“For God and Profit” by Samuel Gregg: a brief review of Chapters 1-3
August 22, 2016 § 7 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 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 matter) in 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? … 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 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.]
 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.
 I’ll note just in passing the focus on the borrower here, as opposed to the lender.
 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.