Catholicism and Economics in the Ancient World


The infant Church was born at a time when the greatest state that the world had ever seen was attaining to its full development. And yet the whole splendid building rested on non-moral foundations — often on mere violence and cruelty.

The whole civilised world west of the Euphrates was united under a single head. The age of civil war, of social unrest, of the exploitation of the conquered peoples was at last over. Everywhere new cities were springing up, trade was flourishing and population increasing. It was 'the hour of the prince of this world,' the apotheosis of triumphant material power and wealth.

And yet the whole splendid building rested on non-moral foundations—often on mere violence and cruelty. The divine Caesar might be a Caligula or a Nero, wealth was an excuse for debauchery and the prosperity of the wealthy classes was based on the institution of slavery—not the natural household slavery of primitive civilisation, but an organised plantation-slavery which left no room for any human relation between slave and master.

The early Church could not but be conscious that she was separated by an infinite gulf from this great material order, that she could have no part in its prosperity or in its injustice. She was in this world as the seed of a new order, utterly subversive of all that had made the ancient world what it was. Yet though she inherited the spirit of the Jewish protest against the Gentile world-power, she did not look for any temporal change, much less did she attempt herself to bring about any social reform. The Christian accepted the Roman state as a God-given order appropriate to the condition of a world in slavery to spiritual darkness, and concentrated all his hopes on the return of Christ and the final victory of the supernatural order. Meanwhile he lived as a stranger in the midst of an alien world.

Thus the Christians were held to be a 'Third Race'—Tertium Genus—standing apart alike from the Gentile and from the Jew, living a hidden life which had only an external and accidental connection with the life of the heathen world around them.

This withdrawal from social life, this passive acceptance of external things as matters of no consequence, seems at first sight to prove that Christianity had no direct influence on social and economic conditions. As a matter of fact, this attitude produced the most revolutionary consequences. Ancient society and the civil religion with which it was bound up centred in a privileged citizen class, and under Roman rule citizenship was directly based on economic status: that is to say a man's position in his own city and in the empire at large was determined by his property assessment under the census. There was a constant process of competition under the early empire, by which freedmen and tradesmen became landowners, landowners raised themselves to the curia of their city, and rich provincial decurions became Roman knights and even senators.

An inner revolution

Christianity substituted membership of the Church for membership of the city as a man's fundamental and most important relationship to his fellows. In the new religious society rich and poor, bond and free, Roman citizen and foreigner, all met on an absolutely equal footing. Not only were these earthly distinctions overlooked, they were almost inverted, and it was the poor who were privileged and the rich who were humbled. This world was to the rich, but the new world—the only world that mattered—was above all the inheritance of the poor. 'Hath not God chosen the poor in this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom that God has promised to them that love Him?' says Saint James. 'But you have dishonoured the poor man' (if you have respect to persons). 'Do not the rich oppress you by might, and do not they drag you before the judgment seats? Do not they blaspheme the good name that is invoked upon you?'1

Christianity substituted membership of the Church for membership of the city as a man's fundamental and most important relationship to his fellows. In the new religious society rich and poor, bond and free, Roman citizen and foreigner, all met on an absolutely equal footing.

No external change was made in status and possession, apart from that involved in charity. Indeed the poor are expressly counselled not to seek riches, not to take part in that social competition for individual advancement which was going on all round them. But the personal factor is utterly altered. To Cato2 the slave is a chattel, to be sold when it becomes old or sickly, it is purely an economic instrument, to whom even the practices of religion are forbidden—all that must be left to the master. St. Paul sends the runaway slave Onesimus back to his master to be 'received not now as a slave, but instead of a slave, a most dear brother, especially to me. But how much more to thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord?'

This contrast is not an economic one. The old legal rights are the same in the one case as in the other, but an inner revolution has been effected, which must necessarily produce in time a corresponding change in all external social and economic relationships.

But this external change was slow in coming. Christianity during the first two centuries spread chiefly among the classes that had least economic influence—independent craftsmen, shopkeepers, freedmen, household slaves and so forth. It affected neither the ruling classes nor the lowest grades of slave labour, which were found, not so much in the great cities of the Levant, the cradle of Christianity, as in the mines and on the great agrarian estates of the western provinces. When Christianity finally established a position for itself among the educated and the wealthy, the great economic transformation of the ancient world had already begun, and civilisation was henceforward engaged in a continual and desperate battle with barbaric invaders from without, and economic decline from within. The one great problem now was how to save as much as possible of the inheritance of the past, and there was no room for any economic development other than that which was imposed by the hard law of necessity. Even so, however, the social changes in the Christian Empire were by no means all for the worse. In place of a society of capitalists and financiers, where wealth was ultimately derived from usury and from the exploitation of slave labour, there grew up a hierarchic society of officials and nobles, in which each class and occupation became a fixed caste, each with its own privileges and its own obligations. Instead of the slaves of the ergastula and the chain-gang, the land was cultivated by servile or semi-servile peasants, who had acquired the right to a family life, and even to a certain amount of economic independence.

The honour of work

The greater part of these changes was undoubtedly due to economic and political causes—to the inherent tendency of the imperial organisation, to the Orientalisation of Graeco-Roman civilisation, and above all to the decline of the lesser cities and the return to agricultural self-sufficiency on the rural estates. Nevertheless, the influence of the Church imprinted a distinctively Christian character on the whole process. Her ideals were opposed to all the main features of the earlier imperial society—to the luxury of the rich, the idleness and dissipation of the poor and the oppression of the slaves. In place of the classical contempt for manual labour and 'vile mechanic arts,' which was the inheritance of Hellenistic culture, she did all in her power to substitute the duty and the honour of work. 'Blush for sin alone,' says St. John Chrysostom, 'but glory in labour and handicraft. We are the disciples of One who has been nourished in the house of a carpenter, of Peter the fisherman and Paul the tentmaker. By work we drive away from our hearts evil thoughts, we are able to come to the aid of the poor, we cease to knock importunately at the doors of others, and we accomplish that word of the Lord: 'It is better to give than to receive.'

But above all the influence of Christianity was shown in the protection of the weak in a time of universal suffering and want. From the earliest times the Church had exercised charity upon the most lavish scale, and when at last she had the power to influence the rich, the extent of Christian almsgiving became so great as to cause a real economic change in the distribution of property.

At the same time the Church held trade in little honour, and condemned unhesitatingly the usury which was the foundation of much of the prosperity of the upper classes of Roman society. The nobles whom she honoured were not the great financiers and independent aristocrats of the old type, but the conscientious bureaucrats and soldiers who served the new ideal of divine authority, vested in an hereditary imperial house, men like Lausus, the Chamberlain, Pammachius, the Consul, and the Count Marcellinus.

But above all the influence of Christianity was shown in the protection of the weak in a time of universal suffering and want. From the earliest times the Church had exercised charity upon the most lavish scale, and when at last she had the power to influence the rich, the extent of Christian almsgiving became so great as to cause a real economic change in the distribution of property. We find the great Fathers, St. Basil, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, above all St. John Chrysostom insisting on the duty of almsgiving in language which is as disconcerting to modern ears as it no doubt was to the rich men who first heard it. 'What you give to the poor man,' says St. Ambrose, 'is not yours, but his. For what was given for the common use, you alone usurp. The earth is all men's and not the property of the rich. . . . Therefore you are paying a debt, and not bestowing a gift.'3 And St. Basil even more forcibly declares: 'He who strips a man of his garments will be called a thief. Is not he who fails to clothe the naked when he could do so worthy of the same title? It is the bread of the hungry that you hold, the clothing of the naked that you lock up in your cupboard.'4

And as a practical commentary on these exhortations we find representatives of the great senatorial families such as Pinianus and Melania selling their vast estates and distributing all to the poor. The enfranchisement of slaves was an essential part of this work of charity. At first the economic position of Christians rendered it almost impossible, although even poverty could not prevent the heroic charity which St. Clement describes in the First Epistle to the Corinthians (lv): 'Many among ourselves have given themselves up to bondage that they might ransom others. Many have delivered themselves to slavery and provided food for others with the price they received for themselves.'

The protector of the poor

But under the Christian Empire, enfranchisement on a large scale became common. Melania is said to have freed 8,000 slaves in the year 406 alone, and it was usual to give not only freedom, but also the land or money, with which they might earn their living.

In addition to this the Church was everywhere the protector of the poor, the orphan and the criminal. The bishop was not only the administrator of the charity of the faithful, he also acquired a recognised position as the representative of all the oppressed classes, as their defender not only against the rich, but against the government and the tax-collector. How widely these activities extended may be seen, for example, in the correspondence of St. Basil and in the record of his work for the people of Cappadocia during the famine of 367-8. The Church was gradually becoming an economic as well as a moral power, and as the economic condition of the Roman world declined, her relative wealth and importance increased till she became, above all in the Western provinces of the Empire, the only social force which retained life and vigour.

In the centuries that followed the collapse of imperial authority in the West, it was the bishops and the monasteries that took up the Roman tradition and ensured the continuance of ancient civilisation. We see St. Gregory the Great working to save Italy from destruction, devoting himself to every material need, and organising the estates of the Church to save Rome from famine. Under his administration the wealth of the Church was literally the 'patrimony of the poor' and also the mainstay of the economic life of the whole community. Nevertheless, he had no idea of building up a new social order. The world seemed to be passing away, the end of all things seemed at hand, and in a dying world he laboured to' alleviate the sufferings of the people because they were his children, not because he had any hopes of the future.

A positive Christian order was only possible after the centuries of destruction had done their work, but meanwhile the foundations were being laid.


  1. James ii, 5-7.
  2. Cato, De Re Rustica ii, 142, etc.
  3. St. Ambrose on Naboth XII.
  4. St. Basil Hom, in Lucam.



Dawson, Christopher. “Catholicism and Economics in the Ancient World.” Blackfriars July, 1924.

Reprinted by permission of Julian Philip Scott, grandson of Christopher Dawson.


Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was most likely the most penetrating student of the relationship of religion and culture who has ever written. "Every culture," he wrote, "is like a plant. It must have its roots in the earth, and for sunlight it needs to be open to the spiritual. At the present moment we are busy cutting its roots and shutting out all light from above." In order to address this situation, he proposed the study of Christian culture. He believed this study to be essential to the secularist and Christian alike, because it is the key to the understanding of the historical development of Western civilization. His lucid analysis of the driving forces of world history, as well as his championing of the contributions of the Christian faith to the achievements of European culture, won him many admirers, including T. S. Eliot and Arnold Toynbee.

Christopher Dawson wrote twenty-two books. Among those currently available are Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, The Making of Europe, Medieval Essays, Dynamics of World History, and Progress and Religion. Also available is A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson written by Christopher Dawson's daughter, the late Christina Scott. All works by Christopher Dawson © Julian Philip Scott, 2003.

Copyright © 2007 Julian Philip Scott

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