The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Community

The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Community

The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Community

The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Community


Starting where Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism left off, John E. Tropman develops the idea that there is another religious-based ethic permeating society, a Catholic ethic. Where Weber proposed that a Protestant ethic supported the development of capitalism, Tropman argues that there is a Catholic ethic as well, and that it is more caring and community-oriented.

Weber's notion of the Protestant ethic has become widely accepted, but until Tropman's work, beginning in the mid-1980s, there had been no discussion of another, religious-based ethic. He suggests that if the Protestant ethic is an "achievement" ethic, the Catholic ethic is a "helping" one. Tropman outlines a Catholic ethic that is distinctive in its sympathy and outreach toward the poor, and in its emphasis on family and community over economic success. This book fully explores the Catholic ethic and its differing focus by using both historical and survey research. It also points to the existence of other religious-based ethics.

This clearly written book, employing the tools of both sociology and religious thought, will appeal to a wide audience, including students and scholars in disciplines informed by the influence of religion on politics and on social and economic behavior.


John Tropman’s The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Community is a wonderfully comprehensive treatment of Protestant and Catholic orientations to the notion of “helping” and social welfare. This book contrasts the Protestant esteem for individualism, work, and wealth with the Catholic social traditions of communal responsibility, social justice, and respect for the poor. It is a work of theology, history, sociology, and public policy.

When I read the manuscript, I was somewhat daunted, as I am neither theologian, historian, sociologist, nor policy analyst. I punted: I read it as a practitioner of helping. My vocation is social work, and I’ve traveled through direct service and administrative jobs in sectarian, government, and private foundation settings. Every day, social workers and policymakers struggle with what we do with poor people, how we treat them, and what we do about the “condition” of poverty. Usually, we are unconscious of the religious and cultural influences that shape our views and decisions. John Tropman’s historical odyssey creates a template of Protestant and Catholic archetypes for better understanding the root values that drive our decisions.

Not that we fit neatly into one or another camp based on religious affiliation—nor that religion per se is a dominant reference point. the United States is an amalgam of religious peoples, however, with a culture, government, and judicial system that are imbued with JudeoChristian values and artifacts, despite our claim of separation between church and state. in fact, it is a Protestant culture.

John’s elevation of a Catholic ethic in many ways holds a mirror to the beliefs we take for granted or act on without thought. For example, the erratic course of American poverty policy—what John describes as (borrowing from Brucs Jannson at the University of Southern California) a “reluctant welfare state”—is seen more clearly in the Protestant ethic of individual responsibility, work as a virtue, and the notion of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. It is interesting to note that the most recent welfare reform was titled “The Personal Responsibility and Opportunity Act.”

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