Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism

Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism

by Amintore Fanfani

This classic work is an exhaustive philosophical, historical, and religious look at the relationship between Catholic and Protestant religious doctrine and both the historical and ideological growth of capitalism. Starting with a definition of capitalism, Fanfani examines how that definition squares with Catholic and Protestant teaching. He then looks at the…  See more details below


This classic work is an exhaustive philosophical, historical, and religious look at the relationship between Catholic and Protestant religious doctrine and both the historical and ideological growth of capitalism. Starting with a definition of capitalism, Fanfani examines how that definition squares with Catholic and Protestant teaching. He then looks at the historical development of the capitalistic mindset or mentality, and examines the growth of the mindset historically in light of both the Protestant and Catholic doctrine on economic life. This text will be of interest to all students of economic thought, philosophy, and Catholic or Christian studies.

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Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism

By Amintore Fanfani

IHS Press

Copyright © 2003 IHS Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-932528-98-5



1. Religion and our problem. 2. The idea of capitalism. 3. Lines of treatment.

1. The relations between religion and capitalism are vague and hard to determine if by capitalism we mean merely a complexus of technical methods and institutions, facilitating and regulating in a certain definite manner the production, circulation, and distribution of wealth in recent times and to a large extent to-day. With this conception of capitalism, research into the problem would be possible indeed, but fraught with grave difficulties and our conclusions would be meagre. At the most, we should probably find that religion had had a very indirect influence on the forms of capitalism.

Whereas, if capitalism is envisaged instead as a complete social system, the question of its relations with religion acquires a far greater significance.

These brief reflections, the outcome of prolonged meditation, justify us from the start in our attempt to reach an accurate formulation of the terms of the problem. If it is to be satisfactorily solved, it must be clearly presented. It is therefore necessary for us to determine exactly between what aspects of religion and what aspects of capitalism we must seek for relation.

Religion may influence life in general, and economic life in particular, in one of two ways — either as a doctrinal system or as an organization. These two aspects of religion are frequently confused. Historians of the acumen of Sée argue that it is untrue to say that Catholicism has not favoured the capitalistic spirit, since, on the contrary, the Papacy contributed to its establishment. Others hold that the Catholic religion encouraged capitalism, on the grounds that the mediæval Popes protected certain bankers, or encouraged their accumulation of wealth by entrusting them with the collection of tithes in certain districts. The two aspects are distinct and should be treated as such. The relations between capitalism and the Catholic religion must not be confused with the relations between capitalism and the Catholic Church as an organization.

In spite of this unconscious confusion, most of the historians who have dealt at all directly with the problem have considered religion more as a system of morals than as ecclesiastical organization. A typical example of this is provided by Max Weber, whose position is clear from the very title of his work: Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). It goes without saying that this attitude does not in the least imply neglect of the mystical, still less of the theological content of religion. Such dissociation would be impossible, for moral doctrine is bound up with, or, better, founded on, the theological doctrine, and if, for scientific convenience, it may be considered apart, in reality it is only another aspect of the same fact; it is a system of corollaries, deduced from a system of postulates. Theology provides the principles, morals their application, and the two are indissolubly linked. If in estimating the relations between religion and capitalism it is convenient to consider the moral aspect involved without explicit reference to underlying theology, the conclusions reached will be nonetheless valid. As we have explained, full account is taken of religion even when only its moral implications are under consideration.

It is our intention to investigate the relations between Catholicism and Protestantism on the one hand, and the development of capitalism on the other. Since capitalism is definitely an economic and social phenomenon, we shall confine our research to the influence of the religions we have mentioned on man's outlook not on the problems of life as a whole but on problems of an economic and social character. And since ecclesiastical organizations as such have also had relations with capitalism, we shall warn our readers when we are referring to the organization as distinct from the ideology of religion. Thus, while avoiding the confusion of issues that we have criticized in other writers, we shall overlook no aspect, however insignificant, of the possible relations, direct and indirect, between Catholicism, Protestantism and capitalism.

2. In defining the terms of the problem, we have dealt with religion; it now remains for us to define "capitalism."

Many attempts have been made to reduce this historical phenomenon to certain of its characteristic features. Each student of the question has taken one particular conception, with the result that widely different conclusions have been reached.

Recently, Vito, the Italian economist, held that capitalism could be identified with "the economic system characterized by (a) free choice of activity on the part of economic agents; (b) private ownership of the means of production; (c) competition." Other writers, earlier and more recent, identified capitalism with the prevalence of big industry. Others again see its distinguishing feature as circulating capital. Yet another author considers its chief characteristic to be the relative predominance of capital over labour. Von Zwiedineck-Südenhorst expresses capitalism in function of capital, whereas Labriola holds contrary views. In general, the economists prefer definitions that are strictly concerned with economic means, and believe, albeit mistakenly, that the historian would do well to confine his attention to these. Whereas the historian, by definition, must take many factors into account that the economist has so far found it convenient to leave aside. The sociologists eschew economic definitions, and show a particular affection for those of wider scope, in which the economic factor is merely a component part. It was precisely such sociologists as Max Weber, whose work is of high value, or Werner Sombart, whose competence, though disputed, is undeniable, who arrived at an idea of capitalism that was less economic and more sociological than that commonly accepted by the economists. Even historians, who in general have no love for Sociology, incline towards a broad conception of capitalism, rather than towards one restricted and mainly determined by technical means. One of the most noted of such historians, R. H. Tawney, presents the original view that capitalism is rather a mode of life, determined by a spiritual orientation, than a system of organizing labour. At bottom, this is the opinion of many who speak of capitalism and mean now a system in which capital is predominant, now a system characterized by free labour, and now a system in which competition is unbridled, credit expands, banks prosper, big industry assumes gigantic dimensions, and the world market becomes one. For such authors the existence of capitalism depends on the scale of the means of production; on the range of the means for circulating wealth; on the elaboration of tools and plant. It may justly be objected that if such criteria are accepted as the hall-mark of capitalism, the capitalist system has no original features and no novelty. Indeed, well-meaning men have not failed to note that, at bottom, the capitalism that others believed to have made a first tentative appearance in the fifteenth century, flourished in Florence and in Italy generally in the fourteenth century. Yet others have added that it could be found in the Flemish and French cities about the same period, and as early as the eleventh century in Venice. An attempt to trace back the origins of capitalism — given his interpretation of the term — to a far earlier period was made by Slonimski, who held that "the separation between the workers and the means of production, which forms the foundation and essence of capitalism, is a fact of economic life to be found in earliest antiquity; to associate this fact with recent times, which begin with the sixteenth century, is to know nothing of history." (Here Slonimski is criticizing Marx.) Salvioli is more moderate when, leaping back a thousand years further than Strieder and Pirenne, but stopping short a good deal before Slonimski, he finds capitalism in the time of the Caesars; this he qualifies as "ancient," to distinguish it from that of our time.

Is this, then, the originality of the capitalist system? Is this its novelty? Has it always existed? Has there been simply a quantitative variation in the magnitude of the means it employs and the range of its institutions?

To begin with, as against those who are too eager to find capitalism in every age, we must deny any real and substantial identity in the means, institutions, and economic instruments of various epochs. Then, and this is still more important, we must deny that those who identify the capitalist system with its means, institutions, and economic forms, without considering its ends, have hit the mark. They have not discovered what is often called the essence of capitalism. Capitalism is a complex phenomenon, and one that is not purely economic. It is wholly original, and was perhaps unknown to any age but that which followed the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. It is a phenomenon that cannot be reduced to one of its innumerable aspects without travesty. Nor is any scientific purpose served by the assumption of a concept of capitalism that varies with the point of view from which it is envisaged. As against Schlösinger's proposal to consider capitalism as severally economic, politico-social, ethico-psychological, and sociological, we must urge that this subdivision of a phenomenon into its partial aspects can be surmounted if, instead of concentrating on the incidental manifestations of capitalism, we seek the essential core of the phenomenon. Only by isolating its essential principle can we gain an idea of its nature, appraise its originality, and realize its distinctive features. And once we have grasped the essence, we shall be able to judge how many of the various phenomena of modern times are bound up with the more comprehensive phenomenon of capitalism, for we shall find that such phenomena either came into being as soon as capitalism appeared, or else were modified by its appearance. And since capitalism is above all an economic mode of life as led by man and by society, we may be led to conclude that it is not absurd to speak of a capitalist spirit. When once we have identified this spirit, so as to find a rational explanation of why society and man at a given period should have lived, that is, existed and acted, in a given manner, we shall then be able to explain why, at a given period, man and society, in order to act and to attain given ends, should have used such and such methods, such and such institutions. In this sense and for this reason we may truly say that the capitalist spirit is the essence of capitalism, in that it holds its secret, conditions and explains it. It is this spirit that, governing impulses and resolutions to action, determines the creation of new means and new institutions or the modification of those already in existence. Having thus determined what is the essential aspect of capitalism that we must consider in order to investigate the influence of the Christian religion, Catholic and Protestant, on its development, we may proceed to the solution of the problem.

3. It should now be easy to understand the method we shall adopt.

We shall take into consideration — even where we do not explicitly say so — all the research that has been made into the economic activities of men at different periods; we shall make use also of the detailed analysis we ourselves made in an earlier work on the origins of the capitalistic spirit in Italy, and which might almost serve as introduction to the present volume; and we shall seek, first of all, to define what is meant by the capitalist spirit, how it reveals itself, and what are its chief features. The various objections brought forward against our idea of a capitalist spirit, as presented in the book we have mentioned, have not led us to abandon it. On the contrary, presented with greater precision, it forms the basis of the present work. For we are convinced that, as stated elsewhere, nothing else has that essential quality that permits of the identification of the capitalist system wherever and whenever it may occur. If in this, as in our earlier work, we have achieved anything tangible, we do not hesitate to say that it is the fruit of our effort to determine ever more precisely one of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism. We shall be able to see what has been the influence of this spirit in promoting the transformation of the instruments of economic life — bearing in mind that if practical conditions tended to bring about such a transformation, it would not have taken place as it did without the presence of a particular disposition in the men concerned. We shall then proceed to investigate in what way the predominance of a capitalistic mentality has transformed public institutions.

Having thus presented a descriptive synthesis of the course of economic and social history under the impulse of the capitalist spirit, we shall pass on to the second stage of our study. To this end we shall reconstruct the economic ethic of Catholicism and examine first its relations with the capitalistic ethic, then its influence on the creation of capitalist institutions and means, ascertaining both the influence exerted directly upon such institutions and means and that exerted on the spirit that produced them. We shall then do the same in regard to Protestantism, though not before devoting a chapter to deciding whether the capitalist spirit had or had not already developed when Protestantism arose. In this same chapter we shall refer briefly to those factors which, independently of religion, may have had an influence on either the spirit or the institutions of capitalism, so that it may be clear that, though we are concentrating on the influence of religious factors on the capitalist phenomenon, we are far from thinking that there were no others.

Since, as we have already pointed out, not only religion as an ethical code, but also religion as an organization and in the persons of its exponents, had relations with capitalism, we shall not fail to make brief reference to such relations, in order to make our conclusions clearer.

In our concluding section we shall consider the problem of the causes of the greater development of capitalism in Protestant as compared with Catholic countries; we shall thus gain a still clearer idea of the part played by the religious factor.



1. Problem of origin of capitalism. 2. The capitalist spirit. 3. Points to be noted.

1. The enquiry into the origins of modern capitalism raised the problem of the distinguishing features of capitalism. Many investigators, having turned their attention to this premise to their main problem, ended by concluding that the essential characteristic, or rather the central force that has determined the triumph of the capitalist system in modern civilization, is the capitalist spirit. This conclusion changed the problem of the origins of capitalism into that of the nature and origins of its spirit. It is this spirit that, in the words chosen as title for the English translation of Sombart's Der Bourgeois, is "The Quintessence of Capitalism."

Having thus, by successive steps, narrowed down the field of research to its primordial object, the Germans were among the first to devote themselves to its elucidation, using their own methodical procedure. They linked the origins of the capitalist spirit to the religious conception inspiring the peoples among whom capitalism is today in vogue.

Max Weber gave the Calvinistic current of Protestantism the credit of introducing the idea of vocation, which today, though it has lost the religious inspiration of other days, is still the mainspring of modern capitalism.

Ernst Tröltsch attributes an important part to neo-Protestantism in the development of the modern economic spirit, and, while admitting the part played by Humanism and the anabaptist sects in its formation, he gives the chief credit to Calvinism.

In opposition to these two, the chief of those who maintain the preponderant influence of the Reformation, we find, among others, von Below and Brentano, who assert the importance of spiritual influences prior to Protestantism, and Robertson, who confutes Weber's theory.

Sombart gives priority not to the Reformers, but to the Jews, while he attributes their special aptitude for business to racial factors. His is a poor, ingenuous theory, which was in a certain fashion anticipated by L. B. Alberti. It is weak, moreover, for the additional reason that it fails to explain the passing of economic predominance from races that were once masters of commerce to other races that at one time showed no disposition for it.

If Weber and Tröltsch have not lacked critics, Sombart brought a veritable hornets' nest about his ears. His work, as Luzzatto remarked, had the fortune to arouse "a frenzy of critical and polemical writings, research and complementary studies."

Cunningham, Tawney, Halbwachs, Sée, Rougier, Brey, Wünsch, Batault, Lilley, Sommerville, Levy, Binycon, O'Brien, Hauser, Strieder, Kraus, Fisher, Lanfenburger, to quote only a few names, arranged at random, have also studied the question. Some, like Tawney, Kraus, and Levy, have thrown fresh light upon it. Brey has defined its scope. O'Brien has made it clearer. While others, like Lilley, have repeated what is already known, for purposes that are more or less secretly apologetic.


Excerpted from Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism by Amintore Fanfani. Copyright © 2003 IHS Press. Excerpted by permission of IHS Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Amintore Fanfani was an Italian politician who served as prime minister of Italy six times and president of the United Nations General Assembly (1965). A professor of political economics, he was nominated a life senator in 1972 and became president of the Italian Senate. He was a member of the Christian Democratic Party. He died in Rome on November 21, 1999. Dr. Charles M. A. Clark is a professor of economics at Tobin College of Business, St. John's University. Dr. Giorgio Campanini is professor of the history of political thought at the University of Parma, Italy. He has written several books on political and ethical subjects, including the Catholic political thought of the 19th and 20th centuries (covering figures such as Rosmini, Mounier, Maritain, Sturzo, and Mazzolari). He is the author of The Burden of the Camel: The Christian Between Wealth and Poverty.

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