Some of the hardest working people I know are Catholic priests. I knew one priest who kept working even though he was severely suffering from Parkinson's syndrome. I know another priest who is still working despite being in late stage Lou Gehrig disease. My current priest is busting his butt at an age when I hope to be fishing (metaphorically, of course, because I actually hate fishing). I admire them all greatly. But as a law and economics guy who starts with the assumption that people are rational actors, I am puzzled by them.
I've been noodling for a long time with a research project inspired by Jay Hartzell, Christopher Parsons & David Yermack's paper Incentive Compensation in the Church (February 8, 2010). Journal of Labor Economics, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1303853. Here's the abstract:
We study the compensation and productivity of more than 2,000 Methodist ministers in a 43-year panel data set. The church appears to use pay-for-performance incentives for its clergy, as their compensation follows a sharing rule by which pastors receive approximately 3% of the incremental revenue from membership increases. Ministers receive the strongest rewards for attracting new parishioners who switch from other congregations within their denomination. Monetary incentives are weaker in settings where ministers have less control over their measured performance.
This leads to a problem known as sheep stealing. But set that issue aside for a minute. In the Great Commission, Jesus told the apostles "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." As successors of the apostles, priests have that same duty. The Methodists appear to incent their pastors to fulfill the Great Commission by using pay, which is what an economist (or economically-minded lawyer) would expect.
As I understand it, however, Catholic dioscean priests get paid the same--regardless of how big or small their parish congregation may be and regardless of whether it is growing or not. (And, of course, there are the religious orders whose priests have taken a vow of poverty, but let's not complcate things too much.)
This presents two questions relevant to my project:
- Is uniform pay a way of preventing sheep stealing and, if so, is it an optimal way?
- What effect does removing economic incentives have on behavior? Casual empiricism suggests that, contrary to what agency cost theory would predict, it does not lead to shirking. If not, why not? Is the "higher calling" really enough? Or does it perhaps lead to a more subtle form of shirking? One lesson of the Hartzell, Parsons & Yermack paper is that converting the unsaved is really hard - which is why Methodist pastors steel sheep; it's a lot easier to attract switchers than to attract the unchurched. Do Catholic priests spend long hours on tasks easier than evangelization? (I hasten to emphasize that I am not suggesting that this is a deliberate action, even assuming it occurs. More likely, it would be a subconcious choice.)
These questions are interesting to me because I'm a legal academic who studies how law affects behavior. Of late, I've become increasingly interested in how canon law might influence the behavior of priests just as corporate law influences executives. Churches and corporations are both organizations run by people and governed by a set of laws. Perhaps the tools we use to study the latter might inform our understanding of the former.
I'm also interested in the question as a Catholic. The Catholic Church has long had a reputation - whether deserved or not - for avoiding active evangelization. One of the many changes Pope Francis is making, however, is to encourage a commitment to evangelization.
They say virtue is its own reward. I wonder, however, if Pope Francis' call would have better results if canon law and priestly compensation were structured so as to incent church leaders to lead in this area.