National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 9, 2004

Bucking up the Catholic brand


In a recent address at the Catholic University of America, pollster John Zogby sounded the alarms (NCR, March 21). “If so much of U.S. culture is focused on building brands among the young, it is worth considering how well the Catholic church performs among this critical demographic as a brand. The news is not good,” he said.

“If the church were a brand of cereal,” Zogby said, “we could find our grandchildren eating Unitarian Krispies as they get older.”

In response to his words, I have been struck by the linkage of Catholicism with the brand-name culture. My great fear is that Catholicism is not up for the challenge. Nike, Starbucks, Gap, Disney, Krispy Kreme, MTV, Coca-Cola -- brands, or logos, are all around us. They are in our homes and schools and at our places of work and leisure. Rarely, if ever, are we free of them. It would not be an understatement, unfortunately, to say that we are our brands. We are so good at it, we now even brand people: Michael Jordan, Martha Stewart, Ralph Lauren, Britney Spears. Vying for people’s attention and loyalty, brands are a fact of life. (For some, it is their life.) In her book No Logo, Naomi Klein writes that for many today the relationship is not with the substance of the brand, though, but with what the brand represents: power, prestige, youth, money. In a nutshell, the issue is not whether it’s good for you or not but “Is it cool?”

Though often not thought of as such, Catholicism is a brand too. It is a global community calling for people’s time, talent and treasure. As the descriptive “Catholic” implies, it has high visibility and name recognition. When the brand “Catholic” appears, a flood of images and values that we associate with it comes to mind.

In a totally unscientific poll, I recently asked some of my friends, colleagues and students what one word came to mind when they thought of the brand Catholicism. Their answers were illuminating: dogma, ritual, old-fashioned, church, authority, cross, extravagant, sacraments, global, imprisoning, pope, money, God, little boys, old ladies, tradition, community, righteous, boring, outdated, overbearing, hypocritical. Can a tradition sustain itself into the future, though, if that is what it brings to mind? Can the Catholic brand survive?

In finishing the poll, I was reminded of a scene from the movie “Dogma.” After a rather interesting beginning, the camera cuts to the front steps of a neo-Gothic parish church in New Jersey. There Cardinal Glick, played by comedian George Carlin, steps up to a microphone to unveil a new marketing campaign for the church: Catholicism WOW! “Now we all know how the majority and the media in this country view the Catholic church,” he says. “They think of us as a passé, archaic institution. People find the Bible obtuse, even hokey. Now in an effort to disprove all that, the church has appointed this year as a time of renewal, both of faith and of style.”

With that, Cardinal Glick announces the replacement and retirement of the crucifix -- “this time-honored, wholly depressing symbol” -- with the Buddy Christ. With one eye winking, one finger pointing, one thumb up, and one big smile on his face, this image of Jesus is the first, we are told, of many revamps. The Crucified Lord has been supplanted by the Divine Booster.

As evidenced by both the words and story above, the Catholic brand has taken a hit. Unless I am mistaken, brand loyalty among Catholics is slipping. The two things we used to use to shore it up in the past are no longer available. The monolithic, homogeneous, ethnic neighborhood of recent memory has given way to the suburbia of cultural, social and religious choice. Likewise, the dictates and directives of the omnipotent and omnipresent brand managers (aka priests) have been replaced by the appeal to conscience and personal experience of the faithful. One could even say that an anti-corporate backlash has taken place after years of consumer passivity.

I am not advocating the replacement of such a revered symbol as the crucifix, nor am I questioning the great truths of the faith. But what I am wondering is, what will it take to restore credibility to the Catholic brand? No one will want the product if the brand lacks luster and appeal. Here I am reminded of two quotes attributed to Pope John XXIII: “The substance of the faith is one thing, the way in which it is transmitted is another” and “We are not here to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.”

The demand for accountability, with its related call for a change in structures, may be a start, but I don’t think it is enough. What will it take for the Catholic brand to become meaningful and relevant?

At this point I have more questions than answers.

Michael J. Daley is a teacher and writer in Cincinnati, Ohio. He recently edited, along with William Madges, Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories.

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 2004

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