[The following is the second part of a five-part series, “Seeds in Good Soil,” examining some of the challenges of making Catholic Social Teaching a constituent part of parish life in the United States. These reflections are a product of and limited by my own social location as a white, middle-aged, middle-class male layman working in an upper middle class suburban parish. To read part one, click here.]
[Jesus] told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matt. 13:3-9)
PART TWO: Are We Consumers of Christ?
In my last post, I suggested that the reason why Catholic Social Teaching is not embraced by many Catholics in the pew is not only because most parishioners are unfamiliar with the teaching. There are deeper and more profound reasons why Catholic Social Teaching remains peripheral to the life of most parishes. We have spent a great deal of time and energy trying to plant the good seed of Catholic Social Teaching in soil that is incapable of bearing fruit. In this post, I will describe some of the attributes of this “rocky soil.”
We are all familiar with the devastating impact of addictive consumerism on most Americans. Increasingly, for rich and poor alike, we are defined by the quality and quantity of what we produce and consume. Far too many view our planet as a commodity that exists primarily for the extraction of resources. And in this consumer culture, the poor are often viewed as surplus population that serve no real purpose in the market because they have no money to participate in the community of consumption. Even in the midst of the current economic meltdown caused by Wall Street, great deference is paid to the rich and powerful because they are the “job creators.” And we are told that in order to pull ourselves out of this economic mess, we need to get people in the stores buying more stuff.
Addictive consumerism is the product of a free market culture that is so pervasive in the United States that we are often unaware of the power it has in shaping our lives. This market mentality influences our most intimate human encounters and emotions. Even courtship and dating are now governed by the market. Speed dating makes inter-personal relationships more efficient and makes side-by-side comparisons easier. Finding a life-long partner is now made easy with market-developed questionnaires that can help us zero in on potential mates that are pre-screened for compatibility by experts in the field.
The ultimate aim of free market culture is to transform every human interaction into a commodity that can be marketed and sold–including our experience of Church. Beyond the challenges addictive consumerism poses to the pastoral work of the Church; the real danger is in the way our free market culture has changed the way we do Church. The influence of this free market mentality has been so subtle and pervasive we are often unaware of how profoundly it has changed the role of the Church in society and how it has shaped the way the Church functions.
Over time the Church has moved from being a primary institution of social formation to being nothing more than one of many competing providers of products and services available through the market. The Church is no longer a counterforce to the encroachment of free market culture – it is often an enabler. Within this dominant culture the Church’s role is limited to providing religious goods and services to their customers. Successful parishes are ones that are able to increase their market share by providing better goods and services than the church down the road.
Following the logic of the market, the primary goal of most parish renewal programs is to “do church better.” The hope is that if parishes can do church better they can put more people in the pews: if we build a better church, they will come. Pastoral ministers will often assert that success is not measured by the numbers of people who show up. But when it comes to answering that most challenging and dreaded question, “What do we do next year?” the response by many parish professionals is framed by a market strategy that is not that much different from what goes on in most public relations and marketing firms – only these firms do it better.
This market strategy starts with determining what religious goods and services are desired by our customers (i.e. parishioners) with special attention to appealing to those who do not currently participate in parish life. How do we reel them in? How do we establish brand loyalty? (And for the more cynical; how can we get them to be consistent donors?) Parishes will often circulate questionnaires, organize focus groups or hold parish town-hall meetings to get the data they need to develop next year’s product line. And if they are successful, they will be able to meet their marketing goals for the year — and maybe even open that coffee shop off the narthex that parishioners have been clamoring for.
The problem is this: if we treat parishioners like customers, they will act like customers. When asked to evaluate their parish, customers will talk about what they like about the parish and what they don’t like. If they have a complaint, it will often be expressed in terms of the failure of the parish to meet their needs pastorally or theologically. Parish loyalty for many parishioners is now market driven: what do I get in return for my investment of time and money in this parish? Decisions about participation in the parish are also market driven: among all the choices I have in the marketplace, what experience or activity gives me what I most desire this weekend?
This “rocky soil” is far too shallow and depleted for anything of value to grow; especially Catholic Social Teaching. Before we can move people to embrace the social mission of the Church, we need to stop relating to them as customers and start relating to them as fellow disciples of Jesus the Christ.
In my next post, I will explore a new pastoral/theological movement that holds out the promise of creating “good soil” for the Church of justice and peace to flourish.