Purpose – Informed by the work of Laughlin and Booth, this paper aims to analyze the role of accounting and accountability practices within the fifteenth century Roman Catholic Church, more specifically within the Diocese of Ferrara (northern Italy), in order to determine the presence of a sacred-secular dichotomy. Pope Eugenius IV had embarked on a comprehensive reform of the Church to counter the spreading moral corruption within the clergy and the subsequent disaffection with the Church by many believers. The reforms were notable not only for the Pope's determination to restore the moral authority and power of the Church, but also for the essential contributions of “profane” financial and accounting practices to the success of the reforms.
Design/methodology/approach – Original fifteenth century Latin documents and account books of the Diocese of Ferrara are used to highlight the link between the new sacred values imposed by Pope Eugenius IV's reforms and accounting and accountability practices.
Findings – The documents reveal that secular accounting and accountability practices were not regarded as necessarily antithetical to religious values, as would be expected by Laughlin and Booth. Instead, they were seen to assume a role which was complementary to the Church's religious mission. Indeed, they were essential to its sacred mission during a period in which the Pope sought to arrest the moral decay of the clergy and reinstate the Church's authority.
Research limitations/implications – The paper shows that the sacred-secular dichotomy cannot be considered as a priori valid in space and time. There is also scope for examining other Italian dioceses where there was little evidence of Pope Eugenius' reforms.
Originality/value – The paper presents a critique of the sacred-secular divide paradigm by considering an under-researched period and a non-Anglo Saxon context.