New York Times
June 6, 1998
Study Suggests Competition Benefits Religion
By GUSTAV NIEBUHR
NEW YORK -- In American life, competition is widely regarded as an almost unmitigated boon to the public good, producing great feats of athleticism in organized sports and spurring creativity, efficiency and consumer choice among businesses. In politics, competition among candidates is considered vital to promoting a full discussion of public issues.
But can competition's benefits for sports, business and government be similarly realized in organized religion?
Yes, replies Rodney Stark, a professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington, who recently published the results of a study making that case. Among Stark's findings was that the areas of the country that had recently produced the highest number of Roman Catholic priests, seminarians and conversions, relative to the size of the Catholic population, were also areas where Catholics were a small minority.
It appears, Stark says, that the "less Catholic" an area -- or, put another way, the greater the competition there from other religions and denominations -- the more commitment and innovation on the part of the local diocese.
Stark's findings resulted from his analysis of statistics from recent editions of the Official Catholic Directory, an annual compendium of information from Catholic dioceses in the United States. The highest number of ordinations per 100,000 Catholics in 1994-95, he reported, took place in Knoxville, Tenn., a diocese within whose boundaries Catholics are just 2 percent of the total population. After Knoxville, he found, the leading dioceses for ordinations relative to the Catholic population were Mobile, Ala.; Amarillo, Texas; Lincoln, Neb., and Fargo, N.D., whose Catholic populations ranged from about 3 percent to 25 percent of the total.
In contrast, Stark said, the smallest number of ordinations as a proportion of the Catholic population were in some Northeastern dioceses where Catholics were a majority or a near-majority.
Stark's finding that competition enhances commitment and innovation in Catholic dioceses (he cites broadly similar results concerning the use made of deacons and nuns in diocesan work) appeared in the March issue of a journal called The Review of Religious Research. Among those that have noted the article are the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, which tracks trends within the church and publishes a quarterly newsletter.
In a telephone interview, Stark said his basic point was reinforced by sociological studies showing that, for example, per capita giving to Jewish organizations is highest among Jews who live outside major Jewish population centers, and giving to churches is often inversely proportional to the presence of those churches' denominations within a particular community.
This, he added, runs counter to the "popular wisdom" that a religion or denomination does best where it is clearly dominant.
In the conclusion to his article, Stark wrote, "In the nation as a whole, the Roman Catholic Church always has been a minority faith forced to compete vigorously to hold its own -- which it has proved very adept at doing."
Some officials at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops said they had seen summaries of Stark's study. One of them, the Rev. Timothy Reker, while noting that competition was "not exactly a high Gospel value," said Stark had identified a factor in how people's religious identities are shaped.
But he and other Catholic officials are keenly interested in what other factors work to encourage men to consider the priesthood, a particularly pressing issue at a time when American dioceses are confronting a growing shortage of priests.
Reker, executive director of the conference's Office of Vocations and Priestly Formation, recently conducted two nationwide surveys, among parish pastors and among priests ordained within the last 15 years. The surveys, which will be released to the bishops later this month in a report titled "The Parish Background Behind Priestly Vocations," singled out parishes that had produced three or more priests in the last 20 years.
According to a draft summary of the report, those parishes, measured against parishes that had produced no ordinations in the same period, were more likely to have two or more priests on duty, maintain a Catholic elementary school and sponsor youth groups.
The visible presence of priests is particularly important, Reker said. For young men "to imagine themselves as priests," he said, "they have to see priests and interact with them."