The Cheat Sheet

Mother Teresa and the economics of sainthood

| Updated on: Aug 31, 2016
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There’s an economics aspect to it?

There is, indeed. There is a body of social sciences research that seeks to understand the Catholic Church’s choices of saints, gauged by location and the socio-economic attributes of the persons designated as blessed.

Some studies have established, in fact, that in the Roman Catholic tradition, the due process for canonisation (the ritual to be declared a saint, of the sort that awaits Mother Teresa later this week) resembles a business activity.

A business?

Absolutely. In much the same way that companies look to increase their marketshare in their segment, the Catholic Church (and other religious orders) looks to increase its flock of faithful adherents (“brand-loyal customers”). And researchers at Harvard University and Columbia University have established that the process of canonisation is one of many ‘business strategies’ that the Church adopts to increase its ‘marketshare’ in ‘crowded marketplaces’, that is, where competition with other religious orders and with secular or atheistic trends is high.

What did these studies find?

We’ll get to that in just a bit. There are a couple of other striking parallels between the Vatican and the manner in which multinational corporations work. To understand that, it’s important to know how the saint-making process began, and how it has evolved.

So tell.

In a February 2010 research paper, ‘Economics of Sainthood’, Robert J Barro, Rachel M McCleary (both at Harvard University) and Alexander McQuoid (Columbia University) noted that the canonisation of saints came about through “popular veneration” at the local level by cults. That is, a person in the community who had led a virtuous life and had performed miracles, would be revered as a saint. Over time, the Church began to centralise this operation: bishops were declared the primary ecclesiastical authority to determine the historical veracity of sainthood. Still later, in 1234 CE, that authority came to be vested exclusively in the Pope. A ‘due diligence’ process was put in place.

How did that work?

Local dioceses could petition the Pope to have a person declared a saint. The process was two-fold — beatification and then canonisation — and lengthy. The claims to sainthood were required to be investigated by the clergy. But this also ‘corrupted’ the process.

How so?

Lobbying by the local dioceses became rampant. Saint-making became a big-money business, as established by two recent books: Avarice by Emanuele Fittipaldi and Merchants in the Temple by Gianluigi Nuzzi. In response, in March 2016, Pope Francis overhauled the process with scrupulous financial audits. In 2014, the Vatican even drew up a “price list” for billable services in the canonisation process.

What else did the studies reveal?

The 2010 study, and a more recent one, in January 2016, titled ‘Saints Marching In, 1590-2012’ by Barro and McCleary at Harvard University, established that the Church tweaks its policies on canonisation as part of a broader effort to compete with alternative religion providers. For instance, whenever there were contests for adherents with Protestantism, and later with Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism, the Catholic Church undertook a burst of canonisations as a way to enhance enthusiasm among Catholics and to expand participation in Church activities. Even the geography of saint-making maps the Church’s mission to increase its “marketshare”.

And Mother Teresa…

Is the newest ‘brand ambassador’ in that quest.

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Published on January 17, 2018

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