In my previous post, “A Free Market for Religion,” I chided the Acton Institute’s Dylan Pahman for endorsing a market-based approach to religion which, on its face, appears agnostic about the truth of any religion. By a pure market measure, the religion which best supplies the spiritual-existential demands of the most people at the lowest “cost” (however defined) would presumably be the best (or the most “efficient” — which is typically the measure of “best” for most economists). Whether Pahman himself is agnostic about the true religion is another matter. My suspicion is that he isn’t, though I base that assumption on nothing more than the fact he belongs to an ancient Christian communion — the Orthodox Church — which certainly is not indifferent to its own claim to be the “one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” identified in the Creed. Still, it rings strange that a self-identified Orthodox Christian would want to measure religion through a market lens. After all, the Orthodox Church in the United States is smaller today than it was fifty years ago and, if the figures are true, worldwide attendance at Orthodox parishes is, at best, nominal. Would any Orthodox Christian claim that these empirical measures impinges the truth of Orthodoxy? I doubt it. In fact, whenever a Catholic plays the “numbers game” with the Orthodox, the latter are instantly indignant — and rightfully so. As we already know, it’s neither logically nor empirically impossible for over a billion and a half human souls to be ensnared by falsehood.
All of that aside, a point I do want to stress, albeit briefly, is that I — and any Catholic worth his salt — reject out of hand Pahman’s false either/or between “conversion by fire and sword” and “a free market for religion.” A forced conversion, by Catholic lights at least, is no conversion at all. Only the rank prejudices of the Enlightenment, many of which still abide in the contemporary world, could lead someone to conclude that there is no other “model” or “approach” available — one that does not sacrifice truth in the name of building numbers. For well more than a century the Catholic Church, without disposing or reforming her doctrine, liturgy, spirituality, and theology, won converts in the United States despite this country’s historic hostility toward her. And even if the Church had failed on that front or had only made very minimal gains, there is no value of winning souls by error.
Now, does that mean souls must only be won by rational discourse or heady theological disputations? Of course not. Many — most? — are brought into the Church for reasons which have nothing to do with theological minutiae. The point, however, is that regardless of whatever brings potential converts to the door, the Church has no right to alter the truth in the hopes of “winning out” in the American religious marketplace. I don’t think the Orthodox would disagree. If that so, why use a market-based model at all? Why reduce the most important decision a human being can make to a calculus based on preference fulfillment? Under the market model, the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox) may be losing souls because other sects are promising more for less, but that does not mean that either confession ought to rethink their doctrine in the light of that sad reality. Error is difficult to combat, and not every soul — perhaps only very few souls — are capable of discerning truth from error on their own. Once error creeps in, it can be extremely difficult to combat — which is one reason why, historically at least (it’s a complicated issue), the Church affirmed the right of states to forbid the propagation of religious error in society. Preventing people from being told lies is not the same as putting them to the torch if they don’t convert.