Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Catholic and Puritan Conception of Work and Money

Two young girls walking through snowy forest grounds
Winter Morning Walk (1864) by George Henry Boughton

The Catholic religion has contributed to our concept of work through the establishment of monastic orders in the Middle Ages. Although work at the time was reserved to mostly monks and religious devotees, they did, however, organize their labor by following an established routine with a tremendous amount of discipline.

Of course, their work had different aims and objectives than it does today. Monks wanted to glorify God through their diligent efforts. Whether they engaged in botany or medicinal research, or the transcription of books with which they preserved knowledge for future generations, the monks did it all for the glory of God and did not expect any material rewards in return.

The main reason Catholics did not believe in monetary values or expect anything in return for their efforts was that they believed that everything in the world was ephemeral and of the body, and hence not important for the salvation of the soul. This had a significant impact on their perception of and relationship with work.

Since St. Augustine, there has been a clear division between the eternal, spiritual, divine world of God and the transitory, ordinary human world. The eyes of every devout Catholic had been on the afterlife; in the meantime, one had to submit to this life and bear its challenges and sufferings. Anything regarding this world lacked value except what touched on the development and growth of the spirit. Money was seen as temptation and an unwanted and undesired invitation for sloth, lust and sensual gratification and should be avoided at all costs.

Although St. Augustine had also developed the idea of divine grace, that it is ultimately God's predetermined decision of who was allowed to reach heaven, regardless of their acts and behavior in this life, the Catholic Church preferred to follow the precepts of free will, namely that salvation was something to be earned through good deeds and the building of constant resistance against temptations. In other words, the Catholic was not interested in making money, which was worthless to him, but wanted rather to gain points within God's scoring system.

Whenever the devout should stray from the path, be it an accident or a temporary lapse of reason, there was always the opportunity to obtain penance and forgiveness via the intermediary of God, the priest. During confession, sinners had a chance to repent their deeds and to return to the righteous path, mainly thanks to the priest's -- and by extension God's -- forgiveness.

Two observations are essential here. First, salvation lay in one's hands and within reach, and certain slips were allowed, as long as repentance followed. Any person, even saints for that matter – I am looking at you St. Augustine – were given a second (or third and fourth ad infinitum) chance, if they truly felt sorry for their actions. A Hail Mary and a good deed here and there ensured that the reputed sinner made amends with the spiritual and divine world.

The fact that one is given the option to make up for errors helps one develop a less tense or more relaxed attitude. It does not mean that one engages in illicit behavior, yet there is a remedy at-hand and deep down one is assured that God in his infinite wisdom and kindness will understand and forgive our follies.

Not so with the Puritan lifestyle with its Protestant and Calvinist influences. The Puritan is more pessimistic toward life, which is nothing but empty time filled with spiritual traps and temptation. And more importantly, the Puritan is left to his own devices. There is no magical cleansing ritual, no Catholic priest to absolve his sins. On the contrary, any sins are there to taint his soul forever and to risk God's eternal condemnation.

In fact, God is watching every step and thought, and nothing can be held secret from His eyes. God is tough like in the Old Testament, and he wants the Puritan to be tough on himself. Any sign of weakness could seriously diminish the chances of an afterlife, while second chances are for the weak, unrestrained and undisciplined. God demands more of his Puritan folk.

This may explain why Puritans were so “anti-life.” They may have even despised this life that offers nothing but pitfalls for their souls. They rather chose to congregate among their own people to stave off wrongdoing and sinful thoughts; they wanted to prevent "negative" or "harmful" ideas from entering their minds. Their education was built on lessons of being strong and tough. Where the Catholic's life was based on deeds, the Puritan's focus was on a rational mode, focus or plan for life that ensured no missteps whatsoever.

As a result, the most important characteristics in life were hard work and diligence. They had a lot of discipline and led a frugal life. They cut down on sleep because one should only sleep the amount of time that is necessary. They led a life of rigorous self-examination and believed in a hierarchical order of the family. Children ought to obey their parents and wives their husbands.

Yet most interestingly, they had a fatalistic notion about salvation. In their eyes, God had already made his selection and only the elite had been chosen by Him. The problem lay in the fact that nobody knew for sure whether they were among the chosen or not. So they looked for signs. If a person led a commendable and faultless life, they believed that he must have been touched and blessed by the Holy Spirit. 
This furthered the thought that anyone successful in one's life and undertakings must have had divine approval. Economic success and money were not sought after for their intrinsic values, but rather as an embodiment and concrete expression of one's spiritual status and was generally used for the betterment of the community. As such, in the words of Max Weber, the spirit of capitalism had found its fertile ground in this Puritan worldview.

When we look at the two views side by side, we may notice that the first had a more relaxed and even detached attitude, whereas the second was more uptight, with its followers always on their toes like nervous Samurais roaming the dangerous and perfidious streets. Their sense of paranoia may have led the Puritans to work even harder and, paradoxically, become physically richer in this transitory world.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Even though your focus is on economics, you have touched upon two fine examples of "Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men." {Isaiah 29:13 NIV}. For the Catholic way is all about earning one's keep while the Puritan way is all about fear of destruction.

Both of those ways are refuted in one passage. For it truly is as it is written: For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. {Ephesians 2:8-10 NAS}