At least there are no hobgoblins

May 8, 2017 § 29 Comments

Following Denzinger, The Summa Theologiae, and De Malo, one of the most useful resources on the subject of usury is John Noonan’s book The Scholastic Analysis of Usury. The reason it is useful is because it collects in one place a large number of sources, citing all sorts of different medieval and later scholars and quoting various arguments on the subject.

Unfortunately, the author’s own words tend to dilute the usefulness of the text rather than enhancing it.  With all the usual caveats associated with paraphrase, I’ll sum it up as follows for those who don’t want to buy their own copy:

Pre-modern people were very ignorant about property, contracts, and finance.  They simply didn’t see all the holes in their theories; holes through which creative financial engineers could and eventually did drive trucks. Modern financial technology has made the traditional prohibition of usury obsolete in practice. Those sweet preciously naive little devout medieval hearts were in the right place, and making sure our hearts are in the right place is the lesson we can still learn from the Church’s millennium of full-throated condemnation of usury.  But that business about never profiting from mutuum loans is embarrassingly passé.

Noonan had the virtue of consistency in his approach to moral theology.  He also wrote a book entitled Contraception, which follows the same basic structure and narrative.  Pre-modern people were very ignorant about biology and medicine. Modern medical technology has made the traditional prohibition of contraception obsolete in practice. Those sweet preciously naive little medieval hearts were in the right place, and making sure our hearts are in the right place is the lesson we can still learn from the Church’s millennium of full-throated condemnation of contraception. But that business about never choosing deliberately mutilated sexual behaviors is embarrassingly passé.

In Noonan’s defense, he did originally write the latter book before the issuance of Humanae Vitae.  (The same can’t be said of his usury book and usury’s Humanae Vitae).

But consistency, it is said, is the hobgoblin of small minds.  The beauty of inconsistency is that it empowers us to impose our own narrative on moral reality, rather than conforming our will to an objective moral reality which exists prior to our wishes.  Not everyone feels the need to live within the constraints of consistency (at least not, uh, consistently); let alone within the constraints of objective moral truth.

It is, after all, the Current Year.

One of the popular sub-narratives in the Current Year is that Pope Francis’ ‘pastoral’ initiatives are unique and special. Never before (and especially not before Vatican II) has a Supreme Pontiff suggested that absolution may be granted to penitents who don’t understand or don’t agree that their behaviors are gravely immoral.  Never before has a Supreme Pontiff made it official policy to absolve penitents who do not intend to cease choosing objectively immoral, gravely wrong behaviors.  Never before have those who commit manifest grave sin been given backstage passes by the Vicar of Christ to skate past the bouncers and turnstiles, and receive Holy Communion.

This is the kind of thing which could only happen in the post Vatican II Church, because Vatican II was a uniquely bad event in the history of the Church.

I’ll just note that the one thing on which nearly everyone agrees is that the Current Year is so very, very special.  As long as we don’t allow facts to challenge the narrative.

§ 29 Responses to At least there are no hobgoblins

  • donnie says:

    Excellent post.

    Regarding the link to Pope Honorious, I recently learned that there is a fair amount of historical debate surrounding whether Honorious, a) actually was a heretic, and b) whether Pope St. Leo II confirmed the Council’s condemnation of Pope Honorius in the sense that most people assume.

    A fascinating summary of the historical context surrounding Honorious’s anathematization can be found here.

    Looking at the event in the context of the Church’s current crisis, I find it fascinating that there was once a time where a Council went ahead with the intention to anathematize a Pope for doing something so trivial as writing something that the heretics were able to misconstrue as supporting them in their heresies. Imagine what would happen to every modern Pope (including Saints JXIII and JPII) if those Council Fathers were around today!

  • donnie says:

    Also, this is an excerpt from Pope St. Leo II’s Wikipedia page:

    During this council, Pope Honorius I was anathematized for his views in the Monothelite controversy as tolerant of heresy. Leo took great pains to make it clear that in condemning Honorius, he did so not because Honorius taught heresy, but because he was not active enough in opposing it.

    Can you even imagine if this still happened today?!

  • itascriptaest says:

    Judge Noonan just passed away about a month ago too, incidentally.

  • Mike T says:

    FWIW, I am leaning much closer to your position on contraception than I once was.

    With that said, I think you can tell a lot about the Pope by virtue of where his “pastoral mercy” goes. The person with their 3rd spouse or the priest who raped a few little kids, not the married couple who just want to use condoms to prevent more pregnancies.

    The Pope should be the most consistent Catholic on those issues, but it is certainly interesting that of the three groups, the Pope wants to show pastoral mercy to the more egregious offenders.

  • TomD says:

    It is possible that the more egregious offenders are not the ones we think they are; for as Aquinas says, “Hence, after the sin of homicide whereby a human life already in existence is destroyed, this type of sin (contraception/onanism) appears to take next place, for by it the generation of human nature is impeded” – which would seem to show that Aquinas considers it worse than adultery.

    Perhaps we’re getting a multi-century lesson in the difference between pastoral mercy and pastoral license. Or perhaps we’ve to learn why if Christ told Mary to “sin all she wanted, it wouldn’t matter or bother Him” she would not sin at all – because sin is not desirable in itself at all.

  • Wood says:

    Regarding the discussion at 1P5, it is still interesting to me that whenever a Catholic usury apologist begins an argument for usury it is never by bringing forward Magisterial statements positively supporting his position. The argument is always begun by first casting doubt on the relevance of former Magisterial statements to our current situation. And this is done in the very comboxes of an article deriding that sort of thing for other grave sins.

    I wonder if there is something particular about this sin of usury that we are susceptible to?

  • Zippy says:

    Wood:
    I think there is a kind of ‘comfortable’ narrative among many (not all of course) trads, and conservatives for that matter, about how everything went wrong in the 1960’s and it was all centered around sex. The inconvenient facts about usury disrupt this narrative, so when it comes to usury many of these folks become avatars of the progressives they ostensibly oppose in the sexual domain.

    This is why I emphasize the point that we can’t really oppose the sexual revolution without just as unequivocally opposing the usury revolution.

    Most of what passes for “trad” or “conservative” in the moral domain is – as in the political domain – really a form of right-liberalism or go-slow progressivism which will fight to preserve earlier errors with as much zeal as it ostensibly opposes Current Year errors. Sociologically this has the effect of capturing all potential opposition to progressive moral relativism and locking it into a containment chamber, boxed in by its own contradictions.

  • TomD says:

    It also has to do with what you’re comfortable with – and long-standing slavery (usury) is not frightening or disgusting to those who’ve grown up with it. But the sexual revolution is still too recent, and too personal, to have the same “comfortableness” lodged – especially when you personally start having children – handing children over to the pornographers still feels much worse than handing them over to the usurers.

    But the root of it all is the absolute imperative necessity of never denying liberalism or even allowing it to be questioned.

  • Mike T says:

    “Hence, after the sin of homicide whereby a human life already in existence is destroyed, this type of sin (contraception/onanism) appears to take next place, for by it the generation of human nature is impeded” – which would seem to show that Aquinas considers it worse than adultery.

    Moses and the prophets, however, did not. In fact, God frequently uses the language of adultery to describe Israel’s behavior toward Him. This strikes me as nothing more than a typical example of a philosopher being so enamored of clever arguments that the simple truth is unacceptable to him, if Aquinas truly ignored all of the evidence of how God regards adultery.

    Ironically, the core sin that Onan committed was a violation of his marital duties to his wife and behaving in an “adulterous way” (as God often calls rebellion) toward God. A man has a moral obligation to give his wife children if she wants them, even if he doesn’t. Under the OT law, he absolutely had to impregnate her if she were his brother’s widow. That’s why I’ve never considered Onan to be a good argument about contraception, as it’s clear from the text that God’s motivations were toward something far more systematic than just contraception. (It’s also not an argument for contraception)

  • Zippy says:

    At a certain level, arguing over whether contraception or adultery is ‘worse’ is just counting harlots dancing on the head of a pin, sure. But we are all operating in a soup of trashed modernist opposite-day sensibilities, so the safest bet may be to default to ranking the sins with which you sympathize as the worst.

  • halt94 says:

    Somewhat related to the 1p5 thread, can you help me understand what property I am actually entitled to by a fiat dollar? I am having trouble understanding how being able to do something (settle tax liability, trade in the marketplace) is property which can be bought, sold, alienated from the owner and transferred to another, etc. And if it isn’t that kind of property how can it be securitized?

  • Jack says:

    “This is why I emphasize the point that we can’t really oppose the sexual revolution without just as unequivocally opposing the usury revolution.”

    The decision striking down contraception laws (Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965) and the appearance of the credit card (BankAmericard inter-bank / interstate licensing, 1966) occurred within 12 months of each other. The sexual revolution (Moloch worship) and the usury revolution (Mammon worship) are joined at the hip: they both provide the illusion that you can feed your appetites without having to think about cost and consequence.

  • Zippy says:

    halt94:

    …can you help me understand what property I am actually entitled to by a fiat dollar?

    I answer that at a high level in this post, and in a bit more depth in this one.

    Basically, a fiat dollar is a kind of bearer coupon. It entitles the bearer to make a barter exchange of property and/or labor in the sovereign market: you barter with your counterparty in the sovereign marketplace, and then surrender the appropriate number of coupons (fiat dollars) to the sovereign. If you fail to pay the tax to the sovereign (surrender his coupons back to him) you go to jail along with Al Capone.

    You might think of fiat dollars as similar to airline tickets or tickets for a carnival ride, or to the theater. They entitle you to certain actions or usage within a particular context, and you surrender them to the ‘owner’ of the context – who is also the issuer of the coupons – when you engage in the action or usage.

    And of course, just as Bob might barter his theater tickets in exchange for Fred mowing his lawn, people pervasively barter fiat dollars with each other.

  • “But consistency, it is said, is the hobgoblin of small minds.”

    My two hobgoblins are actually usury and gossip. Those are the forgotten sins, the not-really- sins that seem to have had a horrendous impact on people,that have set off a chain reaction in the world. Usury is exceedingly cruel to poor people, to the working class, indeed it may well take our entire country down at some point. The enemy is first and foremost a thief, he came to steal. He also came to kill and destroy, and gossip is a kind of soul killing, especially as you move into the realm of bullying and false allegations, smear campaigns and politics.

    They are both a kind of idolatry, one that transforms people into commodities, and one that teaches us to put the favor of man above the favor of God.

  • donnie says:

    I think there is a kind of ‘comfortable’ narrative among many (not all of course) trads, and conservatives for that matter, about how everything went wrong in the 1960’s…

    There is definitely comfort in the believing that we are only a few decades off course, that if we can somehow just turn the tide of the last five or six decades we can right the ship and return to the good old days when things were sane. I think of my grandfather, descended from a long line of proud Irish Catholic Democrats, whose simple wish was that he could live to see a day when he could once again vote for a Democrat in good conscience. I’d be shocked if most conservatives and Trads wouldn’t give their right arm to see the very same. If only it could be 1960 all over again: with Kennedy on the ticket, Bishop Sheen on the television, women in the homes, men in the workplace, nuns in the convents, boys in the seminaries, Baltimore Catechism in the schools, reverence in the churches, orthodoxy in the colleges, and, of course, the Traditional Latin Mass on every altar. If only.

    It is far less comfortable to realize that even if God granted all those blessings back to us tomorrow, we’d still squander them all within a decade. The 60s didn’t just come out of nowhere. The revolutions of those years, including Vatican II and its aftermaths, are the fruit, and certainly the facilitator of chastisement, for much deeper and much older infidelities and betrayals.

  • Zippy says:

    Wood:

    …it is still interesting to me that whenever a Catholic usury apologist begins an argument for usury it is never by bringing forward Magisterial statements positively supporting his position.

    Here we are, days into the discussion, with not a single actual Magisterial statement positively supporting the “pro profitable mutuum loans” position.

    The most basic reason for that is that it doesn’t exist.

  • halt94 says:

    Zippy:

    So the thing to which I am entitled by a fiat dollar is permission (to make transactions in the market place). Thank you for your posts on this subject as well as sovereign finance; I have found them extremely helpful, albeit worrisome that we know so little and have not even a theory of how to figure it out.

  • Zippy says:

    halt94:

    So the thing to which [the bearer is] entitled by a fiat dollar is permission (to make [taxable] transactions in the market place [under the tax rules and other rules of that marketplace]).

    Your statement was correct, but I added some extra stuff to it.

    …albeit worrisome that we know so little and have not even a theory of how to figure it out.

    Nobody wants a metaphysically realist understanding of sovereign finance. That would require taking authority seriously, taking morality with respect to property seriously, and would make the various ways people unjustly enslave each other much more transparent.

  • Mike T says:

    At a certain level, arguing over whether contraception or adultery is ‘worse’ is just counting harlots dancing on the head of a pin, sure.

    Adultery is probably the single most referenced sexual sin in scripture. It is even used as the primary metaphor for describing how God sees our behavior in many cases. So, I think it is quite reasonable to say that adultery carries an especially grave importance in the eyes of God because it is not purely a sexual sin, but a relational sin as well.

    By comparison, the few scriptural references to contraception are pretty weak. That is not to necessarily a statement on the morality of contraception, but it certainly says a lot that none of the prophets or apostles gave any authoritative teaching on it while going into detail on a variety of sexual sins by name.

  • Mike T says:

    **I may have missed something, and it’s been a while since I looked for teaching from the prophets/disciples on that issue. I just remember Onan being the “best example” and thinking “uh, that’s the best you can do?”

  • Zippy says:

    Sure, but Scripture specifically and revelation in general isn’t primarily ‘about’ defining natural law morality or whatever. Most of the questions resolved by Councils have been more theological than moral. Marriage was elevated by Christ to a sacrament, and marriage is naturally central to the fractal of revelation, so it (including ‘broken’ instances of it) naturally occurs a lot in Scripture — independent of where adultery ranks versus other grave sins.

    Drawing conclusions about one kind of behavior being ‘more evil’ than another based on word counts or number of mentions in Scripture is a very protestant thing to do. Protestants may find it convincing, but keep in mind that from my point of view there are much more basic issues with Protestantism than just how the gravity of various sins is ranked.

    Certainly they are both grave matter. They will both send you to Hell unless you seek forgiveness through the Sacraments.

  • halt94 says:

    The ordering of the gravity of sins only really matters for the reason of justice: the punishment received for a sin (both in hell and on Earth) is (or should be, in the case of punishment on earth) proportional to the gravity of the sin committed. While it is by no means the only consideration (subjective culpability, earthly ramifications for the implementation of certain punishments, etc.), it is a significant one. Although for people striving for virtue the focus should be on pursuing the good rather than avoiding the evil.

  • “The ordering of the gravity of sins only really matters for the reason of justice…”

    I tend to just perceive it more as triage, so like an attempt to stem the massive bleeding.

  • Mike T says:

    The nature of the sin can also reveal a great deal about how lost someone is. For example, generally speaking, a necrophile is just going to be far more steeped in depravity and wickedness than any normal fornicator.

    I see this problem with other Protestants a lot, where they say “sin is sin,” but then look sheepish when I ask:

    “Are you really telling me that if you tell a small lie to your wife about how big her butt looks in a pair of jeans that God sees that as bad as you shooting her in the face because you don’t like how her butt looks?”

    “Well, no…”

    It’s true that all sin can separate us from God, but the nature of the act is rather important there as much of that separate stems from our own heart as revealed by what we are willing to do or not do.

  • Zippy says:

    We distinguish between what we call venial sin and grave matter (mortally sinful behaviors). White lies are the former. We should never commit any sin (by definition), but venial sin is a red herring.

    Choice of grave matter justly deserves Hell. Without Christ’s freely given grace (ordinarily received through participation in the sacraments He instituted), mortal sin results in justly deserved eternal condemnation.

    Contracepted sex, adultery, sodomy, masturbation, and skipping Mass on Sunday without good reason are all grave matter. (Skipping Mass is grave matter because it involves disobedience of rightful authority in an important matter).

    This list is, needless to say, nonexhaustive. Particular instances of other kinds of sins (theft, lying, usury) may be grave or venial depending on content.

    We can consider the gravity of kinds of mortal sins under three modes by asking three distinct questions.

    1) What are the most grave sins for you?

    These are the mortally sinful behaviors which you are most likely to commit. You are most likely to commit mortal sins when you have a strong temptation to them, when the means to do so are easily available, and when you don’t personally intuit (for whatever reason) the moral gravity of the offense. These are the most grave and dangerous sins for you.

    2) What are the most grave sins corporately?

    This follows a similar pattern but for communities as opposed to individuals. If many more people contracept than commit adultery then contraception is a more grave sin than adultery corporately.

    3) What are the most grave sins abstractly?

    Without disparaging the possibility of addressing this question philosophically, I would suggest that it is rare for people to take an interest in this mode of gravity except as a means of avoiding the discomfort of addressing the other two modes: harlots dancing on the head of a pin.

  • TomD says:

    Which is why there is mortal and venial sin; perhaps the only really pertinent distinction to be made:

    If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.

    Discussing gradation of sin is almost always tied to justification of the “lesser” sin – which is why we should have a horror of our venial sins (though, perhaps, not so much for others lest we be tempted to judge).

  • […] is and is not; and there remains strong moral disapproval in those communities.  The same cannot be said of usury.  Even in the most orthodox communities there is confusion over what ‘usury’ […]

  • […] John Noonan’s basic thesis is that Church doctrine prohibiting usury doesn’t categorically prohibit anything at all: that the doctrine boils down to the idea that charging interest is either licit or illicit depending on circumstances and subjective intentions extrinsic to the contract itself. The putative coup de grace in reaching this conclusion for Noonan is what is called the triple contract. […]

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