Economic Origins of Christianity

From Catholic Socialism by Francesco Saverio Nitti, 1895.

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The persons whom the Gospel represents as being the first followers of Christ, were, generally speaking, poor, lowly toilers. Matthew, the only publican among the apostles, was not really a publican, but a telonarius, or tax-gatherer, a simple customs officer, who also, very probably, lived on a small daily salary.

Paul, the greatest, the most ardent of Christ's apostles, conceives, as the ideal type of a true Christian, an honest, modest, laborious workman. For him also the rich man is a parasite, for he formulates the economic law, which was destined to become, many centuries later, the fundamental principle of Socialism, " If any man will not work, neither let him eat ".

It is certain that the early Christians practised Communism, or community of goods. But even at the time of Marcus Aurelius, when this was no longer the case, the property of the faithful was but semi-property, for the Church participated in the profits as much as the proprietor, if not more.

Christianity, which had originally been a society of Ebionites, accepted the idea that if the rich man does not dis- tribute his superfluous wealth, he is withholding the property of others.In the primitive Churches, the few wealthy persons who became converts to Christianity were regarded with sus- picion ; the Gospel shut them out from the kingdom of heaven, and the poor, emboldened by the evangelical promises, treated them with singular arrogance.

In the fourth century, Christianity had become the re- ligion of the poor throughout a great part of the Roman empire ; the wealthy classes, on the contrary, still remained faithful to the old pagan worship. "And the religious conflict, transformed into economic conflict, only increased the hatred between the two naturally hostile classes.

The rich could not but look down with contempt upon persons who preached poverty and lived poorly. In a pro- clamation addressed to the Armenians, Mihir Nerseh, while dissuading them from embracing Christianity, asked how they could lend an ear to a set of beggars in rags, who prefer persons of low condition to those belonging to good families, and who are so absurd as to despise wealth. " Do you wish to know in what manner they express themselves ? " said Celsus. " Here are their words : ' Let no learned man, no sage, no man of culture, come to us ; but if there is anywhere an ignorant person, a fool, a man of nothing, let him believe in us '."

They formed, therefore, a whole people of humble, obscure toilers, following that nation of darkness, the enemy of light and day, latebrosa et lucifuga natio.

In pagan antiquity the workman was but little considered; the philosophers of Greece and Rome speak of him with scorn. In the early Christian communities, on the contrary, he began to be respected ; a lowly, quiet, pious worker, not desirous of riches, was, indeed, the ideal Christian of the apostles' dreams. Thus, on the tombs of the primitive Christians, the word worker acquires an honourable meaning. The early Christian gloried in living humbly by his own labour. On the tombs we very frequently find inscribed: Amatrix pauperum et operaria, Laborum autrix. Amicus pauperum, etc.

The people sought to win heaven through poverty. The first Christians despised wealth, considering it as the source of evil. When their religious liberty was fully assured to them, they submitted to all manner of privations and injustice. According to the primitive Church, avarice was one of the greatest crimes ; by avarice was not unfrequently meant simple hoarding or saving. Usury (and under this name was comprised every species of lending at interest) was strictly prohibited, thus rendering any large industrial undertaking impossible.

We are bound to admit that Christianity was a vast economic revolution more than anything else. The first Christians did not seek to acquire wealth ; like Christ, they sought to annihilate it. Like their Great Master, they had no conception of civil government;the religious idea so dominated them as to destroy all differences of nationality or social condition.*

The early fathers of the Church, faithful to the teachings of Christ, professed thoroughly communistic theories. They lived among communistic surroundings, and could not well have maintained theories contrary to those held by Christ and the apostles. " All is in common with us, except women," says Tertullian. St. Justin adds : " We carr>' on us all we possess, and share everything with the poor "?

It must not be forgotten that at the time of the Apologists the commercial and landed aristocracy was almost entirely pagan. Christianity was still the religion of the poor, and gathered around it poor workmen, humble toilers, and slaves.

The official world had not yet accepted the teachings of Christ. Indeed, even Marcus Aurelius, whose ideas in so many points resembled those of Christianity, with all his Stoic greatness and calm philosophy, considered the doctrines of the Christians as dangerous to the welfare and unity of the Empire.

The communistic theories of the first Apologists and early fathers of the Church are, therefore, not only the result of evangelical doctrines, but also, and above all, of the surround- ings among which it originated. When, after Constantine, Christianity became, on the contrary, the official religion, and was embraced by the rich and by members of the Government, the ecclesiastical writers manifested quite different opinions on the subject of property.

The doctrines held by the early fathers of the Church on the nature of property are perfectly uniform. They almost all admit that wealth is the fruit of usurpation, and, consider- ing the rich man as withholding the patrimony of the poor, maintain that riches should only serve to relieve the indigent ; to refuse to assist the poor is, consequently, worse than to rob the rich. 3 According to the fathers, all was in common in the beginning ; the distinctions mine and thine, in other words individual property, came with the spirit of evil.

" The soil," says St. Ambrose, " was given to rich and poor in common. Wherefore, O ye rich ! do you unjustly claim it for yourselves alone? " And in another place he says even more clearly : " Nature gave all things in common for the use of all, usurpation created private right "? " Behold," writes St. John Chrysostom, "the idea we should have of the rich and covetous : they are truly as robbers, who, standing in the public highways, despoil the passers-by ; they convert their chambers into caverns, in which they bury the goods of others." " It is no great thing," writes St. Gregory the Great, " not to rob others of their belongings, and in vain do they think themselves innocent who appropriate to their own use alone those goods which God gave in common ; by not giving to others that which they themselves received, they become homicides and murderers, inasmuch as in keeping for them- selves those things which would have alleviated the sufferings of the poor, we may say that they every day cause the death of as many persons as they might have fed and did not. When, therefore, we offer the means of living to the indigent, we do not give them anything of ours, but that which of right belongs to them. It is less a work of mercy that we perform than the payment of a debt."

" Communis vita" says St. Clement, '' fratres, omnibus necessaria est, et maxim^e his qui Deo irreprehensibiliter inilitari cupiunt, et vitam apostolorum, eorumque discipulorum imitari volunt. Communis enim usus omnium, qucs sunt in hoc mundo, omnibus esse hominibus debuit. Sed per iniquita- tem alius hoc suum esse dicit, et alius illud, et sic inter mortales facta divisio est."

For St. Augustine, property is not a natural right, but a positive right, founded simply on civil authority.

" Unhappy ones that you are ! " says St. Basil the Great, addressing the rich, " what answer will you make to the Great Judge ? You cover with tapestry the bareness of your walls, and do not clothe the nakedness of men. You adorn your steeds with most rich and costly trappings, and despise your brother who is in rags. You allow the corn in your granaries to rot or be eaten up by vermin, and you deign not even to cast a glance on those who have no bread. You hoard your wealth, and do not deign to look upon those who are worn and oppressed by necessity ! You will say to me : ' What wrong do I commit if I hoard that which is mine?' And I ask you: * Which are the things that you think belong to you ? From whom did you receive them ? You act like a man who being in a theatre, and having seized upon the places that others might have taken, seeks to prevent every one else from enter- ing, applying to his own use that which should be for the use of all.' And thus it is with the rich, who having been the first to obtain possession of those things which should be common to all, appropriate them to themselves and retain them in their possession ; for if each one took only what is necessary for his subsistence, and gave the rest to the indigent, there would be neither rich nor poor."

In his homilies, St. John Chrysostom speaks with profound contempt of the rich of Antioch and Constantinople. All that host of wealthy Epulones, living in idleness and given over to the refinements of Oriental luxury, find in him a merciless and inexorable critic.

"You received," he says to them, "your fortune by in- heritance ; so be it! Therefore, you have not sinned personally, but how know you that you may not be enjoying the fruits of theft and crime committed before you?"For St. John Chrysostom could not conceive the existence of great fortunes without admitting that they had been accumulated at the expense of thousands of workers and poor people. In his opinion wealth could be amassed only through commercial frauds, monopoly, or usury, And the richest are always the most heartless, those who drag the workers before the judg- ment seats, and to their ruin.

He never ceases from stigmatising the rich upon all occasions, and notwithstanding the persecution they carry on against him, by which they finally succeed in ruining him, and forcing him to quit Constantinople, they cannot, however, silence him or prevent him from openly declaring his aversion to wealth. One day, in speaking of the misfortune of SS. Saturninus and Aurelianus, having violently censured the rich men of the city, he exclaims : — " They say to me : ' Wilt thou never cease from speaking ill of the rich ? Still more anathemas against the rich ! ' and I answer : ' Still your hardness towards the poor ! '"

The rich men of those times reasoned very much in the same manner as do some Individualist writers of the present day. "The poor," they said, "deserve their lot. They are idlers who do not even wish to work ; noxious parasites whom it would be better to do away with. Some of them are simply beggars, who speculate on people's kindness of heart. No," they added, "God does not love the poor, for if He loved them He would remedy their misery."

But to these objections St. John Chrysostom replied with most severe accusations. " You say that the poor do not work," he cries to the rich, "but do you work yourselves? Do you not enjoy in idleness the goods you have unjustly in- herited ? Do you not exhaust others with labour, while you enjoy in indolence the fruit of their misery ? "*

An infinity of citations might be given on the subject, for almost all the fathers of the Church, up to the seventh century, considered Communism as the most perfect and most Christian form of social organisation.

Usury, by which, like Christ, they meant simple lending at interest, was, according to them, a capital offence. And it was precisely these theories of credit, which, by arresting the development of commercial exchange, formed a barrier to the progress of all industry, and became for several centuries a cause of misery.

According to St. Jerome, " opulence is always the result of theft, if not committed by the actual possessor, then by his predecessors". For St. Clement private property is the fruit of iniquity. St. Basil considers the rich man as a thief, and St. John Chrysostom insists on the necessity of restoring at all costs community of goods. According to St. Augustine, private property originated in usurpation, etc.

Such maxims have, moreover, left profound traces in the Canon Law. In the Corpus Juris Canonici, private property is also considered as an evil, since, according to Divine Law, all things are common to men, as air and light.

Similar theories could be received by the Church, when it was but the refuge of the poor, the asylum of the helpless, when community of goods was more or less practised. But when Christianity became the official religion, and was adopted as a social necessity, even by the rich, even by those who up to the last had continued in the old Pagan worship, it became necessary to mitigate the evangelical doctrines on property. Thus, while the discussion over individual property was still waging, we see Clement of Alexandria, in his treatise, Quis divis salvetur? strive to conciliate the teachings of the Gospel with the economic needs of his time.

The interpretation given by Clement of Alexandria is a specimen of perfect sophistry, such as could only be con- ceived in the mind of an Alexandrian writer, and in open contradiction to all that had been written and taught by the fathers of the Church. Changing the meaning of the parable of Dives and Lazarus, Clement says : — " Our Lord does not, as some suppose, command the rich man to throw away his possessions, but to cast from his heart the love of gold, with all those cares and preoccupations that stifle the germ of life. . . . What new thing, then, does the Son of God teach us in this? Not an exterior act, such as many have performed, but something higher, more perfect, and more Divine, the rooting out of passions from the soul itself, and the renunciation of all that is alien to its nature. Man may rid himself of his earthly goods, and yet cupidity and the desire of wealth be none the less active within him ; he will thus be exposed to double affliction, regretting at the same time his prodigality and his misery. . . . How could works of charity be performed among men, if no one possessed the means of giving alms ? If the teaching of our Lord had this meaning, it would be in evident contradiction to many of His glorious doctrines.

Worldly goods should be considered as materials and instruments to be used for pious purposes, to be turned to good account by those who know how to employ them skilfully."

Are not these the first attempts made to adapt Christian doctrines to the requirements of the times, and to social in- stitutions ? Do we not find in Clement's words the germ of ideas which were to become, many ages later, the basis of Catholic social doctrines ?

By the Canon Law, economic activity, like all worldly activity, was considered as an evil : Negotium negat otium, neque qucerit veram quietem, quce est Deus !Such maxims as these, which taught that poverty is a holy thing, and accept- able to God, tended naturally to increase the great number of donations made to the Church. During the middle ages these donations contributed greatly to augment the vast wealth of the Church, whose duty it was to relieve the poor.

It was not until the thirteenth century, when the Church was already immensely rich, that ecclesiastical writers appeared openly maintaining the right of property. Thus we find St. Thomas Aquinas endeavouring to conciliate Aristotle's con- servative doctrines on property with the Communistic teach- ings of the Gospel and the fathers of the Church of the second, third, and fourth centuries.

The Church was not only obliged to gradually repudiate its original teachings, but was forced, after long struggles, to exclude from the fold those who obstinately maintained them.

Pelagius, who, in the time of Aurelius Augustinus (St. Augustine), denied the possibility of conciliating individual property with the Christian ideal ; the mendicant orders, who denied the right of property, Christ and the apostles having never possessed any ; * Wycliffe, Huss, Jean Petit, the Ana- baptists,etc., did nothing beyond making vain efforts to restore the theories of the Gospel regarding property. If their disputes were almost always of a religious nature, they never- theless invariably bore an economic character as well. It should not be forgotten that during the middle ages all questions were discussed under a theological aspect. Thus, when the Mendicant Friars declared that Christ and the apostles had never possessed anything, they dealt a heavy blow at the solidity of the right of property, which they considered as an evil, and essentially contrary to Christian perfection. We may, consequently, and without any fear of exaggeration, affirm that most of the great schisms and conflicts by which the Catholic Church has been torn, were simply economic conflicts.

Yet, even when, through social necessity, the Church was obliged to defend the system of individual property against the radical tendencies of the monks of the minor orders, she considered the assistance of the poor as a debitU7n legale. "We must not," observes Roscher, "consider the assistance of the poor practised by the Church as of purely spontaneous origin. Saint Thomas Aquinas calls it debitum legale; the rich were obliged to give to the poor, but this obhgation was not of a political character, it was purely religious."Amidst the splendours of the court of Louis XIV., Bossuet, in his emphatic manner, very justly declared that "the Church in her early constitution had been founded for the poor alone, and they are the true citizens of that fortunate city, which the Scriptures call the City of God ".

If we consider the teachings of the Gospel, the communistic origins of the Church, the socialistic tendencies of the early fathers, and the traditions of Canon Law, we cannot wonder that at the present day Socialism should count no small number of its adherents among Catholic writers.