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Usury and the Love of Money: The Amazonian Synod, Chastisement for Our Betrayal

Usury and the Love of Money: The Amazonian Synod, Chastisement for Our Betrayal

By James Larson

It has often been said that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”. This speaks to the fact that being a true “witness” (the Greek meaning for the word “martyr”) to the Truth of Christ generates a light which draws and converts souls.
It may equally be said, however, that the hypocrisies, compromises, duplicities, and infidelities of Catholics generate the darkness of the heresies and apostasies through which the Gospel and Christian civilization are scorned and rejected. This of course can occur without the Church having ever directly contradicted any doctrinal teaching of the infallible Magisterium. And it is also true that at a certain level of such duplicity and compromise, the whole concept of Christian civilization becomes subject to the accusation that it is the traditional Church itself which is the primary villain responsible for the evils which now befall our modern world. This is precisely the claim that is now being made in preparation for the Amazonian Synod, and it now provides the fuel for claiming that all sorts of things must now be inculterated into Catholic belief, worship, and practice (especially among “indigenous peoples such as those living in the Amazonian Basin) which are profoundly in contradiction to traditional Catholic faith, morality, and worship.

There is no one area of such betrayal of Catholic belief and practice which now provides more fuel for this rejection of the teachings of Christ and the Church than does the accelerating prostitution (over a period of many centuries) of individual Catholics, Catholic nations, and the Church as a whole, to all that is in violation of the Gospel-based teaching on Usury and Profit. It is precisely such betrayal of the Church’s teaching which engendered the accumulation of the power of money in the hands of governments and large financial and industrial interests which led in turn to the exploitation of vast parts of the world. Because of this hypocrisy in relation to Christ’s teaching on poverty and simplicity of life, it is extraordinarily easy (especially on the part of “indigenous” peoples) to now justify identifying the institution of the Catholic Church itself with all of the exploitation of Third World countries which was committed by colonial Christian powers. And because this duplicity has necessarily created a deep sense of guilt (even though it be unconscious) among virtually all Catholics in relation to Christ and his teaching concerning the living of the Beatitudes, it should be easy to understand that such betrayal has also had the effect of sapping Catholics of the depth of spirituality and fortitude necessary to defend Christ and His teachings. For Christ’s enemies, both within and without the Church, the Amazonian Synod is now therefore providing the perfect venue for changing the traditional teachings and praxis of not only the local, but also the universal, Church.

The Fundamental Self-Deception: “Money is Not What It Used To Be.”
A friend, who is adept in Catholic apologetics, recently remarked that there is one accusation hurled at Catholics for which he had never been able to find an effective reply: namely, that the Church has changed its teaching on usury. The problem is only exasperated by the fact that those who should know how to counter this accusation almost invariably give us answers which seem designed to make us look foolish as Catholics. A very good example of such an “embarrassing argument” was rendered by Father William B. Smith in his “Questions Answered” column in the June, 2003 issue of Homiletic and Pastoral Review. In his reply to the question, “Does the Church still have a teaching on usury?”, he quotes Germain Grisez (Living Christian Life, vol.2, pp.833-34):
Lending money at interest raises a special question due to the historical controversy over usury. Church teaching condemned usury, and a superficial reading of economic history suggests that usury referred in earlier times to what today is called ‘interest’. However, money itself no longer is what it once was. Thus, while the Church’s teaching of earlier times remains true, today it can be just to charge interest on a loan.”
Now if we were to proffer such a reply to our Protestant or liberal Catholic antagonist, I would suspect they might reply: “If money is no longer what it once was”, is it just possible that marriage and the married act are not what they once were. Might it now be just, therefore, under our new understanding of what true love is all about, to permit divorce, re-marriage, sex outside of marriage, and homosexual marriages?” And despite the fact that there are some very real distinctions to be made between the “use” of money and the “use” of human sexuality, we would have difficulty coming out of such a conversation without a great deal of deserved egg all over our faces.
Nor does a wider perusal of writings on this subject necessarily bring much clarity to the subject. We have in our possession seven books on usury (only one being of post-Vatican II vintage), and it might accurately be said that none of them can provide a clear (not even to speak of definitive) judgment on the moral licitness of something even so simple as a car loan taken with interest. This seems truly extraordinary, since any reading of the vehement condemnations which are hurled against the practice of usury by Scripture, the early Church Fathers, and even Church Councils, would seem to indicate that there must exist a very clear doctrinal basis for such judgments and their applications.
As is so frequently the case, the best place to start in our attempt to attain to the truth in this matter is St. Thomas – this so because, in the words of Pope Pius XI, “the Church has adopted his philosophy for her own” (encyclical Studiorum Ducem, 11). “Thomas”, according to Pius XI, “wrote under the inspiration of the supernatural spirit which animated his life; and his writings, which contain the principles of, and the laws governing, all sacred studies, must be said to possess a universal character (Ibid).” And lest we think that such a mundane subject as money and its use do not fall under the category of “sacred studies” over which St. Thomas’s teaching is given dominion, the Pope writes the following:
He also composed a substantial moral theology, capable of directing all human acts in accordance with the supernatural last end of man. And as he is, as We have said, the perfect theologian, so he gave infallible rules and precepts of life not only for individuals, but also for civil and domestic society which is the object also of moral science, both economic and political. Hence those superb chapters in the second part of the Summa Theologica on paternal or domestic government, the lawful power of the State or the nation, natural and international law, peace and war, justice and property [within which are the chapters on unjust profit and usury], laws and the obedience they command, the duty of helping individual citizens in their need and cooperating with all to secure the prosperity of the State, both in the natural and the supernatural order. (Ibid. #20).”
Basic Principles
So, let us carefully look at St. Thomas’ infallible rules in regard to justice and property, usury and the “use” of money. We would ask the reader, while meditating upon the teaching of St. Thomas, to keep in mind Mr. Grisez’s statement that “however, money itself no longer is what it once was”. Over and over again when reading modern (and we use the word loosely to encompass approximately the past 250 years) discussions concerning usury, one encounters this notions that somehow things are now different – money is different, modern economies are different – and that somehow this “difference” makes what now might appear to be usurious and sinful not the same thing as it once was.
St. Thomas tells us that money is simply a medium of exchange for real goods. It is nothing in itself. To love it is therefore quite literally to love nothing of substance (it is, in fact, an all too human attempt to make substance out of nothing – an act which comes perilously close to mimicking God’s act of creating things out of nothing). The following is from the Summa Theologica (II-II, Q. 78, a.1):
To accept usury for the loan of money is in itself unjust; because this is selling what does not exist, and must obviously give rise to inequality, which is contrary to justice. For the better understanding of this point it should be noted that there are some things whose use lies in their consumption: as, for example, wine is consumed when it is used as drink, and wheat is consumed when it is used for food. In such cases the use of the thing and the thing itself cannot be separately taken into account, so that in such cases., the use of the thing must not be reckoned apart from the thing itself, and whoever is granted the use of the thing, is granted the thing itself, and for this reason, to lend things of this kind is to transfer the ownership. If a man were to sell separately both the wine and the use of the wine he would be selling the same thing twice over; that is he would be selling what does not exist: and he would clearly be sinning against justice. For the same reason he commits an injustice who requires two things in return for the loan of wine or wheat, namely the return of an equal quantity of the thing itself and the price of its use. This is what is called usury [and we must add, it is now called “interest”].
There are other things whose use does not lie in the consumption of the thing itself; as for instance the use of a house, which lies in the living in it and not in its destruction [or consumption]. In such cases both the use and the thing itself can be separately granted; as when, for instance, some one passes the ownership of a house to another, but reserves to himself the right to live there for a certain time; or on the other hand when some one grants the use of a house to another, reserving to himself its ownership. For this reason it is permissible for a man to accept a price [rent] for the use of a house, and in addition to sell the freehold of the house itself, as is clear in the sale and leasing of houses. “
Now money, according to the Philosopher [Aristotle], Ethics (V, 5), and Politics (I, 3), is devised mainly to facilitate exchange; and therefore the proper and principal use of money lies in its consumption or expenditure in the business of exchange. For this reason, therefore, it is wrong to accept a price, or money [interest], for the use of a sum of money which is lent.”
To summarize: money is simply a medium of exchange for real goods. It has no intrinsic value in itself. It is among those things which are called “consumptives” whose use cannot be separated from their substance. In other words, they are used by being consumed. With non-consumptive things like houses or horses (used for riding) one may legitimately sell their use separate from their substance; with things like food or money to charge an additional price (and we should make it clear here that we are here speaking of interest – let us not be confused by the attempt to whitewash the word “usury” by calling it “interest”) for their use over and above their substantive value is to engage in usury. In other words, one is basically selling or charging for what does not exist – the use of the thing separate from its consumption – and such a thing amounts to selling the same thing twice, and engaging in usury. By doing so the usurer is making money fruitful in a way which is profoundly against the commandment of God.
It certainly is easy for us to understand that when money is simply a medium of exchange, and its value accords with the real value of real goods, it would be downright foolish to “love money.” But when money is elevated to a thing which can become fruitful (a non-consumptive good) then money takes on a false sort of creative personality, and by “loving money” the person who is a usurer truly does endow himself with a power to mimic God – the ability to create resources of real wealth and power out of nothing. It is interesting that the Greek word for “love of money” is “philarguria” in which we should recognize the root of that love which is called “philos”, and is the love of profound friendship. It is not an accident therefore that St. James lays down the fundamental choice which we are called to make: “Whosoever therefore will be a friend (“philos”) of this world, becometh an enemy of God (James 4:4), and that Our Lord specifies this choice of friendship (and in this case, “service”) even further: “No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (Mt 6:24).” Mammon is, of course, simply personified money, embodying that fruitfulness which is the love affair of the usurer. With the sin of usury, in other words, we enter upon a path that leads to the most profound idolatry.
We see therefore that the problem of usury cannot be fully understood without understanding the much larger problem of money, wealth, and profit in general. It is, in fact, due to their failure to do so that the seven books on usury in our possession profoundly fail in their understanding of this subject. To begin with, it would be very helpful to quote the full passage from 1Timothy:
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world: and certainly we can carry nothing out. But having food, and wherewith to be covered, with these we are content. For they that will become rich, fall into temptation, and into the snare of the devil, and into many unprofitable and hurtful desires, which drown men into destruction and perdition.
For the desire (love) of money is the root of all evils; which some coveting have erred from the faith, and have entangled themselves in many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, fly these things: and pursue justice, godliness, faith, charity, patience, mildness .” (1Tim 6: 6-11).
St. Paul’s language is very powerful. We are to “fly” money and riches. They are a tool of the devil to “snare” us, to “drown” us into destruction and perdition (St. Francis actually called money “flies”). And most interesting, they have the power to draw us away from the faith, which means that they also (just as false philosophy and science) must have the power to draw us away from belief in the Being and existence of God. We shall return to this thought later. For now, let us be convinced that the subject of usury has to do with much more than simply defrauding the poor. It must be seen in the much larger context of profit and trade and their effects both on the individual human soul and upon society at large.
It should not be a surprise, therefore, that the chapter of the Summa which immediately precedes the one on usury deals with the subject of unjust profit-taking and trade. I hope the reader will bear with a fairly extensive quote, since it contains truths which have for the most part been lost to our cultural heritage:
Traders are those who apply themselves to the exchange of goods. But as the Philosopher says (IPolitics, ch.3) there are two reasons for the exchange of things. The first may be called natural and necessary; and obtains when exchange is made either of goods against goods, or of goods against money, to meet the necessities of life…. The other form of exchange, either of money against money or of any sort of goods against money, is carried on not for the necessary business of life, but for the sake of profit. And it is this form of exchange which would seem, strictly speaking, to be the business of traders. Now, according to the Philosopher, the first form of exchange, because it serves natural necessity, is praiseworthy. But the second form is rightly condemned; for of itself it serves only the desire for gain, which knows no limits but tends towards infinity. Therefore trading, considered in itself, always implies a certain baseness, in that it has not of itself any honest or necessary object.
Though profit, which is the object of trading does not of itself imply any honest or necessary aim, neither does it imply anything vicious or contrary to virtue. So there is nothing to prevent its being turned to some honest or necessary object. In this way trading is made lawful. Thus, for instance, a man may intend the moderate gain which he seeks to acquire by trading for the upkeep of his household, or for assisting the poor: or again, a man may take to trade for some public advantage, for instance, lest his country lack the necessaries of life, and seek gain, not as an end, but a payment for his labor” (Q. 78, a.1).
All this is simply a reiteration and clarification of the two main points made by St. Paul in his letter to Timothy: first, all men should be content with the necessities of life; and secondly, the seeking of profit for its own sake is a sin against the virtue of justice, the effects of which “drown men into destruction and perdition” and result in loss of the Christian faith.
Usury, being probably the primary means by which money is made “fruitful”, can be seen as the most effective way which Satan possesses in order to draw men away not only from that charity and justice which is due to the poor and one’s fellow man in general, but also towards God. And this is why usury is so little understood. It is usually considered almost exclusively as a sin which defrauds the poor of his goods; or, in the more modern view, a sin which exacts an unfair amount or percent of interest from a person in need. There have been several disastrous effects of this “narrow” view of usury: its deepest nature as a sin which is a profound affront to God (even to the point of idolatry) has been ignored; its profoundly destructive effect upon individual souls and nations has not been understood; and as a result of this ignorance and loss of vigilance, usury and unjust profit-taking have become institutionalized as the life- blood of the economies of all developed and so-called “prosperous” nations. And finally, this “serving of mammon” has culminated in the massive apostasy which we have with us today. After all, this is the absolutely logical and necessary fruit of such friendship with evil: “No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” The faith simply cannot be “sustained” in a culture devoted to profit and to unlimited material growth.
The Historical Process of Betrayal 
Having gained some understanding of the larger picture into which the sin of usury fits, we need next to come to an understanding of that process by which these truths have been ground out of our hearts and minds – that process by which money and usury have become “no longer what they once were” in the consciences of virtually all peoples, Christians and non-Christians alike. In order to do so, we will have to do some historical reviewing.
In the Old Testament usury is treated predominantly as a defrauding of the poor. In the Book of Exodus, for instance, we read, “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor, that dwelleth with thee, thou shalt not be hard upon them as an extortioner, nor oppress them with usuries (Ex 22:25).” In the Book of Ezechiel, we meet with what is probably scripture’s harshest condemnation of this practice: “[He] that giveth upon usury, and that taketh an increase: shall such a one live? He shall not live. Seeing he hath done all these detestable things, he shall surely die, his blood shall be upon him (Ez.18:13).” We should note here that this condemnation is rendered not just against “unfair” interest but against any interest whatsoever. We must mention one other thing about the teaching on usury in the Old Testament. Usury is forbidden within the Jewish community itself, and also with the stranger who dwells in the land. It is, however, allowed with the foreigner (Deut 18:20). This permission has led to much debate among moral theologians. St. Ambrose contends, for instance, that the “foreigner” here refers to the enemies of Israel, many of whom God ordered into extinction: “From him [the foreigner], it says there, demand usury, whom you rightly desire to harm, against whom weapons are lawfully carried. Upon him usury is legally imposed… From him exact usury whom it would not be a crime to kill” (De Tobia, xv:51 – quoted from The Idea of Usury, Benjamin N. Nelson, Princeton University Press, 1949).
Needless to say, neither St. Ambrose nor any other traditional moral theologian has justified any such taking of usury from the foreigner under the Christian dispensation. This question has often been compared to the toleration of divorce under the Old Dispensation. Such things can only be understood, at least partially, in terms of the fullness of the Christian dispensation, to which the Jewish covenant was only a foreshadowing. Christ told his hearers that Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of their hearts. With the full Revelation of God’s mercy through Jesus Christ and the coming of the demand of the fullness of justice to be lived in the grace of the Holy Spirit, such toleration has no justification. The same may be said for usury. The New Testament contains only one specific use of the term “usury”, and that is in the parable of the talents (Mt 25:27, Luke 19:23).” It is virtual universal opinion that this bears no relationship to the Church’s teaching on usury. There is, however, an enormous amount of teaching in the New Testament on money, profit- taking, avarice, justice towards the poor, and the virtue of cultivating poverty in all the facets of our life in this world. Some of these we have already quoted. There is also one specific passage in relation to lending which well deserves emphasis. In the Gospel of Luke Our Lords simply says, “Give mutually, hoping nothing thereby (Luke 6:35).” In commenting on this passage in his epistle Consuluit nos Pope Urban III (1185-87) wrote, “men of this kind [he is speaking to a specific case of usury] must be judged to act wrongly on account of the intention of gain which they have, since every usury and superabundance are prohibited by law, and they must be effectively induced in the judgment of souls to restore those things which have been thus received.”
This condemnation of the profit motive in itself (and separated from the legitimate but very moderate profit which may be sought to maintain the necessities of life) is the definitive teaching of the New Testament and the Church up until the Middle Ages. And since trading was very limited, and lending was virtually never done to the rich, usury was seen primarily to be involved with a defrauding of the poor. Canon 13 of the Second Lateran Council (1139) reads:
Moreover the detestable and shameful, and I say, insatiable rapacity of money lenders, forbidden both by divine and human laws throughout the Scripture in the Old and in the New Testament, we condemn, and we separate them from all ecclesiastical consolation, commanding that no archbishop, no bishop, no abbot of any rank, nor anyone in an order and in the clergy presume to receive moneylenders except with the greatest caution. But during their whole life let them be considered disreputable, and, unless they repent, let them be deprived of Christian burial.”
Around the thirteenth century the issue becomes far more complicated. With the increase of international trade we come increasingly to deal with financial transactions between men of substance. With this complexity comes the notion of extrinsic “titles”, “contracts”, or “entitlements” to a loan. First and foremost is the contract of partnership. Two men might enter into a partnership concerning a sailing venture to purchase spices overseas. The one furnishes his seamanship, etc., and the other furnishes a loan. Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241) issued a Decree on such a case as follows: “He who loans a sum of money to one sailing or going to market, since he has assumed upon himself a risk, is not to be considered a usurer who will receive something beyond his lot.”
Now, there are a couple of things noteworthy in this decision. First, this is not the kind of relatively risk-free loan a bank today would make. If the ship goes down, both the sailor and the lender lose out. For this reason the Church came to consider the additional “something” which the lender might ask not to be usurious because it involved proportionate risk. Such a partnership and arrangement was “extrinsic” to the actual loan, and gain was not considered unlawful interest since it was not taken from the loan itself.
Secondly, however, we must note that the possibility of “superabundance” and immoderate gain and “gain for itself” are nowhere here being addressed. Such a partnership or “extrinsic” contract is obviously wide open to abuse and violation of the Gospel’s condemnation of the desire for gain and profit-taking as ends in themselves. In other words, with the growth of international commerce and finance, the way was now opening up towards massive accumulation of wealth, and the Church appears to be accommodating itself to this situation. For the next few centuries, of course, these merchants and bankers will have to work around the Church’s teaching on usury. Their main weapon will be the multiplication and exploitation of such “extrinsic” contracts and titles.
During the next few centuries the number of extrinsic titles multiplied. Many of them, of course, could make moral sense if (and that is a very bold if) the intentions of the lender were in accord with the just (and very limited and moderate) cases laid out for us by St. Paul and St. Thomas which make trading for profit legitimate. As stated earlier, the determination of such legitimacy must be firmly established upon two principles: first, all men should be content with the necessities of life; and secondly, the seeking of profit for its own sake is a sin against the virtue of justice, the effects of which “drown men into destruction and perdition” and result in loss of the Christian faith.
In the expanding world of the mercantilism, nationalism, and international finance and commerce of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, however, the Christian life of mandatory simplicity easily became lost. Faced with the expanding horizon of increasing comforts, luxuries, and profits available for trade and increased production, coupled with hypocrisy, duplicity, and subtlety which was the inheritance of the threefold concupiscence of original sin, it was not difficult to invent a whole new language (especially in relation to “extrinsic” titles) devoted to obscuring what was in fact a violation of the two principle formulated above: being content with the necessities of life, and resisting any temptation to seek profit for its own sake. Basically, this “newspeak” was established on two fundamental alterations: 1) the substitution of the word “interest” for usury: 2) the substitution of the word “investment” for loan. We can see the deceit in the following example. If a person were to “loan” money to someone venturing on some enterprise which was expected to yield much profit, and he in return demanded “interest”, then this would be considered by the Church to be usury. But, if he were to “invest” in such a venture expecting such profit, then this would now be considered by the Church to be legitimate. In either case, however, there existed a violation of the fundamental Gospel precept of poverty (firmly rooted in the first Beatitude which demands a “poverty of spirit” –and therefore also a practical living of the virtue of poverty) towards all the goods of this world.
It was also easy for the Church, concerned with not appearing backward in an expanding world of Renaissance culture, finance, and scientific advances (“aggiornamento” is indeed a very ancient vice), to become reluctant in issuing sharp and across-the-board condemnations of such “progress”, and wary of issuing specific condemnations. The Fifth Lateran Council (1515) issued the following teaching on usury: “For this is the proper interpretation of usury; when one seeks to acquire gain from the use of a thing which is not fruitful, with no labor, no expense, and no risk on the part of the lender.” We might well imagine the delight of the moneylenders waiting in the wings, with their minds spinning out extrinsic titles which would enable them to put the concepts of “labor”, “expense’, and “risk” to their advantage in the accumulation of profit and “gain”.
The extrinsic title which would eventually open up the floodgates of universal acceptance of usury as justifiable “interest” is called lucrum cessans. Noonan (John T. Noonan Jr., The Scholastic Analysis of Usury, p. 118) tells us that Cardinal Hostiensis was “the first author to give unmistakable and full approval to a case of lucrum cessans in his work Commentaria super libros decretalium (approximately 1260):
“For, in what is added to the principal, the seeking of interest is not prohibited, but only the seeking of shameful gain or of other illicit increment, as appears in Causa 14, Q.4, Si oblitus. Therefore, I think from the intention of the above laws, that if some merchant, who is accustomed to pursue trade and the commerce of the fairs and there profit much, has, out of charity to me, who needs it badly, lent money with which he would have done business, I remain obliged from this to his interesse [interest], provided that nothing is done in fraud of usury….”
This is a most crucial point in our discussion of usury, and we cannot emphasize too much the following point. The merchant in Cardinal Hostiensis’ example is one who “is accustomed to pursue trade and the commerce of the fairs and there profit much.” His life is therefore devoted to that “shameful gain” and “superabundance” which is condemned by the Gospel and St. Thomas (and, of course, the early Church Fathers). The interesse is being justified on the grounds that during this period of the loan he is being deprived of this money “with which he could have done business” and “profited much.” In other words, not only is there no connection in this case between the charging of interest and legitimate necessity, but the interest itself is being charged precisely on the basis of what St. Thomas calls “the greed for gain, which knows no limit and tends to infinity.” Ominously, and strangely enough, Cardinal Hostiensis no longer considered such “greed for gain” (despite his having used the phrase “shameful gain”) to be shameful in itself, and he denies that such “interest” constitutes usury.
On the other hand, according to Noonan, St. Thomas “rejects completely the claim of compensation for profit lost” [lucrum cessans], and thus places himself in direct opposition to this teaching of Cardinal Hostiensis. Thomas teaches:
One ought not to sell what one does not yet have [St. Thomas is here referring to potential gain] and may be prevented from having in many ways.” (Summa Theologica, II-II:78:2, ad 1).
There is simply no question about who has won this battle. The modern world is awash in a sea of interest justified by both “investment for production” and lucrum cessans. There is now always justification in our capitalistic economies for claiming that any money lent to another, or invested in his ventures for production and profit, could have been turned to profit elsewhere. This is, of course, exactly what is meant when it is said by our theologians and apologists for usury that “money is no longer what it once was” – that modern economics justify the almost universal taking of interest or profit on a loan or investment. The effect of this is to make the profit motive and the desire for “gain” the very air we breathe. And similar to that reductive scientific “ambience” (covered extensively in other writings) which has deprived our intellects of that intuitive apprehension of being which is necessary to divine faith, so this “spirit of gain” (with its roots in usury) has deprived our hearts of that single eye which seeks God above and in all things. These are the two primary legs of secular humanism which have carried us into our present massive apostasy.
It is an extremely important thing to realize that the Church’s teaching office has never given any official sanction to lucrum cessans. This is revealing, since it clearly has given sanction to the legitimacy of some other extrinsic titles. We have already noted Pope Gregory IX’s approval of the title of partnership (which in itself was a violation of the traditional teaching concerning “immoderate gain”). Another is the approval of the so-called “Mountains of Piety” by the Fifth Lateran Council, by which civil authorities charged a certain moderate rate of interest for the maintaining of charitable organizations devoted to the service of the poor. This permission was given, of course, on the basis that there was “no profit” for the same “mountains” or charitable organizations. Such “titles” were truly aimed at insuring moderate compensation where necessary, while preventing all incentive to unjustified or immoderate gain.
We are now prepared to examine the Church’s position in modern times (which we loosely define as the past 250-300 years). And since we believe it will help keep things in perspective, we wish to first give an answer to the question of “Has the Church changed its teaching on usury?” The Church has not changed its teaching on usury, but has retreated from applying its teaching (especially in its full relationship to “unjust gain” or profit) to the situation of modern economies. In other words, it has in principle and practice (and we shall see this very strong statement unequivocally justified as we proceed) prostituted itself to the modern world.
The Modern Descent into the Root of All Evil
Any study of the modern history of the Church’s teaching on usury naturally begins with Pope Benedict XIV’s encyclical Vix Pervenit. The encyclical was addressed only to the bishops of Italy in 1745, but later applied to the whole Church by the Congregation of the Inquisition in 1835. Its definition of usury runs as follows:
The species of sin which is called usury, and which has its roots in the contract of mutuum [the lending of a consumptive, which is, as we have seen, is what money is], consists in this: solely on the ground of the mutuum, the nature of which is to require that only so much be returned as was received, a person demands that more be returned to him than was received; and so maintains that, solely on the ground of the mutuum, some profit is owed to him over and above the principal.”
This is also the same essential definition of usury given in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Interestingly enough, the new Code of Canon Law does not mention usury, which would seem to indicate that the subject is no longer considered important. The descent into the complete embrace of Mammon would now seem complete.
Vix Pervenit also contains the following passage regarding extrinsic titles or “entitlements”:
By these remarks, however, We do not deny that at times together with the loan contract certain other titles – which are not at all intrinsic to the contract – may run parallel with it. From these other titles, entirely just and legitimate reasons arise to demand something over and above the amount due on the contract.”
The following is also of importance to our discussion:
We exhort you not to listen to those who say that today the issue of usury is present in name only, since gain is almost always obtained from money given to another. How false is this opinion and how far removed from the truth! We can easily understand this if we consider that the nature of one contract differs from the nature of another. By the same token, the things which result from these contracts will differ in accordance with the varying nature of the contracts. Truly an obvious difference exists between gain which arises from money legally, and therefore can be upheld in the courts of both civil and canon law, and gain which is illicitly obtained, and must therefore be returned according to the judgments of both courts [note that there is here no mention of that primary concern of the Gospel, the early Church, and St. Thomas that gain in order to be licit must also not be sought for itself, and must serve very modest and specific purpose for the individual and common good]. Thus, it is clearly invalid to suggest, on the grounds that some gain is usually received from money lent out, that the issue of usury is irrelevant to our times.”
There is nothing new here. The traditional prohibition against interest within a loan contract is restated. The Pope recognizes the existence of legitimate extrinsic titles that can allow something extra to be taken for a loan (but not in a loan). No specific titles are given approval, but only a vague warning against over-application of such titles. And, as we noted, there is no discussion of the strict Gospel and Thomistic limitations on profit and gain. Most strange of all is paragraph 6 of the encyclical:
Concerning the specific contract which caused these new controversies, We decide nothing for the present; We also shall not decide now about the other contracts in which the theologians and canonists lack agreement. Rekindle your zeal for piety and your conscientiousness so that you may execute what we have given.”
There is possibly no paragraph in the history of all of Papal and Church documents which is laced with as much absurdity and tragedy as is this one. There is a refusal on the part of the Pope to give any judgment on any specific case regarding any specific extrinsic contracts regarding this absolutely crucial question. And after this refusal, the bishops are then instructed to “rekindle your zeal for piety and your conscientiousness so that you may execute what we have given.” We might well ask precisely what were these bishops supposed to “execute? As a matter of fact, as we shall see, the policy of the Church would now become that of systematic refusal to “execute” its own traditional teaching on usury, or for that matter, any teaching whatsoever.
According to Rev. Patrick Cleary (The Church and Usury, 1919 – recently re-published and available from Catholic Treasures in Monrovia, Cal.), this refusal to make decisions on individual cases prevailed for the next 77 years. Specific inquiries were, for the most part, referred to Benedict IV’s encyclical, which as we have seen, refused to specify or make judgments on any particular case. The following case documents a change in Church policy which, according to Cleary, “becomes apparent for the first time in the year 1822”: “
A certain woman of Lyons had lent her money demanding in return the rate of payment allowed by the recently enacted civil legislation, and in consequence was denied absolution by her confessor until she should restore her ill-gotten gain. She referred the question to Rome, and the answer ran, “Let the petitioner be informed that a reply will be given to her questions when the proper time arrives; meanwhile, even though she make no restitution, she may receive sacramental absolution from her confessor if she is fully prepared to submit to the instructions of the Holy See.”
This case was only the first in a long list of very similar decisions of the Holy Office. Note that in the above case there was never any consideration given to the question of legitimate titles. The refusal to make a judgment would seem to apply across the board on any case of usury. We may simply say that the Holy Office in these cases, at the very least, quite literally absolved moral indifference and indecision right within the Sacrament of the Confessional. The Teaching Arm of the Church retreated on the subject and was made silent. The Church had not changed its teaching, but it had severely compromised its moral integrity. This is something that God can allow. We must presume that it is a chastisement.
Where We Are Now
“The Church is struck within and so in peace is my peace most sorrowful. But what is peace? There is peace and there is no peace. There is peace from the pagans and peace from the heretics, but no peace from the children.” (Pius VI, 1775).
In the 1970’s and 80’s the Vatican became increasingly embroiled in what has come to be called the Vatican Bank Scandal. At the center of these scandals was Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the American-born priest who was the president of the Vatican Bank from 1971-1989. Many articles and books have detailed the history of this scandal. It will suffice to say that in the mid 1980’s , according to a report in the Arizona Republic, “Italian civil authorities tried to arrest Marcinkus in connection with a stunning array of crimes, including assassination financing, arms smuggling, and trafficking in stolen gold, counterfeit currencies and radioactive materials. Italian authorities also wanted to talk to Marcinkus regarding what he knew about numerous murders. Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, most every key player involved in schemes with Marcinkus ended up dead.” Again, according to the Republic, “In the past six month, the Marcinkus case has taken on renewed interest around the world. Attorneys for Croatian holocaust victims want Marcinkus deposed in their billion-dollar case. They want to know what Marcinkus knows about hundreds of millions of dollars taken from Croatians by the Nazis during World War II. Authorities have discovered that much of the money passed through the Vatican Bank during Marcinkus’ tenure as bank president (1971-1989). Indeed, a 1998 U.S. State Department report confirmed that at least $47 million of Nazi gold was laundered by Marcinkus’ bank. The money ‘was originally held in the Vatican before being moved to Spain and Argentina,’ the report said.”
All through this process Archbishop Marcinkus remained protected under the umbrella of Vatican diplomatic immunity. After his “retirement,” and until his death in 2006, he resided in Sun City, Arizona. He denied all charges of wrongdoing, and became famous for his reply, “You cannot run the Church on Hail Marys.”
The situation seems to have only gotten worse. A former head of the Vatican Bank (2009-12), Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, was forced by its Board to retire, and recently stated that he almost lost his faith and feared he could be assassinated at the instigation of some members of the Roman Curia, the Church’s administrative body, as he attempted to tackle corruption within the banking organization (from a LSN article). And Cardinal Pell, appointed by Pope Francis to ostensibly clean up the Vatican Finances as the first Prefect for the newly established Secretariat of the Economy, is now in jail under a conviction of sexual abuse (now being appealed) which many believe to the most trumped-up case of injustice in Australian judicial history.
It is not our purpose here to make any judgment on these allegations, nor is any such judgment necessary to our purpose. What is important here is to realize to what extent these events have revealed the Church’s involvement in the financial practices, and pursuit of shameful gain, in prostitution to the economics of the modern secular world. It would seem quite indisputable that, without even considering all sorts of ventures which are illegal under civil law, the Vatican is immersed in the practice of usury and has thoroughly accommodated itself to modern economic policies and pursuits. The Second Lateran Council in 1137 declared that anyone involved in such practices should be deprived of Christian burial. The New Code of Canon Law issued in 1984 did not even consider the subject worth mentioning.
The charism of Infallibility guarantees that the Church will never teach falsely on faith and morals. It does not guarantee, however, that Church hierarchy at all periods of history will reiterate these teachings or put them into practice. The lesson that we must learn from our study of the Church’s policy towards usury and unjust gain over a period of almost 2,000 years is that it is practically possible for Catholics en masse to lose certain moral roots in Christ, with virtually no one, hierarchy included, knowing that it has happened. It is only necessary that we enter into a process of compromise, failing in that fortitude which is necessary in order to confront a world which is in violation of the Gospel. And when that happens to whole nations and civilizations over an extended period of time, then it becomes virtually impossible to find our way back simply because no one can remember, or wants to remember, the Gospel- based answers to the questions we might feel impelled to ask. We may even say, at this point in time, that hardly any one even knows the question which should be asked.
We must remember that St. Paul tells us that the effect of the love of money is loss of faith. We really cannot serve both God and mammon. Therefore, considering the fact that love of money has now become enshrined in the universal acceptance of profit-taking through usury and investment in unending “progress”, and that virtually every cultural institution is in slavery to the power of money, we have every reason to believe that Christ was not being rhetorical when He posed a question as to whether there would be any faith left on earth upon His return.
The spirit of Antichrist now rises before us in a geometrically-expanding Spectre of the power of money, reductive science, and technological control over all our lives. It has been fueled and consolidated in power not by our being poor, but by our increasing desire for and consumption of the goods of this world, which have fed the coffers and power of those seeking the destruction of Christian civilization. Its ascension to power over all of our lives was inevitable once we abandoned the living of the Beatitudes, and when we began believing that the Gospel of Christ was compatible with unending human “progress”. As discussed in our article St. Francis of Assisi, They Pretended to Love You So That They Might Leave You, God presented us with the extraordinary grace of the life and charism of Poverty of St. Francis in the beginning of the 13th Century in order to prevent this rise. It was rejected, and we are now faced with what appears to be the impending total embrace of the Prince of this World.
It is of course impossible to totally erase what has happened. The web is spun, and the whole world is profoundly enmeshed. If usury, and what centuries of Christian betrayal have now firmly established as the seemingly universal thirst and economics for insatiable progress and gain, were abolished tomorrow, the world would be immediately immersed in chaos, anarchy, starvation, etc. But this does not at all mean there is no recourse left for those who truly seek the Hearts of Our Lord and Our Lady.
We must first begin by extracting ourselves from the Great Lie. The Gospel is not compatible with unending human progress in relation to the things of this world. It can only thrive in a poverty practiced towards all of the same. The Teilhardian Evolutionary theology which now threatens to become dominant in the Church through the Amazonian Synod, and which deceptively declares itself open to every sort of inclusiveness and denial of Catholic Doctrine, is in reality a vicious monster in adoration of human progress and evolutionary becoming. It is the precise inversion of the Gospel in the intellectual realm, and therefore of Faith itself. But this aberration in the intellectual realm could only have risen out of the insatiable thirst for progress and gain which blinds the mind and heart of man to the immutable Truth and Being of God, and immerses him in the rivers of his own pride and becoming.
Secondly, despite the obvious horrors that are now occurring in regard to the Church hierarchy, the Amazonian Synod, etc, we must first say “We have sinned”, rather than “They have sinned.” And we must believe it, and be convinced of its truth. Ultimately, the source of the present chastisement is the prostitution of each one of us to the world, in denial of the Cross of Christ. There could not have arisen a Teilhard de Chardin, an Amazonian Synod, the inward dissolution of Christian Civilization, or the spectre of Antichrist if Catholics had been faithful to the image of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in the simplicity of their life at Nazareth.
None of us, of course, can now extract ourselves completely from the world we have built. But we may certainly believe that, in the midst of a perverse generation, Our Lord will immensely bless all of our sincere and creative attempts to divest ourselves of its trappings, and to live much simpler lives. It is of course true that the flesh is weak, and old habits die very hard. But it is even more true that in these times Our Lady has proclaimed Her Heart to be an extraordinary place of Refuge, possessing the graces and powers of the Holy Spirit which will be the Way to God. Surely, foremost among these must be the inward grace and power to live in imitation of Her Son. As those who proclaim to still be Catholic, let us immerse ourselves in the Immaculate Heart of Mary in collective prayer in order to obtain these graces for our own interior purification. The final determinant of our honesty and integrity before God must begin with ourselves and our sincere desire to return to living the Beatitudes – all of which are firmly rooted in the poverty of spirit which strives to serve God with all our heart, rather than Mammon.
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