Usury, Jews, and libertine cruelty

October 20, 2016 § 29 Comments

In retrospect I suppose it is odd that this hasn’t come up before; but it isn’t the sort of angle I’d thought to raise myself.  That’s just not how my mind works.

In the comments below MarcusD writes:

A priest in my diocese, when the subject of usury comes up (well, all two times), states that opposition to usury is “inextricably linked with antisemitism.” Do you have any thoughts on that position? Will you add a rebuttal to that to the “Usury FAQ”?

My first thought was that the assertions of this priest are just obviously ridiculous, the sort of modern guilt-by-association lunacy unworthy of the validation involved in treating it as a serious objection.  (To be clear: it is certainly not a serious objection).

Several things may be noteworthy though, at least in terms of characterizing the association and the guilt — to the best of my knowledge, and with all the usual caveats, this being well outside the domain of what I consider substantively pertinent to the basic moral question.

First, the fact that diaspora Jews in Christian lands gravitated toward usury as a profession is as much Christians’ fault as Jews’ fault.  The attitude was that Jews were heathens and were going to Hell anyway, so the Christian sovereign’s law actually treated Jews more leniently than it treated Christians. Christians were prohibited from engaging in usury for the sake of their own souls; but Jews were damned anyway so why not let them do what they want?  A libertine approach to the laws that applied to Jews was really a form of cruelty toward them, as is true of libertine legalism in general.  It was also a good way to cultivate anti-Christian forces within Christian society over the long term.

Just imagine if there were a tribe in modern America who were treated as if the law against violent crime didn’t apply to them. Wouldn’t that in objective fact be cruelty toward that tribe?  Wouldn’t we expect the violent behavior of that tribe to increase, to their own detriment and ours?

Second, the situation illustrates the lie built into ‘libertine’ law in the first place. Without the Christian sovereign’s enforcement, usurious contracts would have no teeth.  To the extent that the Christian sovereign enforced usurious contracts he formally cooperated with them: you can’t enforce contract terms without intending them.  So professional usury on the part of Jews was really a partnership between Jews and their Christian enforcers.

Third, there were in fact significant non-Jewish tribes or dynasties associated with professional usury, notably the Lombards.  As is the case in many high IQ professions Jews were doubtless overrepresented in part simply because they have greater intelligence than most of the rest of the bell curve.  But it isn’t as if they had a monopoly on the particular sin in question.

Of course it is risible in the first place to claim that the Church’s doctrinal condemnation of usury depends on whether or not one tribe or other has become, fairly or unfairly, disproportionately associated with that sin.  Alcohol abuse doesn’t become immune to criticism in virtue of its (fair or unfair) association with the Irish.

But in any case with usury, as with any basic execrable disgusting filthy sin against nature and nature’s God, there is plenty of guilt to go around.

§ 29 Responses to Usury, Jews, and libertine cruelty

  • Zippy says:

    If anti-usury is anti-semitism, then anti-violence is anti-black.

  • dpmonahan says:

    Jews were often prohibited from owning land or farming, so they gravitated towards trades. Since they were frequently expelled, it was even better to get into trades with easily transportable goods: jeweling, money-lending, etc, or best of all knowledge trades (medicine, book-keeping).
    When Jews were expelled, Christians usually got into money-lending services. There was a demand and someone was going to fill it.

  • Todor says:

    European monarchs have played a disgusting role in all this, and they are way more guilty than the Jews. You probably know the insane rates they were willing to pay when they needed gold. I almost wrote “and their people be damned”, but it was not exactly “their” people either. Funny that monarchism is now in vogue in alt-right circles. The old rulling classes of Europe look a lot like the parasitic cosmopolitan elite they despise so much.

  • Aethelfrith says:

    One counterpoint to this historical example is that a significant proportion of the Jewish diaspora was in the Muslim world. Islam is, at least on paper, as harsh against usury if not moreso than Catholicism.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    But the borrower, per Zippy is not guilty but a victim, There is no sin of being a victim of a usorious contract, So, the European monarchs were victimized by the Jews actually.

  • PB says:

    It’s silly to call opposition to usery anti-Semitic considering that Jewish law condemned usery as an evil and forbid making userious loans to Jews.

  • vishmehr,

    Not necessarily. The borrower CAN be a victim, but is not always. He is only a victim when FORCED to take a usurious contract. Whatever level of force or compulsion is needed to morph the moral boundaries I’d imagine is a complex question, but it’s not a case of borrower = victim every single time.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    I think I am not mistaken. Zippy has said more than once that people need not feel guilty using credit cards

  • notruecatholic says:

    Is borrower in a usuriuous contract commiting a grave sin? He answered the question in the usury FAQ question 23, quoting St Thomas of Aquinas. Spoilier alert : no, it is not necessarly a sin if there is a proportionate reason to take out the loan.

    Zippy say that it is enforcing the loan which is usurious. So he christian monarch is guilty of enforcing the contract, per zippy claim. He is not talking about them taking loan. Furthermore it is silly on its face. A monarch enforce the law, he can not be the victim of its own enforcement of the law. If you beat yourself, the only person you have to blame, is yourself.

    And finally, the relation between a sovereign and usury is more complicated, confere question 27 :
    “personal garantee” by the sovereign is not personal garantee, it is an institution.

  • Right. Not NECESSARILY a sin.

  • Zippy says:

    Vishmehr24’s emoting about the gold he loves always depends upon bad caricature. He should hang out at the beach and draw funny pictures of tourists, as a way to earn a pile of gold to eat and under which to take shelter.

  • Wasn’t it the case that the Jews could only apply usury to Goyim and that they were forbidden to apply usury to other jews?

  • Bee says:

    ” But it isn’t as if they had a monopoly on the particular sin in question.”

    Good point, recent examples include JP Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and his descendants, and Jamie Dimon; all gentiles.

  • Zippy says:


    It is hard to make anything more than general claims about what was in reality a very heterogenous situation, but my understanding is that Jews often limited themselves to charging usury only on loans to enemies, that is, non Jews. In this they were also not really unlike trends within Christian praxis.

    There were doubtless similar friend/enemy distinctions involved in the enslavement of captives. “Friends” (e.g. Christians) would be ransomed, whereas heathens would be sold into slavery, etc.

    But I’m not really a historian so I’m probably not good for much beyond the thirty thousand foot view here.

  • Zippy,

    To be clear – can somebody sin in taking on a usurious loan, or are those folks always off the hook?

    I was apparently reading that section of the FAQ differently from other people and am curious now about whose right.

  • Zippy says:

    It is certainly possible to sin in procuring a usurious loan. The fact that it isn’t always and necessarily immoral doesn’t imply that it is never immoral. As with any instance of material cooperation with evil, when it is or is not morally licit is a prudential judgement subject to double effect.

    I haven’t said much more than that on the subject and don’t intend to, which apparently distresses the occasional commenter.

  • That’s what I thought. I’ve noticed a few people come in and claim that it was never immoral, though, and that seemed wrong to me. Thanks.

  • Alex says:

    Zippy, sorry to be a pain, but could you give me some kind of source on which monarchs enforced usurious contracts? I am not trying to question your assertion here, I am pretty sure I know even less of history than you do. But I thought Christendom simply omitted itself here, instead of actually enforcing the payment of usury. A bit like a ruler might think it unwise to actually prosecute women of ill-repute because it might lead to even worse sins of lust.

  • Zippy says:


    I really don’t have a specific reference handy from my phone, but I am under the impression that the point is uncontroversial among scholars. (Someone who knows better is welcome to chime in — again this whole area hasn’t really been a focus for me).

    A Google search of “medieval monarchs enforced jewish loan contracts” produced a Google Books result about James I of Aragon’s AD1228 regulations enforcing a maximum interest rate of 20% on behalf of Jewish moneylenders, for example. I can’t attest to the particulars or the source but, again, my own impression from my own reading is that the point is uncontroversial.

    It is one thing for the police to look the other way at prostitution. It is another thing for the government to establish and enforce a rate schedule.

  • johnturmel says:

    Jct: Anti-semite priest says Jews linked to usury. Objecting to usury is objecting to Jews! There was usury way before Jews, father. When Nehemiah said: Let the exacting of usury stop,” was he being anti-semitic? How about all the other Jewish saints? Objecting to usury makes them anti-semitic too?

  • Alex says:

    Thanks Zippy!

  • @notruecatholic

    Zippy’s points concerning “sovergien debt” only apply to fiat currency.

    If the currency is commodity based, then it falls under the normal rules regarding loans.

  • itascriptaest says:


    The Justiniam Code also permitted usury though it set different rates (merchants could charge other merchants more than just regular consumers). Despite their “higher culture” the Byzantines retained much of the worst aspects of Roman paganism.

    I wonder if this might also account for why Northern Italians were associated with usury, since Roman law was rediscovered there first and Byzantine influence was strong there.

  • MarcusD says:

    Thank you for expanding on your initial response to me.

  • It is one thing for the police to look the other way at prostitution. It is another thing for the government to establish and enforce a rate schedule.

    Zippy. That was funny and jogged a memory cell.

    The govt’s of Florence and Venice hired prostitutes (they wore bells in Florence) in an effort to lure men back to normal sex –
    high percentage of sodomites in those cities back in the day.

    Even in Venice today, one can walk across Ponte delle Tette, which was close to where the Doge and his buddies placed nekkid prostitutes in windows to try and entice sodomites back to normal sex.

    However, that is not the only reason to love Italy.

  • Zippy says:

    I remember the story. Venice is such a cool city. When we were there I just got a map and we wandered around, self guided is the way to go. Well, we did do one touristy gondola ride. We went to Mass at this terribly poor church in the maze of ‘streets’ (really walkways) just off of St. Mark’s square. The impossibility of cars is a big part of the charm.

    Italy is just about the coolest place in the world to visit. The graphic sexual stuff and pay toilets at Pompeii I could have done without, but it would be hard to overstate Italy’s charms.

    They say that in Heaven the Italians are in charge of hospitality, the French are in charge of food, and the English are in charge of logistics. In Hell the Italians are in charge of logistics, the French are in charge of hospitality, and the English are in charge of food.

  • Zippy. Amen!!

    When The Bride and I arrived in Venice we were in our late 50s and we grew younger by the day. After a week, we were in our 30s.

    Because Vivaldi is so loved by both of us, we went to visit the church in which he was Baptised (He is more famous than a Pope who was Baptised there) and when we arrived there was only the guard/host inside. We spoke a few moments to him and then as we walked around the inside, taking in everything slowly, the gentleman put on some ecclesiastical music he had written for Mass while a communicant there.

    I openly wept.

    Lord have mercy.

    We went to The Doge’s palace and climbed the golden stairs and I said to the Bride that the construction of them was genius; just imagine climbing then for the first time as a foreign ambassador going to present your papers.

    That man could be forgiven thinking he was climbing the stairway to Heaven to meet the God of Serenissima. Psychologically intimidating or what?

    That city lives and breathes as a seductress who inveiglingly lifts a stone skirt up over a bridge, flashing a canal at the virgin visitor.

    I love Italy beyond all telling but i can’t stop without observing what it was said about Venetians; The man act like women, the women act like men, and they both act like monkeys.

    O, and Save Vince was initiated by the Americans and Americans donated multi millions to save crumbling/sinking Churches and THAT is an internationalism we can all be proud of.

    O, one last thing about going to Venice. You are right about a self-guided tour. It is the best way to both see the city and to get lost and it is ineluctable that you will get lost if you go there but the amasing thing is the kindness of the Venetians when you ask “How do I get to …”

    They are so kind and patient

    Man, ok I wil stop but the memories make we want to write and write and write…

    Rome is the only place that tops it.

  • […] Regular readers may notice that the answer is a modified version of this blog post. […]

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