Cardinals would be wise to ignore journalists' advice

College of Cardinals by Rostislav Glinsky / Shutterstock.com

Article Highlights

  • Cardinals met Monday to begin electing a new pope, and they’ve been getting plenty of advice from American journalists.

    Tweet This

  • The advice being given to the cardinals resembles the advice journalists give to conservative politicians.

    Tweet This

  • In the religious sphere, history soundly refutes the idea that watering down your beliefs strengthens your appeal.

    Tweet This

  • Americans inherited a free market in religion from their colonial beginnings.

    Tweet This

The College of Cardinals met in conclave Monday to begin the process of electing a new pope. The cardinals have been getting plenty of advice from American journalists.

The Catholic church, they say, should open up the priesthood to women and allow priests to marry.

It should abandon its ban on contraception and endorse same-sex marriage. It should stop being so dogmatic about its dogmas.

As a non-Catholic, I don't presume to offer any advice. The church has managed to exist for nearly 2,000 years without my counsel. But I do have some observations.

The journalists' advice is based on the premise that the church will lose members if it continues to adhere to what these journalists think are outmoded rules. And it risks antagonizing moderates who may admire its ritual and share some of its beliefs but want it to be more in line with contemporary thinking.

This resembles the advice journalists give to conservative (but not usually to liberal) politicians. You have to modify your beliefs to attract voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum.

Sometimes that advice is good, sometimes not. The assumptions behind it were validated by the defeat of Barry Goldwater but refuted by the victories of Ronald Reagan.

In the religious sphere, however, history soundly refutes the idea that watering down your beliefs strengthens your appeal and attracts converts.

Sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark tell the story in their book "The Churching of America 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy."

As they note, Americans inherited a free market in religion from their colonial beginnings.

The religious settlement following Britain's Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 maintained an established church, funded by taxpayers, but allowed for free religious practice by other Protestants and by Catholics and Jews as well.

The religious marketplace was especially free in the North American colonies, whose founders included Anglicans, Calvinist Puritans, Roman Catholics and Dutch Reformers.

The Founding Fathers took note of this diversity. In the Constitution they specified that there be no religious test for public office. In the Bill of Rights they barred Congress from passing any law regarding an establishment of religion.

Note that they didn't bar states from having taxpayer-funded established churches. Massachusetts had one until 1833.

But churches and clergymen (and clergywomen) were free to compete for Americans' allegiance. And they did so vigorously, with interesting results.

One is that church membership rose enormously from surprisingly low levels in the Colonial period.

Another is the rapid rise of new denominations. In the 19th century Methodists and Baptists -- Finke and Stark call them "the upstart Protestants" -- outnumbered previously more numerous Anglicans, Congregationalists and Presbyterians.

The Catholic church grew not only among previously Catholic immigrants but also by making converts. Black Americans formed their own churches which have thrived to this day.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Assemblies of God, both American creations, have attracted millions of followers here and around the world.

The 20th century saw the rise of evangelical and pentecostal churches. Recent decades have seen huge rises in membership among such churches and continuing decline in the rolls of mainline Protestant denominations.

Surveying this history, Finke and Stark conclude that "religious organizations can thrive only to the extent that they have a theology that can comfort souls and motivate sacrifice."

Churches that make strong demands, in doctrine and in service, tend to grow. Churches that water down doctrine tend to decline.

"Theological refinement," Finke and Stark write, speaking of watered-down faiths, "results in organizational bankruptcy."

It should not be hard to understand why this is so. Many people seek structure and community. A church that makes strong demands and requires strong commitment can provide them.

Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam notes that churchgoers have more social connectedness in their communities. American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks shows that religious people contribute far more, in time as well as money, to charity.

The journalists advising the Catholic cardinals, some of them former Catholics, think a church that is closer to secularism will attract people like them.

But in a country that doesn't penalize nonbelievers and imposes little stigma on them, the easier alternative is to stay home on Sunday or go out for brunch.

I'll watch with interest as the cardinals choose a new pope. Who, I suspect, will not be looking for my advice.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Michael
Barone
  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

    Follow Michael Barone on Twitter.


  • Phone: 202-862-7174
    Email: michael.barone@aei.org
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Andrew Rugg
    Phone: 202-862-5917
    Email: andrew.rugg@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image The Census Bureau and Obamacare: Dumb decision? Yes. Conspiracy? No.
image A 'three-state solution' for Middle East peace
image Give the CBO long-range tools
image The coming collapse of India's communists
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 14
    MON
  • 15
    TUE
  • 16
    WED
  • 17
    THU
  • 18
    FRI
Wednesday, April 16, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Calling treason by its name: A conversation with Liam Fox

Join us at AEI as the Right Honorable Liam Fox sits down with Marc Thiessen to discuss and debate whether America’s intelligence agencies have infringed on the personal privacy of US citizens.

Thursday, April 17, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
The curmudgeon's guide to getting ahead

How can young people succeed in workplaces dominated by curmudgeons who are judging their every move? At this AEI book event, bestselling author and social scientist Charles Murray will offer indispensable advice for navigating the workplace, getting ahead, and living a fulfilling life.

Event Registration is Closed
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.