Thursday, February 28, 2008

Catholics losing to other groups, says new study

The Pew Foundation has released a report that should cause some serious thinking among Catholic Church leadership: "Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes. While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic."

[This post is a new version of one I put up earlier that was so unclear that commentators didn't understand my point. The moderator urged a clean start. I'll see if I can do better this time.]

For as long as I can remember, Catholic leaders have said that this trend, which they have long detected, should be addressed by attempting to copy the styles and approaches of their more successful competitors. Hence we should be warm and wonderful and have uppity music just like the evangelicals. Or maybe we should have long and inspiring sermons. Or maybe we should set aside a time in our services for personal testimonies and otherwise try to enhance that feeling of togetherness as a community.

This hasn't worked. Catholics do not do well at pretending to be protestants or evangelicals. We are bad at it. Rightly so. The Church exists for other reasons besides enhancing community feeling or giving people a civic outlet for meeting others and enjoying fellowship. These can be the results not when they are the primary intention.

Moreover, Catholic parishes are poor as compared with the competition. We don't have dazzling community centers, counseling services, educational opportunities, concerts, or cushy places to hang out. We are not the social elite. The Catholic Church is the last place you go if the desire is to hobnob with those in the fast lane or meet the right people.

By emphasizing all these values, however, leadership has led people to believe they are the most important part of Church life. Is it any wonder, then, that people have tried to seek out others who can achieve these ends more effectively?

In some social sense, all Catholics must sacrifice. But what do we get in return? Truth, beauty, salvation, the real presence among other eternal values. So the question from a purely marketing point of view is: where is our comparative advantage. The phrase comes from business. If your computer company were losing profits, the best approach is not to copy Dell but to offer something unique and attractive that Dell does not offer.

Or consider another analogy: let's say you had a product to offer that was very much bound up with a long heritage of service with a huge devoted following, something like Coke. Would it be wise to suddenly spring a New Coke on the market? The introduction of New Coke was a calamity, one of the most famous in the history of marketing. The introduction of New Catholicism that merely attempted to copy protestantism of one sort or another has fared no better.

Catholicism must be true to itself. This means excellent liturgy, strong doctrine, unfashionable moral teaching, and evidence of all the mysteries of the faith. This is the right approach, and it is also the way to recapturing market share.

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