This reflection includes some material from earlier posts
As our tribal identities recede into the oblivion of history, religions that are nothing more than ethnic identifiers will follow them. By saying that I don’t mean to suggest that ethnic identification is a superficial phenomenon. The ferocity it can generate was on horrific display in Belgium in 1985 when Liverpool soccer enthusiasts attacked rival Juventus fans and many were killed. Religion can play a similar role, and many of us come out of such a tradition. “Catholic,” for many, was simply another word for being Irish or Polish … or some other tribe that perhaps had to defend itself historically against a non-Catholic invader or overlord. “Dogmas” became shibboleths … passwords for who was really in the tribe and who wasn’t. Doctrine came to be used principally to contrast with what was “non-Catholic;” it was a “brand” identifier.
So branding is not an entirely unfamiliar phenomenon. But in our post-tribal globalized age, when even nation-states can fail, it has a wider application. Branding identifies the successful transnational business corporation which has become the very symbol of solidity, viability and social preeminence. The Roman Catholic Church has lately begun to exploit this potential by identifying itself as a commercial enterprise which offers quality products for sale. Marketing those products is the key to corporate success, and an essential part of marketing is establishing a clearly recognized profile in the global marketplace, a coherent package of visible symbols — a “brand” — that sets the corporation apart from others in the eye of the prospective consumer. These symbols must be immediately associated with its desirable “product line.” As tribal support wanes, the Church needs something it can sell to anyone, anywhere.
“Preserving the Vision”?
Is this just more hyperbole … a fantasy I have conjured to focus my axe-to-grind, my criticism of the Church? Let me assure you it is not.
In the spring of 2012 when the Bishop of Brooklyn NY, USA was questioned about the documented loss of over 200,000 Catholics from his diocese, he responded: “we’ve still got 1.5 million. We can live with a quarter million less.” Coming from someone who professes to believe traditional Catholic doctrine which includes the claim that “outside the Church there is no salvation” this is astounding! Concern for the salvation of those who left, or questions as to why so many would feel impelled to do so were never mentioned. The only thing that seemed of interest to the bishop was his organization’s viability.
Is this one man’s idiosyncrasy? In a letter to the NYT dated May 20, 2012, ex-Jesuit Tim Iglesias of Oakland, Calif., wrote:
… I believe that [Catholic church leaders] are pursuing a very deliberate strategy. They have decided that a smaller, more unified and doctrinally focused church community is preferable to a welcoming, diverse and unruly one. All of their actions are consistent with this strategy.
If what Iglesias is saying is true, the Brooklyn Bishop is not alone. His attitude is part of a “deliberate strategy” of the hierarchy — corporate manager-bishops — who have unilaterally opted for downsizing the Church based on the efficiency criteria of successful business organizations, not on the definitions and goals set by the Church itself.
The fact that these episcopal sentiments mirror the mindset of the CEOs of major corporations must be seen squarely for what it is: a redefinition of Church — the crass substitution of the goals, structures, motivations and operating dynamics of a commercial business enterprise in place of a community that claims to be inspired by the vision of Jesus. We are not dealing with morality here; it goes far deeper than that. It’s a matter of fundamental identity. Are you a Christian community concerned about people, personal liberation, gratitude for life, justice, widows and orphans, or are you a corporate commercial enterprise concerned about your survival: your “products,” your customers, your income, your assets, your buildings, their utilization and productivity?
As if in answer to that question, less than six months earlier in November 2011 the Diocese of Brooklyn published a “Strategic Plan for Catholic Schools 2011-2014” whose language recapitulates this corporate commercial mindset. It is labeled “Preserving the Vision” and it can be found on the Brooklyn Diocesan website (http://mybqcatholicschool.com/preserving-the-vision/ ). It includes the clear order that all Catholic parochial schools in the Diocese will be converted into “academies” by 2017, thus completing their privatization, their final separation from the parish and any semblance of being the project of a “Christian community.” Education for the paying elite, whether Catholic or not, will be the official order of the day — the “product” the Church sells. The mission statement for the “strategic plan” makes this clear:
Goal #2: Increasing enrollment through effective marketing and outreach to the diverse communities within the Diocese.
Effective marketing? Outreach to diverse communities? Those phrases reveal the commercial nature of the ecclesiastical efforts. The fact that we are talking about conversion to “academies” should dispel any illusion that “diverse” might mean an outreach to the poor … when would you ever “market” to people who, by definition, cannot pay? It is precisely to bypass traditional commitment to the poor in favor of paying customers that this qualifies as a “strategy.” “Diverse” clearly refers to “non-Catholics” who are willing to pay for high quality, private education, where their children can pursue excellence undistracted by “under-achieving” needy Catholics — immigrants’ children — shunted to the public schools.
There is a whole section on “marketing.” The following is from a list (p.13) of strategic goals for the “marketing” effort. Notice the conspicuous use of the word “branding”:
Goal 16. High priority will be given to effectively marketing Catholic schools and academies within the Diocese of Brooklyn in order to build a strong educational brand throughout the Diocese and increase K-8 enrollment by 10% each year so that buildings are fully utilized.
16.1 To maximize effectiveness and clarity, marketing and branding messaging at the diocesan and local school and academy levels will be presented to all diocesan constituencies in a “single minded” manner and delivered with “one voice.” Schools, academies and various offices within the diocese will work collaboratively to ensure this consistent branding and messaging.
16.2 Specific marketing resources will be identified and committed to fund an integrated marketing communications program of branding Catholic education within the Diocese of Brooklyn and to support individual school and academy recruitment activities.
This uncharacteristic use of terminology coincided, in a most revealing way, with a similar anomaly of speech uttered by Cardinal William Levada, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Commenting on his June 11th 2012 meeting with the nuns of LCWR Levada said:
“Too many people crossing the LCWR screen, who are supposedly representing the Catholic church, aren’t representing the church with any reasonable sense of product identity,” 
“Product identity”? This kind of untraditional talk used in such unconnected circumstances fairly compels the conclusion that the corporate managers — the bishops — are in agreement defining the Church as a commercial enterprise; and they are spontaneously using terminology that reflects their objectives.
Based on this I am going to extrapolate and make a serious accusation and prediction: that the morally discredited hierarchy of the American Catholic Church, saddled with an obsolete, incoherent doctrinal inheritance, and faced with the erosion of support from preferred ethnics, is deciding to turn an irrational doctrinal liability to corporate advantage by marketing its beliefs as “ancient tradition” regardless of their lack of “truth” value. “Tradition” gives an aura of depth and quality to its various services — its “product line” — which include education. This might seem a commonplace observation about a “common sense” strategy. But it takes on a severe condemnatory significance because it means that the Church, far from grappling with the reformulation or repudiation of erroneous, useless and even damaging dogmatic anomalies, is … for “branding” purposes only … entrenching itself behind them, and thus becoming a cynical purveyor of delusion. In its desperation to find a way to escape its terminal obsolescence, the Church leadership has abandoned any concern for the truth.
“Truth,” I contend, has been abandoned. What at one time, and not that long ago, was a sincere belief in the inerrancy of the magisterium, is no longer held by the well-educated Church authorities who are as savvy and modern as the rest of us. The corpus of doctrine is cynically being kept unchanged by men who really do not believe these doctrines are relevant any longer, in order to promote the corporate “branding” for its product line. Pope Francis’ recognition that “the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church … cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” reflects this attitude; it suggests that his pastoral style could easily be made to coincide with the strategy of rehabilitation through corporate re-definition. The pope suggests doctrinal insistence is irrelevant, but he does not offer to retract one iota from the dogmatic absurdities hallowed as “tradition.”
This is disturbing. The entire human family appreciates Francis’ warm, familial, humble demeanor and pastoral priorities. His style is a welcome change in the leadership projections of the Catholic Church, which has been, historically, arrogant and overbearing in the extreme.
But it has become clear in the year since the beginning of his papacy that he has absolutely no intention of moving to reform doctrine, even those easily modified like the absurd rationale for the ban on contraceptives and the utterly hollow basis for denying priesthood to women. Our feelings for Francis should not excuse a profound betrayal. The autocracy of Roman Catholicism has been consolidated to the point where no change of any significance can take place unless it is initiated or at least actively supported by papal authority. If Francis has decided he will not attempt to modify the inherited teaching on faith or morals in any way, it cannot happen. There is no other agent of change in the Church. He has to realize if he has any interest in change — and many believe his actions imply he does — he is the one who has to do it. Others may be willing to assume the burdens of “cleaning up” the dogmatic mess and allowing him to live a simple life as he seems to desire, but they cannot; as the Church is currently structured they are not the custodians of doctrine, he is.
The ironic thing is that the first doctrines that need to be changed are those that justify the exclusive power of the pope in these matters. The fact that they are accepted as doctrines means that they are not readily perceived as the typical self-serving justifications always trotted out by autocrats determined to maintain their exclusive grip on power. They are touted as “sacred” dogma. All Catholics (in theory) believe in (1) the inerrancy of the magisterium managed solely by the hierarchy, (2) the infallibility of the pope when teaching ex cathedra on faith or morals, and (3) the apostolic succession of all bishops. These doctrines are declared to be “truths” revealed by “God.”
But I claim the battle ground has shifted. These doctrines are no longer promoted because they are “true,” nor even because they mystify the faithful. The doctrines are clung to because they are “Catholic” and the Catholic “brand” sells. The hierarchy owns the corporation, and the corporation needs those doctrines for its identity. Up-scale families want to send their kids to private “Catholic” schools. The preservation of “tradition” now means things cannot be allowed to change not because they are eternally true, but because they are the essence of the Catholic corporate “brand.”
The hierarchy’s decision to recuperate legitimacy in the form of corporate success through “product identity” and the “branding” that it requires, promises to compound the intransigence against doctrinal reform exponentially. Catholic doctrine is central to its “branding.” There is nothing that symbolizes Catholicism and sets it apart from all other institutions more than the three doctrines just mentioned above. Imagine a Catholic Church without a pope! The papacy is an essential symbol for the corporate Catholic “brand.” If our morally discredited Church with its baggage of destructive, erroneous and irrelevant doctrines continues to survive, it will be thanks to its corporate success in marketing its “product line” and the “branding” that accompanies it. “Branding” by the very nature of what it is designed to do, will reinforce the resistance to doctrinal change; for if Catholic doctrine is allowed to change, the Church will no longer be recognizable as Catholic. Once ethnic community is supplanted by mass impersonal entities like the transnational ecclesiastical corporation, branding recognition is indispensable to survival.
“Loss of recognition” is disastrous for the mass organization. It was the “mistake” made at Vatican II and it helps explain the confusion among the ordinary Catholic people precipitating a devastating fifty-year conservative backlash led by, but by no means limited to, the hierarchy. It affected many areas of Church life, but let’s just look at one: the Eucharist.
For many Catholics in 1965, changing the way they related to the Eucharist changed the Church beyond recognition. That generation is almost gone, but many of us remember the bewilderment that people of our parents’ age went through when it was announced that the worship of the Eucharistic host was no longer the point of the mass. They were told the mass is to be understood as a symbolic meal evoking love of neighbor … after having been taught all their lives that what distinguished Catholics from Protestants was that the mass brought “God” to earth; we had “God” in the tabernacle, they didn’t. The “real presence” was the centerpiece of counter-reformation Catholicism. Vatican II, by emphasizing the symbolic value of the Eucharistic bread and changing the focus of the mass from “God” to the human community, overturned all that. It had the practical effect of diminishing the importance of the real presence and ending Catholicism’s insistence on its radical superiority over Protestantism. It simultaneously undermined other associated doctrines like the ex opere operato (automatic) function of sacramental ritual and the absolutely indispensable role of the priestly sigillum (“indelible seal”) with its magical power to transform bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ. All that changed.
Consider the devastating effect of announcing the primacy of symbolism: If the mass were truly more than a symbol, then the symbolism should have remained secondary to the literal, factual reality of the real presence, because “reality” trumps all ancillary factors. But if the symbolic is validly given highest priority then you really don’t need a priest, anyone can make and recognize a symbol. How is this different from what the Protestants have been saying? What started out as a necessary course correction for a doctrine that had yawed too far in the direction of scientific fact, turned out to completely upend the Catholic worldview as it then existed precisely because the entire interconnected worldview had been taken as scientific fact.
So the Catholic Church lost its uniqueness in the eyes of its own people. The view being encouraged by the Council tended to put Catholicism on the same level as other Christian religions, no better, no worse, to be judged by fidelity to the gospel not by its magical powers. Despite the ensuing conservative backlash, there really was no going back. The cat was out of the bag. The sacraments are symbols, not vending machines. The Roman Catholic priest was no longer a mystical Merlin bringing Christ back to earth in the mass which was also supposed to sustain his life of celibate “holiness.” Celibacy lost its mystique. The ideological source of Catholic exceptionalism was swept away and the Church stood naked before the world … the victim of centuries of self-delusion, painted into a corner by its own insistence that its doctrines were scientific fact and its priests performed miracles. Catholics’ supreme self-confidence collapsed because their divinized self-image evaporated. Such catastrophic loss of self-esteem could never be reversed.
Or could it? I believe recourse to corporate success as compensation for that loss was predictable for an organization that had inherited a massive infrastructure of property: land, buildings, schools, hospitals … and a tradition of service. Indeed, the Church’s identity as a “service provider” in education was already well established. Once all that infrastructure was stripped of its self-involved religious meaning what was left was its value to larger society, hence the pursuit of recognition as a corporation that provides “quality” education and other services.
The Church does not use its doctrines, like the “real presence” for their truth value any longer but only for their “branding” power. The truth value of the “real presence” had already been devalued by Vatican II. The Church can no longer return to that worldview. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is symbolic; its “reality,” i.e., its sacramental efficacy, derives from its symbolism, not the other way around. The “spirit” of Jesus becomes present in the community of love evoked by the symbolic meal of sharing. The power of symbols is the new paradigm that rules this sea-change in Catholic self-definition and ritual practice. Doctrine, as usual, lags behind prayer-life and needs to catch-up. Catholicism must begin reformulating (or repudiating) doctrines — like the “real presence” — that had originally been falsely articulated in terms of magic words and scientific “fact” and restate them as necessary to accommodate their reality as symbol.
But if the Church becomes captive to the siren call of the marketplace, and refuses to allow its ancient formulations to change because it is now committed to preserve the purity of its “brand,” it continues proclaiming doctrines known to be false or falsely stated, and now without even the excuse that it believes them. This would explain the Brooklyn bishop’s lack of concern that 200,000 Catholics had left his Church. He isn’t a monster; like the rest of us he simply no longer believes that “outside the Church there is no salvation.”
This is the dilemma facing the present pope. He cannot absent himself from these developments. Catholic doctrine is burdened with the delusions of millennia. Ignoring doctrine will not make it go away; that is the greatest delusion of all. Doing nothing is itself a choice to continue the mystifications of the past, and no one is fooled by them any longer.
The money changers are starting to take over the temple. It was something that Jesus could not ignore and would not tolerate. It’s what got him killed. The bishops are turning their churches into business corporations right before Francis’ eyes, and their doctrinal conservatism is cynical and insincere in service to it. This is all happening on his watch. It is time to ask the hard question: is Francis’ “benign neglect” passively complicit with this development? I am inclined to say that even granting him the benefit of my doubt, it is still a cop-out … it avoids accepting responsibility for what the Church has done with what it calls the “truth.”
The Church has always claimed it was the guardian of the “truth” and the “truth” was the basis of its claims to power. Throughout its history, no matter how venal and morally corrupt its leadership, no matter how it compromised with wealth and power, no matter how it betrayed the widow and the orphan, it has never wavered on what it insisted was the “truth” that grounded its right to rule. For the pope to dismiss that “truth” now as an irrelevant “obsession” and not own up to the damage it has caused, is grossly irresponsible.
The “truth” was used to justify genocidal crusades launched by direct papal initiative against Islam and dissident “heretical” Christians. The “truth” mattered so much that the Church was willing to encourage Christians to kill people in its defense and in its promotion. And in the matter of the Jews, beginning with the gospels themselves the Church’s version of the “truth” provided the rationale for Jew-hatred that has lasted throughout Christian history. Christian rhetoric about the “truth” of divine providence drove the Christian population of Europe to conclude that only the physical elimination of the Jewish people who denied the “truth” of the divinity of Christ and the necessity of baptism for “salvation” would guarantee that natural disasters would not be visited upon them by “God” in punishment for the presence of Jews in their midst. Every outbreak of plague brought pogroms of slaughter to the Jews.
The virulent anti-Judaic attitudes that seethed beneath the surface in all the countries of Europe in the years leading up to the Nazi holocaust insured that what was happening at Auschwitz and Buchenwald would be ignored if not tacitly approved, and we know now that the Vatican itself was part of that “passive complicity.” The holocaust was the “final solution” prepared for by two thousand years of Christian “truth.” To treat the doctrinal complex that comprises Christian “truth” now as of no relevance is a betrayal of integrity of monstrous proportions. There is no impunity for genocidal Pinochets and Milosevics and the machete-killers of Ruanda. There is no “statute of limitations.” The Church must account for its claim to be custodian of a “truth” that precipitated so much horror. To walk away in silence when you have finally come to know that your “truth” was all along nothing but a self-serving delusion that harbored a psychopathic murderous paranoia toward others, is a crime against humanity in a class by itself.
Tribal “Catholicism” is on the way out. It is disappearing because tribal identity is disappearing in a globalized world … I say, good riddance. People can find other ways to protect their cultural heritage. But there is a new monstrosity coming to birth in its wake, a globalized Church with a new identity: the corporate commercial enterprise, supine before the forces of the market which would make us all commodities to be bought and sold. We don’t need this Church either. When will we learn? Roman Imperial Christianity made Jesus “God” and chained him to its program of conquest and control; it created a machinery that, even as things changed, has functioned, inerrantly, for that same purpose ever since.
If we are to liberate ourselves from its grip, we will have to liberate Jesus along with us.
John Allen “Vatican official warns of ‘dialogue of the deaf’ with LCWR,” NCR June 12, 2012
 From Interview w/ Antonio Spadaro pub in America Sept.30, 2013