Fanfani's Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism


Book Review of Amintore Fanfani’s Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism
Publisher: I.H.S. Press
Reviewed by: Dr. Peter E. Chojnowski


“The present capitalist system is an immense cosmos, into which the individual is born and which is presented to him, at least in so far as he is an individual, as an immutable environment in which he must live.”

This quotation from Max Weber’s highly acclaimed book The Protestant Work Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism, is fittingly cited prior to any discussion of the, newly republished, book by Amintore Fanfani entitled Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism. In the above quotation, Weber recognized the totalitarian nature of Capitalism and the social, economic, and ideological absolute, which Capitalism is. During the 1930s, when Fanfani, an internationally acclaimed Italian Catholic economist, wrote his work, Capitalism was recognized as such, therefore, provoking a good or bad absolute response on the part of those who wished to challenge this Liberal economic system. The essence of Fanfani’s thesis, in this text, is to show how true Catholicism is just such an absolutist system, which must inevitably clash with the overriding claims of Capitalism. The two, if they are being genuinely adhered to, cannot coexist as what they truly are, systems of thought and life which give a complete account of the meaning of all events encountered and beings know by the human mind. For those adhering, with their minds and their wills, to an absolutist system (whether that system be erroneous like Socialism, National Socialism, or Capitalism or if it be true like Catholicism), everything is understood in reference to the main doctrines of the system. False systems are, of course, completely self-referential (i.e., the intelligibilities which make up the system only have meaning insofar as they are related to other systemic intelligibilities, for example, “the withering away of the State,” only has meaning and significance within the context of Marxist eschatology). Thus, if we live in a world dominated by false ideological systems, as we do, we can only hope that some anomaly crops up which will not “fit” the system, thereby, requiring men to rethink the validity of their false systems. Fanfani insists that Capitalism is such a mental system that, he thought, had encountered its anomaly in the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929.
What Fanfani, a professor of economic history at the University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, was stating when he spoke of Capitalism as an absolutist system, was that every goal, every desire, every institution, every attitude is, to a greater or lesser extent, shaped and “tinted” by the primary goal of Capitalism which is maximum individual economic profit. This thesis serves as the starting point for the three main analytical and historical tasks of his book, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism. First, there is the task of unfolding the implications of this fact that Capitalism is an absolutist, we might say totalitarian, system which has influenced many, if not most, of the historical events of the last 400 years, while, at the same time, gaining hold of the mentalities of most of our contemporaries. Second, the task presents itself of trying to understand the relationship between the absolutism of capitalism and the absolutism of the Catholic Religion. Catholicism is “absolutist” in the sense that all of man’s actions and all social, political, and economic institutions must be judged by the faithful according to the moral and doctrinal teachings of the Magisterium. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, all human actions are, since they all involve circumstance and intention, either morally good or evil. Therefore, all human actions, including the economic actions of men, either individually or collectively, come within the purview of the Church’s moral teaching. From this fact, Fanfani draws the appropriate question, “Can an individual man live both as a capitalist, or a creature of Capitalism, and as a Catholic at the same time? Moreover, can Catholicism and Capitalism as systems truly be what they are and, still, coexist with one another? What is the historical relationship between these two social, moral, and intellectual systems?
As a good professor of economic science, Fanfani knows that he cannot adequately, and in the concrete, answer these questions unless he traces the historical relationship between the two absolutist systems of Catholicism and Capitalism. As a historian, Fanfani dedicates part of his book to inquiring into whether or not Capitalism began in the Catholic milieu of the Christian centuries and, if yes, whether it was Catholicism that initially promoted and facilitated the arrival of the Capitalist Spirit. With these historical questions answered, Fanfani then goes on to respond to the German sociologist Max Weber’s claim that the Protestant “work ethic” is at the origin of Capitalism as a dominant social, political, and economic reality. If Catholicism is not at the origin of capitalism, could Protestantism be?

A) The Spirit of Capitalism
Lest there be any question as to the nature of the “beast,” Fanfani defines very carefully what he means when he speaks of “Capitalism.” According to Fanfani, Capitalism is, “a system in which capital is predominant, a system characterized by free labor, a system in which competition is unbridled, credit expands, banks prosper, big industry assumes gigantic dimensions, and the world market becomes one.” If this is what Fanfani means when he says “Capitalism,” could it not be the case that we could understand it to be merely an economic system, one among many, with its sole end being the supply of necessary goods and services to those in need of such? Could not Catholicism then, which is a religious and moral system, live in perfect accord with the mechanism of Capitalism? In answer to this, Fanfani advances a view that is accepted, interestingly enough, by most contemporary apologists for the Capitalist System. For Fanfani, the essence of Capitalism is the “Capitalistic Spirit.” The “Capitalist Spirit,” according to Fanfani, is a mode of life determined by a spiritual orientation. Here, Fanfani perfectly agrees with Max Weber’s assertion that, “Inquiry into the forces that encouraged the expansion of modern capitalism is not, at any rate, an inquiry into the source of the monetary reserves to be utilized as capital, but, above all, an inquiry into the development of the capitalistic spirit. Where this spirit reveals itself and seeks realization, it procures monetary capital as means for its action.”

B) The Capitalistic Man
Since the “capitalistic spirit,” the élan that animates what I will refer to as the “capitalistic man,” is an economic “spirit,” it must, primarily, concern itself with the concept of wealth. Indeed, the economic spirit of an age is determined by the current idea of wealth and its ends. The peculiarity about capitalistic man is that, in a certain manner, he has no concept of ends but only of means. The “end” for which capitalistic man strives, an ever more complete satisfaction of every conceivable need, is hypothetical and not real. It is simply the concept of human material satisfaction stripped of all limits. Since this “end” is merely hypothetical (i.e., no man has ever experienced a state of complete material and worldly satisfaction), true ends do not orient the life and the mentality of the capitalist. He is, and he wants everyone else to be, an infinite material desire that is never sated. Wealth is not, than, even the end of capitalistic man. It is simply the means to the acquisition of further means to the acquisition of further means. One of the most distinguishing intellectual and moral characteristics of capitalistic man is his reduction of everything to the status of a useful good (bonum utile), and his blindness concerning the reality of things which can be classified as “intrinsic goods” (bona honesta). An intrinsic good is something desirable for its own sake and not merely desirable for its ability to help us attain something else.
This “limitless” horizon of capitalistic man differs profoundly from the understanding of traditional Christian man or, we might add, from that of the ancient pagans, whether cultured or uncultured. For the pre-capitalist man, this “limitless” material desire is seen as irrational, since he connaturally recognizes that he has a strictly limited number of needs to be satisfied in the measure demanded by his station in life. As opposed to capitalistic man, traditional man sees wealth in its social and natural context. Since he understands his own needs within the context of social structure and natural desire, his desire for material gain, and the actions, which he takes to achieve such gain, will be strictly circumscribed by social customs, political regulations, and religious principles.

C) Liberal Economics: The Wrecking Ball of Christendom
Since the “unlimited,” as a psychological category, characterizes the capitalistic man, all institutions and cultural norms that place a restriction on, hence, render impossible, the limitless acquisition of wealth must be eliminated. According to Fanfani, historically speaking, it was Catholic culture and institutions animated and fostered by the moral teachings and the ecclesiastical legislation of the Church which curtailed the desired unrestricted maneuverings of the capitalist. The most obvious restriction that Catholic culture placed upon economic activity was the social and legal obligation to respect feast days. The veneration given to the saints and to the mysteries of salvation was a good, which had no utilitarian or economic value. Capitalism is directed towards constant material production and acquisition, not to rest, contemplation, veneration, and worship. Since Capitalism, in a way, has no end, it cannot tolerate the feast, which is a foreshadowing of our enjoyment of the never-ending End. As Fanfani states, the economic liberty, which came about when the State dropped the legal obligation for all to observe the feast day rest, soon eliminates the culture which is informed and lived out in the feasts of the liturgical year.
We, also, can identify this obvious clash between the world-views of Catholicism and Capitalism, when we consider the economic organisms (better than “organizations”), which were the rock-bed of the traditional economic order of Christendom, the guilds. The idea of the guild or fraternal Catholic occupational corporation, was of particular significance to Fanfani, since, during his time, there was a conscious effort, on the part of the Church, laymen, and statesmen, to resurrect an economic order based upon the guild system, which would serve as a alternative to both Liberal Capitalism and Communism. It is interesting, and heartening, to note, that most of the nations in Western and Central Europe at the time, had either governments ideologically and institutionally committed to Guild-System Corporatism or had a large political movement dedicated to these principles. Since the guilds, as historically existing and theoretically understood, were “the guardians of a system of economic activity in which the purely economic interests of the individual were sacrificed either to the moral and religious interests of the individual, or to the economic interests of the community,” Capitalism was rendered impossible. The dominant spirit of Capitalism insists that we work in such a way that we will put our competitor out of business. To achieve this is to be “successful” in the Capitalistic System. The Corporative System of the past was ordered to ensure that a man would pursue his occupation in such a way that he did not put his “competitor” out of business. The common good of working men and families was put ahead of the unrestricted “right” to purchase any product one fancies. Economic “freedom” breeds the insecurity, which is a consequence of ruthless economic competition.

D) The Capitalist Attack on the Sovereign State
Once Capitalism has achieved relative mastery over the culture of Christendom, particularly with the suppression of the guilds and the marginalization of the Catholic Church and its various expressions in human culture, there remained for Capitalist conquest the ultimate, and ultimately necessary prize, the State. Without the State, Capitalist control of maximum material results through the utilization of minimum means could not be attained. The State, therefore, must be portrayed as having goals inimical to properly human goals. The ultimate goal of the Capitalist, in his attempted hijacking of the sovereignty of the State, is to neutralize it as an institution having goals of its own, both natural and supernatural. For the State to direct society as a whole, including the economic life of society, is to threaten force to those who do not, at least to a minimal degree, pursue the goods which the State understands to be the common good of the human society that it governs. The tasks, which Capitalism is willing to “allow” the domesticated State, are several. The most obvious, and necessary, is the one of maintaining “security.” “Security,” as understood by the State hijacked by Capitalism, is simply the safeguarding of the conditions in which the Capitalists can achieve maximum material gain from minimal expenditure. Indeed, this is the ultimate guarantee of the stability and fixity of the Capitalist System, one that threatens terror and ruin on those who would dare try to depart, in any way, from the “given” System. In a fully Capitalist society, you have the death of the State even when it seems to be at its most unforgiving and ferocious.

E) Protestantism or Catholicism? : Which is the Culprit?
When Fanfani addresses the question as to whether it was Catholicism or Protestantism, which produced the “Capitalist Spirit,” he does not look at individual Catholics or Protestants, but rather, he looks at the existing Catholic culture of the late Medieval and early Renaissance, along with the “spirit” of the Lutheran heresy. His thesis is that, although the Capitalistic Spirit began to fully emerge in the Catholic society of the 15th century, 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. 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, then action will no longer be guided by any supernatural motive. Luther’s assertion concerning faith without the need for works invalidates any supernatural morality, hence, invalidating the economic ethics of the Catholic Religion. According to Fanfani, 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 results in the “divinization” of the mundane so necessary for the advancement of the Capitalist Spirit. If man cannot achieve a likeness to God through works of piety and charity, the most palpable goal that shall be held out to him is the goal of money and the goods that money can buy.

F) Michael Novak vs. Amintore Fanfani
There is a very telling introduction to an earlier edition of Fanfani’s book Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism, published by Notre Dame Press in 1988. This introduction, written by Michael Novak, leader of American Catholic Whiggery, dismisses Fanfani’s text as “troubling,” “abstract,” “speculative,” and, even, with regard to certain points, “absurd.” Novak’s point is that Fanfani is presenting nothing but a caricature of Capitalism, his vision and understanding being hobbled by his lack of experience of the American System, which combines “free enterprise” with “free elections” and “free religion,” not to mention “pluralism.” Novak points to Jacques Maritain who, initially, wrote “abstractly” about philosophy, social and political systems, etc., until he experienced the United States and its workings. Here the, almost embarrassing, utopianism which marks Novak’s outlook, is shocking, not merely because of its blindness and naiveté, but, also, on account of its clear judgment that the civilization produced by the Puritan Anglo-Saxons is superior to the civilization of Continental Europe produced by popes, doctors of the Church, and saints. It is truly thought provoking to find Abraham Lincoln, John Stuart Mill, and Adam Smith lined up, by a man calling himself a Catholic, against the molders of Catholic civilization, we might mention, St. Benedict, St. Gregory VII, and St. Thomas Aquinas, and the latter group coming out the worse. Novak’s contempt for the Catholic Social and Economic tradition can barely be concealed in such statements as, “This short book of 1935 is a locus classicus of anti-capitalist sentiment among Catholic intellectuals. It helps to explain why Catholic nations were long retarded [sic] in encouraging development, invention, savings, investment, entrepreneurship, and, in general, economic dynamism.” In another sideswipe at Christendom, Novak states, “Indeed, there is undeniable irony in the fact that the Catholic spirit, over many centuries, did far less to lift the tyrannies and oppressions of the pre-liberal era than did the capitalist spirit, in which Fanfani detects only moral inferiority.”
It is truly a service to the Catholic intellectual world, especially for those who seek to recover the rich and comprehensive thought of the pre-World War II Catholic intelligentsia, that I.H.S. Press has republished, without Michael Novak’s introduction, this classic text by an economist who took his Catholic Faith seriously and who recognized the obvious, there is never a moral or social teaching, which is not meant to be implemented in the common lives of the faithful. The list of things which Novak condemns and rejects and which Fanfani accepts and advocates is long. They include the doctrine of the Social Kingship of Christ, the social encyclicals against Liberalism of all types, the institutions fashioned over centuries to embody Catholic Morality and the Catholic view of man and human destiny, the idea that the basic bonds between men in society must be constituted by more than mere contractual relationships, and the recognition that it is unlikely that a civilization originating in principles and doctrines antithetical to the Catholic Church could produce anything resembling a “utopia.” As Chesterton would say, “A utopia for whom?”

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