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Economics and the Catholic Ethic

Amintore Fanfani (1908-99) was an economic historian whose scholarship focused on the origins of capitalism and questions of economic and social equity.  In his early career, he was part of a broader Catholic and conservative intellectual movement that was active during the interwar years and included the English Distributists and the Southern Agrarians.  Like these Anglo-American writers, Fanfani and his Italian circle were highly critical of both socialism and capitalism.  They spent their careers developing critiques of, and seeking Christian alternatives to, these secular schools of political economy.  While most of his peers were academics and literary men, Fanfani was deeply committed to practical politics.  Later in life, he served in the Italian Parliament, as prime minister of Italy, and as president of the U.N. General Assembly.

Many scholars trace the origin of capitalism to the Reformation, but Fanfani locates it in the late Middle Ages.  The social conditions of that time, characterized by increased risk, uncertainty, and cosmopolitanization, were favorable to the rise of capitalism.  In Fanfani’s view, however, capitalism is not unique to a given people or place.  The “spirit of capitalism” is something latent in the human condition and can emerge anywhere, given the right social circumstances.  It is a spirit that places individual material gratification...

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