Just titles to contraception and adultery, or, Reddit where Reddit is due

September 25, 2017 § 21 Comments

[Conscience] can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that [objectively adulterous behavior] is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. – Amoris Laetitia

The standard narrative of Catholic moral progressivism is that Church moral doctrine doesn’t change; it just becomes completely irrelevant.  God is asking you to do the opposite of what God’s law tells you that you should do.

Since this has been going on for generations, from times well before the dreaded Vatican II, conservatives and traditionalists frequently defend this approach as a fine established tradition while simultaneously screeching incessantly in protest against its Current Year manifestations.

Contraceptive intercourse without a just title is morally wrong, but the world has changed and nowadays most people most of the time have a just title to mutilated sexual behaviors.  Objective adultery without a just title is morally wrong, but the world has changed and nowadays the largest groups of adulterers most of the time have a just title to adultery.  Killing innocent people without a just title is morally wrong, but the world has changed and nowadays the largest scale killers almost always have a just title to murder.  And profiting from mutuum lending without a just title is morally wrong, but the world has changed and nowadays most mutuum lenders have a just title to usury.

God wants you to choose evil behaviors, you see, because if loving God requires you to keep His commandments then most people won’t actually love Him very much.  Allowing people to hate God and His onerous commandments would be terribly non-inclusive and unmerciful, not to mention grossly impractical; so of course what God really wants is for everyone to remain in a safe and comfy state of salvific ignorance.

John Noonan explains how this works in his book The Scholastic Analysis of Usury:

From a theoretical viewpoint, development [of a theory of earning profits from mutuum loans] was retarded by the concept of the normally gratuitous loan, which led to a belief that ever to admit interest as due from the beginning of a loan would be to destroy the usury prohibition itself. … Loans, it will be recalled were considered licit only if made from charity; compensation on them, even if justified, was thought vitiated if it were sought chiefly for its own sake. …

In the end, as everyone knows, interest on loans came to be considered the norm, and usury the exception …

The Scholastic Analysis of Usury by John T. Noonan, Jr,  published 1957, page 100

Note the typical useful ambiguity in the employment of the English term “loan“.

I’m not a regular user of Reddit, but I have an account and occasionally read Reddit threads when I see them linking back to here.  On a recent Reddit thread a commenter there paraphrased a ruling made during the 1822-1836 period of “pastoral accommodation” of usury, which we’ve discussed here before.  It sounded vaguely familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I asked for the citation.  I was given a Latin (a language I don’t personally know) text with no citation; upon further inquiry I was given a reference to a book entirely in Latin.

Neither of these was immediately helpful to me, so I went back to my own sources.

Here is what Noonan writes:

A perplexed vicar-general asked,

“Whether a confessor sins, who sends away in good faith a penitent, who demands from a loan the gain allowed by the civil law, apart from any extrinsic title of lucrum cessans or damnum emergens or extraordinary danger?”

The Penitentiary, the Roman tribunal for issues of the internal forum, replied in the classic formula that “Non esse inquietandum”, provided he is ready to obey a decision of the Holy See.

A troubled theologian, Denavit, now sought information on precisely the same subject.  he declared:

“The undersigned writer, thinking it licit by no contract to withdraw from the doctrine of Benedict XIV, denies sacramental absolution to priests who contend that the law of the prince is sufficient title for taking something beyond the sum lent apart from lucrum cessans or damnum emergens.”

In answer to his question if his conduct was, then, too severe toward these priests, the Holy Office again replied “Non esse inquietandos”.

Noonan, page 379

So in summary, some priests were absolving unrepentant interest-takers who were – the penitents were – relying on the fact that doing so was legal under the positive law. The question posed was not whether the interest-taking lender was committing sin.  The question was whether the confessor-priests were committing sin in absolving those penitents, and whether Denavit was being too hard on those confessor-priests in refusing them absolution when they were, themselves, in confession.  I hope that isn’t too confusing.

The response was that yes, he was being too hard on those confessor-priests and should not disturb them unless and until such time as the Holy See rules on the particular matter.

As we’ve discussed before, it would be irrational to conclude that this has any effect whatsoever on the meaning of the objective moral norm against usury.  But you don’t have to take my word for that or follow the obvious reasoning; because the Grand Penitentiary himself, Cardinal Gregorio, said as much explicitly when explaining this whole series of rulings to the Bishop of Viviers:

“The Sacred Penitentiary wished to define nothing at all about the question, debated by theologians, of the title derived from the law of the prince; but only to provide a norm which confessors might safely follow in regard to penitents who take a moderate profit determined by the law of the prince, with good faith and ready to accept the commands of the Holy See.”

Noonan, page 380

If these pastoral questions about confession and the internal forum (the jurisdiction of the Sacred Penitentiary) have any bearing whatsoever on the objective content of usury doctrine, we can likewise conclude that the Church approved of just titles to contraception in 1997 when it instructed confessors that they could, in certain circumstances, absolve penitents who unrepentantly choose contracepted sexual intercourse without the confessor-priests sinning themselves in so doing.

Noonan explains (absent any disapproval on Noonan’s part) the way progressive ‘pastoral accommodation‘ works when he discusses Pope Sixtus V’s decisive, arguably infallible proclamation of the categorical illicitness of any profit from recourse contracts:

This solemn condemnation, enforced by such severe penalties, and apparently directed at the increasing popularity of the triple contract, might seem to the superficial observer a decisive blow. … In fact, however, it remained without effect upon the great debate.  Two theories to explain it were generally put forward.  One was that the bull was purely positive legislation, not a declaration of divine or natural law; … Purely positive legislation lapses … when it is not received by the subjects of the law; … Since the bull had been received nowhere, it had, insofar as it was positive law, no force whatsoever.

The second theory … was that it merely prohibited contracts of partnership which were “naturally usurious.”, where no compensation was paid for the insurance of the capital.  Since only such “naturally usurious” contracts were condemned, and since the triple contract was not “naturally usurious,” it was argued that the bull left the latter untouched.

Noonan, page 221

Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio might seem, to the superficial observer, a decisive blow.  But if you are a defender of the usury status quo – including the status quo of the 1600’s – then that thing hoisting you is your own petard.

Did the Church reverse course on contraception in 1997?

January 22, 2015 § 20 Comments

If you buy that the pastoral changes of Pius VIII and Gregory XVI reversed Church doctrine on usury, you might also be inclined to buy that John Paul II reversed Church doctrine on contraception:

The principle according to which it is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance, is certainly to be considered always valid, even in matters of conjugal chastity. And this applies whenever it is foreseen that the penitent, although oriented towards living within the bounds of a life of faith, would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin.

NFP vs Contraception

September 9, 2013 § 94 Comments

NFP (that is, selective sexual abstinence) is a fundamentally different kind of thing from contraception.  Sitting on the couch reading a book is a fundamentally different kind of act from donning a condom and engaging in sterile sex.  This arises from the more general fact that doing something is fundamentally different from not doing something.

Doing something is incarnationally real; refraining from doing something is not real in the same sense.  This can be shown by observing that if Bob does something, Bob must exist at the time of the doing.  But for Bob to “not do” something, he doesn’t even have to exist at the time of the not-doing.  [Note: see Kristor’s criticism of this paragraph here.]

In general, we have a moral obligation not to choose evil behaviors.  The prohibition of contracepted sexual acts arises from this kind of moral obligation: a negative moral precept.

We also, and distinctly, have positive duties to do certain things.  The fact that NFP can be immoral – depending on the intentions and circumstances of the couple – arises from the positive duty of parents to be open to children.  Like all positive duties – and unlike negative prohibitions – this depends on circumstances and intentions.  This is a positive moral precept.

Whatever one may think of NFP – and I’ve been critical of triumphalism about its use in the past – it is clear that it is an entirely distinct kind of thing from contraception.  Contraception involves the deliberate choice of a concrete behavior in violation of a negative moral precept: the mutilation of an ontologically real act.  NFP involves a choice to refrain from certain licit but not obligatory behaviors at certain times.

So when someone claims that NFP and contraception are the same kind of thing he has made a fundamental category error.

Contraception Is So Gay

December 12, 2007 § 14 Comments

The Vademicum for Confessors defines contraception this way:

The Church has always taught the intrinsic evil of contraception, that is, of every marital act intentionally rendered unfruitful. This teaching is to be held as definitive and irreformable.

As with pretty much any string of letters that says anything interesting, there are multiple possible interpretations of this definition, at least in principle.

In what follows, the context is an understanding of contraception as intrinsically immoral. That is, contraception as an intrinsically immoral act must be immoral as a chosen behavior independent of intentions (other than the intention in the “chosen” part of “chosen behavior”: that is, the behavior must be freely chosen); and also independent of consequences or circumstances. This context is set by the moral theology of the papal encyclical Veritatis Splendour, which says of itself that it is the first Magisterial document in the history of the Church to explicate in detail what it means for an act to be intrinsically immoral.

One possible interpretation is that contraception is an act utterly distinct from a sexual act. (I’m not entirely convinced that this is even coherent, but it is one line that gets taken). The idea here seems to be that contraception is something utterly distinct, and intrinsically immoral as a distinct act, but with no connection to the sex act itself: the contracepted sex act itself is not immoral.

Another interpretation is that contraception is a sex act: a sex act which the person has deliberately modified in a way which renders it pleasurable to the person but infertile.

It won’t surprise anyone who has followed recent discussions that I think the latter understanding is the right one. Undoubtedly that is in part because that understanding lines up best with my moral intuitions. The Church after all tells us that as something falling under the natural law sexual morality is accessible, at least in principle, to our reason. But it also makes the rest of Catholic teaching on sexual morality coherent rather than ad hoc. Immoral sexual acts in general then become of a piece: sodomy is wrong because it is a modified/unnatural sexual act; masturbation is wrong because it is a modified/unnatural sexual act; contraception is wrong because it is a modified/unnatural sexual act; intercourse with a transgendered person is wrong because it is a modified/unnatural sexual act; bestiality is wrong because it is a modified/unnatural sexual act; etc. etc.

There are other consequences of this view that make it more coherent than alternative views, in my understanding.

In some circles it is controversial whether a rape victim is doing wrong in attempting to get the rapist to use a condom, for example. But on this understanding that isn’t an issue: a rape victim is not choosing a sexual act at all, so it isn’t possible for the rape victim to choose a disordered sexual act. She is just defending herself, if only partially, from an attack and violation.

The contrary view also makes a hash out of the use of hormonal medicines for non-contraceptive purposes by women who are not sexually active. Indeed, the use of any medicine which might impair fertility as a side-effect would be immoral, even when used by a celibate priest, because contraception is intrinsically immoral: immoral as a chosen behavior independent of the reason why that behavior is chosen.

So while it is always possible to interpret documents and statements in more than one way, I think the latter understanding – of contraception as a disordered sexual act rather than as an utterly distinct act standing on its own – is more orthodox, more rationally coherent, and more consistent with moral theology as taught by the Magisterium.

At least the rationalization hamsters are fecund

September 12, 2018 § 127 Comments

Natural, un-mutilated heterosexual intercourse has – qua kind of behaviour – an intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.  This is easily demonstrated by the fact that if all natural, un-mutilated heterosexual intercourse (as a kind of behaviour) ceased then human life would cease to procreate.  There is an intrinsic relationship between this specific kind of behaviour[1] and procreation of human life.

Mutilated sexual acts (including but not limited to masturbation, sodomy, condomistic sex, and masturbation into a deliberately poisoned womb) do not have – qua kind of behaviour – this intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.  If all instances of this kind of behaviour ceased it would have no effect on the procreation of human life (except to the extent that people would substitute natural sex for unnatural sex: the cessation of unnatural sexual behaviours would certainly not impair procreation).

The Catholic Church teaches that all sexual acts must of necessity – in order to be morally licit – retain their intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life, in just this sense.

Whatever one may think of the moral implications of this particular distinction in kinds of behavior, it is certainly both intelligible and entirely consistent with scientific facts.  Substituting a different meaning into the words “intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” does not actually alter the consistency of the original and actual meaning; let alone does such substitution falsify Catholic moral doctrine as a “empirically observable fact.”

In other words, in an “average” 28 day cycle, there is no potential for procreation in roughly 22 of the 28 days present. Sexual activity during this period has no “intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” This is not my opinion, it is an empirically observable fact, like the Earth’s rotation around the Sun.

This kind of nonsense on stilts might make one wonder where the rationalization is coming from.

[1] Knowledge about human fertility, or its lack, obviously does not alter the nature of the kind of behaviour itself. If all instances of (e.g.) sodomy (both by people who know lots about human fertility and those who know nothing about it) ceased, that would not impair procreation of human life.  If all instances of natural heterosexual intercourse (both by people who know lots about human fertility and those who know nothing about it) ceased, human procreation would cease.


September 10, 2018 § 100 Comments

It is asked whether, following the affirmations of Pope Pius VIII and Gregory XVI, and additional rulings by the Sacred Penitentiary, it has now become possible to grant absolution in the Sacrament of Penance and thus to admit to Holy Communion a person who, while bound to observe the Church’s categorical and infallible condemnation of usury, deliberately and unrepentantly contracts for profits from a mutuum loan.  Can the expression “in certain cases” found in note 351 (n. 305) of the exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” be applied to unrepentant usurers and contraceptors?

You can buy the wine but I’ll keep the refreshment

June 11, 2018 § 5 Comments

A usurer attempts to sell some actual property to a “borrower” while retaining the potential for profit which inheres in that actual property.

The borrower in a mutuum owns the actual property he is “lent”, because the mutuum authorizes him to dispose of or consume that actual property as he sees fit: his obligation to the lender is a personal obligation, independent of what happens to that actual property.  Once a mutuum has been joined the borrower fully owns the actual property and the lender owns nothing at all: the lender merely has the borrower’s personal pledge of some different unspecified property of the same worth, at some time in the future.

But any potential which inheres in actual property is not separable from that actual property.  You can’t sell that wine while retaining that wine’s potential for refreshment.  So another way to think about usury is that it represents an attempt to sell property without really selling it.  The usurer transfers full ownership of the property to the borrower personally, since the borrower’s obligation under the agreement remains however he disposes of that actual property; and simultaneously the usurer insists on guaranteed actual profits (not even just potential profits!) from property he no longer owns.

It is fair to ask, then, if any profits from a mutuum are immoral why would anyone lend under a mutuum?  And the answer is that we should never, categorically, lend under a mutuum in pursuit of financial self interest: mutuum lending is only morally licit as an act of charity or friendship.

Clanging cymbals

June 3, 2018 § 23 Comments

If we don’t grasp that love is rooted in truth, all of our attempts at love devolve into the empty and dissonant clanging of cymbals.

And if we fail to understand and unequivocally oppose usury then all of our opposition to sodomy, contraception, fornication, adultery, abortion, torture, unjust war and the like is self-defeating.

(HT TomD)

Don’t waste time with those antibiotics; maybe leeches will work!

April 25, 2018 § 24 Comments


A reader posted a link to the Usury FAQ in a Twitter discussion with HJA Sire, the author of The Dictator Pope.  (I have a Kindle copy of the first edition of that book, written under a pseudonym.  It is pretty interesting and worth your time to read).  The screencap shows the response he got.

I’d just suggest that in the context of the present crisis in the Church, people who studiously look away from the elephant in the room will inevitably fail to adequately grasp the situation.

Each breath will cost you a nickel

November 14, 2017 § 50 Comments

The basic principles behind the prohibition of usury are simple.  Financially, usury is any contractual profit for the lender stemming from making a “loan for consumption“: a loan which authorizes the borrower to consume or alienate the actual property lent, while personally guaranteeing that he will restore to the lender the amount lent.  Morally, personally guaranteed loans are only licit as acts of charity or friendship made to a borrower in need: they are never licit under any circumstances as acts of financial self-interest on the part of the lender.

Intuitively, charging rent for the use of collateral property owned by the lender – actual alienable property which is later returned to the lender intact or ultimately bought out by the borrower – is not intrinsically uncharitable.

Intuitively, charging a man rent for the use of his own person, for each breath he takes from his own lungs, is intrinsically uncharitable.  Interest on a personal IOU is a charge of rent against a man for the use of his own person, since his obligation to repay simply is personal.

It is also intrinsically uncharitable to make a mutuum borrower responsible for the lender’s changing circumstances.  In general with a mutuum loan the borrower is not responsible – cannot be made responsible – for all of the circumstantial changes which occur in the universe during the duration of the loan.

People use terms like “inflation” in economic theory to refer to aggregate indexes of relative price changes over time.  An index is just a representative sample of statistically aggregated spot prices of particular goods and services, measured in some particular unit (US dollars, McDonalds Big Macs, etc).  There are as many possible relative price indices as there are discrete combinations of goods, services, transactions, and time periods.  But folks tend to treat “inflation” as if it were a basic feature of reality as opposed to a particular heuristic/statistical guesstimate about certain historical circumstantial changes in relative prices (measures of who in fact bartered what in exchange for what) for certain goods and services (and only those goods and services, etc).

I once bought a house by selling some stock, paying for the house with the proceeds.  When I sold the house it had “lost value” in terms of US dollars but had “gained value” in terms of the stock I sold. Whether the house had inflated or deflated in price over the period I owned it depends on what measure we use for price.  If I had sold the stock, rented a place to live, and made an interest free mutuum loan of the remainder of the proceeds I would have been financially better off still, assuming the mutuum was repaid.  If I had rented and not sold the stock at all I would be worst off of all, in terms of financial outcome.

This all would have been the result of changing circumstances.  In general it is not the responsibility of mutuum borrowers – it cannot be a mutuum borrower’s responsibility in justice – to compensate lenders for changes in the lender’s circumstances.

Inflation is a heuristic measure of aggregated circumstances in the economy, crafted and reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Even if inflation were a measure of the actual concrete and personal changing circumstances of the actual lender, which it isn’t, it remains intrinsically unjust to charge mutuum borrowers rent for the use of their own persons simply because of the changing circumstances of a lender.

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