Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism, Part II

Peter Chojnowski

See also: Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism, Part I

A) Who is to Blame?

The "spirit" of capitalism, which we have attempted to express in the first part of this article on Amintore Fanfani's work Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism, is a intellectual force which has a specific historical origin. According to Fanfani, the "spirit" of an age, like the one of capitalism, cannot be merely the conviction of one active man or even a group of active men. For it to be truly categorized as the spirit of an entire age (clearly the German word Geist better conveys the meaning intended), the basic ends intended by those who have this spirit and the meanings which this spirit attributes to things, must be shared by the preponderant part of the population of a society or, at least, by those elites who both lead society and create the opinion of the masses.1 It is this spirit, which came to dominate the opinion-making and power structures of Christendom, which must be located historically. Only when the historical point of emergence is identified, can blame or exoneration for the rise of this form of materialism be attributed.

Who, then, is responsible? If we follow the opinion of Fanfani, we would have to say that capitalism as a life-determining idea did not exist prior to or during the Middle Ages.2 The reason for this historical judgment will become clear when we unfold the Catholic doctrinal, legal, and social system which was firmly in place during the Medieval period. Moreover, antiquity knew nothing of a mentality which reduces all value to that of economic value. Economic value was significant, not in itself, but rather, in the context of the perfect society of the State. Economics was specifically the account of the way in which a sovereign state achieved the self-sufficiency which was proper to it. If we should exclude the Middle Ages as being the time in which the spirit of capitalism emerged and began to transform the minds and actions of men, we must date the beginning of capitalism's ascent to complete dominance to the 15th and 16th centuries.

Here is where we come to our problem and the topic of this article. Historically speaking, is Catholicism, which dominated all of Europe in the 15th century and most of Europe in the 16th century, to blame or is Protestantism, which emerged and came to dominate northern Europe in the 16th century, to blame? In attempting to answer this question, we must clarify one critical point. Here we are asking if Catholicism as a religion and moral code is responsible for the emergence of capitalism, not the Catholic Church as an organization. We are not asking, therefore, if individual members of the Church, even if they be prelates, contributed to the rise of the capitalistic spirit (e.g., the fact that Medieval popes encouraged certain bankers by allowing them to collect tithes)3 but rather, we are asking if there is anything in the Catholic dogmatic and moral system, even as these were implemented in the social life of Christendom, which fostered the capitalistic spirit. In the same way with Protestantism, we seek to discover whether or not there is any correlation between the emergence of Protestantism as a system of thought and the emergence of capitalism as a system of thought. We look not to individual Protestants, but to the doctrine and the "spirit" of the heresy.4 Our thesis, and that of Amintore Fanfani, with regard to the above question concerning the historical responsibility for the rise of capitalism shall be the following, although the capitalistic spirit began to fully emerge in the Catholic society of 15th century Catholic Europe, this spirit was antithetical to the teachings and spirit of the Church and it progressed in society and in the hearts of men only so far as the spirit of the Church was ignored or in retreat. Protestantism, however, with its rejection of the Church's doctrine concerning the necessity of good works in order to merit salvation, fostered and abated the rise of capitalism.

B) Catholicism as Vaccine and Antidote

This antithesis between the spirit of the Church and the "spirit" of capitalism can only be understood when we consider the philosophical and theological principles which are the starting point of all Catholic thought and action. In regard to thought and action, we must remember that, in the realm of the economic teachings of the Church, we never find a mere intellectual affirmation on the part of Catholics and Catholic society, rather, we find these principles implemented in Catholic States in all the realms in which man acts. Never did the Church preach the moral principles relating to economic activity and not try to implement that teaching by fashioning laws, institutions, and, in the confessional, the consciences of men.

What we must understand with regard to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church relating to economic activity, is that this teaching was one and unchanging throughout the course of the Christian centuries.5 The foundation and source of all of the economic teachings of the Church are the Gospels. The teaching of the Gospels were then elaborated successfully through the centuries by St. Paul in his epistles, the Church Fathers, and the Scholastic Doctors. This perennial teaching of the Church concerning man's relation with man in the domain of labor, exchange, and finance was given a definitive articulation in the writings of the Angelic Doctor. Just as we can take St. Thomas Aquinas as being the Doctor who accurately and comprehensively expounded the Church's theology and Her philosophical teachings, so too when we look for the Church's teachings concerning the moral norms of human action in the economic sphere, we must also look to the work of the Angelic Doctor.6

To best understand St. Thomas' economic teaching, we must first consider the basics of his understanding of human acts. For St. Thomas, all acts which are intended by the intellect in cooperation with the will (i.e., actus humani or human acts) have a specific moral character which attaches to them. That is, they are either morally good or morally evil. There are no morally neutral conscious acts. This is in contrast to unintended, involuntary acts which man performs (i.e., actus hominis or acts of man) as a manifestation of his physical nature. An example of the former type of human act is choosing to read The Angelus and an example of the latter is feeling the crisp pages. We very much choose to do one, whereas we do not choose to do the other. All actions relating to the realm of economic activity are understood by St. Thomas to be actus homini or human acts. They are all conscious and willed and, hence, morally good or morally evil.7

This basic classification of moral acts, applied specifically to economic actions, in itself distinguishes the Catholic economic ideal from that of capitalism. For Catholicism, economic gain is not its own justification. The actions by which the gain is achieved must be justified by their adherence to the moral law. It must be in accord with the good of man. To see things in this way, is, also, to understand action according to its telic orientation (i.e., its being directed towards an ultimate goal). All economic actions, our labor, our trade, our purchases, our hiring, our compensating simply lead us to our ultimate goal or they lead us away from our ultimate goal. Therefore, when we think economically we must think morally. Moreover, since man's ultimate goal must be the fullness of the supernatural life, we must even think supernaturally when we think economically. According to the perennial teaching of the Church, nature, which is transformed by human work into wealth, offers an endless staircase on which we may rise to God.

What specifically is St. Thomas Aquinas' teaching on the use of wealth, that is, nature transformed into something valuable by human labor? The first part of this teaching is the self-evident recognition that man, as a material body animated and vivified by a spiritual soul, has material needs which must be satisfied. This is something which unites and characterizes all men in so far as they possess a human nature. In order to satisfied this material need, which need not, in itself, interfere with the attainment of higher needs, man must take possession of temporal goods for his corporal sustenance. Since, however, man shares these needs with all men, and since all men are in some way responsible for each other, St. Thomas insists that man must take possession of temporal goods, not merely for his own benefit, but, also, for the relief of his neighbor.8 Since all men have similar basic material needs, and since the entire realm of nature is provided by God to fulfill those needs, St. Thomas repeats the ancient teaching that the natural law, inherent in human nature, determines that all things are held in common (determinavit in natura umana hoc, quod omnia essent communia).9 This means that the richness of nature is for man in general, not for specific men nor for a collection of specific men. This social conception of wealth stands in stark contrast to the capitalist mentality, which refuses to recognize any claim on goods or property by those who do not "legally own" particular goods or properties.10 In this attitude, we can easily identify capitalism as being what it truly is, a manifestation of liberalism in the economic sphere. Here the capitalistic man appropriates into his autonomous existence that which he has the power to acquire. Once he has exerted such power, and has not been impeded by the State from exerting it, the object of his ever-acquisitive grasp is absolutely taken out of the realm of what is common and, instead, becomes exclusively and absolutely his. God and other men lose all their rights and claims over the wealth possessed by the capitalist. Moreover, by advancing, in a self-interested way, the ideology of liberalism, the capitalist seeks to neutralize the resolve of the State to ensure that all of a nation's wealth is equitably distributed so as to provide for the needs of all, that is, the common good.

The restraint put on the capitalist by the laws and teachings of the Church really made capitalism as we know it impossible. Restraint, limit, and fraternity are antithetical to the capitalistic spirit. As Fanfani states, "Capitalism requires such a dread of loss, such a forgetfulness of human brotherhood, such a certainty that a man's neighbor is merely a customer to be gained or a rival to be overthrown, and all these are inconceivable in the Catholic conception of the world."11 Of course, the primary reason why the capitalistic spirit cannot be acceptable to the Catholic mind or to a Catholic culture is on account of the fact that it refuses to reduce "ends," and especially the ultimate end, to the instrumental means of monetary value. For the capitalist the acquisition of money, if done by "legal" means (taking "legal" here in the strictly positivistic sense), cannot be immoral. For Catholic teaching, however, solicitude concerning temporal things or monetary values would be unlawful if: a) we seek money or other temporal things as an end; b) "through too much earnestness in endeavoring to obtain temporal things, the result being that a man is drawn away from spiritual things which ought to be the chief object of his search; and, finally, c) through overmuch fear, when a man fears to lack necessary things if he does what he ought to do."12 With regard to the last, the spirit of capitalism can be judged absolutely and definitively by understanding how the demands of charity cannot be met if the spirit of capitalism dominates the life of an individual. How can we love God for His own sake if we love nothing for its own sake. How can we seek to cultivate the life of grace in ourselves and in our brother if we evaluate ourselves as consumers or producers and our brothers as either clients or competitors? Here we see the unchanging determination of Catholicism to renounce the benefits of natural works rather than obstruct the work of salvation.13

There is no doubt, historically speaking, that the whole tenor and tempo of life is different under the spirit of Catholicism as opposed to life under the spirit of capitalism. According to St. Thomas, even an "excess" of work is unjustified if it is directed towards a betterment of social position, since everyone should be content with the state in life in which he finds himself and seek to keep up the position he has, no more.14 The only exception which the Thomistic commentator Cardinal Gaetano made to this norm was in the case of a man of exceptional qualities who may lawfully seek the wealth that will procure him a status compatible with his qualities.15

The incessant striving for material gain which is the driving motor of the capitalist system, was hindered at every turn by the institutions, regulations, and customs which organized pre-capitalist Catholic society. According to Fanfani, "Catholics, insofar as they held closely to the social teachings of the Church could never act in favor of capitalism."16 The Church's and Catholic State's condemnation of usury (which made the monopolistic accumulation of capital impossible), its moral and legal enforcement of the guild regulations (which made real competition impossible), the rules requiring a just and stable price (measuring the price of a commodity according to the price of production, rather than a general estimation of its acceptability to the consumer), its equating of wages with the needs of the worker rather than his output for the capitalist,17 and their prohibition of advertisement (Forbade demand being made equal to supply. In the Middle Ages, a shopkeeper was not even allowed to entice passersby into his shop),18 prevented the denaturalized, desupernaturalized, depersonalized capitalistic economy from developing. What Catholicism always insured was that man was master of his own labor. This labor was always understood as a vital activity of the human soul and body. It was the personal activity of the whole man; an activity capable of being elevated to the supernatural level by grace. The labor of a true Christian is a continual prayer. As the spirit of capitalism advanced, so did the alienation of man from his own labor. The search after minimal means to maximum profits required a continual drive for more advanced forms of mechanization which gradually reduced the amount of real human labor involving soul and body. Man began to operate rather than work. Master becomes manager. Manager becomes employer. Craftsman becomes bourgeois. Workshop becomes factory.19

That the de-Catholicizing of the European economy meant the depersonalizing of this same economy is shown by the great, and now "indispensable," engine of capitalism, the limited (stock) company. The limited stock company and the stock market which accompanies it minimizes personal considerations in the economic field, thereby minimizing those extra-economic considerations which are always recognizable elements in any individual's life.20 As Fanfani states, "It was the ideal instrument for the capitalist, enabling him to collect immense means in small lots, and allowing the heavy burden of a risk, often overwhelming in itself, to be divided up as to become almost imperceptible."21 Now all can "join" a company or "leave" a company as you sit before your computer screen. You need not even know what product the company traffics in, nor who are the men whose "hands" fashion the wares. Perhaps this is the final stage in economic liberalism. Rootless men making existentially disinterested decisions about companies without distinct character whose unknown workers produce intrinsically meaningless products.

C) Protestant Revolt - Capitalist Windfall

After indicating the specific reasons why Catholic magisterial teaching rendered the capitalistic spirit impossible, we must admit that the capitalism, and the "spirit" of capitalism, began in a Catholic century amidst a Catholic people. As Fanfani states, "No one denies that capitalism was born before the Protestant revolt, among Catholics."22 It began. It did not flourish. It certainly did not attain a dominant position in society so as to become the "spirit of the age." In the 15th century, individuals were capitalists, society was not.23 It only began in the hearts and minds of those who were rapacious enough to ignore the time-honored view of man's proper relationship, both social and economic, to his brother in the Faith. We find an example of such a spirit, in Jacques Coeur (1393 - 1456). A 15th century merchant who attached himself to the court of King Charles VII of France. His business extended to many cities; he was both manufacturer and trader. He established a close relationship with the court of Charles VII. By becoming its treasurer he obtained from the King special favors and privileges for his crews. He encouraged the passing of ordinances which, by abolishing tolls and promoting an improvement of roads and water-ways, helped the development of his immense trade. Here the capitalist is using the State, which he has gained some hold over, to advance his own wide business interests. By his financial power and the political influence which that power was able to purchase, Coeur overcame the normal restrictions on "enterprising" individualistic profiteer.24 Coeur is an example of an individual who went "around" the system. What was it that eventually broke that Catholic social system which prevented the rise and dominance of the capitalistic spirit? There can be no doubt, that the first fissure in Christendom occurred with the revolt of Martin Luther against the Papacy. This rejection of papal authority, aided and abetted by the Scandinavian kings and northern German princes, set the precedent for the later revolts of John Calvin and King Henry VIII of England against the Papacy and the papal magisterium.

As Hilaire Belloc stated so often, there was much purely financial in the English Schism. The sweeping confiscation by the English Crown of monastery lands, and the Crown's subsequent investing of that newly stolen property with a new class of supportive plutocrats, did much to create the conditions requisite for the flourishing of capitalism in England (and England was the first place in which it did flourish) by concentrating wealth in the hands of a relative few.25 Moreover, the vagueness of the official form of the heresy, led to much doctrinal confusion, which had an effect on practical life.26 Not much of the old doctrinal strictures, which formerly kept in check the avarice of the capitalist, could withstand the example of contempt for established customs and rights provided by the Crown.27

The theology which eventually took over Protestant England did not, however, have a local origin. It was the radical Protestantism advanced by John Calvin of Geneva which is credited by a number of well-respected writers of the 20th century with being the theological position which created the conditions for the ultimate triumph of the capitalistic spirit. Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch are two examples of intellectuals and sociologists who have held this position.28 Max Weber lays greatest emphasis on the Calvinistic concept of secular "vocation" as being the mainspring of capitalism to this day. Moreover, can there be any doubt that Calvin's rejection of the three millennia-long prohibition against the taking of interest on money loaned was instrumental in financing the constant capitalist striving after grander schemes of production and technological advancement, along with enabling capital to be progressively accumulated in fewer and fewer hands?29 Indeed, what would capitalism be today without the taking of interest on nonproductive loans.

Even though Calvinism was the dynamic heretical force which most successfully broke down the Catholic cultural and legal norms which had kept capitalism in check, it was still the basic concept of the arch-heretic Luther which can be said to be the greatest single Protestant contribution to the rise of capitalism and the capitalistic spirit in the minds of men. With this one teaching, the innermost "reason" for action was altered. The heretical doctrine is the "uselessness" of works as a means of salvation. This doctrine, in effect, denied the relation between earthly action and eternal recompense. If there was no direct correlation between how I act, whether in the innermost recesses of my soul, in society, or in business, and my achievement of or failure to achieve my ultimate supernatural end, than action will no longer be guided by any supernatural motive. Luther's assertion invalidates any supernatural morality, hence also the economic ethics of Catholicism. This is why we find being generated in the most Protestantized areas of Europe, Prussia, England, Scotland, a thousand moral systems, all natural and earthly, all based on principles inherent in human affairs. Until finally, in the United States, which qua nation, has never known anything but Protestantism and post-Protestantism, we have the "ethical code" of: don't get caught if you break the positive law, be "nice," and get your dollar before someone else does.30

It is the establishment of the great Protestant divide between the human and the divine, most perfectly expressed in Luther's denial of sanctifying grace, which resulted in the "divinization" of the mundane so necessary for the advancement of the capitalistic spirit. If man cannot achieve a likeness to God through works of piety and charity, the most palpable goal which shall be held out to him is the goal of money and the goods which money can buy. What we must, also, recognize is the fundamental difference in the Catholic and the Protestant outlook on the "real." For the Catholic, the "real" is not merely what one finds "at hand." Rather, it includes, alongside the "is," the ideal, which intimates for the Christian mind the "should be" state. Along with the real, there is the task of transforming the real into what it "should be." Hence we have a task relating to our own actions, our businesses, our States, our culture, our families. To understand the real as a consistent Protestant does, is only to see what is "at hand" and the potential uses of what is at hand. And, if we are consistent, of what use can the real be other than to be the source of material advancement. For the consistent and "orthodox" Protestant, no other advancement is possible. One of Luther's most specific claims was that moral advancement was not possible for man. If you believe that you are contributing, through your good actions, one iota to your salvation, well then, "sin the more mightily!"

D) Unity of the Catholic Life

It is interesting that even though Fanfani states that Protestantism indirectly encouraged the growth of capitalism, he is very explicit in his belief in that it did not directly encourage it. In fact, he states that the attitude of Protestant moralists was, on the whole, critical of the phenomenon of capitalism until our own day. Here we find a situation similar to that of the Protestant rejection of contraception until 1930. Where Protestantism stayed close to traditional Christian moral teaching, they, by force of habit, rejected both the capitalistic spirit and the contraceptive mentality. When, however, they drew the logical conclusion from their new principle of "the uselessness of works as a means of salvation," they found themselves in opposition to Catholic social ethics.31 It is Fanfani's view that the leaders of the Protestant revolt themselves were not conscious of the support which their theological deviations would give to the rapaciousness of capitalistic materialism.32 Fanfani, on the basis of historical evidence, dismisses the claim that the nations of northern Europe prospered and gained commercial and imperial dominance in the 19th century because of their Protestant creed. The prosperity and, even, technological advancement of Catholic France and Belgium militate against this typical idea which we receive from Whig historiography. If we are true Catholics, what is to be done? What does it mean that we seem to mentally occupy two exclusivist world-systems, Catholicism and capitalism? Is this possible only on account of the fact that we live our life in one system and pray in another system? How long before the psychological need for "consistency" demands that we put our "prayer" where our labor is? Let us, instead, strive to put our labor where our prayer is and do what only Catholicism is capable of doing, bringing the various spheres of life into harmony on an ideal plane, the plane of the life of grace, motivated by faith, hope, and charity and refashioning all which is external according to the truth which we have received.

References

1  Amintore Fanfani, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1935), p. 19.[Back]

2  Ibid., p. 7.[Back]

3  Ibid., p. 3.[Back]

4  Ibid., pp. 2-4. For the most complete treatment of the contribution of Protestant teaching to the capitalistic spirit, see Max Weber, Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus in Archiv für Socialwissenschaft und Socialpolitik, vol. XX-XXI, 1904-1905, English translation, The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism (London, 1928).[Back]

5  For the continuity of scholastic teaching on labor and wages from the 1200's to the 1700s, see Manuel Rocha, Travail et salaire a travers la scholastique (Paris: Desclée, 1933).[Back]

6  Fanfani, Catholicism, p. 119. Also, O. Nell-Breuning, Grundtzüge der Borsenmoral (Freiburg im Briesgau: Herder, 1928); O. Schilling, Katholische Soczialethik (Munich: Hueber, 1929); P. Tischleder and H. Weber, Handbuch der Socialethik, vol. I, Wirtschaftsethik (Essen: Baedeker Verlag, 1931). [Back]

7  St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 1, Art. 1. Also, Fanfani, Catholicism, p. 119.[Back]

8  ST, II-II, Q. 83, Art. 6. Also, St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 3, c. 134.[Back]

9  ST, II-II, Q. 66, Art. 2)[Back]

10  Fanfani, Catholicism, p. 27.[Back]

11  Ibid., p. 142.[Back]

12  ST, II-II, Q. 55, Art. 6.[Back]

13  Fanfani, Catholicism, p. 133.[Back]

14  ST, II-II, Q. 118, Art. 1.[Back]

15  Fanfani, Catholicism, p. 132. Cf. T. De Vio, Cardinal Gaetano, Comm. In Summa Theol. Thom., II-II, Q. 118, Art. 1.[Back]

16  Fanfani, Catholicism, p. 153[Back]

17  Ibid., p. 26.[Back]

18  Ibid., p. 73.[Back]

19  Ibid. p. 60.[Back]

20  Ibid., p. 73.[Back]

21  Ibid.[Back]

22  Ibid., p. 160.[Back]

23  Ibid., pp. 140-141.[Back]

24  Ibid., pp. 37-42.[Back]

25  Ibid., pp. 183-184.[Back]

26  Ibid., p. 185.[Back]

27  Ibid.[Back]

28  Cf. Ernst Troeltsch, Die Bedeutung des Protestantismus für die Entstehung der modernen Welt (Munich, 1911). English Translation, Protestantism and Progress (London, 1930), and Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen (Töbingen, 1912). English translation, The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (London, 1931). Also, Max Weber, Die protestantischen Sekten und der Geist des Kapitalismus in Gesammelte Aufsätze sur Religionssoziologie, vol. 1 (Töbingen, 1929).[Back]

29  Fanfani, Catholicism, p. 197.[Back]

30  Ibid., p. 205.[Back]

31  Ibid., p. 197.[Back]

32  Ibid., p. 190.[Back]

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