A future “conservative” Catholic blog post

August 10, 2018 § 41 Comments

Some folks are getting all breathless about Pope Arius’ decision to officially recognize the dignity of homosexual marriages.

Is he going beyond his authority? Is he changing the catechism and breaking with centuries of church teaching? Is it true that if he does this he can do most anything? Rod Dreher over here seems  to think so.

I’m not so sure.

The classic example is the Catholic teaching against usury. In the Middle Ages the church taught that usury was a sin. It was argued that it was a sin because it was un natural. It used money to make money rather than honestly selling goods and services. Furthermore, it was invariably seen as a way for rich people to oppress the poor through high interest rates.

However, in the modern world the practice of lending money is far more complex and it is arguable that the money lender is indeed honestly selling a service–making loans. Furthermore, with loans being available to everyone, rather than oppressing the poor it is arguable that the poor are empowered by being able to borrow. They can get an education they could not otherwise afford and purchase things on credit to improve their lives. Is money lending still abused? Of course, but that’s not the main question.

When it comes to the death penalty the real change happened not with Pope Francis, but with Pope John Paul II.

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.

The search engine of Christ on Earth

June 5, 2017 § 81 Comments

The pope is primarily a sovereign, that is, a flesh and blood man born of ordinary human parents who possesses supreme authority over the Church.  He is the Vicar of Christ: a human representative of Christ who is  – Christ is – absolutely and supremely sovereign.

Human beings really don’t like to serve their masters in general, and they especially don’t like to feel obligated to obey other flesh and blood human beings.  Unlike God human beings are messy, smelly, fleshy, hairy, blood-and-bone animals with limited intellects, voracious appetites, narrow perspectives, egos well out of proportion to their ant-like personal significance in the scheme of things, mountainous lasagna layers of prejudice about matters they don’t understand, and prodigious helpings of vice. Who would want to be actually morally obligated to obey such a creature?

Atheists avoid the problem entirely by anointing themselves supreme intellect, but alas, this option isn’t available to believers. Protestants resolve the issue by appointing themselves Popes of their own personal Churches, projecting their own opinions onto pages of infinitely plastic interpretable text.

And one pervasive way for Catholics to be rid of this terrible and humiliating sense of obligation to obey a smelly beast with an oversized brain is to confound authority with degrees of epistemic certainty. After all, once we acquire knowledge of good and evil won’t we ourselves be like God?

So we are to obey Father because “Father knows best”, not because he is Father. If we knew better than Father our obligation to obey him would disappear. Father doesn’t actually have authority; he just happens to be in an epistemically superior position through accident of history, at least for the time being. Sovereignty is justified by the sovereign’s superior knowledge: by his capacity to infallibly declare doctrine, not by something so humiliating to us as actual possession of real authority.  It is to this transcendent knowledge that we give assent, not to the flesh and blood king. And the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is always there to set us free.

Popes almost never make infallible proclamations of doctrine though. The primary concomitant to the doctrine of infallibility is that almost nothing that a Pope says or does is an expression of epistemic certainty. His power qua Pope resides almost entirely in his real capacity to bind us to obedience in certain matters in the juridical domain of day to day Church rule — whatever we may think of, and whatever may be the objective wisdom or folly in, his decrees.

Institutionally of course there is real content to the Deposit of the Faith, and over the millennia this content has clarified and developed. Individual Popes and Councils have certainly made contributions here and there; though at least one Council is claimed, by the very Popes who called and ratified it, to have been purely pastoral: that is, to have defined no doctrines or dogmas at all.  “Pastoral” refers to the day to day life and actions of the Church as explicitly distinct from defending doctrine, that is, it refers to most of what the Church actually does as an authoritative living hierarchical institution headed by a flesh and blood monarch.

But the accumulated institutional body of knowledge at Ford is distinct from the authority of its CEO. The thing about Daddy is that on the sparse occasions when he actually tells you what to do you’d bloody well better do it, unless you have compelling contrary reasons and are willing to face the consequences of disobedience.

And the thing about individuals and whole societies with Daddy issues is that they usually don’t really want an actual Daddy. What they want is a flesh puppet with Daddy’s knowledge, competence, and authority to use his voice to speak their opinions and make them feel better about themselves.

Eastasian history

October 17, 2016 § 14 Comments

Catholic usury apologists find themselves in a bind, locked in a box of cognitive dissidence.

If any moral doctrine of the Church is simple and infallible, it is the condemnation of usury.  Moral doctrine on sexuality is actually more complex and nuanced than moral doctrine on property; moral doctrine on contraception more casuistically tricky than moral doctrine on usury (though still not nearly as difficult as self-serving cognitive dissidence proposes).

Catholic usury apologists fall into two camps.

One camp just asserts that doctrine is de-facto infinitely plastic, which means it can be molded into a shape that permits whatever perversions they want it to permit. Bread of Life and circuses for everyone!

The other camp asserts that doctrine never changes but that circumstances have changed enough so that – in the current year – black is white, up is down, and water is dry.

The cognitive dissidence is obvious once you step away from the hothouse, and has many tells.  One of those tells involves the simultaneous assertion that back in the bad old days nobody knew anything about the subject and that back in the bad old days everyone who was smart agreed with us.

So we’ll get simultaneous assertions that the nature of money has changed (as if that were even relevant), that simple mutuum (personally guaranteed) loans are no longer trivially distinguishable from other contracts, and that modern banking and commerce is a whole new kind of thing unlike anything that came before.  At the same time we’ll be treated to references of saints and popes whose families were bankers along with citations of Jesus chiding a servant for failing to make an interest-bearing bank deposit in the New Testament.

I keep waiting for their heads to explode.  But I am always impressed by the ability of human beings to cling to manifestly incoherent nonsense when it means they can have whatever kind of sex they want to have, with whomever or whatever they like.

An unexpected connection between usury and sedevacantism

June 27, 2016 § 287 Comments

Warning: in this post I am kind of talking out of my hat, just sharing something I recently discovered.  I haven’t done the sort of due diligence that would warrant a strong view on my part.  This is just one of those things that make me go “hmmm.”

A personal admission: I tend to get bored out of my mind when I start to read sedevacantist material (articles expressing and attempting to justify the view that there is presently no Pope of Rome, and that the man who presently appears to be Pope is not in fact the Pope).  In my experience, the folks advancing those arguments tend to be completely unaware of their own metaphysical baggage.  At the very least their metaphysical baggage remains hidden and unacknowledged — perhaps because acknowledging it would weaken their arguments, or perhaps because they simply suffer from a limited imagination and are unaware of all of the questions they are begging.

Life is short, and when writers issue too many promissory notes of which they seem utterly unaware themselves I tend to lose interest in what they have to say.

It was interesting to discover though that sedevacantist arguments seem to draw heavily on the Jesuit School of Salamanca: the same “Georgetown of the Middle Ages” that (arguably) brought us Jesuit economic anti-realism  and waffliness on usury.

Cafeteria traditionalism and Communion for unrepentant usurers

May 2, 2016 § 92 Comments

I left the following comment – which was removed by the moderator and not published, according to Disqus – on this article at The Remnant.  Apparently, pointing out that pre-Vatican II (and still ongoing) ‘pastoral mercy’ granted to unrepentant usurers is very similar to post Vatican II ‘pastoral mercy’ granted to unrepentant adulterers, was not considered on topic.

Or perhaps the observation doesn’t fit well with some other overarching narrative or worldview, I suppose.

The ‘whitewash away metaphysically realist doctrine with anti-realist pastoral accommodation’ thing has been done before, and is still fully in force in the case of usury. Humanae Vitae is simply becoming the new Vix Pervenit.

If you want to grasp what is currently happening in the domain of sex and marriage you need to first grasp what had already happened, before any of us were born and before Vatican II was a twinkle in John XXIII’s eye, in the domain of usury.

I document this in some detail here:

I’m not a regular reader of The Remnant, although I have some of the article author’s books.  As I understand it the title of the magazine refers to a putative small ‘remnant’ of orthodox Catholics in an ocean of heterodox cafeteria Catholics.

But some might think that deafening and willful silence about so-called ‘pastoral mercy’ toward unrepentant usurers combined with outrage over so-called ‘pastoral mercy’ toward unrepentant adulterers, is its own sort of cafeteria Catholicism.


According to the moderator it was just the inclusion of a link that got my comment removed.  That seems odd though, because there are other comments (for example this one) in that thread with links to outside websites, blogs, etc.

The opposite of faith is bureaucracy

February 23, 2016 § 53 Comments

Most people are, naturally enough, scandalized by the idea that a sitting Pope could be a heretic (and nonetheless still legitimately Pope).

My own view is that this is mainly driven by ignorance of Catholic history combined with modern/protestant attitudes toward authority.

Often enough when someone’s world view (in this case the world view of, say, a sedevacantist or the like; or his mirror image the ultramontane) is rooted in ignorance of history, it isn’t enough to dispel the ignorance by presenting the inconvenient facts (e.g. Pope Honorius I, clearly the Pope and yet posthumously anathematized by an ecumenical council). Historical facts tend to be met with some sort of revisionist approach, rather than taking a step back and just accepting that ultramontanism/sedevacantism is another one of those ubiquitous false dichotomies: that the truth must lie not so much somewhere in between the horns of the putative dilemma as somewhere else entirely, somewhere outside the padded walls.

Whatever it is precisely that Vatican Council I meant by the doctrine of infallibility, it can’t mean that it is impossible for a Pope to be a material heretic and it can’t mean that it is impossible for most of the hierarchy to be mired in heresy (see e.g.: the Arian crisis).

It has been pointed out before that the most obvious corollary* to the doctrine of infallibility when speaking ex cathedra is that almost everything that a Pope says and does is, like the acts of any other legitimate human monarch, perfectly fallible. As with other human monarchs, though, fallibility does not call into question his administrative authority.

Modern Catholics (including modern trad Catholics, I’m afraid, although many trads do tend to have better immunities to this than non-trads) are typically modern first and Catholic second. What this means is that we don’t really want to live in a world of messy, fallible, often dysfunctional human authority. So we look for some kind of machinery: some fixed body of text or bureaucratic machinery to substitute for authority, formal machinery which we can depend upon to give us rigorous assurances and treat us fairly.

That is, we lack faith.

Second guessing the Holy Spirit is a fool’s errand, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the people who are really supposed to learn something from the current crisis are the traditionalists — those who truly aspire to be faithful sons of the Church.

And another thing I’ve pointed out before is that it is easy to ‘obey’ king or husband when you agree with what he says; or, even if you disagree, when you are confident in his competence. Who wants to be obedient to the juridical directives of the Clown King? What wife wants to submit to an obsequious whining loser?

I’ll tell you which one.

The one who has faith.


* Another obvious corollary is that although a statement of dogma is infallible when the conditions of ex cathedra are met, the person interpreting that statement of dogma is not infallible – including his interpretation of whether a given statement precisely meets the conditions of speaking ex cathedra! So there is always rather less to infallibility than meets the eye. The Church may speak on matters infallibly here and there — though by all accounts this is rather rare. But I am quite aware of the fact that no matter how infallible the speaker may be in what he is saying, I am not an infallible listener.

[The current post is an elaboration on an OT digression in the combox of this post.]

Against the stenchus fidelium we declare “invictus manure!”

January 22, 2015 § 16 Comments

I’ll attempt to clarify the point I made below.

Compare this:

“If a penitent does not confess the gain from money given in a loan, and appears to be in good faith, these confessors, even if they know from other sources that gain of this sort has been taken by him and is even now being taken, they absolve him, making no interrogation about the matter, because they fear the penitent, being advised to make restitution or to refrain from such profit, will refuse.”

to this:

“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.”

If the former constitutes a reversal of doctrine on usury, then the latter constitutes a reversal of doctrine on contraception.

The tin man astride a mountain of piety

January 11, 2015 § 9 Comments

The weakest members of society should be helped to defend themselves against usury, just as poor peoples should be helped to derive real benefit from micro-credit, in order to discourage the exploitation that is possible in these two areas. – Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, Jun 29, 2009

A straw man is a weakened form of an argument which is attacked and defeated as a polemical gambit.  A steel man is the strongest form or version of an argument.  In this post I will give the strongest argument of which I am aware (in a Catholic context) that charging “reasonable” profitable interest on a mutuum loan is not intrinsically immoral but can sometimes be morally licit.  This post builds on the background of the Usury FAQ and presumes the reader’s familiarity with the subject matter.

The entire modern Catholic usury apologia depends on what are called extrinsic titles (sometimes “just titles”) in the context of mutuum loans. It is from the concept of extrinsic titles, combined with some fairy tale about how much the world has changed or how dumb the Magisterium used to be, that it is argued that “reasonable” profit can be licitly made from a mutuum loan.

Recall that earning income from non-mutuum contracts can be morally licit.  Vix Pervenit: “Nor is it denied that it is very often possible for someone, by means of contracts differing entirely from [mutuum] loans, to spend and invest money legitimately either to provide oneself with an annual income or to engage in legitimate trade and business. From these types of contracts honest gain may be made.”  It is only income from mutuum contracts – usury – which is prohibited.

A great deal could be written about the subject in the abstract, but in order to understand the situation you have to grasp the concrete pastoral priorities and difficulties of the medieval Church.  They were human beings in a society like us, as it happens, and the variety of opinion, knowledge, understanding, etc was as disparate then as it is today.  In no particular order, some of the issues were as follows:

  • Clergy withholding sacramental absolution from businessmen (often falsely) thought to be usurers.
  • Clergy withholding sacramental absolution from actual usurers, genuinely penitent but unable to make restitution.
  • Poor people in desperate need of financial assistance
  • Usurers basically ‘loan sharking’ the poor for very high interest.
  • Institutions sponsored by the Church, pioneered frequently by Franciscan religious, with a charter of helping the poor
  • Upholding the Church’s doctrinal integrity
  • Widespread lack of understanding of the basic difference between full recourse (mutuum) loans and non recourse (societas) contracts
  • Widespread lack of understanding of legitimate business entrepreneurship
  • Lots of innovation in financial products by merchants and their exchanges, the precursors to commercial banks, including such things as insurance bonds.

Whatever the Magisterium might say on the matter, however carefully, would therefore have tremendous consequences. Confusion is virtually guaranteed absent a charitable hermeneutic which assumes that the Popes and St. Thomas Aquinas actually did their due diligence and knew what they were talking about.  A hermeneutic which assumes nonsense as input is guaranteed to produce nonsense as output.

The first two practices were ended by decrees of the Holy Office and changes to Canon Law. It was declared to be sufficient for the penitent to be prepared to follow the direction of the Holy See, in effect removing the problem of understanding the nuts and bolts of usury from the purview of confessors (who were frequently financially naive themselves). Usury apologists like John Noonan insinuate the non sequitur that this is evidence in favor of a change in doctrine; sexual revolutionaries (including, not coincidentally, Noonan himself) take it as evidence that basic doctrines can be selectively ignored or changed.  I leave it to the reader to assess the intellectual integrity of those positions.

Now, the institutional problem of helping the poor is qualitatively different from mere private donations or friendly loans.  The medieval “Mountains of Piety” were an institutional outcome of the efforts of Catholic religious to help the poor.  One of the great ironies of the tale is that this monumental institutional effort to rescue the poor from usury became a cornerstone of subsequent “progressive” Catholic usury apologia. There is perhaps still some parallel here in sexual matters: that desperately poor couples who cannot afford another child at the present time have the medicinal option of NFP, when complete abstinence presents too great of a trial, is regularly used by contraception apologists to attack the doctrine prohibiting contraception.  Apologists for the execrable will always use distorted conceptions of the mercy of the Church to propagate their lies.

Think about the basic problem from an institutional point of view. A charitable organization to help the poor can take on one of two models. In one model, donations are made to poor people simply. This is certainly the ‘cleanest’ way to do things, but it comes with a big disadvantage: the capital base used to help the poor is used up quickly, so people who could be helped with a more efficient institutional model starve. Beyond the loans themselves, running these charitable organizations results in actual expenses: buildings must be rented or bought and maintained, and not all services can be performed by volunteers who live under vows of poverty (although many can).  Benedict XIV tells us in Vix Pervenit that

By these remarks, however, We do not deny that at times together with the loan contract certain other titles-which are not at all intrinsic to the contract-may run parallel with it. From these other titles, entirely just and legitimate reasons arise to demand something over and above the amount due on the contract.

The poor are not saints, and not everyone who has been helped by a social welfare institution demonstrates due gratitude once his lot has improved.  It is a real injustice for the ungrateful to selfishly deplete the base of charitable capital in a “mountain of piety”. Furthermore actual costs (as distinct from imaginary gains from foregone opportunities) can arise in a particular transaction, such as the cost of collections, the cost of clerical work or what have you.

With the approval of the holy Council (Lateran Council V), we declare and define that the aforesaid “Mountains of piety” established by the civil authorities and thus far approved and confirmed by the authority of the Apostolic See, in which a moderate rate of interest is received exclusively for the expenses of the officials and for other things pertaining to their keeping, as is set forth, for an indemnity of these as far as this matter is concerned, beyond the capital without a profit for these same Mountains, neither offer an species of evil, nor furnish an incentive to sin, nor in any way are condemned, nay rather that such a loan is worthwhile and is to be praised and approved, and least of all to be considered usury. – Leo X, Inter Multiplices, April 28, 1515 (quoted in Denzinger). (Emphasis mine)

Setting aside the fact that these medieval charitable ancestors of pawnshops frequently held actual property as security, making many or possibly even all of the loans non-recourse (that is, not mutuum loans), the “steel man” argument then – the best argument that usury apologists can propose – is that this non-profit intrinsically charitable institutional activity can be translated into the commercial domain of property: that “extrinsic titles” on a mutuum can apply not only to actual losses of property from the “Mountain” in an intrinsically charitable institutional enterprise, but to profits in a commercial venture putatively founded in property and claims terminating in actual property. The argument also depends on the specific proposed extrinsic title of lucrum cessans, that is, title to recover opportunity cost or time value of money from the mutuum borrower: a title that the Magisterium has explicitly condemned.  So the “steel man” argument in favor of “reasonable interest” on mutuum loans depends on applying a condemned title to a kind of contract that is inherently illicit in a commercial context.

The best argument for charging rent on property which does not exist rests, unsurprisingly, on asserting a property title which does not exist (property title to the “time value of money”) by a kind of institution which does not exist (a for-profit non-profit).

Seems more like a tin man to me.

We’ve all got babies to kill

September 27, 2014 § 145 Comments

I could be wrong, but in my understanding Augustine and Aquinas were primarily concerned with whether the Israelite conquest of Canaan was justifiable at all: with jus ad bellum. After all, on its face it was a war of conquest, and wars of conquest are morally wrong.

Just conduct during war, jus in bello, is clearly – and is formally recognized by the Church as – an entirely distinct subject.

At least one Church Father though has directly addressed accounts of killing infants in the Old Testament and how they are to be interpreted. Here is Origen on the “dashing of babies” in Psalm 137:

And in this way also the just give up to destruction all their vices, so that they do not spare even the children, that is, the early beginnings and promptings of evil. In this sense we understand the language of Psalm 137 … For, “the little ones of Babylon” (which signifies confusion) are those troublesome sinful thoughts that arise in the soul, and one who subdues them by striking, as it were, their heads against the firm and solid strength of reason and truth, is the person who “dashes the little ones against the stones”; and he is therefore truly blessed. – Origen, Contra Celsum, translated by Frederick Crombie, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to AD 325, edited by Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1989)

So according to Origen, Old Testament accounts of killing infants refer metaphorically to destroying heresy and vice in ourselves in its infancy; and the weapons of destruction are reason and truth.

In that sense, we should all be dashing the heads of infants against the rocks.

(UPDATE: Made a minor tweak to my post-citation commentary)

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