By Enza Ferreri
It may seem odd that a Franciscan friar, a follower of the “poverello” (poor man), St Francis of Assisi, with his renounce to wealth and vow of poverty, could be profoundly interested in economics and in fact became an economist.
We are talking about St Bernardine of Siena, among the most popular and active preachers of the fifteenth century.
St Bernardine may be very topical and intensely relevant in the contemporary debate about how banks (and credit institutions generally) may have precipitated the 2008 deep financial and economic crisis, considered by many economists the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, to whose catastrophic effects those of the 2008 collapse have been compared.
Those politicians, economists and commentators who talk of introducing regulations into an unregulated financial market are – knowingly or not – going down a path that has been walked by the Church before.
At the root is the problem of usury – lending money at interest without respect for certain rules and limitations – and the devastation it can produce in a society.
St Bernardine of Siena
St Bernardine of Siena was a Franciscan friar, important theologian and missionary, an indefatigable preacher in many cities in Italy. Of a heroic nature, he helped the ill during the plague, contracted the disease due to his charitable work of assistance to the plague victims but miraculously didn’t die from it.
He died in 1444 when, without sparing himself, although seriously ill, he continued his work and went to L’Aquila, in Abruzzo, to try to reconcile two factions in the city locked in confrontation as part of his preaching work.
Bernardine was born on September 8, 1380 in Massa Marittima, in the Tuscan Maremma, by the noble Sienese family of Albizzeschi.
Orphaned of both parents at a very young age (his mother died when he was 3 years old and his father when he was 6), he moved to Siena to live with his two aunts to complete his education in grammar and rhetoric with famous teachers, followed by studies of canon law in the prestigious university of the city.
At the age of twenty-two St Bernardine donned the Franciscan habit and immediately began an intense activity as a wandering preacher, traveling far and wide throughout northern Italy. His preaching was very stimulating and attracted very great crowds of faithful.
In 1425 he preached every day for seven weeks in the city of Siena, attracting the hostility of usurers and gambling houses.
Since there were no churches in Siena capable of containing the entire population, it was decided that he would preach in the Piazza del Campo.
Although the Sienese would have loved Bernardine to return to Siena as a bishop, three times in his life the Saint refused the office of bishop to devote himself fully to his vocation as a preacher and missionary.
St Bernardine Economist
St Bernardine is remembered in the history of economic thought because he was the first theologian, after Pietro di Giovanni Olivi, to write an entire treatise on economics entitled Sui contratti e l’usura (On contracts and usury). In the book he, like St. Anthony of Padua, harshly condemns usury and addresses the issues of the justification of private property, the ethics of trade and the determination of value and price.
He analyzes, with great depth, the figure of the entrepreneur and defends honest work. To be honest, says Bernardine, the entrepreneur must be endowed with four great virtues: efficiency, responsibility, hard work, risk-taking. The profits that accrue to the few who have known how to adhere to these virtues are the just reward for their hard work and risks.
He points out that trade can be practiced lawfully or unlawfully like any other occupation and is not necessarily a source of damnation. If honest, a merchant provides very useful services to society as a whole: he makes up for the scarcity of goods in an area by transporting them from areas where they are abundant, he safeguards goods by limiting the damage of possible famines, he transforms otherwise raw and useless materials into processed products.
On the other hand, he condemns in no uncertain terms the new rich, who instead of investing their wealth in new activities, prefer to lend to usury and strangle society instead of making it grow. Bernardine believed that property did not “belong to man”, but rather “was for man” as an instrument to achieve an improvement in society as a whole. An instrument that came from God and that man had to deserve, apply and make use of as a wise administrator.
This reflects what has come to be known as the “Social Doctrine of the Church”, later defined by Popes of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
According to the Social Doctrine of the Church, neither communism nor capitalism are good and right economic systems, although the former is worse than the latter.
We have got used to think that those are the only two alternatives. But there are other ways.
As in everything, we have to look back to our Christian heritage. Monasteries were enormously wealthy because they were enormously productive, in the real sense of the word, through work not through usury.
There is nothing wrong about wealth, although there can be a lot wrong in the way it’s produced and in the way it’s considered as one of the most important things and goals. The right order of priorities is: metaphysics, then ethics, then economy. First there is God, from Whom we derive a moral code, to which economy must be subjected and not vice versa.
Mounts of Piety
Luke 6:35, emphasis is added:
But love ye your enemies, and do good and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest.
Capitalism started with usury, capitalism in its financial essence was born on the basis of the loan at interest.
But the Franciscans of the 15th century, in the post-Adamic impossibility of avoiding the practice of usury, realistically tried to moderate it for purposes of social charity.
The reformed Franciscans of the fifteenth century (Blessed Bernardino da Feltre, S. Giacomo della Marca, S. Bernardino da Siena) conceived and implemented the first Mounts of Piety (Monti di Pietà) for charitable purposes, which granted assistance to the needy by means of almost free loans with the redemption of a pledge. They were also called Montes Christi or Deposita Apostolorum to distinguish them from profit-making banks.
The first Monte di Pietà was founded in 1462 in Perugia, in the region of Umbria, by Father Michele Càrcano, then others opened in Orvieto in 1463, in Tuscany, in Romagna, in northern Italy and then throughout Italy.
The funds were constituted by the pious donations left by the wealthy faithful to the Franciscans.
In contrast to banks, which lent money for profit at rates of 30-35%, the Franciscans devised the granting of assistance to the needy by means of loans with a very small contribution, a maximum of 4%, which was necessary to pay the running costs and the just salaries of the employees of the Monti di Pietà themselves, in full respect of the rules of the Code.
In this way, many people could find secure employment and support themselves and their families. Preventing, in addition, the employees themselves from falling into the hands of bank usury. The poor were protected by this unique revolutionary system.
There had been private charity before but, in order to meet this kind of need, the traditional forms of charity and almsgiving of the faithful were insufficient, since they were not able to offer an efficient, systematic and profitable response to the actual extent of the demand for credit among the urban population.
This inadequacy must have been clear even to the minds of the founders of the first very rare institutions specifically devoted to economic assistance inspired by charitable models, such as the one set up in 1350 at Salins, in Franche-Comté, or, like the one created in London in 1361 through a bequest from the bishop of the city; However, these were occasional attempts and were destined to end in time without success.