In Light of Weber’s ‘Protestant Ethic’, has there been a Catholic ethic relating to the Spirit of capitalism?

In recent months a lot of interest has been generated in the pronouncements of the (relatively) new head of the Catholic Church, in relation to social and economic matters.  Given that 99% of us have been affected by the economic crash over the past several years to some degree, it is fair to say that Pope Francis’ public statements have generated some interest among people outside of that faith, and indeed of no faith.  This has led me to wonder about the ambiguous relationship the Catholic Church has had with the capitalist system which has been the dominant system in our world over the previous couple of centuries.

According to Max Weber, Protestantism has fully embraced, and enjoyed the fruits of the capitalist system.  Weber’s seminal study The Protestant Ethic and the Sprit of Capitalism argued that the ideals of Protestant religious ideals of groups played an important role in creating the capitalistic spirit.  Observing what he saw as the close association between being a member of the Protestant faith and involvement in business, Weber explores religion as a potential cause of the modern economic conditions.  At the root of his thesis Weber contended that the Protestant Reformation was critical to the rise of capitalism through its impact on belief systems.

Critics have argued that Weber’s study is narrowly focused upon a select few branches of Protestantism and ignored many countries which were outside of Weber’s long-held interests.  It has also been accused of not taking into account the rise of capitalism in predominantly Catholic countries.  Therefore one must ask, is the text guilty of ignoring, or misunderstanding Catholicism’s relationship with capitalism? Did it simply not take into account what might have been taking place outside of the countries Weber was concerned about?  If there was indeed a relationship between Catholicism and Capitalism, how was this defined?  Was it a mutually beneficial relationship, or more fraught than that seemingly enjoyed by the Protestant groups in Weber’s study?  According to Weber, Protestantism developed a devotion to the “calling” of making money.  This can be described as a “calling” which gives worldly activity, such as wealth accumulation, a religious character.  Catholicism on the other hand developed, or perhaps maintained, the intent to sustain the status quo and its established ethical standards.

This intent has been termed as economic traditionalism.[1]  In other words, the Catholic Church was content not to rock the boat when it came to socio-economic matters within the prevailing capitalist system.  Nevertheless, both the Catholic traditional view and the ‘Protestant capitalist’ stance commonly assumed that the act of work was a religious duty.  However, disagreements surfaced around the issue of reward relating to this work.  In other words how should man benefit materially from his toils?  At this point, I should probably point out that it would be extremely hard for an experienced economic historian to catalogue the relationship the institution of the Catholic Church has, or has had with capitalism.  Any examples contained within this article are based at a much lower level, with lay people and lower ranking clergy taking the reins.  However, the instructions were formulated at the very top of the hierarchical chain, the Papacy.

Weber argued that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and the associated notion of the aforementioned “calling” were essential for transforming attitudes toward economic activity and wealth accumulation. This is in stark contrast to what Weber called Catholicism’s glorification of monasticism.  His book argued that ‘one might be tempted to express the difference by saying that the greater other-worldliness of Catholicism, the ascetic character of its highest ideals, must have brought up its adherents to a greater indifference toward the good things of this world’. While the character of the typical Catholic is not necessarily compatible with wealth accumulation: ‘the Catholic is quieter, having less of the acquisitive impulse; he prefers a life of the greatest possible security, even with a smaller income, to a life of risk and excitement’.[2]

Is this a fair assessment on the Catholic economic outlook?  Throughout his analysis, Weber has been accused of mischaracterizing Protestant theology, and misinterpreting Catholicism, as well as ‘confusing the historical record with respect to the rise of capitalism in Catholic and Protestant communities in Western Europe’.[3] Nevertheless, some of the criticism levelled at Weber may be unfair as other-worldliness did in fact play a part in Catholic social thought in relation to capitalism.  The focus was on the here and now, with a watchful eye on the afterlife.  So in that respect, it was not all that different from the Protestant capitalism which Weber studied.  Strains of ‘other-worldliness’ were to be found most notably in the ideas of Distributism and its variations around the globe which were inspired by papal teachings.  That is not to say that the papacy had strong opinions on the lot of its flock in ‘this world’.  I will address this below by looking at various cases where Catholic social teaching has had a major impact, with particular reference to the two celebrated Papal encyclicals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno.  Using examples over a large geographical area, I will look at the day to day impact these teachings had on Catholic laity, and how they impacted upon politics and economics in their given country.  I will look at similarities between projects and factors which were particular to their geographical location, while also looking at whether or not there were evolutionary changes in Catholicism’s relationship to capitalism from the time of the Encyclicals through to more modern times.

The Papal encyclical Rerum Novarum issued by Leo XIII in 1891 on the Condition of Labour not only confronted the problems of Capitalism from within the framework of Catholic social thought, it also impacted outside of the Catholic milieu, inspiring a vast amount of religious social literature in the century since.[4]  Produced at a time when Capitalism had reached a peak in the modern era, it was viewed as much needed guidance in dealing with a system which many had come to see as moving beyond control.  Firstly, it should be noted that it was not merely a critique of Capitalism, it also showed its opposition to state-controlled socialism.  The teachings contained within Rerum Novarum were finely balanced to provide an alternative to both, and a third way that Catholics could live by.  Leo realised that the Catholics he was addressing were already embedded within the Capitalist system to a large degree, therefore any guidance would have to take place within the framework of that prevailing system.  Reading Rerum Novarum one cannot fail to see that Leo XIII at least tolerated the then prevailing economic system of Capitalism. While rejecting unrestrained competition he does not condemn the idea of competition altogether.  As a result here seems to be no reason to doubt that he at least resigned himself to the prevalent market economy.[5]

As well as the opposition to unrestrained competition, in the century preceding Leo’s Encyclical many serious and reform-minded Catholic social thinkers considered the taking of interest as the root-evil of modern capitalism. The gaining of interest from the simple lending of an interchangeable good, such as money was also against official Church teachings.  For Leo XIII, the homo capitalisticus is one who enriches himself at the expense of his labourers, one whose main interest is the accumulation of wealth.[6]  This of course is in stark contrast to Weber’s idea that the accumulation of wealth was a sign of being among God’s elect.

Chief among the points Leo wished to address in his encyclical was the increasing need for the ordinary working man to have a stake in society.  To successfully achieve this man should have the right to own his own property.  Rather than increasing capital through accumulating wages, reinvesting it in small property was a more moral option:

‘when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own….if he lives sparingly, saves money, and, for greater security, invests his savings in land, the land, in such case, is only his wages under another form; and, consequently, a working man’s little estate thus purchased should be as completely at his full disposal as are the wages he receives for his labor.[7]

This fundamental aspect of the encyclical was to have a profound effect upon the various agrarian groups which would claim inspiration from the text in the decades to come, and would form the basis of their efforts.

While Rerum Novarum is viewed as a necessary response to the rise of the capitalist system of the time, it has been argued that Catholic principles in relation to economic ethics have remained constant since the thirteenth century as they have appealed ‘precisely to the principles of St. Thomas (Aquinas)’.[8]  This would indicate that the economic condition of rank and file Catholics preyed on the mind of sections of the Church hierarchy for centuries.  Nevertheless, it seems that ordinary Catholics also troubled themselves with how to improve their economic standing within a moral paradigm.  In some cases the Catholic peasantry took radical action long before Leo’s pronouncement.

French historian Daniel Rops argued that Catholics had been awakened to the need to tackle problems of an economic and social nature before Marx and almost seventy years before Leo’s Encyclical, with the formation in France of the Society of St Joseph’ for working class youth. Other, more celebrated efforts included Frederic Ozanam, founder of St Vincent de Paul, and ‘the fighting bishiop’ Wilhelm E. Von Ketteler, who was responsible for the social awakening of the Catholic Church in Germany.[9]  Catholic social teaching has been continuously concerned with economic matters right up until the modern day.  Pope John Paul’s centenary encyclical of Rerum Novarum, Centesimus Annus championed the legitimacy of workers’ efforts to obtain full respect of their dignity and to gain broader areas of participation in the life of industrial enterprises so that, while cooperating with others and under the direction of others, they can in a sense “work for themselves” through the exercise of their intelligence and freedom.[10]  Nevertheless, the nineteenth century was a period when many of the social questions began to be seriously discussed.

Philippe Buchez was perhaps one of the most original Catholic social thinkers of the nineteenth century.  Best known as a founder of social Catholicism and as an advocate of workers’ associations, he developed a form of historicism in which he viewed history as a science capable of predicting the future of society:

(Buchez) integrated a providential interpretation of history similar to that of the French Traditionalists into his form of historicism and concluded that the goal of history was the constant attempt to achieve the fraternal association of all men in a spirit of self-sacrifice and love.  This goal was ordained by God, and man’s history was the creation of institutions to achieve its fulfilment.[11]

According to Buchez, whereas the bourgeoisie applied the principle of association to capital, Catholic workers ought to apply it to labour.  Joining to found a worker’s association, they should take on two very important obligations:

  1. To bring together a common capital which will be the instrument of labour and which must remain inalienable and indivisible, and will be destined, by virtue of annual contributions, to increase continually.
  2. To join forces to put the capital to use through their work, under a direction that they themselves should name.

The successful implementation of these points would gain them two important rights. To receive a sufficient salary, and to receive the portion of the profits which is distributed among the workers, in proportion to their work done, setting aside a portion to increase the common capital.[12] These radical proposals would inspire, along with similar social thought, separate movements in various parts of the globe.

Despite the obvious radical ideas of Buchez, it was Leo’s Encyclical on the condition of labour which found the widest audience.  Perhaps it is not surprising that it gained its widest audience since its publication during the period of the great depression of the late 1920s and 1930s.  In this period many Catholic social thinkers revisited the encyclical and the recently published Quadragesimo Anno (1931) for guidance during that near economic collapse.  Professor of Economics at University College Cork, John Busteed in his essay The World Economic Crisis and Rerum Novarum noted in 1931, at the height of the crisis, that ever since the modern capitalist system asserted itself there has been a major break-down about once every decade, and that ‘all human observation has shown that frequent and extremely costly break-downs in this international trading mechanism of ours are inevitable’.[13]  Seeing where the problem lay in such a break-down he argued: ‘While we have the growing tendency for the instruments of production and distribution to pass into the control of a small group of natives and foreigners, there can be no real stability in any country’.[14]

For Busteed, and countless other Catholic thinkers and economists, the instability brought about by the factors illustrated above, would prove that there could only be one viable remedy.  Those were the economic maxims of Pope Leo XIII, with special reference to the wide redistribution of property, ownership and control.  Without which, Busteed argued there could not be liberty nor stability.  The Encyclical promoted that ownership should be spread as widely as possible over the community, otherwise these recurring “crises” would be inevitable.  It is clear that Catholic thought in relation to economics, and specifically capitalism had significantly influence the thought processes of not only the intellectual clergy, but also laymen economists such as Busteed.  Indeed, Busteed argued that ‘a Catholic who insists on forgetting Catholicity when it comes to economic questions is either a rogue or an ignoramus’.[15]

As indicated above, the economic ideology of Distributism owed its existence in large measure to the Catholic social teachings contained within Rerum Novarum.  Viewed as a practical interpretation of sections of the teaching contained within the encyclical, it was popularised by lay theologians GK Chesterton and the Anglo-French writer and historian Hilaire Belloc.  Viewed as an alternative (again, the third way) to the evils of Capitalism and Communism, as laid out in the Leo’s encyclical, the belief was that real economic freedom was to be achieved through widely distributed property ownership and decentralized capital, creating a society of small holders.  This ideology (along with the Leo and Pius’ encyclicals) was in-turn the inspiration for agrarian groups such as the Catholic Land Movement in Britain (1930s), Muintir na Tire (People of the Land) in Ireland (1930s), and to a lesser extent the Irish political party Fianna Fáil who formed the government of Ireland in the 1930s.[16]  Both of the agrarian groups In Britain and Ireland advocated the establishment of small subsistence farms in rural ‘quasi-colonies’ which were broadly-termed ‘back to the land movements’.   It is clear that a practical stand against capitalism was part of Catholic ideology.  Therefore there may be some truth to Weber’s assessment of the Catholic outlook.


        Weber’s notion of Catholicism preoccupied with ‘other-worldliness’ is an idea discussed by Amintore Fanfani in his work on Catholicism and Capitalism.  Fanfani argued that in Catholicism there is endless glorification of God, and that every human act is to be dedicated to Him, no matter how insignificant:

In a world so conceived, there is no greater end than that of final beatitude, which is therefore the only ultimate end.  And thus, if the spiritual progress of the individual is not to be impeded, there is no end but finds place in a hierarchical order, in which every end, however noble, is a middle term, and by this very fact cannot be attained by acts or means that are not at the same time acts or means for the attainment of the ultimate and supreme end.[17]


He argued that this gave us an idea of the Catholic conception of life, what the ‘ultimate end’ is and the necessity of achieving it.  It provided the guidance of human action in relation to political, religious, and in this case economic spheres of life, transforming all activity into moral activity, with every act becoming a religious act.  Any act was therefore set against the rationalising term of ‘God’; everything appearing rational or irrational depending on whether or not they lead towards God’s grace.   Thus, in terms of economic activity, economic factors were not to take precedence over those of ‘higher’ factors, such as social factors.

If I as a contractor have to supply a factory with raw materials, I will try to obtain them at the lowest possible cost.  But, as a Catholic, I must see whether in practice this economic criterion does not conflict with extra-economic ends higher than economic ends, for instance, social ends.  If this conflict exists, I may not hesitate and must choose the means that is economically more costly, but is, socially speaking more rational.[18]

Therefore goods would only be obtainable if they proved to be for the good of the purchaser, his neighbour and community.

The clerical influence in terms of practical guidance in economic matters was, perhaps unsurprisingly more pronounced in rural areas than in industrial heartlands, given the increased sense of community and homogeneity in these areas.  In his study of the influence of the Roman Catholic clergy in agricultural cooperative movements in rural Ireland of the late nineteenth century, Kennedy notes that the importance of the clerical response in influencing the prospects of any social or economic development in rural areas requires no amplification. Because of the democratic nature of a co-operative organisation, requiring as it does mass participation by sections of a rural community-the strategic importance of Catholic clergy was likely to have been even more heavily underlined.  In some rural areas ‘clerical acquiescence was probably a necessary condition for cooperative progress in the formative period’ of the late nineteenth century.[19]  This may be due to the prevailing notion that large-scale redistribution of the land for use as small subsistence or cooperative enterprises were in line with clerical wishes, as laid out above, and needed their expert advice in implementing it in accordance with official teaching.

Co-operatives were essential to the Distributist ideal.  They combined ownership, labour for (small) profit, reward for initiative, a degree of self sufficiency, elimination of waste (as in the duplication of equipment or use of unnecessary middlemen) and a strong commitment to reciprocal self-help.[20]  For those reasons it would make sense for the Catholic clergy of the time, especially the upper echelons, to publicly back such a scheme.   Indeed, this was the message from a collective of Irish bishops on the use of land in the Freeman’s Journal newspaper in October 1900, in which they stated that large-scale grasslands across the country ‘should be returned to the poverty stricken Irish peasant’.[21]  Although agricultural cooperatives seemed to fit perfectly with clerical preference for type of economic activity, this was not always necessarily the case.

The number of clergy who took an active role in the various cooperative schemes in Ireland at this time was relatively small in scale. At the first General Conference of the Irish Cooperative Dairy and Agricultural Societies in September 1895, of the sixty delegates, which represented 29 societies, only two individuals were members of the clergy.  In the same year those who subscribed financially to the various organisations which made up the general body accounted for 4% of the total.[22] This could indicate at best, indifference among members of the clergy.  However, it is argued that it is a symptom of a much larger economic concern of the clergy.  In the late nineteenth century church financial needs were of a substantial order of magnitude.  Big farmers, large and medium sized commercial interests among other more lucrative professions contributed much more to church coffers than people involved in cooperative agricultural projects ever could.[23]  Championing co-operative schemes constituted a conflict of interest among clergy members.  It was feared that siding with the small substance farmers would alienate those who contributed most to the upkeep of the Church.

Other co-operative ventures were being established in parts of the Netherlands and Belgium in the late nineteenth century, again under Catholic instruction.  Co-operative banking schemes in parts of the Netherlands and the association of small farmers of the Boerenbond in Belgium were being established.  The Catholic clergy in the Netherlands played a large part in the management of Catholic finances with the establishment of a Catholic co-operative banking system. Successful Church input was achievable due to the rural nature of the co-operatives, and due to Dutch society being divided in such a way which ensured that communities within the country were defined in terms of socio-religious identity.  The influence of Catholic clergy on financial matters was in many cases more practical than spiritual.  Among Catholic agricultural networks priests were invited to lecture at special meetings of Catholic farmers’ unions on the benefits of cooperative banking as well as installing parish priests or other church officials as spiritual advisers to their board of directors long after co-operatives were established.[24]

These ‘on the ground’ efforts by the Catholic clergy, effectively helped contribute to the foundation of a Catholic banking system.  The Dutch case was an early example of a pattern of initiatives which expanded in the decades of the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, both in terms of varied enterprises and global outreach across several continents.  In neighbouring Belgium The Boerenbond was an association of small farmers founded in 1890 to assist the hard-pressed peasants.  The aim was to bring every possible material relief to the rural population, and therein and thereby, to foster the Christian ideals of social charity.  Containing many similarities with its neighbour, it established Savings-banks, Credit-banks, Insurance societies, initiated lectures, and provision of professional and technical advice, libraries.[25]

 The Antigonish Movement

      Education in relation to business ethics also became an important aspect in Catholic instruction as an increasing number of co-operatives were established.  The Antigonish Movement was a pioneering Canadian endeavour, specifically created to promote social action through self-help and co-operative development.   It involved large numbers of farmers, fishermen and coal miners in the organization of numerous forms of co-operative enterprise during the 1920s and 1930s.  Founded by Catholic priests Father Jimmy Tompkins and Father Moses Coady, it had a close association with Saint Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.  The founding clergy put into action their belief that a university had a responsibility to serve the needs of its own local people.[26]  It had long been held that the region’s geopolitical location had contributed greatly to economic hardships, with the decades after the Canadian Confederation of 1867 seeing any economic prosperity being diminished by what would today being termed as a ‘brain drain’, with the most able of the population leaving the area.[27]  This was compounded by years of industrial strife between militant unions and large corporations in the area.  In keeping with the idea of ‘the third way’, Coady tried to create a middle ground between unfettered capitalism and state controlled socialism.[28]


      The enterprise proved to be enormously popular.  By 1938 Nova Scotia cooperatives numbered 10,000, with 142 credit unions, 39 co-op stores, 11 fish plants and 17 lobster factories.  Outside of the industry side of the cooperatives, adult education classes were established, with approximately 1000 study clubs throughout the province.  The study clubs were an important appendage of the established co-operatives as it provided people with the skills they needed to participate in a democracy.[29]

From the late 1930s onwards Australian clergy and lay Catholics through the Australian Secretariat for Catholic Action, founded in 1937 and funded by the Catholic Church in Australia, sought to enact the Papal Encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius in schemes similar to those which found favour among distributists in Britain under the influence of Chesterton.   This distributist scheme gathered pace under the auspices of one of the central pillars of Australian Catholic Action, the National Catholic Rural Movement in 1939/40 under the supervision of Italian-Australian lay Catholic B.A. Santamaria (‘a long-time, outspoken and hands-on adherent’ of Rerum Novarum[30]), and the radical Irish Bishop Daniel Mannix.  The NCRM agenda initially embraced a range of policies for the furthering of smallholder farming and rural communities, including support mechanisms such as co-operatives and credit unions which were based upon the Antigonish Movement model.   Membership of NCRM groups peaked at more than 5,200 in 1946, and remained above 4,000 well into the 1950s.

Despite the apparent successes of the National Catholic Rural Movement, the real conflict which was the barrier to any lasting success came at a political level.  The organisation’s superior branch the Australian Secretariat for Catholic Action under the influence of Santamaria, who many thought to be too dominating an influence, attempted to assume control of the Labour Party, and get involved in politics.  This brought Santamaria and NCRM into direct conflict with another arm of Australian Catholic Action, the Young Christian Workers (YCW) who inspired the country’s credit union movement.  Santamaria was challenging the political independence status of the YCW, of which they were fiercely protective.  The YCW was of the opinion that its status as a branch of Catholic Action precluded it from involvement in politics.  This bitter spat resulted in YCW gaining new allies, while at the same time weakened Santamaria’s position.  The infighting exhausted and internally divided Distributist-minded lay people, and when the opportunity for real change had presented itself, they were unable to take advantage.  So-much-so that it has been said that ‘rarely can so comprehensive a defeat have been snatched from the jaws of victory’.[31] The radicalism displayed by Santamaria echoes that of the British Catholic Land Movement under the influence of Fr Vincent McNabb.  Although he did not venture into the political sphere, he was viewed as a radical, and ‘a fanatical anti-modernist’ who distanced some influential Church members who could make or break the movement.  His own extreme views on the world gave rise to an immediate unease among the British Catholic hierarchy about the theology and moral intentions of the CLM.[32]

The final and perhaps the most successful co-operative movement in this study is The Mondragon Cooperative, which began life in 1954 by the efforts of six people, most notably by the efforts of a Jesuit priest named Don Jose Maria Arizmendiarreta.  Don Jose was stationed in the Mondragon region immediately after his ordination in the early 1940s.  This area had suffered from years of high unemployment and neglect by an indifferent Spanish government.  In the late 1940s Jose founded an industrial apprentice school and taught classes on ethics to young men who were intent on setting up their own businesses.  This method of teaching was again based upon the papal edicts which taught that work should he considered part of spiritual development.  With the five other founders they raised a substantial amount of cash to purchase a small manufacturing company that made Aladdin kerosene heaters.  This was the beginning of the Mondragon Cooperative experiment.

Today Mondragon has 60,000 managers and employees (called worker-owners) in a conglomerate of almost 150 cooperative enterprises, with annual revenues of eight billion dollars. Mondragon has industrial, retail and financial operations throughout Spain, 34 manufacturing facilities in 12 other countries, three major research and development centres, a multi-campus university, and its own bank and health care system.  While it has clearly outgrown its humble origins it is still argued that the Mondragon Cooperative is still consistent with Catholic social thought.[33]  The success the Mondragon experiment has enjoyed is, at least in part the result of reversing one of the most important premises of capitalism.  The reversal is laid out as follows: ‘When you are faced with a choice of risking your capital to protect jobs or risking jobs to protect your capital, always protect your jobs’! This is in stark contrast to the traditional business model which holds that when you are faced with the choice of risking your capital to protect jobs or risking jobs to protect your capital, always protect your capital.[34]

It would seem that what has been taught and put into practice, in terms of Catholic social thought on matters relation to economics and society has undergone something of an evolutionary change since the famous encyclical of 1891.  Although many co-operative ventures have not been successful, some such as the Mondragon co-operative have thrived within the modern capitalist system.  The traditionalist-minded efforts of the Catholic Land Movement in Britain failed to move into the modern era.  These failures have led even some Catholic philosophers and theologians to brand the traditionalism which embodied the co-operative movements a failure.  Speaking in the wake of Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, American Catholic theologian Michael Novak proclaimed: “We are all capitalists now, even the Pope.  Both traditionalist and socialist methods have failed; for the whole world there is now only form of economics”.[35]

Indeed it is argued that both theologians and neoclassical economists appear to be in agreement that the market      is the best way      for an economic system to achieve efficiency. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II wrote, “…the free market is the most efficient system for utilizing resources and effectively responding to need”.[36]  According to Fox and Long, Pope John Paul’s words echo those of other modern economists, Baumol and Blinder and their analysis of the market system. Yet, they point out that despite areas of agreement there remain many spheres of conflict, exacerbated by differences in language and goals.  It is claimed that there is a tendency to portray the relationship between Catholic theology and market economics as a zero sum game, where there can only be one winner.[37] However, this has shown to be untrue as a blanket rule cannot be applied to all cases without taking into consideration a number of factors; societal, geographical and political.  The Mondragon co-operative is perhaps the best example of how an institution which has its genesis in Catholic social teachings can survive and thrive in the modern capitalist market.

The examples above show Catholic social thought in action across a number of continents.  For the most part all of the examples used were inspired by the same teachings, or offshoots of those teachings.  At times some of the movements were influenced by other examples in different countries.  The Catholic Church sees itself as a Universal Church, and as we have seen, its teachings on these particular issues have been put into practice on different continents to deal with social and economic problems.  Yet, its universality has been brought into question by the social/political and economic problems and needs of individual countries, showing that there can be no ‘one size fits all’ approach to economic and social problems.  Indeed, Wulker argues that ‘no country’s co-operative system can be duplicated by another country. Social, economic, historical and ethnic factors in individual countries require a corresponding adaptation’.[38]  As we have seen, these movements have not always found favour, even from within the church.  In Ireland, Church officials were reluctant to upset the larger farmers and professions by backing co-operatives.  While in Australia and Britain, the radical nature of some of the chief participants resulted in conflict with both the political and church authorities.  It should not be surprising that such sensitive economic matters would almost inevitably stray into the sphere of politics. While it is important to stress the differences, one cannot lose sight of that which unifies the different examples of co-operatives above, the instruction of Papal encyclicals.  Whether or not these instructions were the correct remedy for secular problems is another matter.

It is also important to look at the evolution of Catholic thought in relation to economic and social questions.  The fundamental aspect of Catholic thought in relation to labour was that there should be labour for profit.  However, this profit was not to be to the detriment of others, it was a profit for labour rather than profiting from someone else’s labour.   At the end of the nineteenth century we see a reluctant acceptance of the capitalist system, and the need to survive within it.  One hundred years later when we reach the point of Centesimus Annus, we see what can be described as an embracing of that same system.  This is perhaps best illustrated by the growth and flourishing of the Mondragon co-operative, from its humble origins right up to modern times with its close associations with multinational companies, seemingly without losing touch with its Catholic roots.

[1] J. Kosa and L.D. Rachielle, ‘The Spirit of Capitalism, Traditionalism, and Religiousness: A Re-Examination of Weber’s Concepts’, in  The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Summer, 1963), pp. 243-260

[2] M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, (Exeter, 2012), p. 5.

[3] M. Noland, Religion, Culture, and Economic Performance, KDI SCHOOL WORKING PAPER SERIES, <> 08/01/2014, p. 5.

[4] G.K. Chesterton, The Third Way: Foundations of Distributism as Contained in the Writings of Pope Blessed Leo XIII and Gilbert K. Chesterton, (Dublin, 2012), p. 17.

[5] F. H. Mueller, ‘Random Comments on the Economics of Rerum Novarum’ in Review of Social Economy, Vol. 49, Issue. 4, (1991) pp 502-513

[6] Ibid p. 503.

[8] A. Fanfani, Catholicism, Protestantism and Capitalism, (London, 1935), p. 120.

[9] K. Skalicky, The Catholic Church and Workers’ Participation, in J. Vanek (ed) Self-Management: Economic Liberation of Man, (Middlesex, 1975), pp 111-112

[11] M. Reardon, ‘The Reconciliation of Christianity with Progress: Philippe Buchez’ in The Review of Politics, Vol. 33, No.4, (Oct., 1971), pp 512-537

[12] Skalicky in Vanek (ed) Self-Management, p. 112

[13] J. Busteed, The World Economic Crisis and “Rerum Novarum”, in An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 20, No. 77 (Mar., 1931), pp. 13-23, p. 14

[14] Ibid, p. 20

[15] Ibid, p. 21

[16] Several of Fianna Fáil’s points for government in their first manifesto upon their formation in 1926 were inspired by Rerum Novarum.

[17] Fanfani, Catholicism, Protestantism and Capitalism, p. 121

[18] Ibid pp 121-123

[19] L. Kennedy, The Early Responses of the Irish Catholic Clergy to the Cooperative Movement in Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 21, No. 81 (Mar., 1978), pp. 55-74 p. 55

[20] D. Quinn, The Historical Foundations of Modern Distributism, in The Chesterton Review, Vol. 21, No. 4, (November, 1995), pp 451-471, p. 464.

[21] Freeman’s Journal, 1 Oct, 1900. the accumulation of wealth, which according to the Calvinist Puritans interpreted success in business as a sign of their being among God’s elect.

[22] L. Kennedy, ‘Early Responses of the Irish Catholic Clergy’, pp 61-62.

[23] Ibid, p.64

[24] C. Colvin, E. McLaughlin, Raiffeisenism Abroad: Why did German Cooperative Banking Fail in Ireland but Prosper in the Netherlands? in Economic History Review,  (2013), pp 1-25, p. 16

[25] D. N. Hehir, ‘The Boerenbond of Belgium’ in The Irish Monthly, Vol. 51, No. 600 (Jun., 1923), pp. 274-281

[26] J. Crane, ‘The Antigonish Movement: an Historical Sketch’ in International Journal of Lifelong Education, Vol.2 No. 2, (1983) pp 151-161

[27] Ibid, p. 152

[28] S. McAuley, ‘The Community Economic Development Tradition in Eastern Nova Scotia, Canada: Ideological Continuities and Discontinuities Between the Antagonish Movement and the Family of Community Development Corporation’ in Community Development Journal Vol. 36, No. 2, (April 2001), pp 111-121

[29] Ibid,

[30] R. Mathews, Collateral Damage: B.A. Santamaria and the Marginalising of Social Catholicism, in Labour History, No. 92 (May, 2007), pp 89-111, p. 89

[31] Ibid, pp 89-100.

[32] J. Kelly, ‘Vincent McNabb, Agrarian Utopia and The Theology of Work’ in New Blackfriars Vol. 91. No. 1033 (May, 2010), pp. 286-303 p. 293

[33] D. Herrera, Mondragon: A For-profit Organization That Embodies Catholic Social Thought (2004) <>, 09/01/2014

[34] J. Barker, ‘The Mondragon Model: A New Pathway for the Twenty-First Century’ in F. Hesselbein, M. Goldsmith and R. Beckhard ‘The Organisations of the Future’ (1996), pp 1-2 <>, 07/01/2014

[35] M. Novak, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, (New York, 1993),  p. 101

[37] S. D. Long, N. R. Fox, and T. York, Calculated Futures: Theology, Ethics, and Economics, (Waco, 2007), p. 50


2 thoughts on “In Light of Weber’s ‘Protestant Ethic’, has there been a Catholic ethic relating to the Spirit of capitalism?

  1. Pingback: In Light of Weber’s ‘Protestant Ethic’, has there been a Catholic ethic relating to the Spirit of capitalism? | bshephistory's Blog

  2. Pingback: @BSHistory77 and Catholic Capitalism? | Unsettled Christianity

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