CounterEconomy/5 - And the society of "civil merchandising" gradually became a permanent job
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 02/04/2023
"Search as you might, you will never find any other idea in the Counter-Reformation than this: that the Catholic Church was a highly salutary institution, and therefore to be preserved and strengthened."
Benedetto Croce, History of the Baroque age in Italy (Storia della età barocca in Italia)
We must start by looking precisely at the age of Counter-Reformation if we want to understand the differences between Nordic, Protestant and our form of capitalism.
We know perfectly well that it is difficult to understand capitalism without going through the Protestant Reformation and its "spirit". We are somewhat less aware of the fact that we also need to look at the Catholic Counter-Reformation, as the theological, social, ethical and pastoral forms of the Catholic response to Luther's Reform had very important effects in the way of understanding and doing business in Italy and in other Catholic countries, as we will see in the coming pages.
Luther's Reformation was the most serious and important crisis in the history of Christianity, its effects were much heavier and more pervasive than those of the first West-East schism were. The Church of Rome saw a concrete possibility of its own dissolution in what was happening in Germany. That revolt did not only feature heresy and a schism: there was a radical criticism of the form that Christianity had assumed in the Roman and Italian Church which in Luther’s eyes was seriously wrong, at times even diabolical. The popes and many bishops understood the enormous theological and ethical significance of that German crisis and were greatly frightened. A radical defence strategy arose from this fear on all fronts, which, it must be said was highly effective, even if the human cost was very high. The Inquisition, the Jesuits and other new religious orders, as well as private aural confession, the index of forbidden books, the return to the past, the Council of Trent, the renewal of priestly training and the evangelization of rural dwellers were all powerful means and part of this defence. On a purely theological level, Luther had attacked some of the main pillars of the ecclesial building. The claim of salvation by "grace alone" and not by works, undermined the whole practice and market of indulgences, pilgrimages and jubilees, which had developed during the last phase of the Middle Ages and were also the fulcrum of the functioning political and economic life of the Roman Church.
The Counter-Reformation was therefore above all a reaction, and this "reactionary" nature conditioned its entire theology and practice. Thus, while conscience and its free examination were at the centre of Luther's reforming action, the counter-reforming action was focused on the role of ecclesiastical authority and its criteria of truth external to the person, based on objective hierarchies of merits and of faults. Born from the primary need to refute the new heretical doctrines to block their spread, the season of the Counter-Reformation resulted in an extraordinary creation of a series of sins, prohibitions, anathemas, and therefore in a complex system for identifying the symptoms of error and of heresy nestled in the human soul, sometimes even without its knowledge. The external forum was managed by the Inquisition, while the internal forum was managed by the confessors, two complementary forums that became the main instruments of that catholicity.
Then there is an ethical aspect that continues to seem paradoxical. If it is true that the theology of the Counter-Reformation was a reaction to that of the Reformation, we would also have expected a reaction to the radical Augustinianism of Luther (a former Augustinian monk) and to his anthropological pessimism, and therefore a greater trust in the moral capacities of men, in the Catholic world. If only for the sake of consistency with Thomas, who in the meantime had become an absolute point of reference for Catholicism and who, compared to Augustine, had a more positive outlook on human nature and on our capacity for good despite the original sin. Instead, when we read up on the theology and practice of the Counter-Reformation we find an exasperation of the culture of guilt, a pastoral action based on the management of sins through a great diffusion in the masses of the sacrament of private confession of very detailed sins in terms of "type and quantity" and thus multiplied to infinity. We also find a revival of Purgatory, a general anguish in view of Hell, as well as macabre dances and baroque churches filled with skulls and skeletons.
If we then start leafing through the "Manual for Confessors" (I have collected several), which began to multiply (reaching as far as Vatican II) from the mid-sixteenth century, we will most probably be amazed by the spectacle of a whole constellation of sins, which had become their very own science, making the collections of Roman and medieval canonists pale in comparison. Guido De Ruggiero wrote about this: «Morality becomes a matter of a mechanical classification of each single case in the appropriate class, and the question regarding the more or less exact suitability of one in the other takes the name of scruple, forming a kind of fictitious moral aura around the merely peripheral action, devoid of any intimacy... Hence, the creation of specialized guides, directors and confessors, capable of orienting an individual in the fantastic labyrinth». An «exceptional legalistic ability is developed, to adapt the case to the law and perhaps, sometimes, to evade it». Faced with a Reformation that denied any extrinsic spiritual direction of consciences and conceived penance (which nonetheless remained in Luther) as a total renewal of life, «the casuistry mentality of the Counter-Reformation instead reaffirms the sacramental character of confession» whose application became increasingly frequent during the course of the year (De Ruggiero, Renaissance, Reform and Counter-Reformation, Laterza, 1947, pp. 198-199).
The diffusion and intensification of aural confession was therefore a central step. The new confessor created by the new religious orders of the Counter-Reformation was formed by theologians (especially the Jesuits) and passed under the jurisdiction of the bishops – previously, confession was almost monopolized by Franciscan and Dominican monks and friars. The confessor became the "doctor of the soul" who must be capable of recognizing the moral illness beyond the always imperfect anamnesis of the penitent-patient: «The devil uses a thousand ingenuities to make confession more difficult... So you shall open communication with a penitent individual as follows: “You have heard bad speeches and have had bad thoughts, have you not?”. If he or she deny them, take their negations as affirmations. Go on and say two or three more times: "You have lingered with pleasure on these bad thoughts, have you not?" Even if they say no, continue…» (Abbot Gaume, Confessors’ Manual, p. 49). Much attention is given to the treatment of recidivist sinners: «How can one absolve a penitent sinner used to saying bad words six times a day or even more than ten times a day? He said that almost once a day every eight days and … has he not relapsed more than three times during those eight days? Etc. etc.» (Abate Gaume, Manual for confessors, p. 269).
Hence, when it comes to the confession of a merchant and workers of various types, it is important for us: «If a merchant comes, ask him if he charges more when selling on credit, and if retail merchandise can be charged more... If a tailor comes, ask him if he worked during holidays to finish the clothes without any extraordinary reason, if he kept the scraps of the fabrics, and if it is a near occasion for him to sin when taking the measurements of women... If a barber arrives, enjoin him to find a woman who knows how to style people’s hair, because women will never turn to a man to have their hair styled, Etc. etc.» (A. Gaume, Manual for confessors, pp. 160-161). The parish priests then had to create parish lists with the "non-confessed" (those who did not confess). Everyone in church could see who left the confessional without doing communion, so sins that remained non-absolved ended up leaving the strictly internal sphere becoming a public fact and knowledge.
It is not difficult to understand,therefore, how this use of confession fueled a tendency towards developing double standards, a systematic recourse to lying and not telling the truth. Penitent individuals were strongly encouraged not to tell the truth to their confessors, in part because the confessional was the last offshoot of the Inquisition: «He told me that when one goes before the confessor one must only say what one wants him to know and then expect a Jubilee because one’s sins are forgiven» (Donna Olimpia Campana, Modena, 1600, quoted in A. Prosperi, A passive revolution (Una rivoluzione passiva), p. 275).
Thus, finally we arrive at the matter of economy. In order to stem the deleterious effects of the freedom of conscience not mediated by the clerics, the Council of Trent forcefully reaffirmed the ancient economic and financial prohibitions that Scholasticism had overcome between the 1200s and 1500s. The moralists went out of their way to find usury in those contracts (exchange letters, commendations, insurances…), which had been invented by the merchants to avoid the formal prohibition of usury. More than three centuries worth of civilization and economic and juridical wealth went up in smoke in those confessionals and Italy and the Latin countries consequently found themselves with a more backward economic-financial set of ethics, compared to that of the Franciscan friars who had worked so hard to establish that not all loans were usurious in nature.
This proliferation of controlling measures and casuistry of sins ended up producing a series of highly relevant phenomena. A distance and mutual distrust was created between the business world and the Church. The merchants continued to give alms to the Church, financing processions and patronal feasts and they went to confession once a year by telling the priest what they could say. They remained within the enclosure of the church but sent their wives and daughters to actual religious services (thus, the "feminization" of the Catholic Church was born). The double economic and civil morality was strengthened: that of the things that can be said to the authorities, and that of the other things that you do not tell anyone. The idea arises from the impossibility of respecting all the complex and infinite laws of economic and social life, where only those who tell part of the truth can truly survive and where only stupid people would tell the whole truth - «Taxes? I pay them, of course I do, a little: paying all of them is impossible», an entrepreneur told me a few days ago.
Hence, people lived and worked in an ordinary state of imperfection, while that very same religious and social system that offered closure. The Church was aware of the impossibility of implementing those individual control mechanisms, due to failures both on the supply-side (the priests were not well-prepared enough) and on the demand-side (the faithful). Therefore, that same Church decided to introduce or resume ordinary and extraordinary plenary indulgences, jubilees, holy years, pardons and pilgrimages that served to erase unconfessed sins. This is the very deep root of the Catholic "culture" of amnesties: private sins and lies that were paid for in public with instruments designed and desired by the very institution that was suffering the transgressions.
Finally, another equally serious side effect was the estrangement of the profession of being a merchant from that ars mercatoria that had made Italy great until the Renaissance. Why should I carry out a job, already risky in itself, which is regularly examined in its smallest religious details, which enjoys a bad reputation ("dung of the devil"), forcing me to tell lies every day, even to God? I had better dedicate myself to the liberal professions (lawyer, notary), better yet, a military or ecclesiastical career, and best of all, public service. Something similar to what happened to the theology happened to Catholic economy: why risk being condemned to the stake by being a theologian, better devote yourself to music or the arts, or to economic science, as did Antonio Genovesi, who after being condemned as a theologian became the first European economist in 1754.
Thus, the Italy of "civil merchandising", which had served to make our municipal cities stupendous, gradually became the Italy of permanent employment.