From the beginning of the first forms of capitalism in northern Italy, Flanders, and other parts of medieval Europe from the eleventh century onward, many of the merchants involved in increasingly sophisticated forms of finance wrote inscriptions such as Deus enim et proficuum (“For God and Profit”) in the upper corners of their accounting ledgers. Others opened their partnership contracts with the formula such as A nome di Dio e guadangnio (“In the Name of God and Profit”).
One of the most accomplished scholars of this period, the Belgian economic historian Raymond de Roover, insisted that such mottos were neither “an expression of cynicism” nor “a sign of materialism.” Instead, these words reflected their authors’ conviction that banking and finance were economically useful endeavors, and that in pursuing profit they were in some way giving glory to God by helping to unfold the full potential of the universe He had created.
Luis Molina, S.J., and the many other Christians who explored these areas throughout history were not searching for greater marketplace efficiencies. Their concern was moral. They analyzed the decisions that people made in finance to see which actions were morally upright and which fell short of the demands of Christian truth.
As important side effects, such studies helped to identify key features of money, clarified how interest worked as a means of calibrating risk, and increased knowledge of the true nature of capital, exploring how it could be used to generate wealth. Nonetheless, Christians were – and must continue to be – primarily concerned with the morality of different choices in finance.
Such an approach differs from that of most people studying finance today. Their focus is on seeking to understand and critique contemporary financial practices in order to improve the ability of financial systems to generate wealth and realize particular policy goals. In doing so, these scholars have discovered a great deal about how modern finance functions — knowledge that should be just as helpful for Christians exploring these areas as the findings of scientific research have assisted Christians engaged in medical ethics.
Where the approach of faithful Christians differs from most secular approaches to finance is that Christians cannot accept appeals to expediency or utility maximization as the decisive criterion for making moral decisions. The author of one of the few modern studies of finance from a Christian standpoint, the late Thomas Divine, S.J., stressed this point. The potential for exploitation of borrowers by lenders, Father Divine argued, was dramatically reduced in the conditions of a competitive market for capital precisely because borrowers were no longer at the mercy of one or two lenders. Yet Divine didn’t hesitate to affirm, “If the springs of interest are tainted in their source, then no amount of social welfare that interest may promote can avail to purify that source.” Divine understood — just as figures such as St. Paul, St. Basil, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and more recently, C.S. Lewis did — that the very stability of orthodox Christian ethics lies in its unambiguous affirmation that there are exceptionless moral absolutes: that is, there are things that may never be done, no matter how much social welfare they may promote.
This doesn’t mean that Christians cannot reflect on the foreseeable consequences of a given action. It is entirely legitimate for a Christian to note how short-selling can improve the process of pricing, or to be attentive to inflation’s discernible effects on different social groups. There are also many instances in which we may reasonably measure the foreseeable consequences and efficiency of alternative choices. As the moral philosopher John Finnis notes, one such context is a market for those things that may legitimately be exchanged and in which a common denominator (i.e., money) allows appraisals of costs and benefits.
Christians studying finance can’t, however, fall into the trap of thinking that it is acceptable to intentionally choose evil in order to realize good. That way of moral choosing and acting was specifically condemned by St. Paul (Rom. 3:8) and the entire orthodox Christian tradition. Moreover, Finnis cautions, making the assessment of calculations the primary points of moral reference is deeply irrational because it assumes the impossible: that humans can know and weigh all the known and unknown consequences of particular actions or rules.
This article was excerpted from Samuel Gregg’s new book, For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (Crossroad Publishing Co., 2016).