Catholicism needs to fix its broken, cleric-centered model of Church
By Ray Lyons | United Kingdom November 1, 2021. End the Pantomime…
“He’s behind you!””He’s behind you!” shouts the audience to the pantomime dame.
“It’s behind you!” seems to be the silent but increasing shout from the vast majority of Catholics to the clergy and the institutional Church.The Covid pandemic has exposed many failures in modern society. It has also graphically exposed the failures of the institutional Church in the 21st Century.
Online “live-streaming” of liturgies with just the priest trying to “celebrate” Mass in the absence of the community, exposes the incongruity of the medieval model of a Church trying to survive in a 21st century context.
The vested priest “on the stage” in an empty church building reveals himself as little more than the pantomime dame.
Far too many bishops, priests, and deacons continue to look behind them for a bygone age when the institutional Church flourished and they were the sole focus of attention and spiritual and temporal authority.
The clerical scourge must end.
Away with all titles
Whilst service and offices remain, ALL titles (Rev, Very/Most Rev, Canon, Monsignor,
My Lord, Your Grace, Excellency and yes, Holy Father) must go now. Their only purpose is to maintain and promote the outdated medieval model of Church.
Why are the titles Sister and Brother alone not sufficient? All ministry is based in our Baptismal dignity as sisters and brothers.
Over the past 100 years or more, numerous prophets have offered and argued for new models for the Catholic Church. But with the possible exception of the bishops of Vatican II, their voices have gone unheard and rejected by those who hold “Authority” in our dying medieval model.
Sadly, the pantomime dames continue to occupy the stage/sanctuary and deliberately turn a Nelson’s eye to the vanishing communities before them.
In the UK, 80%+ of Catholics rarely, if ever, join the community assembly each Sunday. In many European countries it’s even worse, with up to 98% totally absent.
The truth is that the medieval model the clergy are so desperate to maintain cannot survive in an increasingly democratized (western) world.
In many dioceses, bishops are increasingly unable even to recruit sufficient, if any, pantomime dames to keep the show on the road.
Importing priests is not the answer
So they have turned to smuggling them in though the stage door from Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia, in the delusion that whilst they keep the front of house doors open at least the matinee performance will keep the lights on.If anything, the cultural and institutional void these imported priests reveal is accelerated. Covid is exposing the reality. The rest of the Church has moved on and it is only a matter of time before the theatre goes dark.
Pope Francis certainly recognizes that this broken model cannot survive and that a synodal model must replace it.
That may be the longer term answer, but in reality I believe the Holy Spirit is guiding us to a swifter and more urgent return to the original models of community we find in Acts.
Both in the Gospels and in Acts, we frequently read that the crowds, the disciples, even the apostles and the early Christians, did not understand or believe what they saw and heard. But still they belonged to the community of followers of Jesus. Why should it be any different today?
For most western Catholics, at least belonging to a faith community trumps believing what the institutional Church teaches as their primary motive.
If they no longer believe what the institutional Church proclaims on so many matters of “traditional” faith, and especially morals, they have either voted with their feet and left or are now finding new ways of belonging to their faith communities.
The Holy Spirit to the rescue
Instead of passive disciples sitting in the pews “praying and paying”, watching a lone shepherd trying to coral the ever decreasing remnant in near empty churches, some in the scattered communities are gathering together to share and pray. In parts of the world where bishops and priests have always been rarities, catechists, lectors, and acolytes have become the effective shepherds.
Eventually, “presbyters” (a better term than the unscriptural “priests”; cf. Hebrews 7-10) will emerge again to guide and nourish these sometimes smaller, but growing, communities. Passive disciples will become active and engaged apostles again. The Institutional Church, in a dying effort to retain its outdated model of Church, refuses to provide the means and opportunities for the “source and summit” of the Church — the Eucharist — to most Catholic communities.
But the Holy Spirit seems to be increasingly providing manna for them.
Basic Communities, in communion with the local bishop, could well be the way the Church evolves here as in the southern hemisphere over the past 60/70 years.
A new superstructure will increasingly be required, and that can only emerge as an act of the Holy Spirit and a new general council of the Church.A new era of the journey has only just begun.
In the meantime the sheep need to find new pastures without appointed shepherds and to forage for nourishment themselves.
Braver members among them must allow the Holy Spirit to guide and lead them until new shepherds emerge once again from their communities.
Ray Lyons is a presbyter in the Diocese of Portsmouth (England).(This is a slightly edited version of an article that originally appeared in the September issue of RENEW, a quarterly published by British reform group “Catholics for a Changing Church”.)
The final phase of a disruptive pontificatePope Francis moves into high gear in a race against time and internal opposition
Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard an Alitalia plane on the return flight from Bratislava to Rome, Sept. 15, 2021. (Photo by Johannes Neudecker/dpa/MaxPPP)
By Robert Mickens | Vatican CityAdd to your favourite storiesFirst published on September 25, 2021.Age and illness have not taken the wind out of Pope Francis’ sails.Despite major intestinal surgery last July and his upcoming 85th birthday in December, the Italo-Argentine pope — amazingly! — is showing absolutely no signs that he’s slowing down or planning to close up shop anytime soon.His recent four-day visit to Budapest, the capital of Hungary, and then to three cities in neighboring Slovakia, did nothing to slacken his pace.Although he looked tired at times during the first day of the September 12-15 trip to Central Europe (he rose around 3:30 in the morning that day), Francis seemed to gain energy as the journey unfolded.And he resumed his busy schedule of meetings with individuals and groups the very next day after returning to the Vatican.
But the pope is well aware that he has moved into the final and most critical phase of his pontificate, which he has positioned to — among other things — radically transform the governing structures and decision-making mechanisms of the Roman Catholic Church.
“Some wanted me dead”
And he knows there are influential Catholics, and even men in the hierarchy, who would like to see this and other projects brought immediately to a halt.
When a Jesuit confrere in Slovakia asked how he was doing, Francis replied: “Still alive. Despite the fact that some wanted me dead.”
It was a reference to his July operation.
“I know there were meetings among prelates who thought (the pope’s health) was even more serious than was reported. They were preparing the conclave,” the pope said.
Francis then went on to complain about clerics who make “nasty comments” about him and even a large Catholic television network (it seems he meant EWTN) that “badmouths (him) continuously without any qualms”. It is highly unusual for a pope to openly admit — and lament — that he is facing opposition.
Was Francis conceding that his power to rally the troops has been weakened? Or, rather, was he warning those who are being uncooperative and even adversarial that he has finally lost his patience?
Either way, it looks very much like he’s decided to move into high gear, despite any efforts by opposing forces to derail this final phase of his pontificate.
Things to be done
One of the major projects during his time as pope has been to rewrite the apostolic constitution for the Rome Curia, the Church’s central bureaucracy at the Vatican.
It is said that the document for the “reformed” Curia was completed several months ago and is currently undergoing final corrections, but we still have no idea when it will finally be published.
In all truth, Francis has been implementing reforms, bit-by-bit, all throughout his pontificate by combining or suppressing certain offices, changing a number of protocols and legislation, etc.
He claimed in an interview a couple of months ago that there will be no surprises when the new apostolic constitution is unveiled. But surprises, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. There will likely be things that some people will not like at all.
The bigger challenge will be selecting officials who can implement the reform and, more importantly, its guiding vision and ethos. Francis has to make numerous key personnel changes, especially to replace several cardinals in major Vatican posts who are already past the normal retirement age of 75.
The Jesuit pope has habitually by-passed the Roman Curia during much of his pontificate and has increasingly said and done things to “smoke out” those who are not in line with his policies.
He’s provoked reactions in a way that has forced bishops and cardinals to show their true colors and reveal where they really stand on disputed issues.And he’s operated in unconventional ways — like ordering apostolic visitations of Curia offices — that keep those who work in the Vatican “guessing” or “off balance”.
It’s not only possible, but also probable, that rumors of the pope’s ill-health were spread by Francis himself!
As the first pope since Pius X (over a hundred years ago) who never studied or worked in Rome, Francis is an outsider. And he’s had to move creatively and strategically to outmaneuver the Curia forces.
One of the keys to this has been his deliberate moves to de-mythologize the papacy, mainly by speaking and acting as if he were just any other bishop and by conducting many of his affairs in a non-institutional way.
Obviously, this has infuriated many in the Vatican and in the hierarchy.
Will he ever resign?
There is no question that Francis would like to see it become quite normal for the Bishop of Rome to have the option to freely resign his office, rather than maintaining papal resignations as something extraordinary that happen only once every four- or five-hundred years.
As a Jesuit, he knows better than any that normalizing resignation from a once considered a lifetime office can more easily gain traction when consecutive office holders step down.
The late Peter-Hans Kolvenbach was the Jesuits’ first-ever Father General to resign voluntarily from his lifetime post. But it was not easy.
John Paul II refused to allow him to retire. Kolvenbach had to wait until after Benedict XVI was elected pope to finally be able to resign. He and Benedict agreed in 2006 that the Dutch Jesuit would step down two years later upon his 80th birthday.
Kolvenbach’s successor, Adolfo Nicolás, resigned in 2016, also when he turned 80 years of age. And it is expected that the man who replaced him and is the current Father General will also resign one day, rather than remain in office for life.
It seems clear that Francis would like to see a similar situation happen with the papacy — in an ideal world. But things are far from ideal right now and much depends on the circumstances.
It is said that it would be unwise to have two retired popes who are still alive. But if Francis were to feel he is unable to fulfill his duties as pope, he probably would not hesitate to step down, even if Benedict were still alive.
However, if Benedict dies before he does, the current pope could decide to resign precisely in order to “normalize” papal resignations.
What about the opposition?
Some Italian reports, following up on Francis’ comments to the Jesuits in Slovakia, say there are four or five cardinals and bishops — all members of the Roman Curia and mostly non-Italians — who have already begun strategizing for the next conclave.
One person to keep an eye on is Australian Cardinal George Pell, the man who backed Angelo Scola in the 2013 conclave that elected Francis.
Pell turned 80 in June and is ineligible to vote for the next pope, but he can do a lot of politicking for the forces inside the College of Cardinals who want to reverse (or severely alter) the direction in which Francis is steering the Barque of Peter.
Pell, the Vatican’s former financial czar, returned to Australia in 2017 to be tried on historic sex abuse charges. He was convicted and jailed for just over a year, but then the sentence was reversed in April 2020.
At the time, the cardinal said he would go to Rome to clean out his apartment but planned on returning to Sydney for good. He arrived in the Eternal City exactly one year ago — in September 2020 — and he has never left. And the only way he’ll likely go back to Australia before the next conclave is in a box. Because he and others who are not fans of Francis want to be part of the conversation and politics leading up to the next papal election.
The strongest candidate in the anti-Francis camp still appears to be Cardinal Marc Ouellet, 77, who has been head of the powerful Congregation for Bishops the past 11 years. He’s carefully downplayed and even hidden his more traditionalist views, which line up almost identically with those of Benedict XVI.
Surely, enough of the cardinal-electors will see through this, right? Don’t be so sure. Many of them are from far-flung places. They are not theological heavy-hitters or very fluent in the language of Vatican politics.
Another candidate of the anti-Francis bloc is Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő. He got his red hat in 2003 at the same consistory at which Pell, Scola and Ouellet also became cardinals. The 69-year-old canon lawyer speaks Italian flawlessly and is also conversant in German, French and Spanish. He is a former two-term president of the Council of the Episcopal Conferences of Europe (CCEE), which consists of the heads of all national bishops’ conferences on the Old Continent. Erdő has carefully cultivated friendships and alliances in the College of Cardinals and is expected to be a major player at the next conclave, either as a candidate or kingmaker. He won praise for being a gracious host at the International Eucharistic Congress earlier this month in Budapest. No fewer than 11 voting-age cardinals attended the all-expenses-paid weeklong congress. Even prelates who do not share all of the Hungarian cardinal’s theological perspectives came away with a much more favorable impression of him.
Do the pope’s allies have a strategy?
Francis has named 70 of the current 121 cardinal-electors. And he’s sure to name more, perhaps as early as November, just to keep the slots filled over the next several months. If there is a consistory in a couple of months from now, the pope will probably create only five to seven new cardinals. That will keep the number of electors hovering just over the 120 limit that Paul VI set. That is an arbitrary limit, actually, that the pope has absolute freedom to exceed at any moment. John Paul II twice pushed the number to 135 and Benedict XVI once expanded it to 125.
Five of the current electors age out between now and next June, but three of them are cardinals that Francis named; the other two got their red hats from John Paul. Six more reach the age of 80 between June 2022 and the end of that year. Only one of them was named by Francis, but four were created by Benedict. Therefore, barring any deaths among the body of electors, the Jesuit pope’s cardinals could, by the end of 2020, constitute well over the required 2/3 majority needed to choose his successor.
Will the next pope continue Francis’ vision?
Fans of the current pope’s style and course of action should thank God that Benedict XVI was elected in 2005. Because it is very likely that if Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina had been chosen at that conclave, he would have been a much different pope than the one he is today.
Without Benedict there is no Francis.
We cannot know for sure what kind of pontificate Bergoglio would have had as the immediate successor of John Paul II. But it probably would have looked somewhat different from the one we’ve been experiencing since 2013.The current pope reportedly told a fellow cardinal after the 2005 conclave that he probably would have called himself John XXIV had the votes gone to him instead of Benedict.
But would he have been ready — would the Church have been ready — back then for the reforms and change of ethos he has championed as Pope Francis?
We do not know. And neither do we know if the man who succeeds him will carry the reforming spirit forward.
There are simply no guarantees.
Even if Francis stacks the College of Cardinals with supporters, there is no way he or anyone else can ensure that one of his men will get elected.
Think about this: John Paul’s successor (Benedict) got his red hat from Paul VI. And Benedict’s successor (Francis) got his from John Paul.
Take a good look at the 38 electors who got their red hats from Benedict and see if you’d be excited if any of them were to succeed Pope Francis.
(A paper in Australia reported on Sep. 25 that Cardinal Pell recently “had been in the country for several months”, but had returned to Rome a couple of weeks ago.)
Being very brave in our faith. It means standing up to the bishops who have poisoned the well we Catholics drink from. It means adopting a stance akin to that of the civil-rights movement. Unhealthy cultures must not go unchallenged.As Pope Francis wrote in his “Letter to the People of God” in August 2018: “[The victims’] outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence it, or [that] sought even to resolve it, by decisions that increased its gravity by falling into complicity. The Lord heard that cry and once again showed us on which side he stands.”
Minding the Church: How should the hierarchy respond to whistleblowers?
File photo of Cardinal Keith O’Brien. The cardinal resigned as Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh in 2013 after admitting sexual misconduct. (Photo by EPA/GRAHAM STUART / MaxPPP)
By Brian Devlin | United KingdomAdd to your favourite storiesFirst published on October 27, 2021.When four whistleblowing priests in Scotland went public over the sexual hypocrisy of Cardinal Keith O’Brien in 2013, it resulted in his being prevented from attending the conclave that elected Pope Francis and ultimately in his removal as leader of the Archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh.I was one of the whistleblowers. When we sought a meeting with O’Brien’s successor, I remember keenly his obviously rehearsed instruction to us: the Vatican’s view was, “We are done here.”In reality, the removal of the cardinal was the beginning, not the end, of what was to become an important change in the way Church authorities deal with the malfeasance of high-ranking members of the hierarchy, including previously untouchable cardinals.The Catholic Church in Scotland—and later in the United States with the Cardinal McCarrick case—felt the power of whistleblowing in action.But what, exactly, is whistleblowing? How does it help the Church? And what can the Church do to make sure it has the proper effect?As a whistleblower, I can attest that the act itself can occasion a terrible case of imposter syndrome. You’re constantly asking yourself—because you know you are likely to be asked by others—”Who do you think you are?”There is a passage in the Book of Amos where Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, tells Amos to back off. We’ll not be having any of that stuff going on here in the royal sanctuary.Amos replies, “I was no prophet, neither did I belong to any of the brotherhoods of prophets…. I was a shepherd and looked after sycamores: but it was Yahweh who took me from herding the flock.” God Himself asked this of Amos.The first thing that the Church, as well as the whistleblower, must do is discern the motivation of those who speak out.In the cases of O’Brien and McCarrick, the motivation of the whistleblowers was not to “out” an elderly gay cardinal.Why would we want to do that? There are plenty of those. No, our aim was to prevent the further abuse of power by men at the head of a Church that claims to be holy.The behavior of both men was widely known before their stories became public.Yet Church authorities had remained silent when victims brought allegations of clerical malfeasance—in our case, via sworn testimonies written to the nuncio.The degree to which papal nuncios and the Congregation of Bishops tolerated such behavior still requires investigation.But their icy silence has a purpose: it is intended to intimidate, to put victims and whistleblowers in their place. You are, from their point of view, just a keeper of sycamores.Outside the Church such failure to respond would be completely unacceptable. It would be regarded as piling further abuse onto people who have already been traumatized.Church authorities need to adopt a universal set of standards that govern precisely when, and in what form, they will respond when allegations are made.These standards should be written with the help of lay Catholics who have experience supporting and protecting whistleblowers in secular society.If my own views were sought, I’d recommend that any Church official to whom an allegation of misconduct is sent acknowledge it within twenty-four hours and then come up with an initial plan for addressing it within three days.This would demonstrate that the allegation is of urgent importance to the Church.I also recommend that whistleblowers feel no shame about bringing their grievances to the press when they have exhausted internal processes and met with either active resistance or indifference.Many of the faithful now recognise the internal machinations of the hierarchy and its tendency to suppress damaging revelations as akin to the omertà of organized crime gangs.The authorities would do well to heed a presentation given by Archbishop Charles Scicluna on February 21, 2019.Though talking specifically about clerical child abuse, his comments apply more widely: “As shepherds of the Lord’s flock, we should not underestimate the need to confront ourselves with the deep wounds inflicted on victims of sex abuse by members of the clergy. They are wounds of a psychological and spiritual nature that need tending with care.”Church must support whistleblowers rather than to impugn their motivesLet’s talk about the ethics of whistleblowing.Ethical decision-making is about measuring actions against often competing principles. In the O’Brien case I found myself having to assess whether going public would do more to help the Church than to hurt it.And I had to search myself. Was there a residual hunger for revenge motivating me? In the end that process of discernment led me to the ancient principles of justice (righting wrongs) and veracity (telling the truth, like Amos).When those are the real motivations, then whistleblowing must be seen as an ethical action, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the wider organization.Until recently, too many bishops justified moving priests known to have abused children to different parishes on the grounds that the highest priority was to avoid scandalizing the faithful.If we are to put that mindset permanently behind us, then our default as a Church must be to support whistleblowers rather than to impugn their motives.Since the publication of my book, Cardinal Sin: Challenging Power Abuse in the Catholic Church, I have been approached by a number of laypeople and priests who have told me that the archdiocese O’Brien once led is now rife with bullying, intimidation, and clericalism.It would appear one kind of abuse of power has been replaced by another. The bullying of “lower” clergy by other clergy higher up the ladder is not new, but it is seldom discussed.Though less conventionally scandalous than the sexual abuse of seminarians and younger priests, it nevertheless creates a toxic environment for those in ministry.Seven years after the O’Brien case became public, the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) reported the findings of its independent audit into the safeguarding of children and adults in the Archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh.The report concludes: “While there are clear improvements in the processes, there has not been the same progress in achieving a rebuilding of trust and relationships to allow a safeguarding culture to flourish.”The archdiocese appears to have rejected a God-given opportunity to replace a culture of hypocrisy with one of humility.Some diocesan processes have improved, thanks to the input of skilled laypeople, yet calls for greater transparency in governance have gone unanswered.The report that sealed O’Brien’s fate, written following an investigation by Archbishop Scicluna, has never been shared with the victims of O’Brien’s abuse.This stands in stark contrast to the comprehensive report on McCarrick, which was released to the public. The Church can be transparent, but in the O’Brien case, it doesn’t want to be.In this, we see the same mean culture of self-preservation that led to so many cover-ups and quiet reassignments.I have no doubt this culture extends well beyond the Archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh. Why wouldn’t it? One priest, choosing his words carefully, told me, “It’s evil, Brian. That’s the only word I have to describe it.”Members of the laity who have skills in these matters should be commissioned to work with bishops’ conferences to produce clear, binding policies on whistleblowing and inter-clergy bullying, just as they have for safeguarding.However, we all know that bad institutional cultures eat new policies as a snack. The culture that pervades the Church remains too often one of over-deference to clerical power.And that cannot be left to fester.It is deeply un-Christian and will undermine the real procedural progress that has been made. Whistleblowers in the Catholic Church must never be punished for following their prophetic calling.Bishops—and those they choose to appoint to senior positions—who try to punish whistleblowers must be investigated by the Holy See and subject to formal due process.The motu proprio Vos estis leaves operational choices to the diocese, “and these may differ according to various cultures and local conditions.”This is a prudent position since, as a Commonweal editorial argued, “In places where Catholics are a persecuted minority, [the automatic reporting of priests to the police] would do little to ensure justice—and perhaps put the lives of priests at risk” (“Francis Follows Through,” May 16, ,2019).However, such local discretion needs constant and independent audit. We can no longer trust bishops to mark their own homework.I’m an Irish Scot. We use the word “minding” a lot. “Who’s going to mind the child?” or “Who’ll mind the place when I’m dead?” It means “caring” or “nurturing.”In a Church that often seems to be teetering on the brink of irrelevance, we must ask the laity to help “mind” the Church. To really nurture and care for it.This means being very brave in our faith. It means standing up to the bishops who have poisoned the well we Catholics drink from. It means adopting a stance akin to that of the civil-rights movement. Unhealthy cultures must not go unchallenged.As Pope Francis wrote in his “Letter to the People of God” in August 2018: “[The victims’] outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence it, or [that] sought even to resolve it, by decisions that increased its gravity by falling into complicity. The Lord heard that cry and once again showed us on which side he stands.”Brian Devlin is author of the recently published Cardinal Sin: Challenging Power Abuse in the Catholic Church (Columba Books). He left the priesthood following the ordination of Keith O’Brien as archbishop of St. Andrew’s and Edinburgh. He went on to become director of corporate affairs in a National Health Service Board in Scotland.This article first appeared in Commonweal Magazine
Benjamin M. Friedman is a macroeconomist at Harvard who has nurtured a lifelong interest in intellectual history.
I was personally affected by his stature within the discipline seven years ago.
I had invited him, eighteen months ahead of time, to participate in a conference on what social scientists had to say about the common good. He agreed, provided that another, yet-to-be-scheduled lecture did not interfere.
Once scheduled, it did. The other lecture was to the Bank for International Settlements, based in Basel, Switzerland.
Don’t try to open an account there. It’s the organization of heads of the world’s central banks—and they were turning to Friedman for advice.
My misfortune was Europe’s gain.
He reminded the central bankers of how Germany had received several rounds of debt relief after World War II despite criticisms of interwar German fiscal irresponsibility. He thereby helped to soften the German central bank’s harsh stand against debt relief for Greece, Spain, and elsewhere.
Friedman borrows the title for this splendid new book from a famous 1926 work by R. H. Tawney. Both an historian and a crusader for social justice, Tawney lamented the loss of moral criteria in humanity’s rush to increase the GDP. Friedman restricts his book to the history of ideas, though these certainly have implications for life more generally.
The book makes a wonderfully novel claim about the influence of religion on the unreligious genius of Adam Smith.
Today, when so many have come to believe the historical error that science developed in opposition to religion, Friedman’s argument is refreshing. First, consider Friedman’s account of Smith’s achievement. He did for economic life what Isaac Newton had done for physics.
Newton, who died when Smith was a toddler, had transformed science by a theory of the physical world based on fundamental principles. Smith aimed to do the same for our understanding of the social world.
His Theory of Moral Sentiments addressed the innate connections among humans, while his more famous Wealth of Nations presented a theory—founded on fundamental principles about human life—to explain both daily economic intercourse and long-term growth in economic prosperity.
The most basic principle he relied on was “the natural effort of every individual to better his own condition.” This effort generates “a propensity to truck, barter, and exchange,” which in turn leads to “the division of labor” (specialization), whereby people produce what they’re best at and trade for the rest of what they consume. And with specialization, people not only become even better at what they do but often invent machines that further increase their efficiency, raising their incomes while lowering prices for others. The wealth of a nation rises with the prosperity of its citizens. This fundamental principle is rooted in the self-interest—”self-love” is Smith’s term—of both producers and consumers.
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Yet consumers need not worry about the power of producers, as long as competition exists. The baker can’t charge too high a price, or we’ll just buy our bread from another baker down the street. Here, Friedman indicates, was a theory of Newtonian character, based on simple first principles, that made descriptive sense of a very complicated economic life.
As Friedman puts it, “Smith invoked no external influence, no mysterious change in human nature or behavior.”
So how was religion involved? There are four steps in Freidman’s argument.
The first concerns the nature of the most fundamental scientific insights. Friedman relies on a variety of highly respected scientists who have explained the importance of a larger view of the world in scientific discovery.
He quotes Einstein on the importance of a “worldview,” even for physicists: “Scientific thought is a development of pre-scientific thought.”
What’s true for physics was true for the birth of modern economics.
The second step is to recognize the slowly evolving eighteenth-century conviction that self-interest can generate a larger good. Bernard Mandeville’s “Fable of the Bees” (1705) presented this view in raucous doggerel verse.
Others in the eighteenth century observed the unintended consequences of much of human action.
But no one before Smith presented a theory for why this happens.
This theory came to be known by the image of “the invisible hand.” In Friedman’s words, “individual pursuit of self-interest channeled by market competition leads to unintended consequences of more general benefit.”
The influence of neo-Calvinism on Smith’s worldview
The third step of Friedman’s argument focuses on a transformation of Scottish Calvinism. British Protestantism generated the Westminster Confession (1646), which affirmed the basics of classic Calvinist theology: the total depravity of human nature after the Fall and God’s predestination of each individual, such that a life of sin could not cause the damnation of one who before birth was chosen for salvation, nor could a life of virtue save another who was not.
The late seventeenth-century Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius began a shift within Calvinism by proposing that an act of human will was involved in receiving God’s undeserved grace: one of the elect could reject God’s plan for his salvation.
Friedman precisely traces these debates, interwoven with irruptions in British political history.
The upshot was that eighteenth-century Scottish Calvinist intellectuals came to endorse three new ideas: the natural goodness of man, the efficacy of human freedom, and human happiness as a goal of creation, along with the glorification of God.
The final step of this argument is that Adam Smith was influenced by this neo-Calvinist worldview even though he didn’t share it.
Smith said almost nothing about his own religious beliefs. The few scattered references to a higher being in his writings indicate that he was at most a Deist. His best friend, David Hume, was openly disdainful of religious faith, a fact that kept him from ever holding a faculty appointment. The influence of neo-Calvinism on Smith’s worldview occurred, Friedman argues, because of the integration in Smith’s day of all the strands of intellectual life that are now kept separate in the various disciplinary departments of a modern university. Educated men from all walks of life used to meet together weekly over early afternoon “dinner” in social clubs. Smith was a founding member of the most prestigious of these in Edinburgh, the Select Society, which included Hume, but also five Church of Scotland ministers. Conversations at such dining clubs were wide-ranging and, Friedman argues, Smith would undoubtedly have been part of the lively discussions going on about shifts in the prevailing theology.
Religious confidence in the effects of human efforts for self-improvement was in the air. As Friedman puts it, “Smith and his contemporaries were secularizing the essential substance of their clerical friends’ theological principles.”
Deft and precise
The remainder of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism focuses on issues in the United States, tracing similar trends in Calvinist thinking and the influence of religion on economics. It is well known to historians but not to many others (including economists) that most of the founders of the American Economic Association were committed Christians aiming to implement the Social Gospel in economic life. Today, the 23,000-member AEA is thoroughly secular.
As Thomas Kuhn pointed out, mature sciences have well-developed paradigms and are rarely influenced substantially by outside intellectual forces. Friedman recounts a fascinating history of the American debate on the economic implications of Christian faith that I don’t have the space to summarize here. Friedman concludes with the shift in the United States from a nineteenth-century identification of much of Christianity with progressive economic policies to the post–World War II alliance between conservative Christianity and conservative economic policies.
He explains how, for example, so many ordinary citizens today with no hope of leaving a bequest to their own children nevertheless oppose inheritance taxes on the wealthy.
This is an excellent book, destined to be discussed widely. Friedman’s claim about Adam Smith is that “the time was ripe for new thinking on self-interest,” and religious developments were part of that ripening.
The evidence for this influence of religion on the father of modern economics is, admittedly, circumstantial. But, of course, this is what makes Freidman’s claim so impressive. If there were textual evidence for it, someone would have made the argument a century ago. The synthesis that Friedman attributes to Smith may be grander than Smith himself was aware of. In the chapter where Smith argues that self-love motivates the daily economic services offered by butchers and bakers, he does not claim that competition will protect the consumer from their greed. Friedman makes this claim for him—as I do each time I teach the history of economics—and the claim is central to any moral approval of the market system. But we do need to ask why Smith doesn’t bother to say this. Three hundred pages later, Smith observes that “the freer and more general the competition,” the greater will be “the advantage to the public.” But this occurs as the final sentence of a forty-page chapter on money and banking, which isn’t the place to catch the reader’s attention concerning the larger question.
We may have to admit that despite our interest in the moral legitimation of the market system, and the importance of competition for that purpose, it just wasn’t a significant concern for Smith himself.
Friedman’s account of developments in Protestant theology is deft and precise.
Catholic readers will recognize in it a move away from some of the fundamentals of the Protestant Reformation back toward a Catholic view of creation, personhood, and grace. Those familiar with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age will enjoy Friedman’s analysis of the shifts in Calvinism as part of the long road to today’s secular individualism that Taylor outlines from the twelfth century onward.
This is a pathbreaking book. It will satisfy those interested in the role of religion in the modern world as well as those who simply want to better understand the history of ideas that have brought us to where we are today. Friedman has done both religion and economics a great service.
Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
Benjamen M. Friedman
$37.50 | 560 pp.Daniel K. Finn teaches economics and Christian ethics at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict and is the director of the True Wealth of Nations research project at the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies.This article first appeared in Commonweal Magazine