Friday, October 24, 2008

Clubs and the economics of the open Eucharist

Another timely news article comes from today's Boston Globe titled "Who is Worthy to Receive?" Traditionally, Christian denominations only allowed official denomination members to participate in the Eucharist ritual communal meal of bread and wine/water (also called communion or sacrament). As the article explains, many stricter denominations retain the policy of exclusivity. Yet, over time the local leaders in many less-strict denominations have relaxed the exclusivity so that anybody (including a non-Christian) is allowed--or at least not forbidden--from participating even though official policy might forbid the practice.

Policies of exclusion are often labelled unfair or unkind--a value judgement which could be entirely valid. However, our economic analysis sheds new light on the practice. We will discuss in class that religious groups trying to provide certain religious goods often have policies of exclusion as part of an overall strategy to limiting free-riding. Think about it: a policy that states "only members in good standing can participate in the Eucharist" is effectively saying that only people contributing in some way to the congregation can receive the benefits. Though the policy is costly in part because it appears unkind, it can actually in the end work out to the benefit of the group precisely because it selectively rewards people who are contributing more to the group. This comes right out of our economic theory of clubs.

The theology professor quoted seems to recognize the crux of the issue:
"When you're trying to welcome people into a denomination and lower the signs
that say, 'This is a club and you can't get in,' how do you say, 'The church
welcomes you, and invites you to join us, but, oh, by the way, you can't come to
the table?' " said Fredrica Harris Thompsett, a professor of historical theology at
Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge.
Though the quote uses the word "club" when referring to exclusivity, it (at least what is actually quoted) does not seem to recognize the free-rider issue.

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