I was fascinated by this story on the economics of the communion wafer market from Killing the Buddha. Rowan Moore Gerety illustrates the changes in the Catholic Church in America and the commercialization of religious goods and functions by contrasting market leader the Cavanagh Company, a commercial bakery, and convent bakeries in Missouri and Texas:
Like many of the mom-and-pop business relationships buried and mourned with the rise of the corporate, the ties that bind monastic bakers and “their” churches are not easily reduced to those of sellers and buyers. Historically, the connection of convent bakeries to their clientele bears only an incidental relationship to its economic viability. It is not an industry, Sister Lynn said, but an “an extension of our Eucharistic charism…a way we support the faith life of the Church.” Commerce in the service of religion, rather than Cavanagh’s religion in the service of commerce.
The difference is evident on the factory floor. The production plant at the Clyde, Missouri monastery, is adorned throughout with crucifixes and religious art, like a flour-dusted store-front church. Beneath Jesus on the cross, the nuns’ concentrated devotion recalls the Shaker cabinetmakers of the nineteenth century, sculpting the back of dresser drawers for His eyes only. The Cavanagh Co. does not have any religious ornaments in their production facility: in a factory constantly clouded with pulverized wheat, it would be inappropriate, Dan Cavanagh reasoned, “to put a cross up and have it essentially defaced with flour dust.” Cavanagh Co. retains a Christian sensibility, but what capitalist does not think his customers’ beliefs are sacred? “The majority [of our staff] is Catholic, but I am not sure if they go to church regularly,” Dan went on. “From a company standpoint, this is not important, as their job entails making sure that the product quality is top-notch.” They simply do not identify with the product in the same way that women religious tend to. The Sisters in Clyde tell their customers “they’re not just getting a product, they’re getting a prayer,” and consider their prayers “part of our promise to our patrons.” They are enriched through prayer themselves.
Another of the prescriptions to emerge from Vatican II was that the hosts be uncontaminated during production. In a fortuitous convergence of doctrine between the Food and Drug Administration and the Catholic Church, the Cavanagh Company has taken “contamination” to mean human touch, and the company maintains a fully-automated production process where employees are forbidden from laying their hands on the wafers. “I feel pretty strongly that the host should not be touched,” Dan said. His view makes it easier to comply with legal guidelines for industrial food production, but it also gives the company something to market. “Our wafers are untouched by human hands,” boasts one promotional brochure. “That gets my dander up,” a Sister in Clyde told the Chicago Tribune: The Sisters’ touch gives what other businesses would call “added value.”
One interesting note in the story is one of the original ways that Cavanagh gained its market prominence was by marketing whole wheat communion wafers, and it also mentions that a growth sector is individually sealed communion kits, with individual servings of communion wine and and a single communion wafer. It’s hard not to see that as a symbol of the church becoming more like the world and losing its soul.
For another story of the hidden consequences of shifts in societal behaviors and preferences, see Mac McClelland’s story on working for a shipping distributor that contracts with Amazon.com.