“For God and Profit” by Samuel Gregg: a brief review of Chapters 1-3

August 22, 2016 § 5 Comments

If you are one of the folks who purchased For God and Profit by Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute in the hope of receiving a fair hearing on the subject of usury, you will unfortunately be disappointed.

To all appearances[1] the book provides an interesting review of economic history in general, and more specifically of the Catholic contribution to entrepreneurship and economic life as a positive endeavor which contributes to the flourishing of individuals and the common good.

Unfortunately, when it comes to usury specifically the text is most notable for what it misapprehends and leaves out.  In particular, while selectively curated arguments of this individual or that about extrinsic titles and the like feature throughout the first three chapters dealing with the history of usury in the Church, actual citations of the Magisterium are thin on the ground.

Perhaps this is because the author does not own or have access to a copy of Denzinger. He writes:

In the first place, there appears to have been no significant effort by the Church to define what constitutes a loan, let alone the specific characteristics of different types of loans.

If the author had access to a copy of Denzinger he would be aware that the Magisterium actually has done this.  But you won’t find citations of Regimini Universalis (or Cum Onus, for that matterin this book.

Nor does even Vix Pervenit, the papal encyclical equivalent to Humanae Vitae on the subject of usury, show up when I search my Kindle version of the text.  Gregg makes the usual mistake of distinguishing a mutuum from other kinds of loans based on the kind of property which is lent.  But if he had read Vix Pervenit he would know that the distinction between usurious loans and licit contracts for profit is not in the nature of what is lent: it is in the nature of the contract:

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. – Vix Pervenit (Emphasis mine).

The author cites Aquinas as approving of some extrinsic titles on mutuum loans (e.g. damnum emergens, as I mention in the Usury FAQ).  This is I suppose a way of rhetorically putting the weight of the Dumb Ox behind the book’s liberal presentation of usury as something manifest, not in objective behaviors, but in bad intentions.  Notably absent is Aquinas’ unequivocal condemnation of contractual profit on mutuum loans — loans of any kind of property whatsoever, not just ‘consumables’.

This is not to say that this book has no value.  Like the author, I see two trends in Christian thought when it comes to money, investment, and property: there are those who see property and commerce as mostly evil, and those who see it as mostly good.  Most of this is based in incomprehension, as the author notes:

But how do we determine when a particular burden of debt accumulated by an individual, business, or government has become morally problemmatic?[2] … In many instances, the rhetoric of some Christians concerning money and contemporary finance is long on indignation but short on how, for instance, particular financial instruments work.

What makes this ironic is that the author himself does not appear to know precisely what kinds of profits the Church has and has not condemned – indeed, he openly[3] denies that the Magisterium has even made clarifying pronouncements.  I suppose that isn’t too surprising given that he appears to be unaware of specific Magisterial pronouncements on precisely that point.

But our mutual agreement that most commentators on usury have no idea what they are talking about – don’t understand financial reality or the way various kinds of public and private financial securities work – is about as far as it goes.  When it comes to usury this book is just another exercise in avoiding moral clarity.

[UPDATE 8-23-2016: Post lightly edited.]


[1] As of this writing I have read the first three chapters, in which Gregg discusses the history of usury as the centerpiece of his overall thesis.

[2] I’ll note just in passing the focus on the borrower here, as opposed to the lender.

[3] And oddly.  It seems more than a little strange for a Catholic scholar recounting the history of usury to avoid even mentioning Vix Pervenit.  That would be like a Catholic scholar recounting the history of contraception while avoiding all mention of Humanae Vitae.  But I suppose that is how the memory hole works.

An unexpected connection between usury and sedevacantism

June 27, 2016 § 287 Comments

Warning: in this post I am kind of talking out of my hat, just sharing something I recently discovered.  I haven’t done the sort of due diligence that would warrant a strong view on my part.  This is just one of those things that make me go “hmmm.”

A personal admission: I tend to get bored out of my mind when I start to read sedevacantist material (articles expressing and attempting to justify the view that there is presently no Pope of Rome, and that the man who presently appears to be Pope is not in fact the Pope).  In my experience, the folks advancing those arguments tend to be completely unaware of their own metaphysical baggage.  At the very least their metaphysical baggage remains hidden and unacknowledged — perhaps because acknowledging it would weaken their arguments, or perhaps because they simply suffer from a limited imagination and are unaware of all of the questions they are begging.

Life is short, and when writers issue too many promissory notes of which they seem utterly unaware themselves I tend to lose interest in what they have to say.

It was interesting to discover though that sedevacantist arguments seem to draw heavily on the Jesuit School of Salamanca: the same “Georgetown of the Middle Ages” that (arguably) brought us Jesuit economic anti-realism  and waffliness on usury.

Sex and money in the Novus Ordo Pecunia

June 24, 2016 § 39 Comments

I hold Aquinas in very high esteem. In fact it is in part my high esteem for him that makes me especially careful when some writer or commentator starts playing the game of “Aquinas says”. “Aquinas says” is frequently a way for a writer to try to spin a subject to make it appear that his own (the writer’s) views are being spoken in Aquinas’ voice.

Sometimes this is done maliciously, and other times it is simply a kind of wish-fulfillment or prejudice-fulfillment expressed hermeneutically (think of the faction of ‘manosphere’ protestants who are always trying to read permission for ‘Christian polygyny’ and other sexual license into the Christian Scriptures: they are probably sincere enough at a certain level, but their reason is ‘bent’ by conscupiscient arrogance and several layers of metaphysical error).

What I am suggesting in the previous post, consistent with what I have suggested many times before, is that a kind of Hegelian dialectic is often taking place among Catholics (and others too, but my focus in the previous post is on Catholics in particular). It goes something like this:

As a more liberal view of some particular moral question takes hold in society, progressive theologians start showering thinly disguised contempt on Aquinas and explaining how dumb he was about (e.g.) money and finance.

At first this is resisted by ‘conservatives’. But eventually people get old and die. Ideas, on the other hand, live on and develop in a social context.

New generations of ‘conservatives’ start to engage in Aquinas revisionism: rather than rejecting the progressive principles which have taken hold (e.g. that “the nature of money has changed” – which is another way of saying that money has no nature – and therefore charging a ‘reasonable’ amount of contractual profit on a mutuum loan is acceptable in most circumstances today), — rather than rejecting progressive error they argue that the Novus Ordo Pecunia brought into being by modernity was compatible with Aquinas all along, and anyway at worst Aquinas was not infallible so it really just takes a few tweaks of his views here and there to morally justify (e.g.) contractual profits on mutuum loans, whether of money or of shoes.

This has all already happened with usury: the progressive victory was complete before any of us were born. Doctrine was banished into a vault behind an impregnable translucent glass wall, where it remains as a kind of barely visible decoration which is not permitted to touch on practical real-life ‘pastoral’ matters.  And the most traditional of traditionalists will often argue that the nature of money has changed, that contractual profit from mutuum loans is at least sometimes morally permissible, and that in any event it is impossible to avoid interest on ‘loans’ (understood equivocally).

And this very same process is happening right now, before our very eyes, with sex and marriage.

Snakes weren’t born yesterday

June 14, 2016 § 35 Comments

I’ve noticed a tendency in cafeteria traditionalist or conservative commentary to treat the opinions and selective saint-citation of dead clergymen or scholars as authoritative simply because those scholars are long dead.

That is just how I expect the cafeteria traditionalists of the future to treat the opinions and selective saint-citation of Charles Curren, Walter Kasper, and John Noonan.

Maybe financial hermeneutics isn’t one of your talents

June 13, 2016 § 5 Comments

It is a fairly common misunderstanding to invoke the Parable of the Talents as a kind of ‘gotcha’ against the Church’s universal and constant condemnation of usury, that is, of any and all profit from mutuum loans.  As is the case with most modern pro-usury apologetics, this rests on an equivocation which studiously fails to distinguish between mutuum loans (personal IOU’s) and other agreements: an equivocation which uses the same label “loan” to refer to fundamentally different kinds of contracts.

Here is the money quote from the parable:

Therefore, you ought to have committed my money to the bankers, and at my coming I should have received my own with interest!

But of course someone who has familiarized himself with what usury is and is not knows that loans to the bank or deposit accounts are not mutuum loans in the first place.  Loans to the bank are claims against the balance sheet of the bank: against the aggregation of all property in which the bank itself has claims.  They are not personal IOU’s from bank employees.

Studiously avoiding clarity on the essential differences between mutuum loans for profit and other contracts is like studiously avoiding clarity on the essential differences between marriage and other sexual relationships.

Weaponized ambiguity in defense of adultery

June 5, 2016 § 31 Comments

Reader GJ uses the term “weaponized ambiguity” in the comments below, as a cognate of what I have called weaponized nihilism and of what others have referred to as the motte-and-bailey strategy.  These are of course all forms of the venerable bait and switch, with the psychological feature that the person doing the arguing may be unaware of his equivocation.

Weaponized ambiguity strikes me, not without irony, as a very clarifying term.  It captures and clarifies the way in which the execrable hides behind the banal and tautological.

Examples are always helpful.

Feminism is just the acknowledgment that women are people too … when it isn’t instigating mass murder.

Murder is unjust killing, and not all killing is unjust … so pay no attention to this particular mass murder of innocents by ‘the good guys’, or this particular group of murderesses.

Game is a toolbox of techniques which empower a man to be socially dominant … so pay no attention to the fact that the reason you will only learn it from the male equivalent of sluts is that it is the male equivalent of sluttiness.

Usury is charging unjust interest on loans … pay no attention to the fact that usury is any contractual profit at all on mutuum loans, and that even unjust interest charged on non recourse loans is not usury strictly speaking.  The main thing we need to do is to avoid moral clarity.

More subtly, usury is selling what does not exist; but because there are many ways to sell what does not exist which are not usury, clarity on usury specifically can be avoided.

Contraception involves a purely subjective feeling that you want sex but do not want a baby right now. Pay no attention to the minor matter of choosing objectively mutilated sexual behaviors versus abstinence.

And adultery is sex outside of marriage.  But of course you can marry whomever or whatever you want whenever you want, and marriage lasts only as long as you want it to last.

Which is how Humanae Vitae becomes Vix Pervenit.

Know your dance steps

May 28, 2016 § 413 Comments

The right-liberal dance steps in the Hegelian Mambo are really quite simple. It is a dance anyone can dance!

Step 1: Demonize whatever is just slightly more politically liberal than you are as “leftism“.

Step 2: Do everything in your power to keep the recent innovations of that “leftism” intact.

Step 3: Do everything in your power to keep the secular religion behind “leftism” intact.

(HT Malcolm).

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