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big religion meets big tobacco
how the catholic church could survive its current woes
by jeffrey d. walker
6.12.02
news


What do the Catholic Church and Philip Morris have in common?
1. Both are facing multi-million dollar lawsuits;
2. Both hope the above won't drive them bankrupt.

I think everyone knows I have little tolerance for organized religion. I'm not a much bigger fan of Philip Morris, although I've been known to possess and use their products. However, I've been shocked to see the Catholic Church acting just as reprehensibly as the tobacco giant.

Philip Morris recently changed their name to the Altria Group in an effort to leave some of their bad press behind them. Once possessing clout, celebrity endorsements, and even general approval, the former Morris now desperately struggles to hang onto their share of the shrinking cigarette marketplace. They're currently fighting hundreds of lawsuits, while quickly merging with other companies that make less harmful products so that maybe everyone in their company can have a job after all this is over.

Now, the Catholic Church faces lawsuits from former parishioners for harm caused by some of their priests. They've recently backed out of a deal that was supposed to compensate 86 such defendants, allegedly due to the onslaught of over 100 additional plaintiffs lining up to file similar suits. From a business standpoint, backing out of the original settlement makes perfect sense. Since they're already strapped for cash, if the church paid out on the initial settlement, there would be nothing left to deal with the new lawsuits, leaving the whole organization primed for bankruptcy. "God" knows I'd love it if that happened – not only would I finally be rid of Catholicism in America, but there would be all these churches and cathedrals that would go up for sale. I'm not much on God, but I wouldn't mind living in one of his "houses" – they're so spacious.

I also think it's unfair to criticize the Church for not painting itself into a corner with a specific mandate on how to handle priests accused of molestation. Not every circumstance should always be addressed the same way. If a priest behaves in a less than admirable manner, I don't think the church (despite my personal contempt for it) has a greater interest in protecting its own interests over that of a child. A "blanket mandate" on how to handle any possible situation only serves to limit the church's ability to regulate its own operation. After all, if the church is in the business to help others, it must be given some latitude to help its own in times of trouble rather than being forced to immediately turn them over to the authorities.

What I will criticize, however, is how the Catholic Church continues to plead for its parishioners to donate money to the church generously, while promising that any of the money taken in now will NOT be used in settlements against their accusers. Isn't that nice? "Please continue to help us out while we stall and shift around the funds that we have left, and which we also aren't going to help the victims with." This is exactly the same game Philip Morris played for years, first denying, then hiding, then stalling behind litigation before they finally saw the handwriting on the wall and started making changes to their operation. Maybe the Catholic Church will change their name soon, too.

Worse still, the Church is also complaining about how young people aren't turning to the priesthood as a profession anymore. I ask honestly, why would they? Unlike other organizations of its size, the church offers little incentive to its employees beyond the alleged spiritual benefits (which any truly pious individual is guaranteed anyway, according to that Bible book they love so much.) General Motors, a giant in the auto industry, offers insurance benefits to the unmarried "partners" of their employees, regardless of sex. This trend is sweeping through most corporations in the U.S. The Catholic Church, however, can't even fully grasp the idea of priest engaging in heterosexual sex within the confines of a marriage, and certainly isn't contemplating offering perks to unattached loved ones. The Corporation Counsel of New York City recently relaxed its daily dress code to "business casual." The Catholic Church still requires its priests to dress like cartoon characters. Not to mention that, with the kind of press it's been receiving these days, working for the Catholic Church is about as appealing as the CEO position at Enron.

Still, the Catholic Church is not in the sales business. Therefore, product diversification is not as easy of an option as it has been for the former Philip Morris. So what's to be done? Well, against my better judgment, I've got a few suggestions:

1. Out With Pews, In With Stadium Seating. As in any good political campaign, the first thing a winning candidate must secure is your base. So why not do something for those who are still with you? Face it: pews suck. After a sermon, you're lucky if you make it out without a bruise on your tailbone. Why not update to some cushy seats with armrests and cup holders like so many movie theaters are doing? I guarantee, you'll have happier parishioners. Besides, on those weeks when your sermon is less than exhilarating, you're much less likely to look out over your flock and see people shifting uncomfortably in a silent plea for you to hurry up.

2. Pyrotechnics. The best sermons include references to hellfire and brimstone – everybody knows that. Now it's time for a little demonstration. Explosions are great for grabbing attention while simultaneously emphasizing your point. Listen, you've obviously not been able to beat the self-proclaimed anti-Christ Marilyn Manson, so why not steal a page from his playbook? I'd really recommend this ploy if you're serious about getting the youngsters in.

3. Jesus-Scout Cookies. Who doesn't love Girl Scout cookies? Well, we're not buying these things because of their marketing ploy. Kids couldn't sell themselves to pedophiles (Oops: maybe that one hits a little too close to home. Sorry). The Girl Scouts outsourced to some cookie company years ago, and now raise millions peddling these things. They don't have to explain what the funds are going to be used for, what their organization does... they barely even have to disclose the price for a box before people are clambering for their wallets for a single Thin-Mint. I still haven't managed to figure out why hundreds of fund-seeking organizations haven't stolen this idea yet.

As a caveat to suggestion 3, you could always put a drive-thru window in each church and start selling burgers. Maybe you can't beat McDonald's, but you've already got a spot in most every town. That's half the marketing battle right there!

Of course, these are merely suggestions. Feel free to use them, as they're the only donations you'll ever see from me. Of course, you could stick to selling your same old story as "truth." Just remember, Greek and Roman Mythology was once widely thought to be true, too.


ABOUT JEFFREY D. WALKER

A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.

more about jeffrey d. walker

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COMMENTS

matt morin
6.12.02 @ 1:47a

1) Eucharist in new fruit flavors!

2) Limited edition priest trading cards.

3) Celebrity sermons. (C'mon, who wouldn't show up to church to see Kate Beckinsale at the pulipt?)

4) 1000 frequent flyer miles for every Hail Mary.

5) A free car wash with communion.

6) Gift shops in every church featuring the bumper sticker "My other car is the Popemobile."

Just my 2 cents...

erik myers
6.12.02 @ 10:53a

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you... the Buddy Christ.

I think if the Church really wanted to keep people coming back, then they should just team up with Phillip-Morris and put nicotine in the communion wafers.

russ carr
6.12.02 @ 11:15a

Be a little more anti-Christian, why dontcha? I can understand the jabs at Catholicism in general, but I think some of your jests are offensive. And it takes a lot to offend me.

jael mchenry
6.12.02 @ 11:25a

Yeah, and even though I'm not Catholic, I don't think one of the church's problems is that they "can't even fully grasp the idea of priests engaging in heterosexual sex within the confines of a marriage, and certainly isn't contemplating offering perks to unattached loved ones." That's the deal. Celibacy is part of the deal. And if you want to devote yourself to God fully and completely, hey, you should be willing to make sacrifices. It's not about insurance, for heaven's sake. (Pun really really not intended.)

adam kraemer
6.12.02 @ 11:53a

Actually, there's a small, but growing number of married Catholic priests, due to their starting out as Anglicans or Episcopalians and making the shift. The Catholic church doesn't require celebate priests if they weren't Catholic to start with.

Also, the dogma related to celebate priests, from what I've read, can actually have its roots traced back to when the Church provided land and housing for all of their clergy (sometime in the Middle Ages). If a priest married and had children, the land would be passed down to them, but if he did not, it would go to the Church. Hence a ban on priestly sex. But, of course, the Church can't say, "We want your land; no more wives or children." So they say, "We've been thinking. Jesus didn't marry. Neither should you." It's cynical, it's devious, but it's true.

Oh, and Russ - it doesn't take that much to offend you. It's all in the tone of voice. You middle-America, Chrisitan, married, Conservative White Man.

[edited]

erik myers
6.12.02 @ 11:58a

Well.. the whole celibacy thing is an interesting argument. It was imposed my a Pope, which brings up an even larger debate -- is a decision made by man, even one who is sanctioned as the earthly mouthpiece of God, fallable? If he is, if celibacy vows are repealed by the Church, what other traditions that were originally mandated by men (Popes of yesteryear) can be called into question?

The whole thing is really quite tangled. I don't think they don't recognize that it wouldn't be a good idea, I think it's self-defeating for them to tackle it.

On the other hand, things like ceremonial robes or "dressing like cartoon characters" are just tradition. Would people feel the same in Sunday mass if their priests were in jeans and a t-shirt?

russ carr
6.12.02 @ 12:07p

Adam, I just think it's possible to write a satirical piece without reminding the readers four times within the first five paragraphs just how much the author despises the church. I didn't pull any punches with my column (now off the front page, alas), but I wasn't castigating the whole for the sins of a few, nor did I ever inject venom from my own fangs into the piece.

For the record, I loved "Dogma," too. Freakin' hilarious. But at no time did Kevin Smith ridicule or diminish people who choose to believe. He managed to be satirical and affirming simultaneously.

I'm a moderate at heart, really. I fire slings and arrows at the left and the right. But I try not to castigate someone for his or her beliefs. This smacks of Ted Turner's "Christianity is a religion for losers." So yeah, that offends me.

russ carr
6.12.02 @ 12:08p

...snarks at Adam's editing...

adam kraemer
6.12.02 @ 12:35p

Actually, Russ, I mentioned that in my critique of Jeff's piece. It's not his dislike of organized religion that bothered me (to each his own, I say), but how many times he reminded us of it.

That said, and I don't blame the current incarnation of the Church for past sins, there has been no religious force in the history of mankind that has done more to further the dual causes of intolerance and ignorance than the Catholic Church. I see the need for organized religion in the world - most people need something to believe in. Heck, in many good ways, organized religion has made me who I am today. But the Church's desire to protect itself, make money, and extend its influence is reflected just as obviously today as it was during the Spanish Inquisition (bet you didn't expect that). It's not evil (far from it), but I can't feel that all of the actions of both specific priests and the Church as a whole have always been (and continue to be) 100% altruistic.

russ carr
6.12.02 @ 12:47p

I would argue that your supposition may be correct in the Western world. I'd imagine there are several thousand women in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan who might offer up an alternate religious force, if they weren't terrified to admit to it.

The other problem I have, and this dovetails well enough with what you and Erik have already mentioned: Don't blame Catholicism. And don't blame Christianity. Blame men. Blame church leaders. Casting a wide net over a religion is as ignorant as saying "America is the Great Satan" because you don't approve of a policy enacted by the political leadership of the United States.

Erik, I have a huge answer for you on the celibacy thing, but I do have to work today. In fact, my feature from last month was originally going to be just on celibacy. Long story short: celibacy was meant to be a voluntary act for a few who felt so moved to devote themselves.

matt morin
6.12.02 @ 12:54p

While fairly Agnostic myself, I see Russ' point: It's a fine company, it's just the management that sucks.

adam kraemer
6.12.02 @ 1:03p

True, Russ, but I'd argue that the extremist Muslim oppressors are not nearly as organized nor as large-scale as the Church in its heyday (sp?). And, in comparison, we're talking hundreds of years - from the time of Constantine, let's say, through (at best) to the Renaissance. Heck, it wasn't until the second half of the last century (1967?) that a Pope finally un-excommunicated Galileo and admitted that the Jews did not kill Christ. I agree that it's men who do all of these evils, and I don't, as you know, blame religion, but to some degree the hierarchical structure of the Church government does allow many of these "mistakes" to be perpetuated.

[edited]

russ carr
6.12.02 @ 1:10p

No argument here. I'm not trying to be an apologist.

jeffrey walker
6.13.02 @ 12:38p

Personal hatred of religion aside, and I say blame the Church plenty. Under agency laws, employees imply guilt to the employer. But it doesn't matter; the Church holds itself as above society daily. I don't expect them to change now that they're caught with their proverbial pants down. It's just so insane to me how people keep idicating the "good" of religion while overlooking its harm. And all to further a God no one can prove exists... that makes sense.

P.S. - Jesus action figures and trading cards of the Torah already exist (see mcphee.com), only its a company making money which the church gets nothing. Perfectly market items, and Churches still beg for handouts. The Church is lucky that people have such kind (if not foolish) hearts.

russ carr
6.13.02 @ 12:47p

Still waiting on the "personal hatred of religion aside." Not really seeing the aside part so much.

Scratch that... I mean "at all."

jeffrey walker
6.13.02 @ 12:56p

No? Can't see any reasoning at all? To be honest, I'm sorry for you.

jael mchenry
6.13.02 @ 2:40p

Not seeing much reasoning that isn't clouded by the repetition of the personal hatred of religion. There's argument and then there's diatribe.

Mistakes of the church are made by individuals, the same as other mistakes. As long as we are all human this will continue to be true. Religion itself is not to blame, and neither is God. There is plenty of good to be found in both. If that's "insane" to you, so be it.

troy harris
6.13.02 @ 2:43p

I love a good Holy War.

jeffrey walker
6.13.02 @ 4:47p

Jael, do you even know what these lawsuits are about? The suits are not against the individial priests, its against the Catholic Church as a whole. The law of Tort implies liability to the Catholic Church for the "sins of the fathers."
Even if that were not the case, you have the whole chain of Bishops who are trying to pretend this whole situation doesn't exist. For decades, if there's been a scandal by an individual, the whole organization has been there to deny and protect, moving sinning priests away from the problem rather than dealing with it. It's been an institutional consipracy to protect the priests. Not to mention the outright attempt to REFUSE to allow priests to be handed over to the police. They Bishops have contended that priests "answer to God" and not the laws of man. I'm sorry, but that is just not sufficient. And since the Whole Church refuses to deal with the problems of "the individuals", then they all must now be accountable to men in a court of law where "God" can't protect them.

matt morin
6.13.02 @ 5:11p

But Jeff, there's a big difference between a priest being at fault, the Church being at fault, and the idea of the Church being at fault.

I don't think anyone's debating individual priests are at fault. And I don't think there's much denial that the Church itself didn't exactly help the problem. What I think everyone is reacting to is your personal hatred of the idea of the Church - which really should be a moot point in this arguement.

jael mchenry
6.13.02 @ 5:22p

The filing of a lawsuit does not automatically import truth to its object. In other words, the fact that the church is being sued doesn't mean the church is to blame. If that's the argument you're making, it doesn't hold water.

In any case, the point I'm trying to make is that a blanket hatred of all things religious should not be used as an excuse to tar religion with the very dark and unpleasant brush of the current scandal. Yes, it is a scandal. Yes, there's lots of wrongdoing. You're right in saying that the harm shouldn't be overlooked, but the good shouldn't be overlooked because of the harm, either.

And that's pretty much all I have to say.

jael mchenry
6.13.02 @ 5:23p

Except that I agree with Matt, who makes my point far more convincingly and succinctly.

jeffrey walker
6.13.02 @ 5:33p

Well, I suppose I mix the two arguements, and that seems to offend. Frankly, I can't be concerned about that.
If I must get into it, I do think that religion, overall, is a force that only divides us as citizens. This "good" force alleged to heal the world is also the force that has caused untold numbers of murders, wars, and other travesties on mankind. It promises much, and delivers very little. I cannot understand how anyone could defend any Religious organization, all of whom only serve to advance their own moral ideas of what God says at apparently any cost, be it hurting women, blowing up bombs in "Holy Lands", or allowing Churches to persist as their leaders ignore and hide the abuse of children under their watch. Frankly, this plauge on society has gone on long enough. What makes you think the idea of a Church is good? Simply because you've been attending your whole life? This History of Churches causing pain are likely more numberous than its alleged "miracles." The score card to me makes it seem like this whole concept should have been stomped out years ago.

[edited]

matt morin
6.13.02 @ 5:49p

First off: I'm 99% Agnostic. I haven't been in a church (except for weddings/funerals) for about 10 years.

But church serves many purposes for many people. For some, it gives them a sense of community. For others, it gives them comfort that there's more than just this life to look forward to. For others, it's a social outlet where they can see their neighbors and connect with them on a different level.

I think everyone who goes to church has different reasons. I don't go because personally, church doesn't offer me anything I don't already get from some other aspect of my life. But I don't look down upon people who use it to fulfill something they're missing.

No Jeff, you shouldn't really be concerned about offending people - especially if you're just writing about what you believe. But I'm sure you understand that any rational arguement gets undermined when you combine it with personal, purely subjective ideaology.

russ carr
6.13.02 @ 5:58p

It isn't "religion" that has led to "murders, wars, and other travesties" any more than I would say it's "politics" or "nationalism" or any other large-scale system of beliefs, secular or spiritual. And while some may act "in the name of God" (or Allah, pick your deity), ultimately there's no difference between that and one country attacking another to gain land, or ghetto residents looting expensive stores. The motivation is the same: greed. It's wanting what you don't have. The Crusades, or the Spanish Inquisition, or exploration of the New World were never about the church -- they were politically motivated land grabs. The sexual abuse of some children by some priests wasn't a churchwide conspiracy to "get some" -- they were acts of improper individuals who wanted and took.

Look everywhere you want, point fingers wherever you choose. But ultimately the responsibility will always come down to an individual who wanted more, and was willing to defy morality to get it. Casting about for an all-encompassing scapegoat is simpleminded. You would burn down the forest because of one dead tree.

russ carr
6.13.02 @ 6:13p

If you hate the church -- or more accurately, religion, nothing I say will change that, Jeff. But to dismiss the people who do believe as simpleminded, or brainwashed is as ruthless and insensitive as you would have us believe the church is. Would you call a homosexual man or woman a social deviant because of his or her choice of sexual preference? Would you call a black man -- or better still, a Jew -- an inferior mongrel race because they don't look like you or eat the same foods as you?

You say this "plague on society has gone on long enough." What's your Final Solution, then? "[The] whole concept should have been stomped out years ago." Shall we round up the priests and pastors and rabbis and put them in boxcars? Burn the Bibles, raze the cathedrals?

Rationalize it all you want in your mind, but it's still hate speech.

jeffrey walker
6.13.02 @ 8:51p

Russ. I should have known I could count on you to step in with the big moralistic statement. "Hate speech" my butt. You're the one throwing around terms like "simpleminded, or brainwashed." If you read closely, I said that the concept should have been thrown out years ago. And the whole article deals with the wrongs committed while advancing religious causes. The two have an inextricable link in those cases, and I'm sorry you can't see that. Perhaps it's because of your firm committment to "God."
I never said anything about rounding up people, and I owe you a really hard punch in the mouth if you were implying that I have any resentment against blacks or Jews. I've never implied that I was better than anyone.
If after all I've said you're now feeling simpleminded or brainwashed, that's your own insecurity.

[edited]

russ carr
6.13.02 @ 11:09p

Perhaps it's because of your firm committment to "God."

There's no perhaps about it.



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