Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Episcopalians, the Catholic Church, and Corporate Reunion

The eighth commandment may be "Thou shalt not steal," but surely that doesn't mean thou shalt not poach.

What is wonderful about sociology is that it shows how there are foundational dynamics at work in all groups and organizations. Indeed the more organized a group is, the more one can see intentionality in terms of goal setting, reward structure, and decision-making apparatus. We often fail to see the corporate skeleton beneath the fleshy exterior of an organization. We see science as concerning an objective search for the truth with scientists as one part Joe Friday (just the facts, ma'am) and one part Mr. Spock (that is not logical). We often don't catch a glimpse of the politics in or around science, the ways in which cultural biases and power grabs determine who gets to do science and what science gets done.

This is true in spades in religion. Organized religions are organizations and their world is much more like selling cola than we generally see. Just as a corporation needs to advertise its goods to gain consumers and then try to inspire brand loyalty to maintain a healthy revenue stream so that they can launch new campaigns to increase market share, individual churches are franchises of immense multinational conglomerates.

Size matters. These mega-churches are the spiritual versions of WalMart. They work by crushing the small mom and pop congregations with size and volume. They generate huge amounts of money which can then be funneled into efforts to grow and take over increasingly larger portions of local markets.

They do a great job of hiding this aspect, but every once in a while, it peeks through -- like now. The Pope has released a statement:

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has announced his plans to allow provisions that would accept groups of former Anglicans who wish to convert to the Roman Catholic Church, according to an Oct. 20 press release from The Vatican.

The press release announced the preparation of an Apostolic Constitution that would allow such converts to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of Anglican spirituality and liturgy. Under the terms of the Apostolic
Constitution, the release said, "pastoral oversight and guidance will be provided for groups of former Anglicans through a Personal Ordinariate, whose Ordinary will usually be appointed from among former Anglican clergy."
This is the faith-based version of those Apple commercials where John Hodgman plays the out of touch PC.

Understand that the Catholic Church has been in serious trouble for decades. For centuries, they were the Coca-Cola of religious organizations. They were the biggest and that kind of market share and infiltration into the power structure meant they were incredibly well off. Their position underwrote the political authority of kings throughout Europe and with this came great wealth which they used in part to dazzle and thereby entrench their position as the religion to watch and in part used to build an immense organizational structure.

But then the Pepsi of Protestantism became the religious voice of a new generation. This is not your father's old liturgy. The evangelical Protestants, especially the most fundamentalist strands, made a huge marketing push into the underdeveloped nations, especially those of Africa and Central and South America, places where Catholicism had a virtual monopoly. And it paid off. These places where Catholicism was as much a part of the culture as the language or local food started to see incredible waves of conversion.

At the same time the domestic European and American markets were shrinking horribly because the people were moving away from organized religion to either become irreligious or "spiritual, not religious," that is, they had given up drinking soda for bottled water or organically grown herbal tea.

Then there was the brand-damaging pr fiasco that was the world-wide clergy sex scandal. This Pope came to power because of his handling of it in a way that put the organization first. Before becoming Pope, he oversaw the Church's handling of the multiplicity of cases in which priests sexually abused their parishioners in a way that saved the Vatican money and worked to save face. The night before the vote, he gave a speech in which he warned the Church that elevating someone who did not share his corporate philosophy would be deadly to the institution and when the white smoke emerged, he became CEO and made clear from day one that his interest was in being more aggressive in exactly the ways the Protestants had been. Vatican II was like the New Coke, we need to go back to the old formula and sell it harder.

So, when the Episcopalians -- the RC cola of organized religions -- began to undertake a risky strategy of allowing gay bishops and female clergy, a struggle began in their boardroom. Those in the parts of the world where evangelic Protestantism plays the best, tried to stage a shareholder revolt because serious people needed to take on those sandal wearing, long-haired, bearded types from the wealthy nations had to be stopped before they sullied the image of the Prince of Peace who surely would not stand for such treatment of the other. Why it's almost asking me to treat these sinners as if they were my own brother. Stop it right now and be Christian or else we'll rip this organization in two.

And the Pope saw an opening, a way to find a new market for Catholicism. Push hard for these disillusioned Anglicans before the Protestants move in or before the Episcopalians could work things out among themselves. Tired of the flat taste of lite religion with a third less persecution of women and gays, try a full-bodied brew of theological conservatism.

What is interesting is that while the capitalistic aspect of religion is real and ever-present, it also is something that must be veiled. The faithful need to see the corporate brand behind their franchise church as being more than a fast food restaurant for the entire edifice to sustain itself. This worldly side is at odds with the branding and marketing that fills the pews, that it is something beyond the material, beyond the strategic, beyond the marketplace. But, of course, it isn't. Indeed it can't be. It is an organization and organizations need to act in the world to survive. They do need resources -- money and believers -- to maintain themselves. That is a simple fact of the world. It's just that we don't usually see it in such a brazen fashion.