Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo

Online Course Unit 7

The Biblical and patristic roots of Catholic social thought on business and commerce


Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo


We often think of Catholic social teaching as an endeavor which started in 1891 with the publication of Rerum novarum. This would be incorrect on several levels. Teaching on matters to do with civil, social and economic life have been inter-woven into communications from the Church from her earliest days. Furthermore, the formalisation of Catholic social teaching in the modern social encyclicals relied not just on earlier pronouncements by the Church but on a tradition of Catholic social thought which has its roots in the early Church fathers, in the Bible and in the teaching of Christ. By way of example, no fewer than 27 of the 40 references in Rerum novarum are to biblical sources. And comprehensive works on Catholic social teaching, such as Rodger Charles[1] two volume Christian Social Witness and Teaching are rooted in the teaching of the Bible, the witness of the Church Fathers and the action of the early Church.

Other chapters in this book have examined the history of Church teaching from well before 1891 in areas such as the right to own property and usury. This brief chapter examines the biblical and patristic sources that explain the Church’s modern attitude towards the role of virtuous business in economic life and which have informed modern Catholic social teaching. In doing so it shows how teaching on the role of virtuous business, since Rerum novarum, is rooted in sacred scripture and in the living tradition of the Church.

The Bible

“Isn’t this the carpenter?” (Mk 6:3). Jesus Christ was known to His fellow men by the profession He exercised throughout the hidden years of His life. Before His public ministry, Jesus did not perform any miracles but produced goods and offered services for money or in exchange for other goods and services. He might even have employed others, thus running His own small business as an entrepreneur. In any case, He was known by His role in the economy of His time. How He worked, we do not know: but we can guess that He worked with excellence, judging by the way He conducted His public life. He was undaunted by days and weeks of tiring travels; He spent nights in prayer. His miracles, besides being marvellous in themselves, aimed at excellence: the wine at Cana was so good that the chef criticised the bridegroom for not having served it first. The sick, blind, deaf, and paralysed could immediately exercise the functions they had lost or never had. This excellence must also have defined the level of effort Jesus put into His work as a carpenter. His professional vocation so much shaped Him that even His redeeming death was perpetrated with hammer, wood, and nails, the tools of His profession. Jesus was not beheaded with a sword, or stoned to death with masonry, or strangled in a fisher’s net, or beaten to death with a banker’s scales.

If Jesus Christ Himself identified with working in the business and economy of His time, how could the Church possibly have a negative attitude towards business and the economy? It is true, as we shall see below, that in the Bible we encounter a certain suspicion of commerce, merchants and their dealings but never a condemnation of the economy as such. Both John Paul II and Francis summarised the Church’s stance in relation to business in a masterful way. In his encyclical Laudato si, Pope Francis wrote: “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.” (129) In these lines Francis underscores business not merely as a job or a career but as a calling to serve others through the creation of wealth. Indeed, before we can distribute wealth, somebody must create it.

John Paul II had the socio-economic system as a whole in mind rather than individual action. His experience of real socialism and the human and economic misery it produced taught him to appreciate the right to economic initiative, which, at his time, was still suppressed in many countries. He wrote in Sollicitudo rei socialis:

Yet it is a right [to economic initiative] which is important not only for the individual but also for the common good. Experience shows us that the denial of this right, or its limitation in the name of an alleged ‘equality’ of everyone in society, diminishes, or in practice absolutely destroys the spirit of initiative, that is to say the creative subjectivity of the citizen. As a consequence, there arises, not so much a true equality as a ‘leveling down’…This provokes a sense of frustration or desperation and predisposes people to opt out of national life, impelling many to emigrate and also favoring a form of ‘psychological’ emigration.” (15)

Catholic social teaching upholds the virtuous and principled entrepreneur, manager and businessperson not only as contributors to the common good but as persons called to holiness in and through their work. There is continuity in this depiction of work and economic life from the Bible to modern Catholic social teaching. This is not surprising if we consider that “the Church’s social teaching finds its source in Sacred Scripture, beginning with the Book of Genesis and especially in the Gospel and the writings of the Apostles” and that “human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question” (Laborem exercens, 3, emphasis in original).

From its first chapters, sacred scripture confers on the human person the task of tilling and keeping the garden in which he is placed, (Gen 2:15) thus continuing God’s work of creation through human creativity and initiative. The Bible is full of praise for diligent work and toil (Prov 12:11.14); whereas slothfulness is condemned (Prov 12:24.27). Commerce, trade and business practice, in contrast, appear in a different light. Sacred scripture differentiates. It condemns greed, foolish trust in wealth, and conceitedness based on earthly possessions (Prov 30:7-9). It warns against immorality in commercial affairs (Sir 27:1-3); it deplores the use of false weights and measures and all kinds of fraud (Hosea 12:7); and it threatens those who oppress the poor with God’s punishment (Amos 8:4-6).

Summing up the Bible’s attitude towards business, we see that the Prophets and other holy authors speak unfavourably of commerce and trade when it is conducted at the wrong time or in an inappropriate place, for the wrong motives or in a dishonest, fraudulent way. They condemn the unfair exercise of power through which the rich tread upon the poor—amassing wealth by exploiting the weakness of others, thus creating great social inequality, forms of slavery and dependence. At the same time Biblical authors support the equitable creation of wealth and prosperity as a sign of God´s blessing and favour.

The Church fathers

According to the Bible, virtuous business plays a positive role in society. Saint Paul himself worked to sustain himself and urged his fellow Christians to live off their own labour and to shun the brothers who lived in idleness (2 Thess 3:7-13). The Church Fathers (the first academic defenders of the Christian faith) reinforced this teaching. They broke cultural moulds that assigned labour and business to slaves or freedmen. Activities such as commerce, trade, and business were considered by the general culture in society to be unworthy of a free and noble person.

In contrast, the esteem in which the Church Fathers held economic life is reflected in the way they explain salvation history. The language they use is commercial and monetised. They call it the “economy” of salvation that has wrought our “redemption” (the commercial and legal act of buying back or freeing a slave). Christ is described as the holy banker who bails out Adam’s descendants from the immense debt they have foolishly incurred by sin, thus falling into the clutches of the usurious devil. The lance piercing Christ’s side cut open the money bag from which flowed the price of our redemption.

All this language was not meant to endorse an economic system or theory but just goes to show how naturally these words flowed from the pens of early theologians. The Church Fathers were concerned not about the economy but about the souls and bodies of the people entrusted to their pastoral care. The theory and praxis they formulate are social: they are concerned about the sick, the miserable, the outcast and those marginalised by the society of their time (such as the lepers); they appeal to the rich for help and compassion. They do not alienate the rich but call on them to share and give back, thus gathering riches for eternal life. If there were no rich who could help the poor? Saint Augustine, the most influential of all Latin Christian authors of antiquity, defended merchants, the business people of his time. Commerce was frequently condemned wholesale because of the vices of the merchants. Augustine rejected this one-sided condemnation, attributing the vices to the individual merchants not to commerce as such. (Augustine 1956, 954, quoted e.g. by Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 77, a. 4 sed contra)


Thus, in summary, we see that sacred scripture and the Church Fathers differentiate: they affirm creation, human nature and work as well as commercial exchange as good. At the same time they strive to cleanse a fallen world from sin, fraud and hardheartedness. They also distinguish between the realm of Caesar and the rights of God (Mt 22:15 – 21) where Jesus tells us that we should give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. With these words of Jesus in mind, the Church’s aim and task is not to organise the world and its economic system but to save souls.

Of course, we save our souls by living in the world and its business in a holy and upright manner. Therefore, the Church has something to say about these secular realities, but under the prism of morality and eternal life. Secular authorities, in comparison, have the duty to direct our complex pluralistic societies towards the common good during our life on earth. This too is an essentially moral activity. For Aristotle, politics was the highest, the “architectonic”, part of ethics. The contrast between Church and civil authorities does not mean that the Church alone considers morality, whereas the state can ignore moral claims and concentrate on efficiency or other technical criteria of smooth functioning. The civil authorities too exercise a moral mission. However, their aim is to create social systems that presuppose the sinfulness of mankind, our unordered passions of greed, fear, hatred and so on and do so in a way that minimises their negative impact. Civil authorities cannot define moral good and evil; nor can they absolve from sin in the sacrament of reconciliation. Moral good and evil are embedded in our nature, recognised by human reason, revealed by God’s law and taught by the Catholic Church. However, it is up to the prudential political judgment of the civil authorities to find out how to implement and protect justice in the given context of their specific society, which is always imperfect.

This is also true for business and the economy. The Church knows that we live in a sinful world. She proclaims principles that allow us to make the best of it, and she warns against the false promises of a return to paradise in this life. Utopian models that have promised heaven on earth, abundance without work, and perennial leisure tend to end in man-made hell, concentration camps and forced labour, as historical experience teaches. At the same time, the Church always points beyond what exists, calling to mind the principles of justice and charity, truth and freedom that should inspire and shape our social and economic systems. The Catholic biblical and patristic tradition in this sense is not utopian (derived from the Greek word for “no place”) but “heterotopian” (derived from the Greek word for “a different place”): it calls on us not to accept prevailing injustice, to improve morally as individuals and as a society and to struggle against sin where it has become part of our culture (such as in the evils of abortion, euthanasia and the destruction of Christian marriage). This is the continuing vocation to holiness in the middle of the world, through the exercise of honest secular work including in business as proclaimed forcefully by the Second Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium. (Second Vatican Council 1964, 30–38).


Augustine. 1956. “Ennarationes in Psalmos,” in Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, vol. 39. Turnholt: Brepols. Ps. 70, 17; p. 954.

Charles, R. (1998), Christian Social Witness and Teaching, Leominster: Gracewing.

Papal encyclicals and other Church documents referred to in this section

Francis, 2015, Ladauto si, encyclical letter

John Paul II, 1987, Sollicitudo rei socialis, encyclical letter:

John Paul II, 1981, Laborem exercens, encyclical letter: /john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091981_laborem-exercens.html

Leo XIII, 1891, Rerum novarum, encyclical letter:

Vatican II, Lumen gentium, 1964, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:

Questions for discussion

To what extent does scripture take a negative view of business?

How do we reconcile our need to live within the created world with the need to ensure that we fulfil our duties to God?

What are the duties of the rich businessperson towards the poor in society according to Catholic social teaching and the early Church fathers?


[1] Charles (1998).

About the author

Mgr. Martin Schlag holds the Alan W. Moss endowed chair for Catholic Social Thought of the John A. Ryan Institute in the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota), where he is full professor with dual appointment in the department of Catholic Studies and the Opus College of Business. He is also director of the Program for Church Management at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. Born in New York, raised in England and Austria, Mgr. Schlag has authored more than 80 publications, among them: (together with Domènec Melé) Humanism in Economics and Business: Perspectives of the Catholic Social Tradition; The Handbook of Catholic Social Teaching: A Guide for Christians in the World Today; and The Business Francis Means: Understanding the Pope’s Message on the Economy.

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Photo: Master of the Legend of St. Augustine, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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