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.

§ 39 Responses to Sex and money in the Novus Ordo Pecunia

  • imnobody00 says:

    Agreed. But today’s assault is worse. Because oposition against Aquinas is bad. But opposition against Christ’s teachings about marrying is worse.

  • Avraham rosenblum says:

    Sadly enough I did not get a chance to spend as much time and effort on Aquinas as he deserves. But in any case it is my impression that there are quite a lot of Catholic scholars who take him very seriously. I think Edward Feser is maybe the best one that I have heard of but there must be many more.

  • “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.

    Indeed. I have recently made the decision to begin doing some research in business ethics. My first project, while not on the topic usury, is nevertheless closely related. In doing some initial reading, one of the things I have been continually struck by is how liberally authors “misinterpret” Aquinas. In fact, in my case, I have found a well-regarded author (not in my mind, but at least in some circles) cite and attribute an idea to Aquinas that St. Thomas clearly rejects a couple of questions later in the Summa! Yet, using Google Scholar, it is possible to see just how many subsequent authors have sadly accepted this as the Gospel truth without further question.

    My hope is that I might be able to do some good in reversing these types of mistakes, but who knows? Luckily, there seems to be a fair number of Natural Law-types in the business ethics field, so there may be some hope after all.

    And the most traditional of traditionalists will often argue that the nature of money has changed […]”

    I, too, was surprised to discover that money, while once just a medium of exchange, is now *actually* capital and is hence in and of itself productive when perusing Cronin’s The Science of Ethics written in 1917. Apparently, our “new” money can be used to till fields and hammer nails into 2×4’s and I was simply unaware this whole time.

    I’m not sure whether this is a case of purposeful nominalism or simply sloppy thinking. Perhaps it is a little from column A and a little for column B?

  • itascriptaest says:

    In addition to usury and contraception the Church’s political doctrine generally has also followed the same pattern of drifting into modernism. Attempting to find compatibility between the modern liberal inspired indifferentism and “religious freedom” of the First Amendment (which is really the way liberalism marginalizes traditional religion) with the traditional notion of liber ecclesiae is incoherent and frankly silly. The USCCB trying to invoke St. Thomas More for the cause of religious indifferentism makes a mockery of what More died for.

    The transition from natural law to natural rights both in wider society and in the Church is also a good example of this development. The opportunistic use of certain aspects of prior teaching, and then employing them on an ad hoc basis in later power struggles is key to liberalism’s success. As you’ve said liberalism cherry picks elements of the old tradition and weaponizes it against Christianity.

  • Zippy says:

    Catholic Economist:
    I agree with what you say about capital, but it is important to be clear that – when it comes to usury – it doesn’t matter whether the property “lent” is or is not productive capital. What matters is the nature of the contract, not the nature of the property which is lent. If the contract is a mutuum, any contractual profit is usury, no matter what kind of property the lender hands over to the borrower.

  • Mike T says:

    I would be curious to know how much the drift in error in the Catholic Church coincided with the shifts that made homosexuals in the priesthood possible. Paul lays out a pretty stark picture on the subject in Romans and elsewhere; needless to say, a man who struggles with a paraphilia as opposed to “ordinary sin” is a particularly bad position with respect to what is true, good and beautiful. That is no judgment on his soul, just an observation and truth–such men have no business being pastors or priests.

  • @Avraham

    A word of encouragement, Aquinas is almost shockingly accessible, honestly for now I would go to the catholic encyclopedia’s webpage for the summa and just pick a topic you’re interested in. Everything from the nature of God to the three sins against fortitude, to rules about modesty, he writes in a clear understandable style with an adversarial position being taken first (and he’s not easy on himself either, he starts each section with great arguments against his own position). You can learn something new and interesting in five minutes.

    TLDR, he writes massive tomes, but you can read him like a reference to start with.

    If you like Chesterton, read his bio on Aquinas, also really great stuff.

  • Avraham rosenblum says:

    Borrowed once one edition of the Summa from a Catholic Church in Brooklyn NY which I enjoyed very much. But still did not have to time to go through it all. Frankly it is easier to read a hard copy than an on line copy.

  • Dear Mike. T.

    Amen!!!

    Sodomites are naturally subversive and any organisation that accepts them as legitimate members of any hierarchy in that organisation has assured itself that those sodomites will dutifully strive to eliminate all canons/praxis,traditions that organisation possesses that identifies them as sinners.

    No sodomite has ever been called by God to be a priest.

  • http://www.catholicprimer.org/farrell/compfram.htm

    This is the link for men like MJY, one not equipped to handle Aquinas.

  • Avraham rosenblum says:

    I think Aquinas has a tremendous amounts of great ideas and do not understand why Catholics or Christians in general do not spend as much time as necessary on him. I do not think he is particular difficult to understand. While I am not Catholic, I found him very interesting.

  • Jill says:

    As a non Catholic, I’m afraid I don’t quite understand the idea of a “developing understanding” of doctrine; it seems to me to be quite similar to the Protestant notion that a modern man can declare that he has more understanding than men of old, the difference being that Protestants declare such and start their own churches.* However, even if I accept in an abstract sense that our understanding can develop, I’m not sure how this applies to a doctrine like usury. While the entire definition of the word has changed from “charging interest” to “charging unreasonable interest,” the modern usage reflects the modern world, not what is immoral or not.

    *I’m not being combative; I’m trying to understand this. I had an email conversation with a Catholic about it yesterday.

  • Zippy says:

    Jill:
    You might find some of the discussions under my positivism category pertinent. This is as good place as any to start, and this goes a small step beyond the intro.

  • Kurt says:

    Isn’t the Pope now saying that times have changed so “nowadays the death penalty is unacceptable, however grave the crime of the convicted person”? Any thought on this, Zippy? Thanks.

  • I have a problem with twisting the ideas of medieval scholars to make them fit with modern conceptions. With no new evidence all that matters is how rigorous ones logic is. And in moral affairs there can not be new evidence. You can not derive an “ought” from an “is.” Moral proposition requires moral principles that can not be derived by empirical evidence.
    And when it comes to rigorous logic Christian people have been denying the validity of reason or using circular reasoning since the end of the Middle Ages. They simply can not compare with intellectual giants like Aquinas. (This has a parallel in the Jewish world also in terms of whom we call “Rishonim” medieval Authorities.) However where you can criticize medieval people is in the axioms. Sometimes they use beginning principles that are self evident. That is the only place where they are sometimes weak. But even there if one is willing to dig deep he can find the kernel of truth in what they wrote.

  • Avraham rosenblum says:

    I have a problem with twisting the ideas of medieval scholars to make them fit with modern conceptions. With no new evidence all that matters is how rigorous ones logic is. And in moral affairs there can not be new evidence. You can not derive an “ought” from an “is.”A Moral proposition requires moral principles that can not be derived by empirical evidence.

    And when it comes to rigorous logic, people have been denying the validity of reason or using circular reasoning since the end of the Middle Ages. They simply can not compare with intellectual giants like Aquinas. (This is also in the Jewish world also in terms of whom we call “Rishonim” medieval Authorities.) However where you can criticize medieval people is in the axioms. Sometimes they use beginning principles that are self evident. That is the only place where they are sometimes weak. But even there if one is willing to dig deep he can find the kernel of truth in what they wrote.

  • Todor says:

    What about the understanding of mental illness and suicide?

  • Kurt,

    That fits under the theory that the death penalty should only be used if there’s no other way to protect society. It’s possible His Holiness believes that, at least in the first world, such situations no longer exist; our prison systems are sufficient for keeping dangerous members of the population out of society.

    Whether or not he’s correct is another matter entirely.

  • Avraham rosenblum says:

    Todor: Sometimes the beginning axioms of the medieval scholars were faulty.

  • Todor says:

    That’s what I want to know: if we can learn new things about the nature of the mind, why can’t we learn new things about the nature of money?

  • Zippy says:

    The irony in the case of usury is that it doesn’t even matter if “the nature of money has changed” (for some meaning or other of that phrase). Usury (again) refers to the nature of a particular kind of contract, not the nature of the property which the “lender” hands over to the “borrower”.

    Notice too the parallel: modernity with its magical scientific powers changed the nature of sex, or understands sex better than thousands of years of Church tradition; therefore contraception or adultery are now morally acceptable.

    Modernity turns the general human fact that it is possible to learn new things into a weapon for forcefully forgetting things that modern people don’t want to know.

  • Avraham rosenblum says:

    Todor: Good question. i do not know any answer. Perhaps you’re right that we can know new things about money if new evidence comes to light. But what new evidence is there? Macro economics, ecometrics make predictions which are predictably false. The whole supposed science of economies has not produced any data which indicate they know anything about what they are talking about. It seems to me more likely the medieval scholars knew a lot more about human nature and economics that we do.

  • itascriptaest says:

    Zippy,

    I recently discovered that the Justinian Code apparently did not outlaw usury but merely set “acceptable rates” (8% for most people, I believe) while forbiding clerics from engaging in the practice. It seems usury is most likely to arise in urban, centralized, commercial and cosmopolitan societies, like Byzantium. It was in the West were the ban was better upheld for a longer period of time staying much truer to traditonal teaching. The fact that usury could be enshrined into the law of a putativly “Christian Empire” is sad especially given the eloquent and formative attacks on usury from the Cappodocian Fathers who were first to apply Aristotle’s insights into their writings on usury centuries before Aquinas.

  • Zippy says:

    itascriptaest:
    AFAIK positive law allowance of usury with a set maximum rate goes at least back to pre-Christian Roman law. Ironically, the Romans did have a more clear categorization of kinds of contracts than moderns; but they also had no qualms about trading in human beings as chattel property.

  • PB says:

    itascriptaest: One could condemn usury and also allow it to some degree in the positive law. It could be argued that capping interest rates and allowing debts to be discharged in bankruptcy helps prevent the poor from going to loan sharks. I’m not saying this is necessarily the best policy but as Aquinas noted, not all evils must be banned by the positive law.

  • Todor says:

    The more I think about it, the less I understand the early Church’s position on usury. Usury is obviously a matter of civil law, and Christians have usually adopted the code of law of their host or pre-existing codes of law. So what’s the difference between usury and the laws concerning inheritance, for example? The Torah is full of laws that Christians don’t follow anymore.

  • Zippy says:

    Todor:
    You could probably start by reading the Usury FAQ.

    Usury is obviously a matter of civil law, …

    By “obviously” do you mean “strictly and only”? Because that is obviously false. Theft and fraud for example are obviously matters of civil law, but they are not strictly and only a matter of civil law.

    In fact the civil law itself only carries legitimate authority to the extent it is consistent with the moral law. Laws which enforce usurious contracts are by their nature – because they conflict with the moral law – void of legitimate authority.

  • Mike T says:

    not all evils must be banned by the positive law

    The side effects of outlawing an evil are often not factored into the prohibition. On balance, the war on drugs has done more harm to the common good than the actual drug use. Most of our police and legal system corruption can be traced to that one particular set of laws and police powers.

    There are also plenty of ways to drive an evil into the periphery without resorting to a direct and forceful approach. For instance, a lot of drug use would dry up if the government simply did a combination of taking away public health benefits and bringing down the hammer in a very cold manner on offenders who hurt people (such as routinely handing out the death penalty for killing someone while intoxicated).

    As far as usury goes, while it might be satisfying to see it all shuttered at once, if we were to take decisive action against it, that action would need to be like someone forcing a hard drug user to go sober, not a righteous “damn the consequences” crusade.

  • Zippy says:

    PB:

    One could condemn usury and also allow it to some degree in the positive law.

    Indeed — in fact a large part of positive law involves prudential judgment of what precisely to enforce and in what manner to enforce it.

    However, I would argue that it is always and without exception morally wrong for the sovereign to enforce usurious contracts, because enforcement of contract terms necessarily involves formal cooperation with those contract terms. See this post.

    It is one thing to decline to punish a certain behaviour. It is another thing entirely to protect and enable that behavior through law enforcement rules and procedures.

    Typically, what is framed as ‘government staying out of X’ really means ‘government enforcing my understanding of X’.

  • Todor says:

    I meant that many civil laws are unjust, unfair and cruel without being sinful (inheritance laws often are, for example). The Fathers came to the conclusion that usury is a form of theft. Was it the only possible answer? Why usury and not slavery? Could it be some kind of antisemitism?

  • Zippy says:

    Todor:
    First, it isn’t possible for a law to be simultaneously unjust, unfair, and “not sinful”, at least under any recognizable meaning of those terms.

    Second, the immorality of usury is as doctrinally secure as any moral doctrine — adultery, contraception, etc just to name a few.

    FWIW though – and I mention this in the usury FAQ – it is possible that waffling on the moral status of chattel slavery is connected to waffling on the moral status of usury.

  • Ita Scripta Est says:

    Usury was permitted between enemies. I believe the Italian merchant states practiced it on the occasions they did trade with the Islamic emirates on the other side of the Mediterranean. Strange though that the Byzantines would sanction and “regulate” a weapon of war to be used within their own society.

    FWIW though – and I mention this in the usury FAQ – it is possible that waffling on the moral status of chattel slavery is connected to waffling on the moral status of usury.

    Agreed, and like usury the the practice of slavery in Christian states seems to appear in centralized commercial states particularly where a merchant aristocracy is given free reign.

    Aquinas and the fathers were right to be suspicious of merchants and economic activity in general. While perhaps not necessarily intrinsically evil economic activity beyond subsistence level is a gateway drug to all other sins IMO.

  • Mike T says:

    While perhaps not necessarily intrinsically evil economic activity beyond subsistence level is a gateway drug to all other sins IMO.

    There is rarely a difference in virtue between the haves and have nots as a class. The have nots can be extremely vicious in their own right. There are also few things more likely to make a man consider hurting his neighbor than the prospect of adding his resources to his own so he can better guarantee survival. That’s what subsistence level is; we have enough to survive, not thrive. In essence, what you are saying is that the economic conditions of sub-Saharan Africa are less likely to make people sin than the economic conditions of a country like the US or Japan.

  • Mike T says:

    There is also a lot of irony in being suspicious of economic activity in general and expecting men to be generous. A man cannot morally give to charity if that would imperil his own family’s welfare. If you feed a homeless man and your child goes hungry as a direct result, there is no virtue in that act. It is from that suspicious surplus of wealth that all virtuous acts of giving to others come.

  • Zippy says:

    Still though, 1 Timothy 6:10 is an important part of the Christian tradition.

  • itascriptaest says:

    Mike T,

    I agree the poor are not necessarily virtuous, especially they live in a liberal political order. Surely though there is value in detachment from earthly things? Pagan, Christian and even liberal thinkers like Rousseau and Jefferson saw value in the austere life of the self-sufficient farmer as the most conducive to virtue in opposition to a merchant society.

    Also I would point out that for virtually all the Church Fathers and for the medeival scholastics a deep skepticism of economic activity was not opposed to charity.

  • semioticanimal says:

    @Catholic Economist
    “I, too, was surprised to discover that money, while once just a medium of exchange, is now *actually* capital and is hence in and of itself productive when perusing Cronin’s The Science of Ethics written in 1917.”
    I fear that I may have arrived too late to the discussion. I noticed this as well in Cronin’s book, which is otherwise quite good. I would be interested in your insight with natural law business ethics and economics as I am an actuary but not particularly smart and lack the time for serious reflection though I try with what time I have.

  • […] 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 […]

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