Media Briefings

New Research Finds That Protestants And Catholics Have A Similar Work Ethic

  • Published Date: September 2010

Analysis of recent cross-country survey data on people’s feelings, values, religious beliefs, social habits and opinions finds no support for the idea that practicing or cultural Protestants work more and more effectively than Catholics.

But the study by Professor Benito Arruñada, published in the September 2010 Economic Journal, does find that Protestants display a stronger ‘social ethic’ – one that leads them to monitor each other’s conduct more carefully, support political and legal institutions more strongly and hold more homogeneous values.

For example, the average Catholic does volunteer work significantly less than the average Protestant. Catholics are significantly more tolerant of tax fraud than Protestants. And Catholics are more willing to cover up for their delinquent friends in dealings with the police.

The author concludes that Protestantism seems more conducive to capitalist economic development not by the direct psychological route of the Weberian work ethic but rather by promoting an alternative social ethic that facilitates impersonal trade and larger markets.

What lessons does this research suggest for the current economic crisis and the need to restore fiscal sustainability? Might countries in Europe that are culturally Catholic respond differently to the pressures to reduce budget deficits than those that are culturally Protestant?

Professor Arruñada speculates that the stronger families, weaker institutions and lack of mutual control in Catholic (and Orthodox) countries may make reform feel less urgent – and that it will therefore be more difficult to tackle fiscal problems.

Comparing Protestants and Catholics

The research finds substantial support for the idea that Protestant values shape a type of individual who exerts greater effort in mutual social control, supports institutions more and more critically, is less bound to close circles of family and friends, and holds more homogeneous values. For example:

Work and personal success: Despite the fact that on average Protestants work 8.5% more hours and show greater personal success, the significance of these differences disappears after controlling for demographic and country effects.

Volunteering: Average Catholics do volunteer work significantly less than Protestants. Volunteering also increases with faith and upbringing much less for Catholics than for Protestants. Catholic values are thus more weakly linked to volunteering and are therefore less conducive to mutual control.

Education: For Protestants, education complements religion whereas for Catholics, education substitutes for religion. It therefore seems that the Catholic Church is less in tune with its more educated laity, possibly due to the greater role the Catholic Church plays as an enforcer, which conflicts more with educated laity.

Taxation: Catholics are significantly more tolerant of tax fraud than Protestants. Catholic values are therefore less supportive of those political and legal institutions that are financed with taxation.

Delinquent friends: Catholics are also more willing to cover up for their delinquent friends in dealings with the police, and strong Catholic beliefs have a similarly positive but weaker effect. This result confirms that Catholic values elicit less cooperation from citizens in the functioning of legal institutions when they conflict with smaller social circles, such as the ones defined by friendship ties.

Values: Finally, Protestants hold more homogeneous values than Catholics. Both religions may thus be suitable for supporting human interaction in different kinds of environment and transaction. In comparison with the more homogeneous Protestant ethic, the more diverse Catholic moral standards may increase the costs of interacting impersonally but also make personal interactions easier.

Catholics not only give more importance than Protestants to family ties, but Catholic beliefs and upbringing are also positively related to the proxy of family importance. When adding the greater proclivity of Catholics to cover up for their friends and their lesser trust in strangers, the ‘social ethic’ of Catholicism seems to favour personal exchange to the detriment of impersonal exchange.

In line with these results, the economic contribution of the Protestant Reformation would have been connected not to the psychology of individuals regarding economic activity but to their empowerment as citizens vis-à-vis other citizens, the community and the state, affecting the relative effectiveness of alternative enforcement systems.

The consequences for economic growth and the development of capitalism would be related: first, to the greater effort that individuals are willing to exert in informal social enforcement; second, to the contribution that having more independent individuals makes to the design and functioning of political and legal institutions; and lastly, to the greater homogeneity of values among individuals.

All these features work in favour of anonymous markets, as they facilitate legal enforcement and reduce the cost of impersonal exchange.

The impact of the Protestant Reformation

The study traces back these features to changes introduced in the Protestant Reformation, which radically modified both the content of moral rules and the enforcement mechanisms of moral and civil rules alike.

Reformers dismissed the role of the Church as an intermediary between God and believers, a role that made lay people passive religious subjects. In the medieval Church, the Bible was interpreted and validated by the Church, and the laity was discouraged from reading it; theologists debated in closed academic circles, not allowing the laity to know about their controversies; and priests had the power to forgive sins in private sacramental confession, thereby ruling on believers’ salvation.

The reformers minimised this intermediary role of the Church by setting the Bible as the only source, even as the rule according to which to judge the Church; and correspondingly empowering the laity, encouraging them to read the Bible and holding theological debates in the open. They also abolished the old penitential system, eliminating the power of the Church to forgive sins. Most visibly, they eliminated barriers to entry by using the vernacular instead of Latin for liturgy and writing.

This broad empowerment of the laity came with corresponding duties: lay people had to know more and, especially, fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of private confession. These changes should make lay people abandon their previous passivity, becoming more vigilant of their neighbours’ conduct and worrying more about how their own deeds will affect their neighbours’ opinions on them.

Mutual social control thus avoided the obvious risk that self-examination might result in more lenient standards of conduct. These consequences were more explicit in stricter communities, such as the Geneva of Calvin and the US sects described by Weber.

Moreover, in contrast to the more independent Catholic Church, reformers were more supportive of political and legal institutions, often because they needed political support in their fight against Catholicism. The medieval Church had been an international power that held very substantial wealth and limited the power of political rulers, frequently opposing them.

Where the Reformation succeeded, most Church property was soon seized by political rulers, and previous Church privileges were removed. Furthermore, lay rulers rapidly asserted their domination of religious affairs. Consequently, many Protestant churches rapidly became appendices of local or national rulers.

Moreover, in contrast to the ambivalent support provided by the Catholic Church to political rulers and the nuanced advice the Church gave to the laity for dealing with rulers, reformed churches more flatly affirmed that believers had to obey their rulers. Such concentration of political power may have and often did result in tyranny. But in a similar fashion to self-control, it was also restrained by more active mutual social control.

Cultural roots of European countries’ behaviour

This research may help in understanding how some European countries tend to behave differently, to the extent that they still are culturally Catholic or Protestant – to the extent that their predominant values are Catholic or Protestant.

For example, should we expect those countries in Europe that are culturally Catholic to respond differently to exogenous shocks – for example, the current economic crisis – than those others that are culturally Protestant?

To be concrete: Sweden was able to eliminate a public deficit close to 10%. Will Spain be able to do it? And what about Greece, considering that being Orthodox can be seen as ultra-Catholic?

Catholic countries have stronger families and weaker institutions. The Italian and Spanish ‘welfare families’ make the crisis easier for individuals. But they also make reform less urgent.

More importantly, reform in these countries will be hindered by lack of mutual control: Catholics monitor public expenditure less, therefore reducing it is harder.

ENDS

Notes for editors: ‘Protestants and Catholics: Similar Work Ethic, Different Social Ethic’ by Benito Arruñada is published in the September 2010 issue of the Economic Journal.

Benito Arruñada is a professor in the Department of Economics and Business at Pompeu Fabra University and Barcelona GSE, Trias Fargas 25, 08005-Barcelona (Spain). His website is here: http://www.econ.upf.es/~arrunada

For further information: contact Benito Arruñada (+34) 935422572 (email: benito.arrunada@upf.edu); or Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: romesh@vaitilingam.com).