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Specialization and Rent-Seeking in Moral Enforcement: The Case of Confession

Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 443-61, 2009

UPF Economics and Business Working Paper No. 653

38 Pages Posted: 18 Jun 2003 Last revised: 11 Aug 2011

Benito Arruñada

Pompeu Fabra University

Date Written: January 1, 2003


Moral codes are produced and enforced by more or less specialized means and are subject to standard economic forces. This paper argues that the intermediary role played by the Catholic Church between God and Christians, a key difference from Protestantism, faces the standard trade-off of specialization benefits and agency costs. It applies this trade-off hypothesis to confession of sins to priests, an institution that epitomizes such intermediation, showing that this hypothesis fits cognitive, historical and econometric evidence better than a simpler rent-seeking story. In particular, Catholics who confess more often are observed to comply more with the moral code; however, no relationship is observed between mass attendance and moral compliance. The data also links the current decline in confession to the rise in education, which makes moral self-enforcement less costly, and to the productivity gap suffered by confession services, given its necessarily interpersonal nature.

Keywords: Religion, institutions, confession, morals, law enforcement

JEL Classification: D23, K19, L84, N4, Z1

Suggested Citation

Arruñada, Benito, Specialization and Rent-Seeking in Moral Enforcement: The Case of Confession (January 1, 2003). UPF Economics and Business Working Paper No. 653. Available at SSRN: or

Benito Arruñada (Contact Author)

Pompeu Fabra University ( email )

Ramon Trias Fargas 25-27
Department of Economics and Business
Barcelona, 08005
+34 93 542 25 72 (Phone)
+34 93 542 17 46 (Fax)


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