A Series of Essays “On the Business of Religion” by the Rev. Know-it-all
Essay Three: On the Canonization of Cato the Elder
I would like to suggest that we consider Cato the Elder, an ancient Roman from the times even before Christ, the times of the Roman Republic. I think he might provide a valuable model for creating vital and viable parishes in our times.
Marcus Porcius Cato; 234–149 BC, also known as Cato the Elder, was a Roman soldier, senator and historian known for his practicality and opposition to Hellenistic fripperies. He is the very image of Roman practicality. He was not a patrician but was a Senator. He was what the Romans called a new man, not from one of the old noble families so he had to try harder. He believed that he was superior to these so-called aristocrats who were men of business. He clung to the practical rural values that made Rome flourish. A noble Roman could make money only from farming. Oddly, the construction business was considered a form of farming because bricks, wood and stone came from the land, so but if a noble Roman wanted to make money he had to espouse the pious old Roman values but had to make his money through dummy manufacturing corporations, secret investments and land acquisitions all run by agents who knew business and could be discrete. Cato did very well, thank you. He believed in the old Roman ways and that money; especially real estate mattered most. His quotes are most interesting.
“Sell worn-out oxen, blemished cattle, blemished sheep, wool, hides, an old wagon, old tools, an old slave, a sickly slave, and whatever else is superfluous. The master should have the selling habit, not the buying habit.”
This is most certainly the way to run a business. Maximize assets! Dump old stuff and old workers so you don’t have to care for them in old age. Wise men learn more from fools than fools from the wise. If some fool is willing to buy the stuff dump it like a bad habit, things, animals and people! Why should you have to feed and care for an old slave? That’s no way to run a business.
I hear these days that a parish should be run much more like a business than it is, best practices and all. It only makes sense. After all money is life’s report card is it not? A parish should be judged by a very few criteria: the size of the congregation, the size of its income and the condition of its real estate. We are kidding ourselves if we think the church is a family and not a vast international corporation. Truly an approach Catonian! Does it matter that some old employee or schoolteacher has served the Lord and the parish for thirty or forty years at sub-standard wages? Not in the least. Does it matter that a congregation may be poor and small but very holy and a place of great service to the poor? Not in the least. Such places are just not structurally or financially viable these days. I remember a parish whose congregation was about 300 and whose collections came to about $70,000 a year while its expenses were close to a million. Somehow the bills were always met. They educated poor immigrant children at almost no cost to their families. They fed and clothed thousands every month. The children of the wealthy came and waited on the poor there at the soup kitchen. Above all God was worshipped and Christ was preached. Scores of people were converted to the faith by the example of the volunteers and under paid staff. Some went on to the religious life and the ordained priesthood.
The place is closed now. It continues some operations for a while yet, but it no longer exists as a parish. Such a place was just not viable. Too small, too poor. The only way we are going to make it is the way the mega churches do, big buildings, big congregations, big collections and big screens with the words to the hymns so they can be seen back in the cheap seats by the espresso bar. Another Cato quote. He uttered it at the end of every senate meeting: “Furthermore, I think Carthage must be destroyed.”
Eventually it was! St. Cato the Elder, Guide us!