning of the modern markets. Before Vatican II, the only real market law on the books was not that of competition, but of a command economy. The best religious situation is the one where the Catholic Church had a complete monopoly. How heresy markets itself or how successful it is in that marketing makes very little difference.

After all, there are a number of factors that contribute to the American religious ethos other than just the now cliché fundamentalist/liberal divide. Pentecostal and evangelical movements, aside from being “strict”, also offer the believer the immediacy of the divine through an “emotional high”, a “spiritual connection”, and a “personal relationship with Jesus”. That at least is what the appeal is in Latin America, and perhaps Africa. What is winning out is not sacramental and traditional forms of worship, but rather charismatic and ecstatic forms. Besides, even in places where religion is strongest in this country, can we honestly say that they are more “moral”? Are people really walking the walk where they are talking the talk?

When my mother came to this country as a girl, she had no clue what a Protestant was. Now, parts of my family are evangelical. Perhaps strict religion works only because it provides people with a personalized bulwark in an anonymous, postmodern society. Perhaps it gives people an identity and a social cohesion that mainline Protestant and most American Catholic churches cannot provide. But to think that the Church can learn from this is problematic to say the least. It would mean that the Church is more in the business of how people feel than preaching the truth. It would be more ideal, even if it is now a pipe dream, for the Church to dish out its nutritious gruel and for people to take whatever they are given. Trying to make a fast food version may not be possible, let alone desirable.

Dark Horse said...


Why get all bent outta shape about the economic model man? That's only a little slice of life, the economic bit. But that doesn't mean it's wrong to consider a model that might explain a thin littel slice of religion. I don't see anything "uncatholic" about that.

And the fast food stuff. I mean, I get what you're saying, but I don't see how that puts a nick into Mr. Lamont's argument.

I respect your interpretation, don't get me wrong. I think the economic thing is only a slice, not the whole thing. But I think there's a valuble insight that the model offfers.

Anonymous said...

Dark Horse,

You may have a point. But I see a couple of other things as well. Auturovasquez sees a Roman Catholic monopoly as the ideal, as well it should be (and will be in heaven). But given the pluralistic social situation, we can't assume that. The new evangelization calls for Catholics to be proactive. In our present climate, it's insane to suppose that masses of people are going to flock to Catholic parishes to get their "nourishing gruel." People have to be taught to see through the lies about the sex scandal and oppressive hierarchy so they can see what's nourishing about the church's "gruel." So the church can't assume a monopoly. The church has to compete. In other words, the church has to contend for truth and an open marketplace of ideas.

Also, while it's true that the actual situation is complicated by various factors like the "charismatic and ecstatic worship" option marketed by the Pentecostals, against the "sacramental and traditional worship" option of the Catholics, the bottom line in the Supply-Side model (as opposed to the Market model), as I understand it, is that successful religions take what they believe seriously.

In this respect, the important question doesn't pertain to the "charismatic" vs. "sacramental" options. The important question is whether the religion in question takes its beliefs and practices seriously. I don't see this as a heavy-handed "tough line" thing. Instead, I see it as a matter of seriousness.

An example of "non-seriousness" would be the guy who says: "Yeah, church is a good thing for the kids." That's not serious. That's using church as substitute baby sitting, keeping kids out of trouble, whatever. But it's not serious, because the adults aren't involved. It doesn't matter whether it's "charismatic" or "sacramental." It's not taken seriously in this case.

"Serious" would be where you get your kids involved because you believe it to be true. You spend time teaching your kids that this option (whether "charismatic" or "sacramental") is important and telling them why. You get involved yourself, because you believe and act like you believe that your life depends on it. That's what I see Lamont as saying.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

Charismatic Christianity originates in protestantism, and has metastisized within Catholicism in the years since Pope Roncalli insisted upon throwing open those windows. I am amazed that any thinking Catholic would take it seriously, except as a corrosively heretical and even satanic force growing within the Church.

Catholicism has its own tradition of mysticism. Our foremost mystics have consistently warned against dabbling by the masses in the trappings of supernatural enthrallment. St Teresa of Avila said that "such things are to be feared," and repeatedly warned against them. St John of the Cross warned that "the devil habitually meddles so freely [in supposedly supernatural phenomena] that I believe it is impossible for a man not to be deceived by them, unless he strive to reject them, such an appearance of truth and security does the Devil give them."

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (and also Ronald Knox in "Enthusiasm") makes the point that "the soul desiring revelations is vain." It is vanity which leads an individual to assume easy access to the divine, and which exposes him to satanic influence.

I know we are all intelligent, sophisticated, and exquisitely sensitive creatures of marvellous talents and abilities, but it strikes me that, as Catholics, we ought to give some vague credence to the possibility, the mere POSSIBILITY, that we might not be the intellectual equals of either God or Satan, and respond with proper humility.

Sheldon said...


I agree about the charismatic movement. At best, I think it produces a sort of quasi-evangelical ethos in which people talk freely about their relationship with God and how the Holy Spirit "leads" them to do this or that in their lives. While the idea that God can directly lead individuals is not alien to Catholicism (as in the process of discernment preceding marriage or taking holy orders), it can verge, when untethered from the magisterium, toward what Knox called "enthusiasm."

I have notice that charismatics tend to prefer extemporaneous prayer to set, memorized prayers. This is symptomatic, I think. A premium is put on expressing verbally in prayer our experience of God here and now in the present, rather than submitting ourselves to traditional prayers, which seem (to them) to place ourselves at an emotional distance from God. This move may be understandable, but it's silly. The repetition of set prayers is "empty" only if you don't mean what you pray while you're praying. Also, the set prayers are generally far richer and more substantial than the extemporaneous prayers I have head, which throw us back on the resources of our own shallow puddle of experience.

At worst, the charismatic impulse involves a hankering after extraordinary experiences, charismatic gifts of "prophecy" and "speaking in tongues," if not private revelations and apparitions. And then one may justly wonder whether the spirit "leading" these individuals may not be a spirit of confusion and Babel rather than the Holy Spirit of Pentecost.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

"At worst, the charismatic impulse involves a hankering after extraordinary experiences, charismatic gifts of "prophecy" and "speaking in tongues,"

Hankering? One may have a hankering for a Nathan's hot dog or a plate of blueberry pancakes, but I think it is more instructive to say that those who import charismatic contrivances into Catholicism are victims of their own vanity, and of the diabolical influences to which their pride renders them susceptible.

The Catholic charismatic dramaturgy is not merely the buffoonery of 300 pound women flopping backwards in supposed thrall, into the arms of severely tasked "catchers." It is a weapon of the devil. It works to distort and obscure the clarity of Catholic doctrine. It attempts to elevate heretical practice to the same level as Catholic liturgy. It leads weakminded people to believe that there is no essential difference between receiving the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, and receiving the "spirit" by means of a thwak on the forehead by a negligent priest or a putatively "Catholic" spiritualist poseur.

V2 opened the door to this grabage, as it did to so many things. Who will slam it shut?