In his contribution to The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Pope Benedict XVI’s Social Encyclical and the Future of Political Economy, Eugene McCarraher looks to blow the dust off of R.H. Tawney’s legacy: “Often admired but now rarely consulted, Tawney’s work deserves a spiritual revival.” In Sublunary Sublime’s modest opinion, this has got to be one the great theological understatements of the decade.

McCarraher writes that Tawney’s work suggests “theological acuity and depth,” as can be seen from his Commonplace Book and other critical works. As McCarraher explains,

Tawney lauded the medieval economic imagination, in which work and goods were judged in the light of the beatific vision. Surveying the wisdom of scholastic philosophers and canon lawyers, Tawney reclaimed their conviction that “the ideal – if only man’s nature could rise to it – is communism,” since sharing in communion was the order of heaven. Seen in this light, corporate capitalist property and production were grotesque distortions of the divine economy. Against the corporate order which protected stockholders and other parasitic classes who merely owned and lived off the labor of others, modern Christian socialism would, Tawney hoped, revive and older conception of property as “an aid to creative work, not an alternative to it.” Artfully made and justly distributed, material goods could be tokens of beatitude, “aids to blessedness,” as Tawny put it (105).

We can see how Tawney’s theological acuity is demonstrated in his understanding of St. Thomas’s claim that “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it”; his depth comes from grasping the material implications of this seemingly esoteric doctrine. In Religion and The Rise of Capitalism, Tawney writes,

The contrast between nature and grace, between human appetites and interests and religion, is not absolute, but relative. It is a contrast of matter and spirit informing it, of stages in a process, of preparation and fruition. Grace works on the unregenerate nature of man, not to destroy it, but to transform it. And what is true of the individual is true of society. An attempt is made to give it a new significance by relating it to the purpose of human life as known by revelation. In the words of a famous (or notorious) Bull: “The way of religion is to lead the things which are lower to the things which are higher through the things which are intermediate. According to the law of the universe all things are not reduced to order equally and immediately; but the lowest through the intermediate, the intermediate through the higher.” Thus social institutions assume a character which may almost be called sacramental, for they are the outward and imperfect expression of a supreme reality. Ideally conceived, society is an organism of different grades, and human activities form a hierarchy of functions, which differ in kind and in significance, but each of which is of value on its own plane, provided that it is governed, however remotely, by the end which is common to all (26).

As Tawney goes on to argue, in the absence of a common end the ideology of efficiency reigns supreme. The rejection of teleology birthed the market state and the market state in turn birthed the individual. “The concept of religion as a thing private and individual does not emerge until after a century in which religious freedom normally means the freedom of the State to prescribe religion, not the freedom of the individual to worship God as he pleases,” writes Tawney (Religion and The Rise of Capitalism, 149).

All in all, Tawney presents a sobering vision, one that appears to leave little wiggle room for the more liberally minded. It is, however, a sentiment shared by no less than Simone Weil and Alasdair MacIntyre:


On the whole, our present situation more or less resembles that of a party of absolutely ignorant travelers who find themselves in a motor-car launched at full speed and driverless across broken country (Weil, Oppression and Liberty, 114).


From an Aristotelian point of view a modern liberal political society can appear only as a collection of citizens from nowhere who have banded together for their common protection (MacIntyre, After Virtue, 156).