Sin Like the Economy Depends On It

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.”

Dale Ahlquist

By

Dale Ahlquist is the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society. He is the creator and host of the Eternal Word Television Network series, "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense." Dale is the author of G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and the recently published The Complete Thinker. He is also the publisher of Gilbert Magazine, and associate editor of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius). He lives near Minneapolis with his wife and six children.

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  • waynergf

    So…you’re saying the Church teaches that *no* interest be charged on money loaned? But…but…just yesterday a Catholic Exchange article argued the *other* way: *some* (reasonable) interest was OK and justified…

    “Lets’ get together, yeah, yeah, yeah…”

  • Joe DeVet

    True to his guru, GKC, Dale Ahlquist is clever, smart, and entertaining. And he makes a lot of sense until he starts talking about economics.

  • http://thatstrangestofwars.com danlord

    Hello waynergf and Joe DeVet: usury, by definition, does not mean simply the charging of interest, but the charging of exorbitant interest, and it’s a sin. Dale seems well aware of that fact–in spite of that Psalm 15 example he gives (which isn’t a good translation)–his other Scripture references, and the whole tone of the article, make pretty clear that he knows full well that charging a reasonable interest on a loan is legitimate.

  • Joe DeVet

    The common definition of “usury” is excessive and/or illegally high interest rates. It’s definitely not clear whether that is the sense in which Ahlquist uses the word. His references to debt, etc. betray an attitude that borrowing per se (ie, borrowing and paying interest on the loan) is the problem. Most of the debt he refers to in the article is debt for which the interest rate is assuredly legal and reasonable. I think what Ahlquist means by “usury” is any interest paid on a loan.

    BTW, I share Ahlquist’s concern for excessive debt, underwater mortgages, etc. It’s a real problem. The problem, however, is not usury but imprudent levels of debt, including the proximate cause of our finacial crisis in 2008–government-mandated mortgage lending to parties unlikely to repay. This is not, per se, a “usury” problem.

    When I say Ahlquist makes no sense talking economics, I’m very aware of his advocacy for a self-contradictory and immoral economic “system” called “distributism”–which was a flight of fancy by his intellectual hero, Chesterton. This screed against “usury” is an offshoot of that advocacy, I would imagine.

  • moniconnects

    Thankyou, waynergf, for that clarification. As I was reading this article, I was wishing usury would be defined therein, as I,too, thought that it was exhorbitant interest the Church had issue with. I vaguely remember way back, say 25 or more years ago when someone challenged in court the very high interest rates certain credit cards at the time were charging. In that ruling came our use of the term “finance charge”, which, thus, according, to the court, made the credit card exempt from usury laws. I thought then, we are in big trouble. And so we are. Pray, pray, pray…

  • Joe DeVet

    The banning of even high interest rates is problemmatic, it seems to me.

    No one holds a gun to our head and forces us to use credit cards to excess, and to incur high interest rates thereby. The card companies are probably right to charge high rates in certain instances because of their own risk of holding the bag on loans which don’t get repaid. If the borrowers wish to avoid high rates they have many, many alternatives. And if they don’t, they probably deserve to pay high rates because they represent a significant risk that the loan won’t be repaid.

    Yes, the state can ban high rates, and the Church condemn them. Then those who have poor credit won’t be able to get a loan at all. Even if they are in dire short-term straits and would be able to repay the loan quickly. Like so many regulations, this one which amounts to “saving people from themselves” can often harm the very ones it is trying to help.

    In any case, the breach of freedom represented by usury laws (or even by moral condemnation of usury) seems to me problemmatic.

  • http://thatstrangestofwars.com danlord

    Hi Joe: you write:
    Most of the debt he refers to in the article is debt for which the interest rate is assuredly legal and reasonable. I think what Ahlquist means by “usury” is any interest paid on a loan.

    That isn’t right, nor do you give examples. Again, his Scripture references overwhelmingly back up “usury as exorbitant interest,” not mere “interest,” and his Church council references were all against exorbitant interest, not merely interest. Even further against your thesis, nowhere does he define usury as merely interest paid on a loan.

  • Joe DeVet

    danlord, since Ahlquist doesn’t define usury, we are left to infer what he means by it.

    Since the scripture references do not define usury either, we are left with the same problem. (If I’m wrong on this point, and you can identify the annual percentate rate above which the scripture references call it “usury”, and below which they would accept it as justified “interest”, please specify what that rate is.)

    All I have by way of examples of what Ahlquist means by usury are the contemporary examples he gives. And, as I’ve said, the interest rates on the great bulk of debt he identifies as problemmatic (because of usury, so he says) are both reasonable and legal. From this I conclude that Ahlquist equates interest with usury.

    About as daffy as his thinking distributism is a good idea!

  • http://thatstrangestofwars.com danlord

    Hi Joe, the Scripture references are very clear-the Ex 22 reference commands people not to act like “extortioners” towards the poor or “oppress them with usuries.” No one could say they were experiencing extortion if they were given a loan and asked to pay a certain small fee for it to be paid back in a reasonable amount of time. The Leviticus and Deuteronomy chapters forbid usury–and, again, usury’s definition is: exorbitant interest. It has no meaning if some acceptable form of interest isn’t understood by all parties involved. Church teaching has clearly, consistently forbid usury, as well, just as Ahlquist describes.
    As far as Ahlquist’s “contemporary examples” of usury he purposely doesn’t get too specific–his point is to speak in principle about the evils of usury and to insist that it has played a role in our current economic problems–and there’s no doubt that, in addition to the bad decisions of people to live beyond their means and accept foolish terms on loans and mortgages, on the other end of that spectrum are bona fide usurers licking their chops over the high interest rates they’ve managed to get in writing. We are all bearing the burden of that greed.

  • http://thatstrangestofwars.com danlord

    Also, Joe: when you write “since Ahlquist doesn’t define usury, we are left to infer what he means by it,” isn’t it most likely that he doesn’t define it precisely because he means what everyone means by it: exorbitant interest?

  • lewisfamily555

    Intrigued by the partial quote from St. Thomas Aquinas, I decided to look it up and read it in context. If you wish to do the same, you may find it here: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3078.htm

    Although I have also heard about usury being defined (or maybe redefined) as charging “exorbitant” interest, I cannot find anything in historical writings nor in more modern official teaching that would support such a claim. Could someone help to point me in the right direction?

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