Catholicism and Economics

Never in the world’s history have economic problems played such a large part in human life or had such a direct influence on human thought as at present. Economics have come to overshadow politics, to absorb into their sphere the entire social question. Even the man in the street has learnt that his personal welfare is intimately bound up with an economic system. He may be indifferent towards politics, skeptical of the value of philosophy and science, hostile towards religion, but in economic matters his interest and prejudices are keen. Hence the rise of Socialism—the success of an economic gospel and an economic interpretation of life. Hence, too a new spirit of criticism towards religion, which is felt to be indifferent towards the things which are so vitally important—it is “the opium of the poor” which drugs them into contentment with their lot, and indifference towards their true interests.

This excessive preoccupation with economic problems is, however, abnormal and temporary. A healthy society is no more troubled about its economic organisation than a healthy man is troubled about his digestion. The present unrest is a symptom of disease, as well as a symptom of necessary change. Modern society is traversing that critical period of its existence, which the Ancient World also went through during the century that preceded the Augustan Peace. In both cases the material resources of society have outstripped its moral control. It is the crucial moment in the life of a civilisation—a time when societies and individuals are beset by temptations to violent remedies and excessive hopes, alternating with apathy and despair. When the crisis is over, when society has either mastered its difficulties or accepted a compromise with them, human life again becomes normal; economic problems sink back into their proper perspective, and man’s spiritual needs once more reassert themselves. After the Peace of Augustus comes the Gospel of Christ.

And so it is with our own problems. The present economic unrest is a side issue—though a side issue of vast importance—which distracts men’s minds from the ultimate problems of life; it is this, not religion, which is the true “opium of the poor”. Only when the present economic question is settled, will the real opportunity of Catholicism come. The economic settlement affords the material preparation for the religious settlement, that is to say for the conversion of our civilisation.

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Yet we are far from wishing to assert that Economics belong to a region apart from Religion. Religion, to be worthy of the name, must claim to be the inspiration of every side of human life, and the economic life, however exaggerated are the claims the Socialists make for it, is certainly one of the fundamental forces that have moulded the development of human society. Among primitive peoples the connection between religion and economics is clear enough. That by which man lives is holy: there is a mystery in all the processes by which the earth is brought to bear fruit for the support of man, and the one great end of sacrifice and spell and purification is to cooperate with the forces of nature in producing good harvests, numerous flocks and favourable seasons.

In the case of Christianity, however, this is much less obvious. At first sight it would seem impossible to conceive of a religion more hostile to the economic view of life. It stands at the opposite pole to the Nature Religion, for it is essentially “other-worldly” and bases its teaching on a new scale of values in which the old economic and natural values disappear, or are reversed. Nevertheless, it will be seen that Christianity eventually reconquers the economic life for itself, by bringing that also into relation with spiritual values.

The Christian attitude towards wealth and the use of material goods is expressed in the two great evangelical ideals of Poverty and Charity. These are intimately connected with one another, for they are respectively the negative and positive aspects of the teaching of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of God. The present world and the natural order are but the preparation for the world to come—the spiritual and supernatural order. This alone is worthy of man’s efforts, and the goods of the present world are only of value if they are used for spiritual ends. If they are treated as ends in themselves, they become evil.

“Be not solicitous, therefore, saying: What shall we eat: or what shall we drink: or wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek. For your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things. Seek ye therefore the Kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things that he possesses,” but in his “riches towards God.” A superfluity of material wealth is really an obstacle to the attainment of the true end of life. Therefore, our Lord counsels his followers to strip themselves of the unnecessary like an athlete before the race, or rather like a man in a sinking ship, who has more chance of safety the less he has on him. “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the Kingdom of God.” Leave worldly cares to worldly men—the dead to the dead. “Sell what you possess and give alms. Make for yourself bags that grow not old: a treasure in heaven that faileth not.”

All this insistence on the perils of wealth and the blessedness of poverty does not rest, as so many modern writers think, on a desire for social justice. Justice, as we shall see, has a very important place in Catholic doctrine, but it is not the foundation of the evangelical teaching about poverty. That is simply a consistent development of the new spiritual and otherworldly valuation of life, which was the work of Jesus, and as such it has inspired the attitude of the Catholic Church ever since, and has been the principle of the ascetic life and of the monastic institution. Alike to St. Antony in the third century, and to St. Francis in the thirteenth, the words of our Lord, “If thou wilt be perfect, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor and come and follow me,” came as a personal command, and the life of St. Francis, so vital and yet so utterly independent of all that external goods can do to make life livable, is a standing example of the way in which the Christian spirit transcends all economic categories and laws. Nor is the realisation of this ideal limited to Oriental or mediaeval society, in which a money economy hardly exists. During the very years when Adam Smith was working out his economic system, Benedict Joseph Labre, his junior by twenty-five years, as a wanderer and a beggar on the highways of Europe, was disproving by his life the fundamental postulates of the new science.

This ideal of Holy Poverty and of the blessedness of the non-economic life is the negative side of the Gospel teaching. The same view of life finds its positive expression in the precept of Charity, which is the true inspiration of the Christian life in economics as well as in other matters. All that a man has, whether of external goods or of personal powers and opportunities, is given him not for his own enjoyment, but for the service of God and man. The man who uses his powers and his wealth for his own gratification is like the faithless slave in the parable who swills his master’s wine and misuses the fellow-servants whose welfare has been entrusted to him. On the other hand, though wealth sought as an end in itself is an obstacle to the Kingdom of God, it is not without its value, if it is used as a vehicle of spiritual love. To feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to care for the sick and the prisoner is as it were a personal service to the Son of Man Himself.

This is to “make friends of the Mammon of Iniquity”—to convert material, indifferent things into spiritual goods—”riches towards God.” It is not that the Gospel treats the alleviating of economic distress as an end in itself, it is again, as in the teaching on voluntary poverty, a question of the spiritual revaluation of life.

Charity was to be the controlling force in the brotherhood of the Kingdom of God, and if this spiritual force was real, it must show itself in all things from the highest to the lowest.

“Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” To the average man the economic life is the one side of life that really matters, and a religion that leaves this unaffected, as did English Evangelical Pietism a century ago, thereby shows itself to be unreal. Consequently, the duty of almsgiving, the realisation in the economic sphere of the Christian fraternity, was the chief external activity of the early Church, and it was carried out on a scale that is difficult to realise in the present age, amounting, as it often did, to a real redistribution of property.

Yet in the charity of the early Church, from the “communism” of the first believers at Jerusalem onwards, there was no attempt to secure an improvement of economic conditions as such. There was simply an indifference to wealth and to external conditions generally, and a determination to conform the daily life of the faithful to the new laws of the spiritual world that had been revealed.

If the Christian had passed from death to life, from darkness to light, it was because he had received the Life of God, and that life was Love. It was impossible to possess that Life and not to love the brethren, and it was equally impossible to love the brethren without showing it in external things. As Christ has laid down His life for us, so we ought to lay down our life for the brethren, says St. John, and he goes on: “He that has the substance of this world, and shall see his brother in need and shall shut up his bowels from him; how doth the Charity of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word nor in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” This is the spirit of Catholic charity as opposed alike to external almsgiving and to modern social reform, which is a matter of results. It is the outward manifestation of a living, personal force of love—the spirit of St. Peter Claver or St. Vincent de Paul, rather than that of the Charity Organisation Society or of the Fabian Society.

But if these two great principles—indifference to external goods and brotherly love, are the foundations of the Catholic attitude towards economics, they are nevertheless not all-sufficing. Taken by themselves they would suggest the complete segregation of Christians from the ordinary life of society, and they find their most complete realisation in the religious life—the state of perfection. If this state is held up, not as an ideal counsel, but as a law binding upon all Christians, we are led towards a social teaching which is not that of the Church, but that of the anarchic and ‘spiritual’ sects which have always existed from the second century to the present day. All these, whether they look forward to a millennial Kingdom of the Saints as did the Montanists, the Anabaptists and the Fifth Monarchy Men, or whether they preach the perfect life like the Apostolics, the Fraticelli, the Catharists, or, in our own age, the followers of Tolstoy, agree in condemning the state, secular business and secular civilisation as radically and irremediably bad, and it is natural for them to condemn the institution of property, like marriage and civil authority, as an infringement of the spirit of their gospel.

But Catholicism cannot acquiesce in any such division of life, for it teaches an integration of the whole of life, so far as life is not dominated by perverse instincts of will. The God who redeems man is the same God who created him, and with him all exterior nature. It is the function of man to be the head of the material order, and to spiritualise inferior things by using them for God. Though the natural and the supernatural are two distinct orders, to which in a sense the secular and the religious lives correspond, yet both are directed to the same ultimate end. Thus economic life, though it is essentially a co-operation for the provision of material goods, is for the Christian a co-operation governed and inspired by love.

Originally published in New Blackfriars, May 1924. 


  • Christopher Dawson

    Christopher Henry Dawson (1889 – 1970) was a British independent scholar, who wrote many books on cultural history and Christendom. Christopher H. Dawson has been called “the greatest English-speaking Catholic historian of the twentieth century”.

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