Benedictine economics: the Catholic work ethic and the spirit of capitalism
Benedictine ideals have attracted attention of late. There has been a reprint of John Henry Newman’s Benedictine Essays. Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option aims at a Catholic readership, and Rowan Williams’ The Way of St Benedict appeals to readers regardless of denominations. Each of these offerings has a different thrust, but all three leave an essential aspect unnoticed, namely that medieval Benedictines pioneered a new approach to business.
The first Benedictine monastery was established in the fifth century in Southern Italy in Monte Cassino, a location at some distance from urban centres. A remote setting was not an unusual choice for a monastery. In the Hellenic Mediterranean, where the monastic movement originated some centuries earlier, monks put as much distance as possible between themselves and human society. Some monks lived singly, others in clusters. The Hellenic legacy lived on in the terms for monks and cenobites; monos is Greek for alone, koinos bios for shared life.
Several centuries later, Western monasteries took their cue from Eastern Mediterranean role models also in other ways. When the first monasteries were established in Italy, their founders Cassiodorus and Pope Gregory the Great likewise preferred rural settings. Benedictines followed established practice in choice of location, but they broke with tradition in another way — they changed the attitudes of monks to work. In so doing they broke the mould of economic quietude that had persisted in both East and West.
Until then, work was not considered a meritorious activity. Eastern monks relied on alms, and if they worked at all, then only from necessity. Nor did the earliest monasteries in Italy see a need for gainful employment; Cassiodorus and Gregory were patricians who had independent incomes.
Earlier monastic constitutions, such as Basil the Great’s Longer Rules recommended monks choose “such arts as preserve the peaceable and untroubled nature of our life, needing neither much trouble to get the requisite material, nor much anxiety to sell what has been made”. The approach of the Regula Benedicti was far more enterprising. Rule 46 required monks to work “in the kitchen, in the cellar, in serving, in the bakery”.
Benedictines diverged also from Italian conventions. As patricians, Cassiodorus and Gregory thought performing manual labour was beneath them, whereas for Benedictines all work conferred dignity. Rule 48 set out the new work ethic: “Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labour at certain times, at others, in devout reading.” Benedictines strove for self-sufficiency through work, which provision launched them on an upward economic trajectory.
The Abbey of Monte Cassino operated a mill and a hospital. And as time went on, the Monte Cassino template was copied in hundreds of monasteries across Europe, a network that disseminated learning and scholarship and best practices in estate management. It was inevitable, given that their daily routine was built around work, that Benedictine monasteries turned into hives of business activity. Rule 57 encouraged monks to produce a surplus and sell it, albeit without overcharging: “As regards the prices of these things, let not the vice of avarice creep in.” The monastic familia included non-clerical members, overseen by a dedicated supervisor, the cellerar, and the staff headcount duly expanded. In the ninth century a single monastery in Paris, St Germain des Prés, was landlord to some 10,000 tenants. This was a formidable figure, even more remarkable, taking into account how small the ninth-century population of France must have been (between five and eight million).
Benedictine monasteries accumulated wealth at a faster pace than monasteries that privileged introspection and disengagement from the material world. Taken as a whole, the Regula Benedicti provided an antidote to the prevailing otherworldliness of early Christianity, and the revival of the European economy after the collapse of the Roman empire owed much to Benedictine economics.
But although the Benedictine work ethic was a catalyst for the accumulation of wealth, Benedictines all the while rejected the right to own private property. Rule 33 advocated, “Let all things be common to all, as it is written. And let no one call or take to himself anything as his own (Acts 4:32).” The example of the first community of Christians in Jerusalem who had been “of one heart and one soul”, and where members sold their estates to pay for poor relief, was indeed still deemed normative. Rule 55 castigated the “vice of private ownership”.
To modern eyes, it seems inconsistent that the Benedictines, who on the one hand encouraged productivity, on the other hand objected to private property. Over the course of several centuries, with Benedictines accumulating ever greater estates, Benedictine wealth invited accusations that they were not practising what they preached. And in due course, opposition found a powerful voice in Francis of Assisi, whose objections were to open a new chapter in the debate on the nexus between Christian ethics and economics.
Today it is hardly coincidental that the renewed interest in the Benedictine ethos comes at a time of increased public disquiet over the distribution of wealth and differentials in pay. The business model of a Benedictine monastery, with monks on near level incomes and equal respect shown for work performed in a workshop or in a library, chimes with a widely held longing or desire for a communitarian utopia. But many observers overlook the fact that the true radicalism of Benedictine economics lies elsewhere. Benedictines dismantled Christian otherworldliness and found a way to constrain private property without sacrificing productivity. Benedictine economics speaks to an age struggling to meet this very challenge.
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