The Unsung Convert Who Converted Millions to Catholic Teaching

E.F. Schumacher succeeded in popularizing Catholic social teaching in a way that far exceeded the limited success of Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton to do the same thing fifty years earlier.

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[Editor’s Note: This is the ninth in a multi-part series on the unsung heroes of Christendom.]

It is not often that the publication of a single book can change the perception of millions of people around the world. Small Is Beautiful by E.F. Schumacher was such a book. Subtitled “a study of economics as if people mattered,” Small Is Beautiful was published in 1973 to immediate acclaim and became an international bestseller. 

At the time of its publication, Schumacher was already well-known as an economist, journalist, and entrepreneur. He was Economic Adviser to the National Coal Board in the U.K. from 1950 to 1970 and was also the originator of the concept of sustainable development for developing countries. What was not known, and is still largely unknown, is that his radical economic and political perspective was rooted in the social teaching of the Catholic Church, as enunciated by Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI, and as reiterated in The Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Born in Germany in 1911, Schumacher was destined to become one of the most influential and controversial economists of the twentieth century. Leaving his native land in disgust at the policies of Hitler’s Third Reich, he settled in England, becoming a Marxist and an atheist. In the 1950s he broke with Marxist (and capitalist) dogma when he began to realize that economics was not an autonomous “stand alone” science but was a derivative of the philosophy or religious concepts of the culture within which it operated. 

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The modus operandi of any economy—and the way in which the modus operandi was studied, interpreted, and judged—was derived from, and dependent upon, the religious and philosophical foundations of the culture in which it operated. If the religion or dominant philosophy of a culture changed, so would the economic modus operandi. This discovery had such a profound influence on Schumacher that it could be considered a quasi-religious conversion.  The modus operandi of any economy—and the way in which the modus operandi was studied, interpreted, and judged—was derived from, and dependent upon, the religious and philosophical foundations of the culture in which it operated.Tweet This

During his first trip to India, in 1960, he became inspired to champion the cause of Intermediate—or Appropriate—Technology, which called for the application of human-scale technology on a local level designed to help local communities attain sustainable self-sufficiency. This small-scale approach to economics called into question the whole ethos of the macroeconomics which continued to concentrate investment capital in the development of large-scale technology in the urban areas, the effect of which was to impoverish rural areas, causing the mass migration of rural communities to makeshift slum dwellings in burgeoning conurbations.

Schumacher was surprised when a friend suggested that several papal encyclicals had touched upon the very economic questions with which he was now preoccupied. At first skeptical that the popes “in their ivory tower” could have anything of worth to teach him in the sphere of economics, he read Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and was astonished at the insight that the social teaching of the Church had to offer. 

It was, however, the promulgation of another papal encyclical, Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (1968), which would have the most immediate impact on his life. This encyclical prompted his wife and one of his daughters to seek instruction in the Catholic Faith. The message that Humanae Vitae conveyed, wrote Schumacher’s daughter, 

was an affirmation and support for marriage, for women…who had given themselves entirely to their marriages and who felt acutely the pressure from the world outside that shouted ever louder that homebound, monogamous relationships were oppressive to women and prevented them from “fulfilling themselves.” 

Although, at the time, Schumacher did not feel able to follow his wife and daughter into the Church, he concurred with their view of the encyclical. “If the Pope had written anything else,” he told a friend, “I would have lost all faith in the papacy.”

In 1971, Schumacher was finally received into the Catholic Church, a decision that was the culmination and final consummation of his long spiritual quest. Two years later, his world bestseller Small Is Beautiful was published, a work both popular and profound that almost single-handedly redefined the public perception of economics and its impact upon human society and the environment. 

Almost overnight, Schumacher became famous throughout the world. Idolized as a guru both by the California counterculture and by a rising generation of eco-warriors, he was simultaneously recognized on the Queen’s Honors List, being awarded a CBE in 1974. He spent the last few remaining years of his life basking in the reflected glory of his bestselling book, secure in the knowledge that he had radically changed the outlook of millions of people. By 1977, his views had become so popular that he was invited by President Carter for a half-hour talk in the White House, and the president was keen to be photographed holding a copy of Small Is Beautiful.

Schumacher died on September 4, 1977, at the relatively young age of sixty-six. Shortly after his death, The Times carried a tribute by Barbara Ward, whose book The Home of Man, published the previous year and written for the United Nations 1976 Conference on Human Settlements, in Vancouver, was a reiteration of the principles Schumacher held so dear. “Anyone fortunate enough to have known Fritz Schumacher,” she wrote, “will now be chiefly mourning the loss of a friend who combined a remarkable innovating intelligence and rigour of mind with the greatest gentleness and humour. But what the world has lost is of far greater importance.” 

Ward recounted Schumacher’s achievement, laying special emphasis on his pioneering work in the field of intermediate technology and sustainable development, before concluding with elegiac enthusiasm: “To very few people, it is given to begin to change, drastically and creatively, the direction of human thought. Dr Schumacher belongs to this intensely creative minority and his death is an incalculable loss to the whole international community.”

On November 30, a requiem Mass was celebrated for Schumacher at Westminster Cathedral. On the following day, The Times described Schumacher as a “pioneer of post-capitalist, post-communist thought,” devoting its editorial to his memory:

There has never been any shortage of prophets and preachers asserting that mankind is moving in the wrong direction, that the pursuit of wealth does not necessarily bring happiness, that a renewal of moral and spiritual perception is necessary if disaster is to be avoided. From time to time one of these prophets evokes a response which tells as much about the time in which he lives as about the message he brings. Dr Fritz Schumacher…was such a one.

Amidst the laudatory valedictions, his conversion to Catholicism was seemingly lost. Perhaps it was overlooked, forgotten, or merely considered irrelevant; or perhaps it was something that his millions of non-Christian admirers thought was best kept secret. It is certain, however, that Schumacher considered his conversion of supreme importance. This can be seen from the fact that he considered his spiritual work, A Guide for the Perplexed, to be his most important achievement.

It is, indeed, ironic that the modern environmental or “green” movement derives its weltanschauung not from any “new age” philosophy or neo-pagan “spirituality” but from the expertise and wisdom of a world-renowned economist who found inspiration from the social doctrine of the Church. 

Schumacher succeeded in popularizing Catholic social teaching in a way that far exceeded the limited success of Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton to do the same thing fifty years earlier. His lasting legacy is to illustrate that “subsidiarity” and “solidarity,” the essence of the Church’s social teaching as taught by successive popes and as defined in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, has worldwide popular appeal. It is, therefore, perplexing that Catholic social teaching is sometimes seen as the Church’s best-kept secret and that some, even inside the Church, feel that it is “best kept secret.”

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