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

August 22, 2016 § 8 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.

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

  • donnie says:

    Well that’s disappointing.

    What is it about usury that causes otherwise right-thinking Catholics to put blinders on? I get that it’s a tough topic to wrap one’s head around, but come on. Looking up Magisterial documents and differentiating between a mutuum and a societas isn’t that hard.

    I see the book has a forward by Cardinal Pell. Does it also have an Imprimatur?

  • Zippy says:

    No Imprimatur that I can find.

  • semioticanimal says:

    Even the Catholic libertarian Thomas Woods gave a nod at Vix Pervenit in his book with the caveat that the encyclical was irrelevant to modern economics based in part on Catholic Enycolpedia. I think Woods book is in the Acton bookshop even.

  • Zippy says:

    The common thread is obfuscation of the difference between mutuum loans and other kinds of contracts, combined with a triumphalism about how much smarter we are now about money and how much conditions have changed.

    Kind of like obfuscation of the objective differences between NFP and contraception qua behaviors, combined with triumphalism about how much smarter we are today about human reproduction and how much conditions have changed.

  • If he sourced Catholic Doctrine vis a vis Usury, he’d not be working at Acton which was created to sell Manchester Liberalism to Catholics.

    I think the only foreign office of Acton is in Rome. Gee, I can’t imagine. why?

    Western Michigan, home of the DeVos family, the Meijer family, and other Dutch Calvinists, is where the money is if you want to be the Catholic roman collar promoting the gospel of capitalism. The DeVos family and the Acton Institute were major players in the early initiatives of the George W. Bush administration to off load government functions onto “faith based” agencies and served as the center of a network of Republican office holders and right-wing religious figures like James Dobson, Chuck Colson, Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Seattle. Berkowitz related in 2001 that four years previously 94 per cent of Acton’s $1.8 million budget was funded with grants from wealthy right-wing individuals, corporations and foundations such as Scaife ($100,000), Olin ($50,000), and Bradley ($40,000), plus the DeVos Family Foundation ($50,000). And as mentioned above, the Dutch Calvinist DeVos family of Grand Rapids, founders of the Amway sales pyramid, are represented on the board of the Acton Institute and other similar groups such as Wilmington, Delaware’s Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), as well as playing a major role in the Michigan Republican Party. Betsy DeVos, a former member of Acton’s board of directors, is also the former chair of the Michigan Republican party as well as the wife of the unsuccessful 2006 G.O.P. candidate for governor of that state, Dick DeVos. Admittedly 2006 was not the year to be a Republican candidate in almost any state, as the unpopularity of President George W. Bush and his endless wars in the Middle East were causing the voters to take out their frustrations on anyone associated with that party. It also may not have helped Mr. DeVos that his wife made a public statement about the economic problems of Michigan that may not have gone over well with voters there, even if it was totally consistent with the published statements of the Acton Institute. What Betsy DeVos stated in an April, 2004 press release was, “Many, if not most, of the economic problems in Michigan are a result of high wages and a tax and regulatory structure that makes this state uncompetitive.” The DeVos’ are leading advocates of school choice initiatives and apparently support various evangelical Christian causes.


  • […] beneath a fog of anti-realist obfuscation and ‘pastoral accommodation,’ digging a memory hole into which to discard bedrock moral […]

  • […] That’s too bad.  That particular comment thread was an interesting exercise in schooling ideological free marketers on the actual medieval understanding of usury, as opposed to strawmen crafted through extremely selective curation. […]

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