Liberal Conservative Issues

If we are correct that a multiplicity of forms of Christianity exist and are an economic function of income, education, factors affecting risk preference, and other shifters, a number of features of modern religion become understandable. Ecumenism, a movement that began in modern times during the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council, becomes a distant and unreachable goal. For the same reason that Methodism's multiple sects are unable to come to agreement on some doctrines and policies, it is unlikely that more general agreement can be reached. As Melton notes, "Family traditions remain very much alive, and attempts to unite groups across those family lines in either liberal or conservative Protestant churches have failed time and again because of strong-held denominational differences.''19 In his view, ecumenism is unreachable due to metafundamental doctrinal differences. In an economic interpretation, something like the instability of cartels is at work. The income, educational, and risk profiles of members would not be expected to be the same under such a large umbrella as, for example, traditional Protestants or conservative Protestants. Forms will differ reflecting the underlying economic profile of believers and their tolerance for risk, just as individuals purchase different quantities and qualities of insurance based on similar variables. We argued in chapter 3 that the demand-side tendency to monopoly created by network effects is counterbalanced by the inherent problems of the instability of cartels. The reason that a full-fledged ecumenical Christianity is an unreachable goal explains why, in microcosms of particular Christian denominations, we expect division and, in the limit, schisms.

Particularly important shifters may be identified as affecting the evolution of modern Christianity. Perhaps the most critical issues facing modern Christianity—mainline denominations and the sects or churches that evolve or separate from them—are policies associated with doctrine or dogma, such as the sexual or life issues discussed below. Doctrinal differences may not be as important as the interpretation of doctrine or policy prescriptions. First, consider the decline in participation (attendance) rates in the largest mainline church in the United States and Europe— the Roman Catholic Church. Many observers, among them sociologists, note this development and attribute it to the reduction of stringency in the requirements of Catholicism that were brought about in 1960 by the Second Vatican Council. Since then, according to Finke and Stark, the reduction in attendance and the number of priests, nuns, brothers, and seminarians was the twofold result of the liberalizations of Vatican II and the issuance of an unpopular encyclical on birth control Humanae Vitae, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1968. Finke and Stark claim, "The distinctive sacrifices and stigmas of being Catholic were abandoned (without replacement) by the reforms of Vatican II. Recent declines in the vigor of American Catholicism reflect one more cycle of the sect-church process whereby a faith becomes a mainline body and then begins to wilt.''20 Unfortunately this argument will not bear scrutiny from a broader economic perspective. The changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council were entirely "cosmetic" (see the previous discussion) while the pre-Enlightenment, pre-scientific doctrines that continued to be promulgated have become etched in stone and even extended, especially in the papacy of Pope John Paul II and his successor Pope Benedict XVI. None of the core beliefs and practices of the church have changed. The Aristotelian-Aquinas theory of natural law remains the basis of Church views on life and sexual issues. Priestly celibacy, the secondary role of women, and the role of gay people in the church remain precisely the same. Indeed, as revealed by the policies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI regarding a centralized church espousing conservative values and new levels of censorship, the Church is clearly becoming more (not less) Tridentine in nature. It was not the lowering of price that led to Catholic religious defections in the United States, as argued by Finke and Stark and by Iannaccone,21 measured in terms of attendance. The full price of being a Roman Catholic has not declined. Rather it was the increasing price of official membership in the Roman church on sexual and other issues in the face of improving incomes, education, and scientific knowledge that is causing defections to more liberal religions, to self-generated religion, and to less participation by attendance measures. It may also be said, in the context of economic theory, that the Roman Catholic Church is facing a credence problem due to the emergence of clear empirical science in areas such as sex and reproduction. Further, while celibacy remains the rule, emphatically reaffirmed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, it no longer provides the credence value that it once did. For U.S. Catholics the child abuse crisis by priests has probably dramatically reduced the belief that celibacy is a necessary condition for the priesthood. Additional credibility problems have been engendered by the widespread belief among Catholics that those guilty of enabling this abuse—bishops and other higher-ups—have not (save one bishop) and will not be made accountable for their poor administration.

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