The economy of the seventh age

Oikonomia/ 5 - We are going back to look for the people hidden behind and within goods of production

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 09/02/2020

"In this seventh age that is now near, the opening of the seals and the effort to display the books of the Old Testament will cease and sabbatical rest will truly be granted to the people of God. At this time there will also be justice and peace aplenty"
Gioacchino da Fiore, The seven seals

Franciscan economy, which did not become the dominant form of the economy of the Middle Ages, could become the economy of the era of common goods.

The Franciscan movement has also played a role in the birth of market economy. Many historians and economists point to that poor man of Assisi as a precursor of market economy, even of capitalism. The Franciscan school of thought was in fact the first to also be oriented towards a medieval economic school of thought, and in the second half of the fifteenth century the Franciscan friars founded the Monti di Pietà, non-profit financial institutions (sine merit), at the very origin of the tradition of Italian and European popular and social finance. A spiritual movement born out of the choice to adhere to "Madonna Poverty" that gave birth to banks and coin treaties has always caused surprise, along with many misunderstandings. In fact, as in the case of monasticism, the relationship between Franciscans and the economy is much more complex than how it’s usually told - and much more interesting.

Francis began his revolution, a revolution which also concerned the economy, choosing only the Gospel as his way of life: only, the novelty of Franciscanism lies entirely in this limiting adverb. We no longer have the qualities required to understand what Francis and later Chiara's poverty really were like. Unlike that of monasteries, it was both an individual poverty and a poverty of the community: not only people, not even convents could possess any goods. As Ugo di Digne liked to say, the only right the Franciscans have is the right to own nothing, to live sine proprio. From the outset, the debate, even from a juridical point of view, took the form of distinguishing between the ownership of goods and their use. Franciscan theologians and jurists tried to convince the Church that it was possible to live without possessing any goods at all, including goods necessary to feed oneself. «Just as the horse has an actual use for but not the ownership of the oats that it eats, so religious man has a simple factual use of bread, wine and clothes» (Bonagrazia da Bergamo). For this purpose, they used extreme juridical strategies, such as equating friars to minors, incapable people and furious mad men, and extending the exceptions of the "state of necessity" to their own ordinary living conditions.

While the Christian Middle Ages followed the moderate economic ethics inherited from the late Roman Empire, Francis, his friars and nuns attempted something completely unexpected that still has the ability to leave us breathless: they went back in the streets, collecting the legacy and original name of the first Christians, "those of the street", from being rich people they became beggars living among the poor. Francis went through the eye of the needle not because he enlarged it, but because he reduced the "camel", until it became paper-thin. "Blessed are the poor" became the motto for their desired and longed-for happiness: «Oh wealth unknown! Oh fertile goodness! Egidio bares his feet, Sylvester his, behind the groom, so pleasing is the bride» (Dante, The Divine Comedy, Paradise, XI, 84). Only Dante could enclose Francis' idea of paradise in one single verse.

The great Franciscan attempt to distinguish the ownership of goods from their use was unsuccessful. In 1322 Pope John XXII corrected the thesis of his predecessor Nicholas III, and established the impossibility of the sole use of goods, attributing the ownership of the goods which they used to the order. The concrete utopia of the Franciscans did not become part of Roman Church law or the economic and juridical legacy of the West. But it is not dead, because it continues to challenge our economy and our legal systems even today.

The story of Francis intersects the theological history of Christian Europe in several places. While his paradoxical brand of oikonomia was taking its first steps in Assisi, the ancient theological principle of opus operatum (or ex opera operato) was reaching its first synthesis in the Roman Church. What is it? And why is it relevant to our story? It concerns the relationship between the dignity, honour and merit of priests and the validity of their actions and words. With the beginning of the second millennium, the Church decreed that it was not the subjective conditions of the men of the Church that determined the validity of their acts, because the merits that gave them efficacy were not those of the actual priests but those of Christ. The sacrament has its own intrinsic efficacy (it is the work itself that acts and operates), which is not affected by the sins of the person who administers it, nor increased by his (or her) merits - a proverb that my grandmother used to repeat, clearly expresses the aspects of that theology that entered people’s collective minds: «Take note of what the priest says, not what the priest does». An unworthy priest still remains a priest, and his liturgies and sacraments remain valid and effective. A debate that would later be made famous and highly relevant by Luther, and the theology of the opus operatum reiterated by the Council of Trent against Protestant criticisms.

Original monasticism and then Franciscanism did not follow the path of opus operatum, however. Being a Franciscan is a way of life (that of the Gospel), therefore an attitude of non-conformity towards life invalidates the substance of being a friar. A friar who does not live like Christ is not a friar, nor is such a nun a real nun. His acts and words cannot be separated from his life. Of course, even friars can be unworthy, make mistakes, commit sins, be inconsistent, but their acts are not protected by any kind of theology connected to opus operatum. This too is a form of extreme poverty.

It is also true that the religious vocation of Franciscanism (and of other charisms) does indeed have a mysterious objectivity of its own that recalls opus operatum (vocation is not a moral, but an ontological matter); however, nothing and nobody can guarantee the friars an objective efficacy to their works and words. The sanctity of the liturgy is vicarious, replacing that of the person. But no one and nothing can promise that the actions and words of Fra Mauro will be effective simply because they take place within the context of a specific way of life, because no way of life is in itself effective ex opera operata - here we also have an explanation to why these movements, monasticism and Franciscanism, which were initially born secular, gradually transformed into male communities almost entirely composed by priests, because opus operatum offers the hope of some solid ground on which to base one's fragile words and life. Your way of life establishes whether you are a friar or not, but does not objectively grow real Franciscan fruits, and an unworthy Franciscan will not find any kind of protective net in liturgy. Friars are not actual priests, even when they become so; this is also the reason why the consecrated life of women in the Catholic Church is essentially being the keepers of this way of life and vocation and its extreme poverty. The mystery of having a vocation lies precisely in this paradoxical mix of strength and weakness, it goes for that of Francis and for that of all others, both religious and civilian.

Every human institution desperately seeks its own opus operatum, because it wishes to separate the objective validity of its acts from the subjective qualities of its people more than anything else, because it knows that this dependence makes it radically vulnerable. We would all like effective hospitals regardless of the qualities of their doctors and nurses, schools that produce culture and education without depending on the commitment and competence of their teachers and professors, parliaments that generate laws immune to the vices of their politicians.

Charisms, however, by their very nature cannot reach this form of paradise, for they are dramatically dependent on the moral quality of their people. They are beggars for the loyalty and love of their people, on whom they depend every day, every minute. A Mass can be valid even if there is no worthy priest left in the parish, but a religious community will die once the last person who is faithful to its way of life is gone.

Modern economy found its opus operatum when, through capitalism, it separated goods from the intentions and moral qualities of its producers. Marx prophetically sensed this with his theory of "fetish goods" and "alienation". Until all through the Middle Ages, the products of any kind of labour carried the signature, even an invisible one, of their author. Goods could not be separated from those who produced them and all objects could be traced back to the original subject. In the medieval world, the belief that the products of human activity reflected the moral qualities of those who created them was essential, the subjective dimension of an item was inseparable from the object itself.

With capitalism, the price and value of a commodity is entirely independent of the objective conditions of those who produce (and consume it). That value becomes ex opera operato, and does not depend on the subjective conditions of the producing agent. The moral characteristics of the person have no effect on the value of goods, to the point that even legally we ended up inventing the limited liability company, an invention aimed to separate the business from the people who are part of and manage it. In the exchange value of goods there is no longer any trace of those people «hidden behind the casing of things» (Capital, K. Marx).

This process of depersonalization is essential to the humanism of capitalism, because if it had kept goods linked to their makers, mass production could not have been born, nor the infinite reproduction of things for their mass consumption.

The opus operatum of capitalism has intensified in recent years. Procedures and protocols, not the characteristics and qualities of people, are increasingly determining the quality of the goods being produced. Anonymous and depersonalized processes (for example: certifications), which do not depend on the subjective ethical qualities of people, but on the objective quality of the procedures involved in the production. Management is also becoming a set of techniques and tools, which in order to be perfect must depend as little as possible on the subjective dimension of people - that ancient idea of ​​magic or (today) of technology as a means of salvation, a wave that is also beginning to touch churches and non-profit communities today.

But this very same capitalism is now steadily overcoming its own opus operatum, and paradoxically getting closer with the economy of the way of life. Especially in certain sectors (the food industry and tourism, for example) we no longer want goods to stay disconnected to people: we are going back to looking for the people hidden behind and within things. We want to know the stories of the farmers, the entrepreneurs, and the cooks, to know their intentions, to understand if they are truly genuine and authentic, as if the language of products is no longer enough. In management as well, there is increasing talk of the charisma of individual managers, and anonymous procedures are giving way to the talent of leaders, the personality and genius of actual people. In times of great crises, objects die off and the nostalgia of the gaze of real women and men grows strong again.

Going back to the prophecy of Joachim of Fiore, the first Franciscans (Peter John Olivi) believed that the seventh age would be that of the extreme poverty of Francis, who for them was the prophet of the seventh age. With the third millennium, we have now entered the era of common goods: if we continue to think and act like we are the owners and masters of the earth, of the environment, of the oceans, we will only end up destroying them. We must learn, and soon, to make use of goods without being their masters, we must quickly learn the art of using and making use of without ownership. Francis' art. What if the economy of sine proprio was that of the era of common goods? Will it be the oikonomia of Francis that will save both us and the earth in the end?

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