Theologian Sheila Harty on the Sin of Greed and How Profit Became a Dirty Word

Sheila T. Harty has just published a paper titled The Sin of Greed: How “Profit” Became a Dirty Word, A History of Religion on Commercialism and Consumerism from the Ancients to Pope Francis. (Harty also read the paper as a podcast.)

Harty is a theologian who worked for Ralph Nader in the 1970s and 1980s and is the author of Hucksters in the Classroom: A Review of Industry Propaganda in the Schools.

Harty says that many religious leaders through history and across cultures have boldly criticized the greed of trade and commerce.


In this, Pope Francis is not alone.

He is joined by the present and former Archbishop of Canterbury and Britain’s head Lord Rabbi.

Nor is Francis the only Pope. Leo XIII’s encyclical of 1891 was radically critical of capitalism.

Harty says that the most vociferous critic was Martin Luther and before him Thomas Aquinas and before both Confucius.

“Has anyone been listening?” she asks. “Are we listening now? The stakes are higher. Ironically, the only business practice that all religions condemned was usury. Heeding business ethics within finance might have mitigated the 2008 recession. The trade market surely reflects the sin of greed — one of the seven deadly and considered the worst because it’s the most obstinate. Aristotle said ‘desire for gain reaches into the infinite.’”

A survey history of how religions have criticized the greed of both buyers and sellers reinforces the modern world’s newest critic, Pope Francis, whose lead we should heed on the ravages of commercialism and consumerism, Harty says.

“This time we should listen,” Harty says. “Rather than our souls at risk, our world is at risk. Poverty and pollution are just two consequences of an economic system wasting human and natural resources. Pope Francis thinks we may need a new commandment but certainly a new definition of progress.”

Harty said that Nader commissioned the research and the paper — prompted by Pope Francis being in the news so much with his criticisms of capitalism.

“The research revealed that he’s not the only critic among religious leaders,” Harty said. “The Archbishop of Canterbury, both current and former, have issued similar criticisms. Pope Leo XIII wrote a radical encyclical against capitalism in 1891. Yet the most vociferous critic was Martin Luther. Among his writings, Luther criticized the practice of storing dry goods in humid places since they were sold by weight or putting the fresh fruit up front and the bruised ones underneath. These are minor trade tricks, but it’s still fraud.”

And this criticism cuts across all religions?

“Well, no,” Harty said. “Protestants were the exception to the rule. I have a segment in the paper about Bible sales by evangelicals in the 19th century, which became a monopoly business. Max Weber’s work — The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism — explains how the Protestant work ethic advanced capitalism. Your riches are proof of God’s blessing for your stewardship of resources. Catholics and Protestants have always been different when it comes to business and profit.”

“When I worked at Ralph Nader’s office, I took an informal survey of everyone’s religion, and they were all Jews and Catholics plus a few Quakers.”

Weren’t there Protestants among the original Nader’s Raiders?

“Could be, but my survey was in the late 1970s,” Harty says.

“I began researching the paper on religions’ position toward commercialization with the assumption that I would find criticism lodged against the business trades – the sellers. But when I found religions citing the sin of greed – avarice or covetousness – I realized that the consumer is also at fault for the same sin – greed – motivated by a selfish materialism. Pope Francis explicitly says this, too. So I changed the title of the paper, which was originally assigned on commercialization. But I changed it to commercialism and consumerism to reflect what I felt was a consensual dance between buyers and sellers – consensual, albeit not equal. It’s what came from the research.”

Were you surprised by this Pope?

“Yes,” Harty says. “I was surprised and delighted, because he went against the grain of previous Popes. Not since Pope John XXIII has a Pope leveled such forthright denunciations on economic justice issues. Poverty and pollution are just two consequences of an economic system wasting human and natural resources. Pope Francis thinks we may need a new commandment but certainly a new definition of progress.”

“This Pope is different. He’s still conservative and he’s not changing doctrine, but he is changing the tone. He’s being a perceptive and sympathetic pastor.”

Harty points out that the Pope criticizes capitalism itself.

“This Pope’s focus is on the poor, so he sees the sins of capitalism as victimizing people through the inequities of our market economics,” Harty says. “The world’s poor are overrun by multinational corporations, which are larger than countries. The system is innately unequal because of the use and abuse of resources by the owners and power brokers. The Pope is motivated by the plight of the poor but sees capitalism and corporate crime as causing both poverty and pollution. Human and natural resources are at risk. But Pope Francis also sees self-centered consumers at fault. He charges both narcissistic materialism and unregulated capitalism for destroying the earth.”

[For the complete q/a format of the Interview with Sheila Harty, see page 29 Corporate Crime Reporter 35(12) September 14, 2015, print edition only.]

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