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The Economics of Religion

10 May, 2014 2 Comments

As I write, there are a score or so of men across the street behind me making a living out of chant. Well not a living as you and I understand the term: their minds are on higher things than wages.

By Lyle Dunne

However they do generate a living, even in that vulgar economic sense, for the entire town of Santo Domingo de Silos, including the hotel I´m in, several more, and a number of restaurants. (I suspect their record sales fund the monastery.) I´m in the Hotel because the Monastery accommodation was booked out. The church was full not only for Sunday Mass, but for Saturday vespers. On the cloister visit, it was impossible to walk around the commodious (and glorious) cloister to get a proper look at the 12th-Century carvings because of three tour groups, one of which was German.

Presumably they´d already been to Stift Heiligenkreuz in Austria, the location for the documentary Top 10 Monks. (If you haven´t seen it, do – SBS shows it regularly.) Story in a nutshell: a British record company noticed its back catalogue  of Gregorian chant was still selling well, but it hadn´t had a new release in a while, so they went looking for new exponents, and found the Abbey. (It´s important to note that this was a purely commercial exercise for the company, if not the monks – one compromise was rigging up a church as a recording studio because they wouldn´t sing in a secular environment.) The resultant record topped the Austrian charts for weeks – not the charts for religious music, or the classical charts, but the pop charts, outselling Madonna… and going platinum in most European countries. There´s a nice scene of a monk thumbing through more platinum records than they have wall space for. (Our Kylie should be so lucky!)

Recently I was speaking to a priest who understands economics. (No, don´t be mean, I know several. Well, a couple.) He had been invited to the opening of a new cathedral. When pressed by the architect for his opinion, he said he thought the lack of religious symbolism unfortunate. The architect responded by explaining that he´d studied theology as well as architecture, and that sort of thing was now passé. Whereupon the priest changed tack, saying something like “OK, let me talk to you as a businessman. I know a lot of young priests who’ll be running parishes in a few years, and I´ve seen the sort of vestments they buy… How many of them do you think will be coming to you to design Mass cubes?”

I’m also reminded of the Church’s exquisite sense of timing – remember when they decided to stop using incense? Surely no-one would be interested in incense, in the 1970s!

I have a potted answer for the kind of “why trad?” question we all get asked. It seems like from about the mid-60s, people in the Church said to themselves, ‘hey, I wonder would more people come to Mass if we made it less “Churchy”: made the buildings more like other buildings, the language more like ordinary language, the music more like popular music…?’

And the experiment worked: we now know the answer to that question.

Of course, it should come as no surprise to us.

Part of the reason was explained in John Lamont’s review of The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and losers in our religious economy, by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, which took an economic analysis of religions’ adherents – not economic in the sense of being about money, but in the sense of analysing the factors affecting “demand” in human terms. The conclusion, which should be only momentarily surprising, was that the denominations that were attracting large numbers of adherents were those that made significant demands on them.

People no longer become Anglicans by default, on the basis that one is expected to have a religion of some sort.

I suspect the same is true of religious orders. I recently met, on the Camino de Santiago, two nuns of one of our largest teaching orders. They were filled with enthusiasm, and spoke zealously of their functions as special ministers of communion, and looking after elderly sisters. But it became clear that they were the last of their line: there had been no new postulants in decades. It seemed the order was not offering the kinds of challenges young women now responded to.

Perhaps the sisters had the same thought, at some level: they were doing the entire Camino Frances, unlike me, and part of its appeal is that an 800km walk is a serious challenge.

In perhaps the same way, the troubles facing the church today do not appear to be having a negative effect on religious vocations – if anything, the reverse is the case. But just as people do not now join religious denominations by default, no-one now signs up for the priesthood or joins a religious order seeking a quiet life.

I spoke recently to a newly-ordained priest who had a clear idea of the challenges which faced him, and not only from without: he was rehearsing responses to the inevitable challenges to his traditional ideas on liturgy and clerical attire from colleagues and superiors.

It might seem to some a little blasphemous to think of vocations in terms of supply and demand, let alone marketing, and certainly I’m not saying that’s all there is to it. On the other hand, perhaps the literal call-from-the-heavens model I grew up with is a bit naïve.

Last year I spoke to an old friend in Rome who referred to the observable connection in US Dioceses between perpetual adoration and vocations. (He identified a contiguous belt, roughly coterminous with the “Tornado Alley”.) I’m not saying there is necessarily a direct causal link, such that one can turn around a shortage of vocations by instituting perpetual adoration and turning on a Grace Tap. It’s quite likely that the sort of diocese where adoration would seem like a good idea is the sort of diocese where the clergy might be appealing role models, and catechetics sound. But one cannot ignore the “spiritual economy”.

In Australia, it’s clear that there are some Dioceses which are doing well, and a number which are struggling, in terms of vocations, Mass attendance, and the orthodoxy and what one might call the liturgical seriousness of the clergy.

A number of dioceses, if they were companies, would be in receivership.

In the same way, many of the older religious orders are becoming the victims of a kind of religious Darwinism. It makes one weep to think of the loss of these spiritual powerhouses, and it’s hard to imagine how we can readily replace them.

It’s a troubling time, and the process is a trial to the faith. We can only pray – and perhaps try to present the idea of religious life to our children in the most positive way possible.

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Sites That Link to this Post

  1. Vocations and Adoration : Oriens | 19 May, 2014
  2. Vocations In France: Apres Nous le Deluge? : Oriens | 31 July, 2014

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