National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  February 13, 2004

Religion joins what it cannot beat: commerce


I wasn’t expecting to hear that modulated, precise female voice come over Classic 99, right between the “Wall Street Journal Report” and the weather. But my nun alert is as strong as it was 20 years ago, standing on the commodes in the girls’ john to smoke. And now, one of the Adorers of the Precious Blood was telling me that Jan. 6 was the day to take down the Christmas tree.

I bristled because Epiphany or not, on Jan. 6 I had to go to a committee meeting after work. I couldn’t possibly take the tree down.

I caught myself.

Just when I’d learned to ignore most media and virtually all ads, they’d sent in the nuns. The very people who had first taught me to be suspicious of consumerism were advertising in drive time.

This particular message was harmless enough, even refreshing, injecting a secularized sort of simplicity, contemplation and warmth into the blare of holiday ads. But the order’s name was carefully enunciated, the delivery was professionally smooth, and the overall implication was that the sisters had joined what they could not beat.

I remembered the St. Louis archdiocese announcing that “marketing and development have become essential activities for everyone who is committed to the mission of Catholic education.” Then I flashed back 30 years and remembered brusque, rotund Msgr. Robert Ottoline sweeping through St. Ann’s without any hesitation about his mission. I could not fathom him hiring consultants to create the new ad campaign for “Catholic Schools: Where Every Child Is a Gift.”

He took that for granted.

I imagined Ottoline’s reaction to the Catholic Marketing Network, or to the Cincinnati archdiocese’s new focus group-approved logo, Web site and CD, complete with copy designed “to reinforce the tag line of the logo.” I envision his ruddy cheeks quivering at the Catholic Charities USA PowerPoint presentation about marketing Catholic charities to multiple cultures, “tailoring products, media and message.” His scorn for the sophisticated ad campaigns appealing for priestly vocations.

We used to joke about trips to Catholic Supply (“Need any Catholics?”) religious goods store but nobody urged a redesign to “move” those dusty, comforting statues and prayer books. Today, there are religious marketing specialists chanting, “A is for Alpha, B is for Brand.”

Roman Catholics aren’t alone: Evangelical fundamentalists have long owned the airwaves; Seventh Day Adventists are doing trend analysis reports; Episcopalians survey demographics in their surrounding neighborhoods in hopes of niche marketing their congregations. Churches are holding liturgies in Vietnamese or Spanish, not to meet the needs of current parishioners but to recruit new members from these immigrant groups.

Nothing wrong with any of this, I suppose. People are just using the latest techniques of communication and persuasion to evangelize, increase numbers, build strength.

But in the process, organized religion is becoming a commodity. We package ourselves carefully for new buyers, emphasizing the selling points that will meet their market-researched needs. And in our desperate attempts to meet the surrounding culture more than halfway, we’ve lost all sense of irony.

The other day I opened the Style section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The highlight was an excellent article about “The Age of Too Much Stuff,” featuring a clinical professor of psychiatry who’d studied the evolution of greedy consumption and its psychological burden, as the class system hardens and the gap between the materially rich and those without buying power yawns ever wider.

Beneath that article was one about furs and another about charm bracelets. The facing page held articles about beads, ’50s fashions, fishnet stockings and “makeup as a nicety for men.”

We’re swimming in stuff, because we’re scared to live any other way. And organized religion is borrowing the tactics of commerce, because it’s scared there’s no other way to survive.

Jeannette Cooperman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 13, 2004

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