When did capitalism develop? Some say during the Enlightenment; others, the Reformation. Careful students of history, however, are more circumspect, observing that capitalist trends pre-date the Enlightenment and Reformation by centuries.
Consider the development of Western European monasticism. Pope Gregory’s endorsement of the Rule of Saint Benedict in the sixth century sparked monastic activity throughout Europe. As Paul Johnson writes in his History of Christianity, these new monasteries were filled with “highly disciplined men committed to a doctrine of hard work.” Moreover, Johnson continues, “They were literate. They knew how to keep accounts. Above all, perhaps, they worked to a daily timetable and an accurate annual calendar.” Consequently, the Benedictines transformed wilderness into well-tended farmland, pioneered advanced agricultural techniques, manufactured myriad goods, and created markets in which to sell them.
This activity only accelerated in the eleventh century with the Cistercians’ reform of the Benedictines. According to Michael Novak, the Cistercians were exemplary entrepreneurs. “They mastered rational cost accounting, plowed all profits back into new ventures, and moved capital around from one venue to another, cutting losses where necessary, and pursuing new opportunities when feasible.” And since monastic communities comprised a network transcending national and cultural boundaries—linked by canon law and the Latin language—Novak considers them “the West’s first transnational corporations.”
Why did such innovations occur in the West and not elsewhere? In no small measure, because of Christianity and Judaism—specifically, their insistence that man is created in God’s image, that manual labor possesses dignity and that man must steward the resources given to him. It is this connection between commerce and faith that the Acton Institute seeks to promote among our business and religious leaders, and I thank you for the support that enables us to do so.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico