Divine Diseconomy

In a move that surprised many Catholics around the globe, Pope Francis recently placed heavy restrictions on the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass, effectively banning it from local parishes. While the Latin Mass can still be used in parishes, the pre-Vatican II form is being restricted. Ostensibly, the policy is designed to restore unity after Pope Benedict XVI’s earlier decision to allow it supposedly caused rifts within the Church.

As a political economist of religion who has studied the Catholic Church and other religious organizations from an institutional perspective for over thirty years, this decision mystifies me. Using some basic findings from the economics of religion perspective, I will argue that Francis’s decision likely will not achieve its desired goals and may actually weaken the institution.

Unity in the Church

If the current pontiff’s goal is to unify the Church, this policy is quixotic at best.

Truth be told, the Church has never been unified. The first three centuries of Christianity were actually a hodgepodge of competing theological ideas and missionary styles. The First Council of Nicaea (325 AD), coming shortly after Emperor Constantine’s recognition of Christianity as an official religion, sought to create a unified standard for what counted as Christian and what did not. While it did help Constantine sort out who to fund, different theological ideas (or “heresies”) continued to flourish.

And while the Great Schism (1054 AD) and Protestant Reformation (1517) have gained most of the attention when it comes to Christian division, sociologist Rodney Stark points out that Christianity has constantly been experiencing disunity over theology and worship styles. The various waves of monasticism that have reverberated through the Church since the early fifth century provide evidence of vibrant diversity within Christianity. Each of these monastic orders has had an influence over the laity through their missionary service to the Church, and the Vatican has embraced them throughout history.

Today, the Church claims over one billion adherents. A pluralism of theological and worship preferences should come as no surprise among a constituency that large. A cursory flyover of Catholicism reveals communities embracing left-leaning liberation theology, conservative Opus Dei groups, and everything in between. Latin America has witnessed an explosion of “charismatic Catholicism” in response to Pentecostal advances in the region, and parishes in Africa and Asia have adopted various syncretic practices that blend non-Christian cultural traditions with Catholic worship.

The economics of religion informs us that as a marketplace expands, preferences will naturally vary. Catholicism is no different. As the Church reaches new populations, they will need to cater to different needs and desires in order to attract and retain members. The core theological tenets can remain the same, but the manner in which it is communicated has latitude to vary, placing different emphasis on certain theological themes and experimenting with different liturgical practices. Some Catholics love to wave tambourines and sing rock ‘n roll hymns while others enjoy the deep history of the Latin Mass. So be it.

Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the Catholic Church is historically unique in its ability to embrace phenomenal diversity and still retain its basic institutional form for roughly two millennia. No other formal, hierarchical human institution has endured for so long. None. (Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam have also endured as faith traditions, but those confessions do not have the hierarchical structure of Catholicism or Orthodoxy.)

In short, diversity is a strength of Catholicism as it allows the faith to reach a broad swathe of individuals without those people having to break from Rome and set out on their own. (as Luther, Calvin, and a few others did five centuries previously) When you really think about it, suffering only two major schisms over two thousand years is a pretty good track record. This occurred not by excluding dissenters (Luther excepted), but rather by finding liturgical space for different means of expressing one’s faith.

For a pontiff dedicated to the concept of inclusivity, excluding certain types of worship that are theologically consistent with historical practice within the Church seems counterproductive.

The economics of religion informs us that as a marketplace expands, preferences will naturally vary. Catholicism is no different. As the Church reaches new populations, they will need to cater to different needs and desires in order to attract and retain members.

A Return to Vatican II?

Another key reason given by Pope Francis for his decision to restrict the Latin Mass was that it deviated from the norms set by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Vatican II sought to make the Church more relevant to the modern world following what appeared to be a loss of faith among Europeans in a post-World War II, industrializing world. Faith was flat in Europe and attendance dropped.

In response to what appeared to be secularization, Popes John XXIII and Paul VI urged clergy to be more worldly by dressing like their laity and saying Mass in the vernacular, among other changes. Strictness was relaxed and priests and nuns were to be equals among the laity. This gave rise to “folk Catholic services” with long-haired hippies singing Bob Dylan songs on the lawn of the local parish (a memory I have growing up).

While fitting with the egalitarian times of the 1960s, some of these reforms proved disastrous to the institutional staffing of the Church. Religious vocations plummeted, as sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke have empirically demonstrated. The economic logic of this was very predictable given the cost-benefit calculation presented to potential clergy. Becoming “more worldly” meant that the status recognition accorded to priests and nuns (a substantial benefit in the past) would be reduced, yet the cost of having to remain celibate remained. Same costs, fewer benefits. Not surprisingly, many devout young men and women who would have chosen a religious profession decided to pursue secular paths where they could marry and raise a family.

Pope John Paul II recognized this problem and during his tenure started to roll back some of the more liberalizing reforms of Vatican II, including helping to restore a higher status to the clergy. Pope Benedict XVI’s promotion of the Latin Mass was another step in this direction, allowing priests who preferred this style of liturgy to have a space within the Church.

From an economic perspective, strict (or costly) religious practices tend to have high payoffs. As economist Laurence Iannaccone has argued, religious organizations are essentially clubs that face significant collective action problems. People can reap the benefits of being associated with a parish without having to contribute much to the provision of the resources needed to realize those benefits. To filter out potential free-riders, religious groups will often require members to engage in costly ritualistic practices or identify themselves via “odd” stigmas (e.g., distinctive clothing or dietary habits). Mormons require two-year missions of their young adults and prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Orthodox Jews wear distinctive headgear, avoid electricity on the Sabbath, and keep strict kosher guidelines. While these organizations do not necessarily bring in a large number of individuals (as not everybody wants to pay such a high price), they do result in having a community of dedicated individuals who devote a great deal of their energy and resources to supporting their faith. The result is a vibrant spiritual organization that often has spillover effects on the broader faith (and secular) community.

Within Catholicism, those who favor the Latin Mass are likely to be laity who are the most dedicated to the faith. Learning Latin and keeping the other strict rituals required of a more “orthodox” Catholicism is costly. They are the ones who donate resources (money and labor) more generously to the Church in general. Alienating some of your most devoted adherents—those who have self-identified as willing to pay a high cost to participate in the faith—will weaken the institution in the long run. These members, with fewer options within the faith to choose from, may decide to exit the Church and take with them their spiritual dynamism.

As noted above, the Catholic Church is filled with extensive diversity and has benefited immensely from this pluralism. Singling out a particular branch of the organization when it provides some of your most devoted adherents is a strategy akin to shooting oneself in the foot while trying to run a marathon.

An Institutional Political Move?

If Pope Francis’s recent declaration is not likely to enhance unity within the Church, and if it is likely to alienate an ardent, albeit small, constituency within the Church, why make such a big deal of the Latin Mass? Intentions of individuals are often difficult to discern, but an understanding of institutional dynamics may give us some hints.

First, it is important to note that Pope Francis truly does believe that limiting the use of the Latin Mass will move the Church closer to Vatican II and bring about unity. I do not sit on St. Peter’s Throne, so I cannot say for sure what someone in that position might think.

That said, however, a more cynical read of the situation, coming from an understanding of institutional politics, may suggest that Pope Francis is attempting to signal his preference for the selection of the next pontiff. Popes don’t live forever and Francis (age 84) prepared this announcement as he approached a significant colon surgery.

Throughout his tenure, Francis has engaged in some significant directional shifts for the Church and he undoubtedly wants to ensure his reforms live well into the future. Prior to his reign, the Church had taken a turn towards a more traditional model under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Policies, especially ones that may be difficult to enforce (as this one may be), often serve as signals regarding how future political battles will play out. By airing this debate right now, it may be possible for the more progressive forces within the Church to gain a read on where the lines of conflict will be drawn and who is taking what position. This is a gambit, admittedly, as an early move against the more traditionalist wing of Catholicism may serve to mobilize them ahead of the next papal election. Nonetheless, Francis may be willing to fight this battle now when he still has institutional leverage, even if it means isolating some of the Church’s most devoted members. Only time will tell how this plays out.