The Catholic Church’s strategy for America: fewer members, one voice

The Catholic Church has been busy getting involved in US politics in the last few weeks. The Church’s decisions, however, are incompatible with a ‘big tent’ strategy aimed at growing membership. Like the Republican Party, the Catholic Church’s move towards ideological purity risks further alienating the moderate parishioners it needs to grow.

The Catholic Church: a public campaign against gay marriage and abortion

First we had reports from Maine that Bishop Malone of Portland, ME was a leader in the Yes on Question 1 campaign that would overturn gay marriage in the state. The Bishop stuffed church bulletins with anti-gay marriage messages six Sundays in a row before the vote. He sent directives to his priests to preach in favor of traditional marriage before the vote, and a DVD he produced arguing against gay marriage was shown in every parish. The diocese ended up giving well over a half million dollars to the Yes on 1 campaign. After Question 1 passed on Election Day and gay marriage was repealed, Archbishop Kurtz, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage, let the world know that the broader Catholic Church was extremely supportive of Bishop Malone’s actions in Maine, expressing his “deep gratitude” to the bishop and praising the voters for reaffirming the “truth of marriage”.

The Archbishop’s comments are strange for two reasons. First, Question 1 was not a question of fact. No one was voting on the question: “True or False: marriage is spelled M-A-R-R-I-A-G-E.” In America, we don’t vote on matters of fact: those are resolved by observation, not majority rule. We vote on matters of policy, as defined by the will of the people. Question 1 was really about

Secondly, and even stranger, was the Church’s decision to become so publicly involved with Question 1 in the first place. The Church made a similarly-aggressive decision to intervene in the debate in the US Congress about the health care bill. Politico reports that “priests and bishops were calling members to lobby for stricter language to limit abortion coverage,” and that the Church was an important reason why Bart Stupak’s Amendment (which bans private insurers participating in the health exchanges from funding abortions) came to the floor and passed in the House.

The Catholic Church and political parties: a little decision theory

The Catholic Church’s decision to assert its socially-conservative views  so publicly in debates on US domestic policy is a little odd, given the demographic pressure the Church is facing. The latest American Religious Identification Survey shows the percentage of US adults calling themselves catholic has fallen from 26.2% in 1990 to 25.1% in 2008. The fall is not as dramatic as the decline of identification with mainline Protestant churches, but the Catholic Church certainly sees the writing on the wall and is concerned that a growing movement towards atheism and unaffiliated status will lead to a long-term decline in attendance, donations, and influence similar to the Church’s fall in Europe.

A church, much like a political party, faces the choice of advocating its central principles and demanding unanimity of belief, or expanding membership by accepting diversity within a “big tent” strategy. The decision is a complicated one, and at least in the case of political parties, it hinges on whether the party is in power or in the minority. As Newt Gingrich is arguing for the Republicans, the party out of power will do best if it pursues a “big tent” strategy and welcomes in new members who may not agree 100% with the party line. That’s what the Democrats did after their big losses in 2000 and 2002, and it led to big successes in the 2006 and 2008 elections. It is only when a political party is in power that it makes sense to insist on party unity, as the Democrats are finding out these days. That’s when a party has the ability to actually change the outcome and make a real difference in people’s beliefs and actions, and it makes sense to sacrifice some electoral appeal in order to remain true to the party’s principles.

The Church: going for the small, unanimous tent

In a time when the Church is facing declining membership as a proportion of the population, it ought to start thinking like a political party out of power. How can the Church compete for those marginal believers in other traditions or the growing number of non-believers and unaffiliateds? The answer would seem to be to pursue a Big Tent strategy – and that is what at first glance the Church has done by creating a path for easier conversion for disenchanted Anglicans.

However, any good will this move may have bought the church is threatened by its aggressive actions on the political front. Bishop Malone and the rest of the US bishops are in effect narrowing the acceptable range of belief within the Church by telling their parishioners that in order to be good Catholics they must oppose abortion and gay marriage. These happen to be very divisive issues amongst parishioners, with 65% of non-practicing Catholics and 35% of practicing Catholics describing themselves as ‘pro-choice’ on abortion. On the question of gay marriage,  46% of non-practicing Catholics and 25% of practicing Catholics do not oppose gay marriage.

If the Church really wanted to increase attendance at mass, it might avoid publicly antagonizing its dissenting members. It could even do this without sacrificing its anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion ideals. There is a difference between attending a church that disagrees with some your personal political convictions but otherwise lines up with your ideals, and attending a church that insists you can’t be a member because of some of your deeply-held beliefs.  Parishioners may be willing to tolerate a Catholic hierarchy that disagrees with their voting behavior, but it’s harder to sit in a pew being told that you can’t vote a certain way. Instead of driving away the marginal parishioners, why not welcome them in and try to persuade them to change their views?

In the end, the Catholic Church’s US strategy seems to be very similar to the Republicans’ strategy (despite Gingrich’s best efforts to the contrary): drive out the moderates and forget trying to grow. On the one hand it opens its doors to the Anglicans and on the other slams them shut to its own parishioners who are also social liberals. From the standpoint of ideological purity, this makes sense: the Anglicans who are welcomed are also staunchly anti-gay, and the median churchgoer will likely be more socially conservative as a result. However, from the standpoint of church growth, these decisions are likely to speed up the process of disenchantment that is already underway in the US.

If the Church or the Republican Party want to remain relevant this century, they’re going to have to start thinking more strategically about the requirements they put on membership.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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