Friday, July 1, 2011


It was a shock to learn that advertising researchers have predicted that Sears will soon disappear as a viable brand in America. Of course many familiar stores, products and brands disappear regularly without much fanfare. Over the years Weibolts, Goldblatts, Lyttons, Woolworths, and Polk Brothers have all slipped quietly into oblivion. However, Marshall Fields put up quite a struggle before being swallowed by Macy’s. Perhaps Sears also might not go easily into that dark night. Many of us have fond memories of those fat mail order catalogues that once displayed so many treasures, and those famous Sears house brands like Kenmore appliances, Craftsman tools and Allstate insurance, as well as their downtown headquarters in the famous Sears (now Willis) Tower.

What happened to Sears? It was once one of the stars of the Fortune 500. How did upstarts like Walmart, Target, JC Penny, Nordstroms, Macys and Costco elbow it aside? Did the rise of the Internet do them in? Did they become too stodgy, too old fashioned, too blue collar for younger generations of shoppers? Will they be missed?

Some business experts have said that, if the Catholic Church were traded on the stock market, its value would be in the dumpster. It might be the religious version of Sears. Unimaginative leadership, ineffective marketing strategies, tired product lines, inattention to its customer base. Of course, there is the important pledge of the founder that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. But we’d best not get too complacent. There are some alarming omens such as the recent CARA study which indicated an alarming decline in Catholic weddings in the last 40 years.

In 1972 the official Kennedy Directory reported 415,487 Catholic weddings. In 2010 that number had fallen to 168,400, a decline of almost 60%. Four decades ago there were 8.6 weddings per 1,000 Catholics. Today there are 2.6 weddings per 1,000. So what happened? For one thing it has become more acceptable for couples to live together without benefit of matrimony. Also many weddings are performed without benefit of clergy. An admired relative or friend can be “ordained” via Internet for a modest fee. Also in many states an unordained individual (female or male) can be designated as a one-time officiant.

Young Catholics from observant families report that the Church is not “user friendly” when it comes to matrimony. Some clergy are obviously over-worked and unwilling to invest much energy in what they see as one of the biggest days in their lives. Others seem to create a lot of legalistic hoops through which engaged couples must jump. In some dioceses, marriage preparation seems focused on natural family planning, liturgical regulations, and the evil of cohabitation rather than insightful help for building a successful relationship as a married couple. Negative experiences are spread by social media as well as word of mouth, and parents who have been disillusioned by the Church’s handling of the sex abuse crisis are now more likely to agree to a wedding outside the Church. In fact, some married priests perform more marriages than do their classmates who have remained in active ministry.

This is but one example, among many, of the way in which the Catholic Church has lost “market share” in recent years. One might say, “Watch out, Sears, here we come.”

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