The Catholic Church is always condemned for condemning sins. Since we are all sinners, sin is the last thing we want to hear about. But of course, if we don’t confess our sins and flee from our sins, sin is the last thing we will hear about. That’s why the Church has a certain obligation to keep bringing these things up.
The Church has to do the hard and thankless work of condemning sins. There are few folks—well, more than a few—who do not consider the Church a trustworthy authority on the subject of sin. They are quick to point out that priests and bishops and even popes have turned out to be guilty of the same sins they have condemned. But this excuse for questioning the authority of the Church doesn’t wear well. It is hypocritical to criticize hypocrites. The more interesting challenge is this: do sins change? Or rather, does the Catholic Church condemn something as being a sin in one age, but excuse it as not being a sin in another age? This is an argument that is often used against the Church’s moral teaching.
In the 1960s many people in the Catholic Church were anticipating that Pope Paul VI would issue an encyclical that would permit contraception. Some argued that there was precedent for such a change in the Church’s teaching. After all, the Church once condemned usury as a sin, but no longer did.
But the encyclical Humane Vitae surprised and infuriated a lot of people: the Pope upheld the Church’s teachings instead of altering them. He also warned about what would happen if the world embraced a contraceptive mentality: it would lead to abortion, divorce, and sexual perversion. Turned out he was right.
But in the social and religious chaos of the second half of the twentieth century, most everyone missed an important point that is now coming to bear on the economic chaos of the early twenty-first century: the Church also never changed her teaching on usury. Like contraception, usury is still a sin.
It was condemned right from the beginning. In Psalm 15, which is read on the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear: “Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy mountain? Whoever walks without blame, doing what is right, speaking truth from the heart…who keeps an oath despite the cost, lends no money at interest…” Take a look also at Exodus 22:24, Leviticus 25:36-27, Deuteronomy 23:20, all of which clearly forbid usury.
Usury was also condemned by the Pagan philosophers Plato and Aristotle.
The theme was taken up by St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and other Church Fathers, who attacked usury in no uncertain terms. Several popes, including St. Leo the Great, Gregory IX and Innocent III spoke out against usury. In the fourteenth century, Pope Benedict XIV issued an encyclical specifically upholding the condemnation against usury, saying the Church had not changed her position (just as Pope Paul VI made clear with regards to contraception). At least five Church Councils condemned usury, including the famous Council of Nicaea, which gave us our Creed, and the Second Lateran Council, which called usury “despicable and blameworthy by divine and human laws.”
The great Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, makes it clear: “To take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this…leads to inequality which is contrary to justice.” He argues that economic exchange is necessary to maintain a society, but unjust exchange will destroy a society, and usury, as he points out, is an example of unjust exchange.
Even Chaucer wrote that usury is “hateful to Christ and to His company.”
The Church did not change her position against usury. The problem is the world changed its position. As G.K. Chesterton says, during the high point of Christian society, usury was “everywhere denounced and forbidden.” But now it is “everywhere flattered and condoned.” What was condemned by all of Western civilization for centuries, led by the Church, was suddenly embraced by that civilization in the wake of the Reformation and the Enlightenment—and the rejection of faith and reason. Chesterton points out that as we have grown “much vaguer about usury being usury,” we have grown much vaguer about all the other sins being sinful.
And what do we have to show for our ignoring this teaching of the Church? A $12.86 trillion consumer debt. More than 20 percent of home mortgages that exceed the value of the property. A government that keeps spending money that it does not have. A borrowing mentality that never considers how it is going to pay anything back. Economic collapse. As Chesterton warns, echoing the popes and the saints before him, usury devours and destroys: “It is a gigantic heap of debt, like a heap of dirt. It is a heap of debts hoarded until they have gone bad. It is now a heap of bad debts which a little more bad debt will send toppling into the mire.”
Interestingly enough, there is a connection between contraception and usury. Both are a form of taking the pleasure without paying for it, of being irresponsible and selfish, rather than fruitful and charitable. “Usury,” says Chesterton, “is in its nature at war with life.”
But just as most people don’t want to hear about the sin of contraception, most people don’t want to hear about the sin of usury. Because most people don’t want to hear about sin. That continues to be a problem. But prophets like Chesterton remind us about these things, even if we don’t listen. “Though men may grow used to usury, and even practice it without shame under the present professional standard, yet God does not grow used to usury, any more than to murder or to devil-worship…” Strong words.
And to anyone who would make the argument that our economy and our society depend on ignoring this Church teaching, Chesterton offers an equally stern rebuke: “It is a lie to say that the monstrous complicated accumulation of modern finance is essential to civilization, or the social and moral well-being of ordinary men and women.”
How do we get out of the mess we are in? Looks like I’m out of space! I will suggest, however, that we could start by praying the Our Father, and considering its literal meaning, which is: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”