In the Name of God and of Profit
According to the well-known weberian theory, capitalism is a product of the Protestant Reform or, rather, of Protestant faith, particularly of the Calvinist doctrine. However, this argument has proved to be inconsistent with the facts. Indeed, it was the Catholic Middle Ages and their political and judicial pluralism that gave rise to what we understand as a free market economy. Furthermore, the discipline of economics experienced great development thanks to the contribution of the neoscholastic theologians of the School of Salamanca, such as Juan de Mariana, and of several Franciscan Friars, among the most prominent of which are Pierre de Jean Olivi and Bernardino degli Albizzeschi. These thinkers supported a free market for goods and services and anticipated significant concepts of modern economics, for example subjectivism and the theory of marginal utility.
All of this is explained well and deeply by Paolo Zanotto, in his Cattolicesimo, protestantesimo e capitalismo. However, the core of this volume consists of the comparison between the Catholic approach (illustrated through the teachings of St. Josemarìa Escrivà de Balaguer) and the Protestant one toward the free market economy.
Of course, it is true that, in some sectors of the Catholic Church, there is an anti-capitalist attitude. Nevertheless, the sanctification of work, as proposed by Escrivà and that Zanotto praises, is a refined attempt to rejoin the spirit of capitalism and the Catholic ethics. According to Pope John Paul II, “Jesus Christ requests everyone to consecrate himself in everyday life; as a result, work is also an instrument for personal sanctification and apostolate if it is offered to Jesus Christ.” On the subject, Zanotto specifies that the doctrine of Escrivà is not a secularization and a deconsecration of the Catholic spirituality, but rather a tool to assure lay people of a way to holiness, in an age in which the looming risk is to separate once and for all the spiritual side and the material side of life.
Work, in the opinion of St. Escrivà, is not subordinate to prayer; this latter throws itself into work which is, as St. Bernard stated, vita activa civilis, that is, the daily exercise of “natural and supernatural virtues inclined to the creation of genuine, justifiable and fruitful wealth which is definitely not in contrast with the longing for perfection and the chances of sanctification of a Christian.” It seems that God wants man to work also in order to consecrate his very creation and life. The Bible supports the idea that God created man so that this latter could work. For example, in the New Testament, Jesus is the son of a workman and a workman Himself who praises the loyal and hard-working servant. And St. Paul reminds that he worked with his own hands and stimulates his conversation partners to do the same thing.
Through the sanctification of work, St. Escrivà believed members of society could accomplish the development of a sort of “Christian materialism,” where the secular level reaches the nobleness of the spiritual level. This is possible if man becomes a contemplative soul, that is, a man that is “in the world” but, at the same time, is not worldly. This happens when an individual works hard at his or her chosen tasks with technical and professional competence.
Within this perspective, St. Escrivà did not portray man as a homo oeconomicus, as classical economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo erroneously did. Instead he focused on the whole acting person, therefore coming close to the reflections of the Austrian School of Economics, which concentrates on the homo agens, a rational man who chooses means to achieve certain ends.
In contrast, in the Protestant ethics, work is esteemed but not as a tool through which man can do God’s work; rather, it is often conceived of as a trial that only serves to confirm individual predestination. According to Zanotto, the real inspiration for understanding homo economicus through a utilitarian lens was Calvin, who first interpreted the “capitalist” not as a man who tries to get means in order to satisfy his needs and wishes, but as someone who sees profit as an end in itself. Indeed, Zanotto argues that utilitarianism is closely related to the idea of predestination. In fact, for Zanotto it is not strange that the utilitarian point of view arose in those countries in which Calvinism was deep-rooted: the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Scotland and the United States. Especially in the Calvinist understanding, man is an unconscious protagonist of a preordained plot. As Zanotto says, “the one thing that man can know is whether or not his personal performance will come to a good end. In order to check his possessio salutis, he only needs to dare: facts, then, will give their response.” However, this reliance on worldly success as an indicator of spiritual vigour conflicts with the principle that “no one can serve two masters.” Under traditional Catholic and much other Christian thinking on economics, however, doing things well, in other words service, is more important than success.
But Zanotto doesn’t restrict his sociological research to the existing connections between the free market economy and Christianity. The last part of the book is extremely interesting since it examines the usury prohibition within Christendom. In the Middle Ages, in a subsistence economy there was no room for lending money on interest in the modern sense of the term, because loans were only aimed at balancing family accounts in states of emergency. So, “it was extremely easy for a money lender to benefit from these straitened circumstances in which applicants used to find themselves.” Therefore, the Church intervened in order to protect the needy, lending, for example, money without interest. The promise of “supporting the have-nots” was likely the reason why the Church took some measures restricting and prohibiting usury. But this usury prohibition, according to Zanotto, did not hamper capitalism from flourishing; furthermore, it is noteworthy that, although Catholic thinkers rejected earnings coming from usury, they thought that profits on capital were absolutely legitimate. There was only one restraint: the capitalist had to “take upon himself the responsibility both of profits and of losses.” Usury was not justifiable because there was no risk in this activity.
On the whole, Cattolicesimo, protestantesimo e capitalismo, on one hand tells Catholics that capitalism is not incompatible with the reasons of the Catholic teachings and even that the roots of free markets are to be found in Christianity; on the other hand, it tells free market advocates that capitalism can be easily supported by resorting to religious, and especially Christian, principles. The time for mutual understanding, maybe, has come.
Tiziano Buzzacchera is a student of political science and diplomacy at the University of Padua.
Posted: May 15, 2007