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The Catholicity of Starbucks: Three Similarities Shared by the Church and Corporate Coffee

My post on Costco and the comments it received got me thinking about the local-stores-are-preferable-to-national-and-global-corporations idea. For me, it’s easy to sympathize with local stores and to see them as more human than sprawling corporations. The local store is propped up by the loving efforts of mom and pop, whereas the corporation is staffed by faceless business suits. Huzzah, neighborhood shop! Yay, local boutique! Down with the mega chains! Boo to the purveyors of things made in China!

But when I ponder the nature of the Roman Catholic Church, the local-is-better-than-corporate sentiment doesn’t seem to fit. So in this post I want to ask: Isn’t the Catholic Church more like the global corporations with planet-spanning supply chains and less like the mom-and-pop retailer?

Or, put in terms of java joints: Isn’t the Church more like a Starbucks than a city’s local coffee-house? I’m going to put forward—somewhat playfully—three marks or characteristics that the Church of Rome shares with the coffee chain that spread outward from Seattle.

Its ubiquity and universality. The Catholic Church is everywhere. So is Starbucks. The fact that both cover large swathes of the planet proves that they each have an appeal that can only by called universal. The big difference, of course, is that the Church spread by miracle, Starbucks by marketing. But that difference can be deceiving: human effort was involved in the Church’s spread. And that effort succeeded because the good news that the Church was providing appealed to human desires and appetites. People need caritas as well as caffeine. Starbucks has structured itself in such a way that it can serve the caffeine craving of people in Camarillo, CA as well as in China. The scope of Starbucks’ reach exceeds anything a local coffee house can accomplish. Likewise, the Roman Church has a reach far beyond anything produced by other Christian denominations.

Its uniformity and trustworthiness. If I drive around the United States and have a hankering for a good cup of coffee, I know that it’s more likely than not that I’ll find the much-needed cup inside of a Starbucks. True, there are some beginning baristas and sloppy managers out there, so I may run across a crappy cup of joe even under the green-siren logo. But for the most part, Starbucks is a brand I can trust. Similarly, as I wander over the globe in my various peregrinations, I always know where to go to get the genuine spiritual goods that I need: a Roman Catholic Church. Yes, maybe Fr. Bob is letting the liturgical dancers loose that Sunday or preaching his own particular wackiness up at the pulpit, but if he’s duly ordained and follows the rubrics at consecration, he’ll deliver What Really Counts.

Its appeal to consumers and its convenience. People use the word consumer in all sorts of senses, often pejorative ones. Who wants to be a part of a “consumer culture,” after all? But humans are essentially consumers. We eat. We use. We purchase so that we can eat and use. (This is not to deny, by the way, that humans are also essentially producers: We make. We sell. We blog.) The Church, following her Lord’s example, has long provided food for our consumption. The Eucharist is spiritual food that comes to us as something really and truly edible. We consume Christ and thereby we are consumed with love for Him. He makes access to this all-consuming Love as easy for us as He can in the Sacrament. The Sacrament is convenient. It comes to us as we are: flesh and blood mortals. Similarly, Starbucks goes to great lengths to make good coffee available easily and conveniently. Drive-through windows, for instance, meet many people where they’re at (i.e. in their cars); Starbucks uses them, while many local shops either don’t have them or disdain them.

Now I know I’ve compared great things with small. The difference between Starbucks and the Church is vast. Really, they’re two totally different kinds of organizations: the Church has a supernatural character that Starbucks lacks absolutely.

Yet they’re both human, and the Starbucks model may provide some profitable material for our meditations on the Church’s character, mission, and methods.

Or maybe not. Let us know what you think in the comments.

(A final word: I’m not saying that Starbucks is “Catholic” in the sense that it supports specific Catholic goals. So if you point out that Starbucks donates funds to groups of one sort or another, the comment will be cheerfully ignored.)

25 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. Denys

    Provocative, indeed. On point # 2: Starbucks does a much BETTER job of quality control–not just in the coffee (i.e. “What Really Counts”) but in the aesthetics and the feel, which are a huge part of the Starbucks experience, even in the drive through.

    Reverent, vertical liturgy in the Church is also What Really Counts, and the Sacraments are inseparable from it, and it from them. Father Bob and his 49 lay assistants handing out “blessings” and his giant liturgical puppets and the loopy inclusive language and the awful folk-rock are not in Rome’s business plan.

    Starbucks would not ever let such things begin at a local franchise…yet the Catholic Church takes a much slower and hands-off approach to straightening out wayward dioceses, and Rome can do next to nothing over a bishop’s head when a parish has gone rogue.

    I am actually inclined to think that Rome’s less-corporate approach is the right one, for if we try to force the Good upon everyone, rather than trying to create the conditions whereby they can discover it and reach for it themselves, we are committing heresy by analogy, as if we believed Christ’s business was to force grace upon unwilling or resistant sinners.

    Angry Catholics who crank about the “authoritarian” Church should be grateful that the Church isn’t more like Starbucks, where EVERYTHING is dictated from above.

    Reply

    1. April

      Woah, I think it is pertinent to mention that we should be careful to air out in this forum the negatives of the Church. Denys, you and Hanson are right. What counts is the uniformity of the sacraments and the Eucharist. The faults of the liturgical practice have always led those to whom it speaks into the richer presentation of the traditional Holy Mass. And, as you pointed out, we don’t see the Vatican putting a stop to the loose practices, the liturgical puppets, the loopy inclusive language or the awful folk rock. We also don’t hear them commenting about it, either.

      Good management, within the Church’s principle of subsidiarity rule, never airs its grievances on petty matters or publicly for that matter. A good manager stands behind the men (Fr. Bob) who may be making errors in an effort not to add fuel to the fire. Non-Catholics reading these comments may wonder how unified we really all are.
      I say this with charity… Pax.

      Reply

    2. J. Hanson

      I remember Fr. Richard Neuhaus (of blessed memory) saying that those who were disappointed that Benedict didn’t do more during his American visit to reorganize the Church in the wake of the sexual abuses were imagining him as the C.E.O. of Ecclesia, Inc. Benedict can’t treat the bishops as middle managers, because they aren’t. They’re all overseers of the flock of Christ called to that office by Christ himself; Benedict didn’t hire them.

      I agree, and I think it’s right to say that Starbucks is—in a way—more “authoritarian” than the Church.

      Reply

  2. Greg Keuter

    For a long time I have referred to this coffee establishment by its other name, St. Arbucks. This name originated with my friend, Paul Camarata of Kansas City and producer of the Saintcast Catholic podcast. This comment probably does not contribute the the conversation but I felt the need to share.

    Reply

  3. Newbie

    This post definitely caught my attention because that green siren logo has brought me great comfort in various countries when everything else is so unfamiliar. I was totally on board with your first two points and I completely understand the idea behind your third point but I would have to disagree, at least for right now. I am am non-denom Christian at my core but am just now coming into the Catholic faith and I find nothing about the Catholic church convenient and its appeal is at times questionable. I am transitioning from a world of grey areas, blurry lines, and smudged boundaries to a life of authority, tradition, and order. I would have never thought twice about many of my actions because at the end of the day grace would let me “off the hook”, now I’m accountable? YIKES! Obviously there is an appeal to the truth I see in the Catholic church or I would still be attending my rock and roll church services, but right now it’s difficult to come face to face with the powerful authority and high expectations of God and His Church. Catholic Mass is wonderful and beautiful but not “seeker friendly” as we would say in non-denom land, I think it requires a little more work than just showing up and paying attention. I believe the Catholic church is a lot of amazing things but right now I’m not finding it to be super convenient. But that’s just me and where I’m at right now. Great post!

    Reply

    1. J. Hanson

      Newbie, thanks for you comments, and God’s blessings on you as you transition into the Catholic Church with its rich and complex heritage.

      I think you’re right: the Catholic Mass requires more than just showing up and paying attention. Catechesis is needed in order to prepare one to receive what’s in the Mass (everything that is received is received according to the disposition of the receiver, as the Scholastics said). I can’t help thinking of my iPhone, here. It’s got so many “convenient” features that the sheer multiplicity of conveniences is, in a way, inconvenient.

      With time and training, though, the Mass presents itself as the ultimate convenience. God’s grace “comes together with” our human nature (con+venire=convenire, the Latin root of our ‘convenient’.)

      Reply

  4. Rutherford B. Crazy

    J. Hanson – loving the post. What about this corollary – that the Church is like those neighborhood mom-and-pop coffee shops when you consider its different liturgies and traditions. So just like you can find that wacky unique cafe, so you can find wacky like Catholic places and rites. Think about the Eastern rites – I remember going to a Mass in Greek, Latin, and Arabic, where a curtain was pulled across the altar at specific points (very puppet show-esque). Or contrast the Franciscans with the Dominicans (“take the Jesuits – please!”) So as much as we’re a part of Catholic Corp., we’re also a little bit Duke’s Bleeping Burgers.

    Reply

    1. The Catholic Thinker

      You should try reading the actual teachings of the Church on the subject of economics – distributism, that is. Local control is indeed preferable to less local control in economics and politics; this is the teaching of the Church.

      Reply

    2. J. Hanson

      Rutherford, I’m loving anybody who’s loving the post. And I think you’re right: the Church is full of variety and adapts itself to the local in wonderful ways. The Church is stronger than Starbucks: it’s strength allows it to take a wide variety of forms.

      Reply

  5. Lank

    Cheerfully ignore this, and wonder why you failed to warn the uninformed by replacing the truth with ignorance. Ignorance is not a virtue.

    Reply

  6. David Garner

    J, I appreciate your creativity in this article, but I’m afraid I have to disagree with your article. Perhaps I may agree with your article, but I wish that the Catholic Church was nothing like Starbucks. (Here I am defending Catholics when I myself am not even Catholic!)

    I think that Trinitarian theologians, particularly the Catholic Church’s very own Hans Urs von Bathasar, would be upset that such a comparison could be made. The corporate world of Starbucks, namely that of modern Globalisation, looks nothing like the Church should be. Globalisation presupposes a univocal, nihilistic approach to ontology. If at the heart of things humans are merely “consumers,” we have concluded this because the Corporate world has reduced us to indistinguishable, standardized parts to a global mechanism. Such structures eliminate difference, the very essence to God’s own being. The Catholic Church in its beauty varies across the world while they also hold a unique Catholicity. Catholicity does not mean uniformity, because that goes against God’s very being. Rather, Catholicity should indicate a harmony in God’s Church (and in all of creation). Although this is a rather complex issue when you read Balthasar or other Trinitarian theologians, the Church must herald difference (not the liberal or democratic kind) but the ontologically fundamental essence of God. Otherwise, we reduce God, being, and economy to univocity. A monistic view of the Church is just a reduction of Corporate ontology and eliminates the possibility of difference. And as the French linguists — from Saussure to Derrida — have taught us, an elimination of difference is the elimination of meaning (or at least the conditions for meaning).

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  7. Joseph J. Pippet

    The Catholic church (Body of Christ) is conveinent a Conveince like Starbucks? I’m 74 years of age this the first time I ever heard Catholicism referred to as conveinent. The word to me seems to be a mockery of the church. A better comparison than Starbucks would be the Catholic Family (Mom and Pop) in relation to conveinence as Families are not incorporated but they are Universal. It’s (the family) conveinent to the world because our CEO, Jesus Christ, Dictates to us (and the World) his demand that we be not worldly and at times this is hard because we Rebel. Caritas we all Need, Caffeine is a Drug, No one Needs caffeine! Starbucks Caffeine (coffee) What a Waste of money. How often do we think of caffeine (Starbucks, WaWa, 7-11, Home brew) first than Jesus on the way to the Mass? Respectfully with Caritas, Joseph J. Pippet

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  8. Ann Marcus

    I believe Starbuck’s corporate police supports with its earnings, the homosexual marriage agenda. I cannot cite any definite references, but have read it recently online. I have not seen it on the Boycott List published by LDI which cites corporations whose donations support the killing of the unborn. I’m a tea drinker, myself!

    Reply

  9. David

    “Hey! Can I get a venti half-caff no foam latte with a shot of married priests and a side of ministry to the homosexual community?”

    Strabucks and the Catholic church are both faced with the problem of how to serve a complex, diverse, and evolving customer base without diluting their brand.

    The problem that the Curch faces is that how dark you like you coffee roast is a subjective choice; the Truth of Salavation is not.

    So how do we preserve our core faith base, and yet open our doors to those who are shopping their faith at the latest “Flavor of the Week” non-denominational faith mega-mart down the street?

    Reply

    1. Denys

      David–

      The Catholic Church cannot engage “shoppers” on their terms, but must do so on its own. The faith is not something to be sold to consumers, and if we try to compete directly with the “Emerging church” down the street, we will fail.

      I’m with Papa Ratzinger on this one:

      ” …a church which seeks above all to be attractive would already be on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for itself, does not work to increase its numbers so as to have more power… In this sense, the Church does not seek to be attractive, but rather to make herself transparent for Jesus Christ.” (Remarks of B16 to journalists on the airplane to Scotland, 9/16/2010.)

      Reply

      1. David

        Denys- Agreed. A point that I was trying to make is that we must not change our faith to become the flavor of the week. I couldn’t find a way to say “The Truth of salvation is not subjective” in bold.

        Where I think that (small ‘c’) churches fail is in answering the (big ‘C’) Church’s call to minister to all, to love all and to welcome and invite all to hear the message of Truth.

        What I was trying to say, apparently badly, was that in comparing the Catholic Church to St. Arbucks (love it, Greg!), one should not consider the “Have it your way” mentality that seems so pervasive it the modern search for a relationship with God. {Insert treatise against secular humanism here}

        I looked up your reference to the Pope’s remarks. Thank you for that reference, and thanks to him for reminding us that evangelization is not a numbers game. (Good news everyone! I landed the Johnson family account! We’re at 86% of quota this quarter!)

        We have to remember that, however, that those who come to shop their faith at our parishes must be welcomed, loved, and invited, and that we must not be too quick to kick the dust from our sandals at them. They must be given the opportunity to learn about, experience, live and love the Truth. Otherwise, they won’t come back.

        I hated the first Starbucks I ever drank. Then I found out how much they had to offer, and now I go there religiously.

        Reply

  10. M Colins

    @David – The Catholic Church does in fact minister to homosexuals as it does too all of us who struggle with sin. If the Church views homosexuality as “disordered sexuality” which by its nature is contrary to God’s plan (which it does) then by definition it must minister to homosexuals in the same way it ministers to all in sin, from the perspective of helping the sinner be free of sin. One must accept they are in sin and make a true act of contrition in order to be forgiven, an element absent from the beliefs of the secular world and many mislead Catholics today.

    With reference to the article’s premise, it presents a clever analogy but as some have already pointed out must not mislead from the fact that ultimately the “flavors” of Catholicism must give way to the authority of the teachings in the Magisterium. If truth is eternal, then it lies immutably at the core of our spiritual beliefs.

    Reply

    1. David

      M Colins-
      Yes the Catholic Church ministers to homosexuals. But do any Catholic churches minister to homosexuals (other than Cardinal Cooke’s “Courage” ministry)?

      The CCC (2358) admonishes us that, “They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

      I think it ironic that the unmarried heterosexual couple is quietly disregarded and then welcomed at the communion rail, while the homosexual couple is barred at the door.

      Both are neglectful of the same call to chastity, and both commit offense in the eyes of the Lord. We then, commit the greater sin as Catholics, for blocking them from the path to truth and salvation.

      Anyway, as this is not a post about homosexuality, I was trying to use that issue as an example cautioning against the consumerism view of Catholicism.

      Poorly done, admittedly.

      Reply

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