Investing in the Catholic Faith

When I was in my first parish staff position, a Sister who had been a DRE for decades advised me to charge at least $5 for any program I offered. The reason, she said, was that people tend to stop attending programs unless they had invested in them. Brian Holdsworth argues from that same reasoning in this compelling video.

There is something to this, a recognized phenomenon called the Sunk Cost Fallacy. Rather than making coldly rational decisions here and now, I am likely to factor in my degree of past investment in something as a reason to continue it. In business this is often counterproductive, throwing good money after bad. It’s also one of the reasons for indolence in confessional matters: we tend to identify with what we have spent ourselves on. In Christianity, Holdsworth and my Sister colleague rightly theorize, we can use this normal characteristic of human decision making and help people to make investments in their religion. This is not only the case with 5 dollar bills, but with commitments of behavior and time. Making demands helps make disciples, and waiving rules is counterproductive to evangelization.

SImilarly, belonging is enormously important to people, and to young people in particular. Young people are so intent on forming community that they constantly change their slang–and their social media platforms–as though it were a uniform that only young people were allowed to wear. And here again, waiving rules is counterproductive to evangelization.

Further, fairness is more important to the young than to the old, who have normally had more experience of and toleration for disparity. If rules are broken in a game, young people will not accept it. In the early teen years they are likely to try to change rules, but they are unlikely to accept rules’ being broken.

During Lent, one of the few times when Catholic rules are ever mentioned in a consistent way, the investment of Catholics in the Friday abstinence changes the way McDonald’s prices its fish sandwiches. We change McDonald’s (!) by joining together to do something.

Of course, this is all on the psychological level. We can see this investment strategy, if you will, effectively employed by non-Christians such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose young men go abroad two by two, who sacrifice coffee and alcohol, who tithe. It’s a strategy that can be abused by cults and seducers of all kinds.

It is not evangelization unless it is about Jesus. And in fact it is a theme of Jesus’ never to wash away the costs of a life with Him. “Let the dead bury their dead,” He said. “Deny yourself.” “Take up your cross.” Accessible to children, healer of the sick, He was nonetheless the harsh admonisher of fakers, who do lip service to religion.

And this is where I think Holdsworth falls short of a home run in this video, helpful as it is. (He has many others that are also well worth watching.) The reason the Gospel costs so much is precisely because it promises so much. We are not called by Jesus to be “good people” living polite suburban lives. You don’t need too much grace for that, and grace is an infinite fountain welling up inside of us who are baptized into His death. This flood washes away, not only rough edges and gross sins, but a great deal of what we might think of as our identity–what we have invested in. It prepares us not only for death but for the beatific vision and the endlessly blissful life of the world to come.

Rules are so very minimal. They are indispensable curbs to the defects of human nature, and God and the experience of centuries have taught them to us, but they are not the true costs of the Gospel. The true cost comes with the elevation of human nature, being drawn up into sanctity with the dark nights of a Thérèse of Lisieux or Teresa of Calcutta.

“And we are put on earth a little space/ That we may learn to bear the beams of love,” wrote William Blake. The beams of love so far exceed our mortal frames that they burn us poor weak hybrids of flesh and spirit. As the saint is elevated, he or she is suspended between animal and spiritual nature like Christ on the cross. Liturgy makes it bearable; love makes it meaningful. It is a place of grace and intercession and deep communion and thoroughgoing conversion. It is where the People of God belong.