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.)