[Editor’s Note: Matthew H. Meeks left the entertainment and advertising industries in 2013 to serve the Church full time as the first Chief Digital Officer in the global Catholic Church at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles where he developed systems and campaigns that reached millions of people and turned the tide on important cultural and political initiatives and later as Chief Marketing and Innovation Officer at the Augustine Institute where he helped relaunch the FORMED platform, reaching 1 million users. He is a married father of two children and currently residing in Denver. He spoke to Charles Camosy about Catholic Ventures, his new project which will be an incubator for technology in the Church.]
Camosy: You recently announced Catholic Ventures, an incubator for technology in the Church. What led you to start this initiative?
Meeks: We live in the most disruptive time period in human history. Just as the discovery of the new world in the fifteenth century resulted in massive upheaval in economic, political and religious structures for the old, the advent of the digital age in our lifetime is showing itself to be even more disruptive. This is particularly the case for Catholics and for our Church.
I get frustrated when people say that the Church has been through these things before and will weather them again. To me that is a cop-out by people who are either disconnected or overwhelmed by the reality of the task at hand. Not only are we suffering through another heartbreaking abuse crisis, we are facing the massive flattening of organizational structures through digital (which knows no territory and is incongruent with the subsidiarity of the Church). We are seeing the resulting decentralization of authority into the loudest voices with the biggest followings. We are losing Catholics philosophically and in-person to targeted data-tracking and systematic marketing by cultural and political interests who are averse to the Catholic worldview. We are seeing censorship of communications by technology platforms on one hand and the airing of grievances among the bishops to be read by the laity around the world in real-time on the other. At every level the fabric of the unity of the Church is being stretched to a tearing point.
Because the Church is facing a multitude of challenges at this moment, the structural Church is under water managing its own decline. On a natural level, it doesn’t have technical expertise or the bandwidth to innovate or keep pace with this secular disruption – particularly within technology, data and media. But there is always room for the Holy Spirit.
It sounds crazy, but despite all of this we are extremely hopeful. While the Church has never been through this before, she is the Bride of Christ and we have the Lord, the angels and the saints on our side including a number of saints in the making who are already taking up this call. We started Catholic Ventures to join this effort in providing a lay response to the problems of the age.
Tell me more about the project. Go into the kind of detail for people who don’t know much about technology.
Catholic Ventures is a technology incubator for Catholic projects, identifying the best of the best to run alongside the structural Church, to innovate and provide the air cover and support that is needed to help the Church serve the faithful today.
We hope to accomplish this through focusing on projects that help support the brand of the Church as a first touchpoint with people who are seeking God while lifting up and supporting Catholic laity through products, communication, groups and more.
The first project we just announced is Catholic.store, which is set to be the place for Catholic commerce, lifting up authors, publishers, artisans, makers and Catholic small businesses by curating the best products for the lay faithful while giving a portion of our profits back to religious orders.
Why did you decide to work on this kind of store first? You could have gone in a few different directions, obviously, given the needs that the Church has in the area of technology.
For a few reasons, both practical and philosophical. Philosophically, with all the news about ‘Big Tech’ and censorship over the last few months, it became clear the digital behemoths and their algorithms just don’t understand communities with divergent viewpoints. There is a clear misunderstanding here, and that’s ok. But until we work it out, we felt it important that the Church maintained the ability to keep business moving as usual. As Catholics, we put a high priority on the way, the truth and the life and we know the way to truth is well informed, charitable and rational discourse. Any effort to shut down the ability for people to find information and dialog in our opinion deserves a response.
On the business front, we needed to provide a place where we could ensure access to books and products that enable Catholics to learn and live their faith. Additionally, for Catholic businesses, ‘Big Tech’ platforms take high margins and keep the customer information, forcing small businesses to become dependent on them. Honoring the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, we have developed proprietary technology that allows our vendor partners to grow alongside us. We are in the business of lifting up the Church, which first and foremost includes supporting the domestic Church through Catholic small business.
Because of our focus on supporting the brand of the Church, we felt the first place to do that would be through getting beautiful, curated, Catholic products including jewelry, clothing, kids items, books and art into the hands of lay people so they can quite literally wear their faith on their sleeves and put it at the center of their homes.
You probably need help with something as big as this. Or at least given as big as it could be.
We are blessed with the best partners. Patrick Thornton, the COO of Catholic Ventures, had a successful career in telecom and wireless industries in Chicago before helping Bishop Robert Barron and Word on Fire as its first head of sales and marketing – working on the Catholicism series and a number of initiatives after that.
Forest Toney, our CTO, is hands down the best Catholic technologist I’ve met. He started his career doing contract work for the U.S. government and later went on to help build Conde Nast’s advertising platform, developing the advertising framework for their publications and partner sites like Reddit. Both men are husbands and fathers of six and seven kids respectively.
What does the future hold for this project?
We are bound by a number of non-disclosure agreements with dioceses and other organizations so I can’t go into too much detail. That said, we have a lot of exciting projects coming out and big plans for the next year, let alone the next five.
In addition to continuing to grow the store, we really want to help the Church through its ministries by providing tools to serve the laity at each of their touchpoints with the faith – from healthcare to education to community. It is sad, but many lay members of our faith, let alone members of secular society no longer see healthcare and education as an outgrowth of Catholic life. We have some interesting things in the hopper to bring that back.
We also want to better support Catholic families and small groups and are working on technologies that can make an impact in these areas.
Also, we are announcing that Catholic Creatives (a grassroots collective of 8,000 creatives, makers, artists and technologists around the world) is merging with what we are doing to not just support this shared vision but to help each other better make an impact through our respective activities.
More importantly, we are seeking individuals, small businesses, technologists, and designers who are interested in contributing to this vision to reach out and join the cause by dropping us a line on the Catholic Ventures website.