The mighty cosmos of the modern economic order determines, with overwhelming coercion, the style of life not only of those directly involved in business but of every individual who is born into this mechanism, and may well continue to do so until the day that the last ton of fossil fuel has been consumed.[1] 

Max Weber

For all my self-initiated self-management, I am self-evacuated, as much as any call center operator, of anything beyond what the market dictates, so that the market seems to be extending its own life in and through me.[2]

Kathryn Tanner

Perhaps no other work since Augustine’s City of God has spawned as much reflection over the connection between religion and social order as has Max Weber’s 1905 classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber pondered the effect of religion on social and economic order, noting in particular that Protestants seemed to fare better under capitalism than did Catholics. Weber puts the blame largely on the doctrine of predestination which forced the question,

Am I one of the elect? [This question] must sooner or later have arisen for every believer and have forced all other interests into the background. And how can I be sure of this state of grace?[3]

But it was not predestination by itself that caused the problem. After all, both Augustine and Aquinas[4] were predestinationists and no less “Calvinistic” in this then was Calvin himself. So why, in the 1,000 years since the one and the 250 years since the other, did these “Calvinistic” effects not show up? Weber explains it was the inner loneliness produced by the loss of the sacramental order.

No one could help him. No priest, for the chosen one can understand the word of God only in his own heart. No sacraments for…they are not a means to the attainment of grace, but only the externa subsidia of faith. No Church … [since] membership in the external Church included the doomed. … Finally, even no God. For even Christ had died only for the elect, for whose benefit God had decreed His martyrdom from eternity. This, the complete elimination of salvation through the Church and the sacraments … was what formed the absolutely decisive difference from Catholicism.[5]

The medieval Christian, by going to mass or counting his beads or wearing the scapular could have some confidence that he was among the elect since these were all manifestations of God’s grace working within him. Stripped of these, the only thing left was “intense worldly activity” which alone “disperses religious doubts and gives the certainty of grace.”[6] Absent the sacraments, only the sacrament of money remained.

This loss of the sacred and sacramental order had another effect: capitalism became a totalizing system, displacing every other cultural, political, social, and religious rival. Indeed, this is the (largely unintended) conclusion of Michael Novak’s take on Weber in his 1982 work, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Novak believes that the Church has given insufficient support to capitalism, which is certainly true, and proposes a “new theology” that will embrace all the things that Weber rejected. He feels impelled to do this because he believes that any attempt “to try to run an economy by the highest Christian principles is certain to destroy both the economy and the reputation of Christianity.”[7] At the center of capitalism, Novak tells us, there is an “empty shrine” without religious symbols, which each person fills in for himself;[8] social and economic life is no longer covered by a sacred canopy. “The system of democratic capitalism cannot in principle be a Christian system….it cannot even be presumed to be, in an obligatory way, suffused with Christian values and purposes.”[9] Indeed, for Novak, it is Christianity that must adapt itself to capitalism, and not the other way round:

Yet if Jewish and Christian conceptions of human life are sound, and if they fit the new social order of pluralism, the widespread nostalgia for a traditional form of social order may be resisted.[10]

Novak’s “new theology,” he admits, is not rooted in biblical texts since the biblical nations were “an economy of caravans and camels” and “did not envisage questions of political economy such as those we face today.”[11] This new theology takes the Trinity as a mere symbol for pluralism (and the modern corporation), elevates competition to the status of a core doctrine, treats the will to power as a virtue, and divides the order of economics from the order of religion. “A free economy cannot … be a Christian economy.”[12] Novak was absolutely correct, if not precisely in the way he intended to be: Christianity and capitalism are absolutely incompatible and only a new theology can reconcile them, and even then only by subordinating Christianity to capitalism.

But the totalizing effects of capitalism are not limited to rival moral and political systems alone; rather, it penetrates to the heart of the human person, to the human spirit itself and demands total allegiance of the mind and total subordination of the spirit. This, at least, is the theme of Kathryn Tanner’s book, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism. And the specific form of capitalism that Prof. Tanner examines is finance capitalism, which she notes has become the dominant form:

That is, the amount of money and frequency of transactions in finance dwarfs that of other economic activities. It is not uncommon, for instance, for the money changing hands on foreign currency exchanges in a single day to equal that of the world of trade in a year.[13]

Further, we must confront this form of capitalism since “Finance rather comes to discipline all other forms of economic activity—corporate, state, and individual.”[14]

Tanner traces the totalizing effects of finance capitalism, which not only drives all other aspects of economic activity but gives them their standards. And among these standards are strong cultural commitments. The old Protestant work ethic, where work was a moral virtue and rewarded with good pay and the expectation of a linear and gradual advancement has been replaced by a new spirit of capitalism in which one only expects to constantly change jobs and to retool oneself in response to the demands of the market.[15] In this new world, the link between work and reward assumes a highly moralized character, such that if one is not doing well, it is ones’ own fault. “This highly individualized responsibility sets off a highly competitive relationship between oneself and others” in a “constantly expanding war of position.” And this ethic is totalizing: “There is no ‘you’ apart from it; it covers the entirety of life, at work and outside of it, and the whole of one’s aspirations, in the way, for instance, that being indebted colonizes one’s past, present, and future…”[16]

Of course, finance is all about debt, and debt is about being chained to the past; Weber’s “iron cage” turns out to be a debtor’s prison. In America (the most “advanced” of all the capitalist countries) entrance into the prison begins with college loans, which now exceed both credit card and car loan debt, and often for an education that is of little practical value, even, or especially, when it purports to be of nothing but the practical. For example, does one really need a master’s in “hospitality management” to manage a hotel, or might this training be conveyed better and more economically by other means? But by suborning the universities to perform this training, business externalizes its costs by burdening the future of its potential employees. And this debt collapses the future and the present into the past. The demands of the past consume the present and destroy any possibility of planning, or even imagining a different future. All of the practices, pressures, and mechanisms of our economy work relentlessly to “close off the future as a possible source of life disruption,” Tanner writes—this is the despairing hope that preys upon our minds.[17] 

And what finance demands of companies, it also demands of individuals. Workers are, of course, disciplined by scarcity and debt, but this is not sufficient to elicit maximum performance. The anxieties of debt-ridden employees are heightened because although the company demands total commitment, it does not reciprocate that commitment; employees are all temporary and must constantly bring their own desires into alignment with employers’.[18] The employee must remake himself as homo economicus, a capital to be invested, a property that faces the same investment pressures as the company; one must engage in a self-evacuation to be filled with what the company desires.[19] Of course, such a self-evacuation would likely provoke only rebellion, save that the company can always claim that it is merely responding to “the market,” which becomes an all-powerful force; the “invisible hand” of the market, it turns out, is an iron fist which no one may oppose. And all of this is surrounded by an individualist morality that places all the blame for failure on the individual, and allows that same individual to claim all the credit for his or her success; the social dimension is dissolved in one’s consciousness even as it comes to dominate one’s life.[20]

In contrast to all of this, Tanner proposes a traditional Christian view. We are not chained to the past because the past is what’s left behind. And payment for the debt of sin is not something lost to the borrower. Christian character is fundamentally character-destroying, structured to expect its own fundamental revision. Metanoia is a constant possibility, and the present the ever-present moment to accomplish this change, which is of course never complete.[21]

However, in imagining “A New Christian World,” Tanner may have let her imagination get the best of her. She starts off with a thoroughly “anti-work” ethic:

First, there is surprisingly little reason to think Christianity has a direct interest in developing a work ethic at all, whatever form that ethic takes. Certainly prior to the Reformation, Christianity valued specifically religious pursuits, such as contemplative prayer, over work for economic ends, which was viewed with suspicion. If there was a work ethic here, it was exceedingly minimal and highly negative…In stripping one of energy to pursue religious matters, hard work was not a good thing. … Some people worked in fields and markets to provide others with leisure to pursue knowledge and love of God full-time.[22]

This is partially right and mostly wrong. It is partially right in that this was the aristocratic view of work by which the upper classes justified their own leisure pursuits at the expense of everyone else. And it was quite legitimate of the Puritans to react against this rather self-serving aristocratic ethic, even if they over-reacted. But it is mostly wrong because there was indeed a well-developed work ethic, particularly in the monasteries, where ora et labora was the rule of St. Benedict, and about in equal proportions. Nor was this labora merely instrumental, but fundamental, as fundamental as prayer itself. Indeed Thomas Aquinas regarded the ideal life as both active and contemplative.[23] Of course, he had in mind his own profession, that of university professor, as the exemplar of this union.

The fundamental nature of work goes back to our understanding of God. For while the Elohim of Genesis 1 is a literary God who creates by his word alone, Yahweh of Genesis 2 is an artisan who forms Man from the mud of the earth and woman from the rib of the man. This is a God who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. And just as the Rabbis joined these two aspects into Elohim Yahweh, so we need to do the same. This would neither be a work ethic nor an anti-work ethic, but a worker ethic, one that places the worker at the center of economic order. This is precisely the point of John Paul II’s great (if largely ignored) encyclical, Laborem Exercens, which makes work “the key to the social question.”[24]

The ancient world introduced its own typical differentiation of people into classes according to the type of work done. Work which demanded from the worker the exercise of physical strength, the work of muscles and hands, was considered unworthy of free men, and was therefore given to slaves. By broadening certain aspects that already belonged to the Old Testament, Christianity brought about a fundamental change of ideas in this field, taking the whole content of the Gospel message as its point of departure, especially the fact that the one who, while being God, became like us in all things devoted most of the years of his life on earth to manual work at the carpenter’s bench. This circumstance constitutes in itself the most eloquent “Gospel of work”, showing that the basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.[25]

What distinguishes this gospel of work from the capitalist work ethic is that it is universalizing, catholic, rather than totalizing. The catholic allows space for every authentic expression of truth and feels no need to displace those truths, because truth itself is always universal. It is quite true that the catholic can degenerate into catholic-ism, just another ideology with its own totalizing agenda, but this is clearly a perversion, one that can always be recognized and corrected from within the purely catholic. But capitalism carries within it no such corrective principle.

Kathryn Tanner has done us a valuable service in this work by highlighting the incompatibility of the Christian and capitalist views, and by showing how capitalism distorts our view not just of the economy, but of the human person. She strips away the comforting notion found in Novak that with a little reform, capitalism can be brought into harmony with a Christian view of man and his society; this naïve view will not just distort the economy, but subverts Christianity itself and reduces it to just another private idol to be placed on the empty altar at the heart of capitalism. But without a doctrine of work, Tanner’s view itself runs the risk of being just another set of privatized “values” that by themselves can form no real challenge to the totalizing machine of finance capitalism.

  1. M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Co., 1998), 181.

  2. Kathryn Tanner, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2019), 84.

  3. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 110.

  4. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Allen, Texas: Christian Classics, 1911), I, 23.

  5. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 104.

  6. Weber, 112.

  7. Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), 352.

  8. Novak, 70.

  9. Novak, 351.

  10. Novak, 69–70.

  11. Novak, 335.

  12. Novak, 252 See the chapter “A Theology of Democratic Capitalism,” pgs 330-360.

  13. Tanner, Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism, 11.

  14. Tanner, 19.

  15. Tanner, 27.

  16. Tanner, 28.

  17. Tanner, 28.

  18. Tanner, 70.

  19. Tanner, 74.

  20. Tanner, 195.

  21. Tanner, 50–62.

  22. Tanner, 198–99.

  23. Aquinas, ST, II–II, 182.

  24. P. John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, 1981, 3.

  25. John Paul II, 6.

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  1. I think another interlocutor badly needed in this conversation is Martin Luther and his theology of vocation. I’ve always wondered why there hasn’t been a theory of the ‘Lutheran work ethic’ compared and contrasted to the ‘(Calvinist) Protestant work ethic’—or if there has been, it doesn’t seem to come up much in discussion today about the theology of work. Perhaps Luther could serve as one of the proponents of the worker ethic you’re suggesting?

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