Catholic guilt, and the economics thereof

Disclaimer: I’m not Catholic, so this is even more speculative than usual. It’s also probably taking “devil’s advocacy” a little too literally, but hey, faith is there to be tested, right?

So I wonder how much Catholic Guilt is an economic phenomenon, as opposed to a purely religious or moral one. Here’s the theory. The core aspect of the Catholic church is that it has a near-monopoly in a fairly large market in the service of communicating with God (indeed, the Reformation was largely about breaking that monopoly by open sourcing the underlying good). I’m not sure it’s the case, but that may in fact be a monopoly unequalled in other religions, current or historical — polytheistic religions presumably have less of a monopoly, protestant churches explicitly disclaim a monopoly, and judaism and islam at least appear to have a much more distributed approach too. In any event, as best I can figure, there are two main reasons to talk to God: to obtain inspiration or confidence on how to act in future, and to gain for forgiveness for how you acted in the past.

Economic arguments are fundamentally the same as evolutionary ones: that people and organisations that act in ways that get rewarded will be strengthened, and thus people will ultimately act “rationally”, that is, in ways that gain them the most profit. Whether that happens because they’re clever and do that straight away, or because the ones who are lucky enough to latch on to smarter ways are the only ones that survive long enough to write history books doesn’t really matter. Another way to put that is that one way or another you have to monetise your natural advantages, whether you’re a person, business or church.

I’m not sure if monetising inspiration is something that happens in Catholicism — maybe they’ve left that market niche underexploited, and hence ripe for the pickings by more evangelical churches. Either way, monetising forgiveness is quite obvious, whether it be directly by charging for indulgences, or more indirectly by the principle of salvation by good works. And, equally naturally, some measure of the proceeds would be retained by the church to further its good works — ie, as profit. And obviously, over the centuries there’s been quite a bit of profit to be had.

However, once you’ve got a successful strategy for taking your natural advantages and large market and turning that into a revenue stream, evolutionary pressures will continue to force you to take as much advantage of that as possible: because even if you don’t, someone else will, so in a hundred years, they’ll be the ones in a position to expand, and in two hundred years, they’ll be the ones writing the history and you’ll be the footnote.

And what’s the best way to expand the market and revenues in forgiveness? Increasing the supply of things to be forgiven for, and increasing the opprobrium with which they’re met. That is to say, promoting guilt. You can, no doubt, take that too far: despite their devotion, it’s unlikely the Flagellants rewarded the church as much as people who work six days a week, and only worry about feeling guilty about their indiscretions on Sundays. That should, as far as I can see, lead to optimisation pressures focussed on maximising the congregation’s guilt, but not to the point where it renders you an unproductive citizen, and thus reduces tithing revenue.

If you can tie that guilt to strong innate urges — lust, anger, envy, say — that probably makes things easier, and if you can create price discrimination by making more wealthy people feel more guilty and thus willing to pay more for fogiveness — by talking about rich men, eyes of needles, say — you might really have something.

So here’s the not particular testable conclusions from that. Given the religious tenets of monotheism and the sacred magesterium, both corruption involving indulgences, and a culture of guilt should be expected. By comparison, a church based on the Priesthood of all believers should be expected not to sustain a culture of guilt; that is, if it started with the same culture, as many protestant churches did during the reformation, it should become less moralistic over time, or if it started independently maintain on average a lower level of guilt than the Catholic church, despite otherwise common religious principles.

In addition, the rise of competing churches, and thus alternative paths to forgiveness, should decrease the value of the Catholic church’s monopoly, and thus decrease the premiums they can collect (as tithes presumably), and potentially decrease the level of guilt they can inspire in their parishoners. Thus, you should expect Catholic churches to be more tolerant in areas where there is a more religiously diverse population, and more strict in areas with high percentages of self-identifying Catholics. And, presuming the above argument is valid, you should expect that almost entirely independently of the morality or scriptural basis for such behaviour, and solely due to economic and evolutionary forces, and time.

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