December 19, 2014 § 58 Comments
A condemned proposition:
Since ready cash is more valuable than that to be paid, and since there is no one who does not consider ready cash of greater worth than future cash, a creditor can demand something beyond the principal from the borrower, and for this reason be excused from usury. – Various Errors on Moral Subjects (II), Pope Innocent XI by decree of the Holy Office, March 4, 1679 (Denzinger)
29) I know that usury was traditionally considered an execrable mortal sin. But didn’t the Church change canon law and pastoral practice to remove the penalties and stigma associated with usury? Haven’t most Catholic theologians accepted that the world has moved on from the time when the prohibition of usury made sense?
Well, you asked, so I’ll editorialize and give you my personal take.
The answer is yes. The progressive tactic of divorcing doctrine from pastoral and juridical practice is not a new Vatican II innovation targeted specifically at matters of sex and marriage. Earlier progressives were “successful” in leaving the doctrine on usury formally intact, as a kind of decoration that makes no important demands on anyone, despite their attendance of the traditional Latin Mass. Humanae Vitae could easily become the new Vix Pervenit. Contraception apologists have learned from earlier usury apologists and are using the same tactics. Progressives think that money is inherently fecund and that sex isn’t inherently fecund.
Acceptance of usury and contraception are both products of denying that things have an objective nature independent of human preferences. Centuries of ‘pastoral’ acceptance and indoctrination of economic relativism paved the way for other expressions of moral relativism.
You might think of this as the “hermeneutic of continuity of Hell”.
It should be said though that getting rid of the ecclesiastical penalties for usury was a pastoral judgement call, and I don’t necessarily disagree with it. For example it was at times a requirement that a usurer had to make an accounting of all the money he had made through usury and make restitution before he was given sacramental absolution. This is completely disanalogous to the situation of a divorced and ‘remarried’ person who is objectively committing adultery on an ongoing basis. The former may be totally repentant and fully committed to sinning no more without having the practical means to do the accounting and make restitution. The latter by definition is not committed to sinning no more.
It was also the case that usury was frequently misunderstood, and many contracts which were not usury were condemned as such by overzealous but financially ignorant people. An analogous case in the context of the sexual revolution would be the ‘rigorists’ who condemn NFP as a form of contraception, and their ‘laxist’ counterparts who make the same claim but conclude from it that therefore contraception is morally licit. The spectacle of a penitent, innocent of usury, hounded and denied absolution by an overzealous priest who doesn’t properly understand the subject, may be a risible fiction now; but that was not always the case.
An especially pernicious false-flag argumentative tactic of usury apologists is to take the ‘rigorist’ approach as a way of discrediting the doctrine. These will contend for example that the traditional understanding of usury would disallow all census-type contracts involving regular payments of principal and interest (e.g. corporate bonds), not just those census contracts with claims that terminate in persons as opposed to or in addition to actual property. (See question 31). This ‘false flag’ approach is aided and abetted by useful idiots on the traditionalist or reactionary side who cheer on their ‘rigorist’ arguments.
None of that has any bearing on the objective status of usury as an execrable mortal sin.
Usury would of course be intrinsically immoral even if that did, counterfactually, make industry and commerce impossible or if it were unhealthy in some sense for industry and commerce — just as contraception would remain intrinsically immoral even if the lack of it led inexorably to overpopulation and misery. But the moral prohibition of charging usury does no such thing. Like moral doctrine on contraception it merely prohibits actions which are objectively harmful both to the parties involved and to the common good – even though they do involve a short term ‘payoff’ of sorts, which is why they are tempting. This is why the arguments in favor of laxity on contraception and usury tend to mirror and cross-reference each other (myriad examples can be found simply by Googling various combinations of the terms “usury”, “Catholic”, and “contraception”).
Apologists for contraception have learned the playbook from the apologists for usury: give lip service to the doctrine as an important decorative piece of theology up in the sky; “pastorally” defang it so that in practice it can be ignored on the ground; continue to “dialogue” until the right “pastoral” result is achieved; paint any opposition into a corner as unmerciful, impractical, and disconnected from reality; and assert that this “pastoral” result was a development of doctrine, ignoring the dog that doesn’t bark — the nonexistent teaching documents from the Magisterium representing an actual doctrinal “development”. Do the latter enough times over a long enough period so that everyone starts to accept it as a given, including much of the clergy. Continue to point out various “defects” in the “simplistic” understanding articulated in Magisterial documents, and be sure to reiterate regularly that they are not infallible. Oh, and point out the sexual peccadillos, I mean economic practices, in clergy and the Vatican: because if the Vatican does something in its secular operations or practices that constitutes an infallible proclamation that the practices cannot be immoral, as long as they are the things we want to not be immoral, and anyway it isn’t really immoral but if the Church actually means what it says doctrinally in those defective non-infallible documents then it is being hypocritical. Shout down any alternative description of the situation on that front as excuse-making. Once all that is achieved all remaining objections must be marginalized and ridiculed. Pat the old celibate economically illiterate men in the Holy See on the head for their prior silly immaturity, congratulate the laity for its wisdom about the “facts of life” and the sensus fidelium, and move on.
But it turns out that the prohibition of charging usury is and has ever been a perfectly reasonable limitation on morally licit commerce; a limitation which merely disallows trafficking in human beings as if they were property and thereby creating fake wealth, vested in nonexistent property, which pollutes the real economy.