Economics, religion and culture: how Luther failed, again

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 09, 2018

Though I am no longer a libertarian philosophically (having followed a similar path to Edward Feser), most of my past political reading has been from that camp. I am still in some respects a sympathizer, particularly in the realm of economic theory. Just for that reason, I found it helpful to get a very different perspective by reading what is widely considered a classic of economic and social history: R. H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (originally published in 1926). Tawney was both a Christian and a socialist (of the non-Marxist variety); fortunately his book seems more colored by the traditional Christian suspicion of mammon than by a particular political agenda.

In Religion and the Rise of Capitalism Tawney sets out to do the reverse of Weber, tracing the influence of economic developments on religious history rather than the other way around. He makes the occasional economic faux pas, like claiming that the scholastics were proponents of the labor theory of value and therefore (famously) “The last of the Schoolmen was Karl Marx.” But I’ll forgive him that, because his book isn’t really about economic theory, and it has its own considerable virtues.

Though a Protestant, Tawney is highly appreciative of the attempts of the medieval scholastics to preserve the basic Christian condemnation of avarice and suspicion of mammon while developing nuanced positions in light of complex new economic developments. While they occasionally made too many concessions or too few, and while Christians of the time often did not live up to their stated principles, Tawney affirms the goodness of the attempt. This is why he is so hard on the likes of Luther and Calvin, who condemned scholasticism for doing imperfectly a job that would otherwise not have been done at all.

Tawney frequently returns to how strange it is that these reformers who started out as very authoritarian and discipline-minded, condemning things like usury no less than their medieval predecessors, ended up being associated with individualism, especially economic individualism (at which they would have been horrified). Because he isn’t Catholic, he misses something huge, which is that no matter how strict and authoritarian you are on the surface, if you’re rejecting the authority of the Church established by Christ in favor of your own interpretation, you are promoting individualism (and not in the good sense).

But he does have another very powerful point about the tearing down of Catholic institutions, which is that despite Luther’s principles of economic morality being basically the same as that of the scholastics, his complete rejection of casuistry and the implementation of those general principles into a practical framework of ecclesiastical law basically doomed the economic morality of Protestantism from the start. Excerpt from an electrifying passage about Luther: “He preaches a selfless charity, but he recoils with horror from every institution by which an attempt had been made to give it a concrete expression.”

Reading Tawney reaffirmed my view that advocating capitalism or free enterprise doesn’t mean uncritically embracing the current status quo. (Of course, any marginally intelligent libertarian knows this on at least one level, since the American market is hardly free, but I am referring to cultural as well as political realities.) Luther and Calvin threw casuistry and ecclesiastical law out the window because they thought too many concessions were being made to the pursuit of profit. But their anti-intellectual refusal to grapple with the economic realities of the time in a prudent and nuanced manner resulted in mammon bursting from its chains entirely. In economic matters as in religious ones, Luther’s attempt to stamp out license resulted in more license that ever. But if the Catholic and scholastic tradition had prevailed, we could have had a capitalism that looked very different from what we have today. Perhaps we still can.

Thomas V. Mirus is a pianist, composer, and occasional amateur comedian living in New York City. He produces and hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dover beachcomber - Jan. 16, 2018 12:29 AM ET USA

    John, your view of the lives of the Medieval peasantry “pre-Luther” was broadly held by scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries, but no longer. It may be true enough about late antiquity and the early Middle Ages; but by the 1300’s serfdom was on the wane in much of Europe. Luther himself had little love for the German peasantry, whose revolt in the 1520’s he advised the nobility to suppress with ferocious cruelty.

  • Posted by: Thomas V. Mirus - Jan. 10, 2018 8:11 PM ET USA

    John: Yes, and yet scholastic thought and ecclesiastical law still placed restrictions on exploiting others (i.e. through usury) to gain wealth, and gain of wealth was not practically revered as a virtue in itself as would become the case after the "reforms".

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jan. 10, 2018 12:31 PM ET USA

    I am curious what exactly what is meant by "mammon bursting from its chains entirely.." As I recall under many Catholic monarchies during the Middle Ages (pre-Luther) there was a feudal system in place where many were consigned to a life of abject poverty & ignorance, virtual slaves to the local noble and uneducated to the point where they could not have even read the Bible (if indeed it was even translated out of the Latin vulgate..) As for a life of radical poverty, John XXII suppressed that..