The Catholic work ethic

by northumberlandia

I was very interested in Ed West’s recent blog post on the differing attitudes to money in Europe. West explores the cultural fault line between the Protestant North and Catholic South but argues that this dichotomy is too simplistic, and that other influences are just as important.

But let us stick with those religious differences. The caricature of the lazy Catholic south and the industrious Protestant north are enduring tropes in this country – given official endorsement from the sixteenth century onwards as a useful way to demonise the Catholic ‘other’ and unite the nascent United Kingdom.

As a Catholic myself, references to the ‘protestant work ethic’ have always irritated me – not least because I come from a long line of Stakhanovite Geordie pitmen who also happened to be Catholics (and, it always occurs to me, Polish builders and Philippino nurses are hardly known for their ‘slopey shoulders’ either – as they say on Tyneside).  This over-simplifies Weber’s thesis of course, but the currency of that phrase plays into ‘no-popery’ stereotypes, that are probably still widely (if subliminally) held in this country.

One of the reasons I love to travel in central Europe is that places like Bavaria, Austria, Switzerland and Northern Italy are a reminder that culturally Catholic regions are often, nay, usually, very prosperous places (the glories of Munich and Vienna are as far away economically from the fly-blown towns of Calabria and Extremadura as the Home Counties). Indeed, the point has been made that at least half of the German speaking people whose toil and entrepreneurialism led to the post-war Wirtschaftwunder were Catholics.  Similarly, Tobias Jones’s Dark Heart of Italy was a useful reminder of the surprising soberness of Italians, their work ethic, and their pre-eminence in many fields of manufacturing and engineering (not to mention great art, food and music).

A 2009 study by Davide Cantoni undermined Weber’s central claim that Protestantism gave cities and nations a competitive advantage, so as West himself wonders, what else can explain attitudes to debt, taxation and business? God knows – but I wouldn’t completely discount that idea that Catholic ideas of atonement for sin have not affected cultural attitudes to rule-bending, but we must locate these within national contexts. For example, Jones riffed interestingly in Dark Heart on whether Italian gamesmanship on the football field could be attributable to quirks of history, in particular the absence of an effective, consensual Italian polity that could uphold and enforce the rule of law. Consider too this fascinating study of the legacy of the (staunchly Catholic) Habsburg Empire and its bureaucracy (characterised by AJP Taylor as “fairly honest, quite hard-working, and generally high-minded”) and its positive lasting influence on social norms and attitudes towards corruption in Eastern Europe.

What are we left with then? Victorian schoolbooks would often include expositions of the ‘effect of climate on national character’ (which, in turn built on the thought of Hume, D’Argens and others) and I have a hunch that the sheer bloody heat of the Mediterranean probably does increase the temptation to cut corners (think of the stultifying effect of the Sicilian sun in Lampedusa’s The Leopard – “back on its throne like an absolute monarch”).  Yet Southern Europe still retains its appeal – in terms of lifestyle, cuisine, art and culture. For as much as I enjoy Jacques Brel, the Sint-Laurentiuskerk, and bière trappiste, who would swap Sicily for Belgium? Where, as Jonathan Meades so memorably put it:

“the death-cult of Catholicism collides with the mores and mentality of the North, so the death cult is not relived by sun or by brightness. On the contrary, its morbidity is emphasised by the persistent gloom.” 

Actually, on second thoughts, I see that you can get the Eurostar from Newcastle to Bruges these days…