Capitalizing on Conversion

I should preface this post with the disclaimer that I think it is a wonderful thing that converts to Catholicism are writing and helping create a vibrant community of Catholics excited about faith and evangelism. The growth of this community is a testament to the many people who are finding themselves disenchanted with the shallow ritualism (secular or otherwise) and false and destructive dogmatism by which they have been inundated for most of their lives.

Still, one of the troubling aspects about this movement is the development of what I’m calling the “Catholic Market”. It is the new niche market that has been created primarily around Protestant converts to Catholicism who, once fiery Evangelicals or staunch atheists, have found their home in Mother Church. But they have also found that there exists a certain constituency of buyers willing to consume products ranging from books to curriculum.

Now, is this such a bad thing in itself? A group of people wanting to buy Catholic products and a small group of authors willing to provide them? No, of course not. But the problem that I foresee developing is precisely the same problem that exists in the modern “Contemporary Christian Industry”—you know, the same industry that brought us “Family Christian Bookstores” and the really terrible music that plays on KLOVE and KCMS. The problem is the desire to capitalize on faith along with ability to make a profit from what essentially boils down to another “life choice” amidst the millions of others that exist in contemporary society.

This kind of industry has admittedly already existed for a long time in the Evangelical world: How do you measure success? How do you ‘reach the world?’ You attempt to create a really hip “Christian” product, one that imitates all “cool stuff” in the “secular realm”. Instead of artistic innovation, Evangelicals tend to try and “redeem” all the captivating (but worldly!) stuff that’s already happening contemporary culture. How do we make worship cooler? We write worship songs that sound like Radiohead. How do we legitimize the Christian faith in a sea of other faiths and beliefs in culture? We write a bunch of hot books and market them on twitter.

It may be the case, then, that many of the evangelical Protestants converting to Catholicism have brought their understanding of ministry with them. A Protestant convert does what he or she knows best; validate their own faith-decision by amassing thousands of like-minded people to agree with them. Think about it: how does a Protestant pastor know that he is successful? By how many attendees they have on Sunday, of course. How does a Christian rock star know that God is “really using her music”? By selling double platinum records, obviously. So how does the Protestant convert to Catholicism know that they are on the right path? Well, since they can’t start their own church’s, and since there exists (at this point, anyway) no substantial Catholic music industry, their best shot is to become authors or bloggers. And that’s exactly what is happening.

The problem here is a distinctly capitalistic one (Weber would say a distinctly Protestant one): As soon as a market discovered, it is exploited. Huge amounts of content is produced to fill the demand, and it inevitably happens that the content being produced loses actual value, kind of like food is made with cheaper and cheaper ingredients to make the most profit for the least amount of expenses. This is just what happens in our consumer economy: We look for a demand, and once we find it, we figure out ways to optimally exploit that demand to create revenue. But it often happens that such an “optimal exploitation” involves a watering down or total distortion of the original thing or idea we are trying to sell.

I’m not saying that all mass-production is bad, or that making money in the context of ministry is bad either. The former can actually be a really good thing, like in the case of production of raw materials, and the latter is virtually necessary for the propitiation of certain ministries that continue to proclaim the gospel and do works of charity.

But until recently, it seems to me that Catholicism has not been something neatly packaged into a four-volume set you can pick up on Amazon. Sure, there have always been religious orders—monks and nuns—and some opportunistic business men and women who have tried to earn their bread by selling Catholic-y things like rosaries, icons etc., but what’s the medieval equivalent of EWTN or the collective of emerging Catholic blogging rock stars (each with a book to sell!)? Who are their historical analogues?

I reiterate: I do not think that it is inherently bad that a kind of “Catholic market” exists or is even developing. EWTN and various Catholic publishing companies prove to be invaluable resources for not just Catholics but anyone seeking information or instruction. But when do we, as Catholic writers, producers, or businesspeople, cross the line from adding value to the Church, to adding value to our own pocketbooks? When does a testimony transform into a narrative that can be monetized?

Maybe I just don’t want to see the Catholic equivalent of the “Christian Music Industry”. I dread that Catholicism might be enveloped into a consumer economy that defiles everything within it. But it seems the only way to keep this from happening is to remember the universality of the Catholic faith—it is not and has never been something consigned to a specific “market”. Catholicism cannot be reduced to a genre; it is a genre-creator— it is not capitalized on, it creates capital.