Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Gresham's Law and the flaw in the Pope's pastoral program

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 13, 2016

Does Gresham’s Law apply to pastoral practices in the Catholic Church? I think it does—with unhappy consequences that we can see all around us.

Gresham’s Law (for those readers who have not studied economics) states that bad money drives out good money. Let me explain.

Imagine that you live in a country that has two different legal currencies: the doubloon and the escudo. The doubloon does what money should do: retains its value as a medium of exchange. But the escudo is subject to occasional bouts of inflation. Consequently you can be confident that the purchasing power of a doubloon will be the same next year as it is today; you cannot have that confidence in the escudo.

Under these circumstances, you will always choose to pay your debts in escudos—to get rid of them before they drop in value—and hold onto your doubloons. But you will not be alone; everyone else will act the same way. Soon virtually all transactions will be conducted in escudos, while people will save—even hoard—their doubloons.

(Perhaps you already see the loophole. If they are able, canny financial operators might avoid the threat of inflation by demanding all payments in doubloons. Hold that thought.)

How does this principle apply to the Catholic Church?

In any Catholic community there will always be some devout believers who, following the Lord’s advice, “Strive to enter by the narrow door.” They will pray often and ardently, try to attend daily Mass, practice their own private devotions, and seek out spiritual direction from priests who demand a lot of them. For these people—let’s call them “high-octane” Catholics—Gresham’s Law will not apply. They are the equivalent of the folks who demand payment in doubloons.

But most Catholics, in most times and places, are not of the high-octane variety. Most “regular” parishioners will do what the Church demands of them, but will not seek out extra rigors. They will attend Sunday Mass on a regular basis, raise their children in the faith, follow the precepts of the Church as they understand them, contribute to the parish. Faithful if not zealous, they will form the backbone of the Catholic community. Nourished by the sacraments and encouraged by their pastors, they will grow in faith; some will eventually become high-octane Catholics.

Now notice how these “regular” Catholics—who sincerely intend to meet their obligations, without taking on extra burdens—are likely to choose between two hypothetical parishes:

  • In Parish A, Sunday Mass lasts 90 minutes or more; the liturgy is “high” and solemn; the Gregorian chant is unfamiliar. In Parish B, Mass is out in 40 minutes; the hymns sound like (and sometimes are) snappy show tunes.
  • In Parish A, religious-education classes are demanding, and students who do not master the basic catechism lessons do not advance. In Parish B, teachers assume that “they’re good kids” and don’t worry about details.
  • In Parish A, when a young couple comes to discuss marriage, and the pastor notices that they list the same home address on their registration forms, he tells them that they must live separately. In Parish B the pastor “doesn’t notice” the matching addresses, and plans for the wedding can move forward.
  • In Parish A, priests often preach on controversial topics, driving home the Church’s least popular messages, reminding the parishioners of their sins. In Parish B, the homily is always a gentle reminder that we should be kind to one another, and not too rough on ourselves.

Needless to say, high-octane Catholics will flock to Parish A. Regular Catholics will gravitate toward Parish B. Human nature being what it is, most people will choose the less demanding of two options.

The task of a pastor is to help all of his people develop a closer relationship with God. This entails (to use the currently fashionable phrase) “meeting people where they are.” Sometimes it will mean the delicate nurture of bruised reeds and tender buds: helping people to overcome grave doubts or guilty consciences, reaching out to those who become estranged from the faith. At other times it will mean challenging those who are lukewarm: who are doing only what is obligatory, and could do much more.

No parish is perfect. Parish A, with its industrial-strength Catholicism, might sometimes frighten away people who are taking their first uncertain steps back into active practice. Parish B will always risk encouraging complacency and lukewarmness. But there is a difference between these two potential problems. The priests in Parish A can (and should) be compassionate in practice, even while they are unyielding in principle; they can preach fire-and-brimstone from the pulpit, but be gentle and understanding in the confessional. In Parish B, however, the priests have already made the decision not to be demanding.

Now let me apply these thoughts to Amoris Laetitiae, and in particular to the Holy Father’s suggestions for the pastoral care of Catholics who are divorced and remarried. In his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis sets up the model of a pastor who will meet with these couples, help them to review and assess their lives, to repent their past failings, to bring their lives closer to the Christian ideal, and to do everything that they can in their current circumstances to grow in holiness. Exactly how this process will unfold is unclear, because, as the Pope explains, it is impossible to anticipate all the unique circumstances of any individual case. But clearly the Pope is describing a rigorous process, rather than a quick solution.

But what sort of priest would insist on that rigor in his dealings with a remarried couple? The pastor of Parish A, probably. But that pastor would very likely tell the couple that if they wish to receive the sacraments they must live as brother and sister. And the couple, for that matter, if they were active parishioners in Parish A, would probably have reached that conclusion for themselves already. So Amoris Laetitiae would bring no change in their case.

In Parish B, on the other hand, the pastor—having long ago established the pattern of requiring only the minimum—would be far more likely to tell the couple that they should not worry about details, that they should feel free to receive the Eucharist. In all likelihood he would already have conveyed that message, and they would already be in the Communion line every Sunday. Again, the apostolic exhortation would cause no significant change.

But consider what might happen in the marginal cases, where change is most visible. What will happen to divorced/remarried couples who, after years away from the faith, are inspired by the Pope’s message to return to the fold? If they happen to meet with a priest who expects them to go through a long and difficult process, aren’t they likely to seek a second opinion, and maybe a third, until inevitably, they find a pastor who will welcome them back immediately, with no requirements and no strings attached? Hasn’t that pattern already been clearly established by the young couples who want their wedding scheduled without a demanding marriage-prep program, or want their children confirmed without a rigorous CCD requirement?

We are all naturally inclined to take the easier path, unless someone is holding us to a higher standard. Catholic priests who make everything easy for their parishioners are making it harder for their colleagues to uphold the difficult teachings of the Church. Even the most conscientious priests have their bad days, when they wonder (as I can testify, from the plaintive email messages that I receive) why they should bother trying to enforce Church discipline, when they know full well that priests in the neighboring parishes will not. Bad pastoral practice drives out good.

In Amoris Laetitia the Pope sketches an ambitious pastoral plan, in which priests help couples wrestle their way through the spiritual difficulties involved in irregular unions. But that plan is presented as an ideal, which I fear would rarely be even approximated in practice. Far more often, priests and pastors alike would reach for the simplest solution, and thus troubled couples would be denied the benefit of that rigorous process that the Pope envisions. That’s why I have argued that the Pope’s confused message undermines his own pastoral program.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Apr. 16, 2016 1:37 AM ET USA

    As Francis has said one thing in one chapter and another in chapter 8 which of the 2 are we bound to follow? I will give Francis the honor and respect that was given by the editors, authors and readers of Commonweal, America and NCR to Benedict. He has after all, just outlined a process that could be used in future to demolish any teaching in practice. Considering Francis' loosening of annulment procedures, I'd say divorce is minor: there are bigger matters involved. Ask the Germans.

  • Posted by: toothin - Apr. 15, 2016 10:36 PM ET USA

    No priest wants to tell people that they should not take communion because they do not conform to the rules of the church because their goal is that people partake of the sacrament, but honesty requires it. Howver priests pray no one will ask,since he does not want to be the beare of bad news. So at most he preaches against it but just hopes people's consciences will conform to the truth. When people who are united with somone who is not their spouse take comunion it is hard to stop the Mass et.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 14, 2016 9:13 AM ET USA

    Excellent points. The Church knows human nature, our wounded-not depraved- nature. We can be lifted from our sin by cooperating with God's grace and the counsel of good pastors. Our Mother knows us. Thus, despite pastoral challenges the Church invites us to participate in the divine life. Thanks Phil for your analysis. Bishop Sheen said: Sin is in the blood! Despite any protests to the contrary, the Church is not just now figuring this out.

  • Posted by: alexanderh167577 - Apr. 13, 2016 9:57 PM ET USA

    In your pride you may not realize it Phil, but you are actually not being a good Catholic. You are refusing to submit to the vision and authority of the Pope of Rome, supposing yourself to be wiser than him. Continually second-guessing the Vicar of Christ and dismissing Church documents that are binding on all the faithful is a recipe for spiritual disaster. An honest questioning is okay, but you are being stiff-necked. I say this out of concern.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Apr. 13, 2016 7:10 PM ET USA

    Of course ur right, Phil, & there's other ways to illustrate the point. But no matter how u explain the problem, it all comes down to this: the Church is saying that, after almost 2000 years of Christianity, someone has finally found a situation that Jesus, God Himself, did not anticipate.