The Church and Usury: Error, Change or Development?

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Chapter One

The sources of this foolish and ancient law are not hard to discover: a Christian opposition to temporal prosperity, an anti-Semitic distrust of Jewish methods, an ignorant reverence for Aristotle's maxim that money is barren, and a worldly love of present pleasure and hatred of the abstemious lender.1

Many people today cite usury as the primary example where the Church changed it own teaching, contradicting its previous condemnation of usury. Included in this group are of course numerous non-Catholics, but we also see this argument used by Catholics who disagree with the teaching authority of the Church. This chapter will examine the various arguments being made by these groups, introduce the basic history of the usury teaching, and examine the topic of change in Church teaching.

There are some who wish to "prove" that the Catholic Church is not the one true Church founded by Jesus Christ. Primary among those are Protestants that are trying to justify the Reformation. Some have even claimed that the Church misinterpreted the scriptures until the Reformation finally overturned the Church's long-standing prohibition of usury.2 In addition, the rationalist critics of the Church in the nineteenth century also saw usury as an opportunity to show that the Church had been proved wrong. "The usury rule was, for these literal readers of the ancient texts, the classic example of an about-face by the Church which disproved forever its vaunted claim to be the infallible arbitrator of morals."3

Take as a representative example of both of these groups a work with the inimical title Syllabus of Papal and Magisterial Errors, which claims, "The Roman Church has changed, or developed, its teaching on many occasions. Few are as clear as the case of Usury."4 Making a briefest review of the history of this teaching, this work cites the undeniable references in the Old Testament, Church Councils, Fathers and Medieval theologians which all prohibited usury. "There is no doubt that council after council, and pope after pope condemned usury."5 He cites as his final proof the 1745 encyclical of Benedict XIV, Vix Pervenit which Halsall claims forbids all interest.6

The Church then "flip-flops" in 1830 when the the Holy Office, with the approval of Pius VIII, allows the justifiable taking of interest. Not only is the taking of interest now allowed, but the 1917 Code of Canon Law even said that religious orders were to keep their assets on deposit in interest bearing accounts.7 In addition, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church makes no mention of usury. Its section on love for the poor (under the Seventh Commandment) only mentions as a historical fact that there were several Old Testament juridical measures showing concern for the poor, which included the "prohibition of loans at interest."8 What is the logical conclusion one draw from these facts? "I cannot think of other issues as important as usury where the church has done such an about face.... The Church can, has, and does, change its teaching on vital points of ethics."9

How does such a change take place in such a short time? One nineteenth century overview claimed that the Church "began a series of amazing attempts to reconcile a view permitting usury with the long series of decrees of popes and councils forbidding it."10 It was through a struggle of right reason over the theological opposition that reversed this policy by which "the whole evolution of European civilization was greatly hindered."11

In another overview of the Church's teaching, Noonan delves more deeply into the sources, citing Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine as three Western (Latin) Fathers who give a representative sample of the many patristic writings on usury.12 In a series of sermons collected in the treatise De Tobia, St. Ambrose denounced the taking of anything on a loan, stating that "whatever is added to the principal is usury"13 and is a violation of the law of God, prohibited by the prescriptions of both "the Old and Divine law."14 St. Ambrose primarily bases his argument on the prohibitions of usury in the Old Law, Exodus 22:25 and Leviticus 25:36.15

St. Jerome similarly defines usury, "One calls anything whatsoever usury and surplus if one has collected more than one has given."16 In his commentary on Ezekiel, he sees usury prohibited not only by the Law, but also by the Prophets. In addition, Jerome specifically cites Luke 6:35, "lend, expecting nothing in return..."17 This passage becomes the basis for emphatically showing that the New Law of the Gospel also contains a commandment against usury. To these Augustine will add other biblical arguments such as Psalm 14,18 showing again that God does not will money to be given at usury. Similar prohibitions, using these same scriptural passages, were also taught by numerous Eastern (Greek) Fathers.

Yet there is only one exception to this seemingly universal prohibition being made by the Fathers: the fact that the early Church councils do not seem to make these prohibitions binding for all. Originally, the practice of usury is forbidden to clerics, but only later is the prohibition extended to the laity as well. Nicea makes the prohibition on the taking of usury for clerics in 325 A.D.19 When is it universally prohibited for all members of the Church? While the earliest Fathers clearly teach that usury is sinful for all, there does not seem to be any corresponding canons of a major synod or provincial council until a much later date. While some have dubiously claimed a prohibition as early as 300 A.D., it does not seem to be until the eighth and ninth century that the usury rule is obligatory for all Christians.20

Most authors cite three ecumenical councils as clearly teaching universally, with the Church's infallible authority, against the taking of usury: Lateran II, Lateran III, and the Council of Vienne. In 1139 the Second Lateran Council enacted this canon:

Furthermore, we condemn that practice accounted despicable and blameworthy by divine and human laws, denounced by Scripture in the old and new Testaments, namely, the ferocious greed of usurers; and we sever them from every comfort of the church, ...let them be held infamous throughout their whole lives and, unless they repent, be deprived of a Christian burial.21

Lateran III reiterated these same teachings in 1179, and also denied Christian burial to manifest usurers. In addition, both of these councils teach, at least indirectly, that usury is condemned by the Scriptures. Not only are usurers to be excommunicated, but in 1314 the Council of Vienne considers those who promote usury to be enemies of the faith. "If indeed someone has fallen into the error of presuming to affirm pertinaciously that the practice of usury is not sinful, we decree that he is to be punished as a heretic".22 Based upon these canons, Noonan seems to be correct in saying that the sinfulness of usury "is proximate to being a matter of faith."23

As a final summary of the Church's early teaching on usury, we have the decrees of Gratian composed shortly after the year 1140. This Concordia discordantium canonum is essentially a summary of the ancient law of the Church, and embodies the teachings of the first ten ecumenical councils. Gratian's commentary established the following points:

To demand or receive or even to lend expecting to receive something above the capital is to be guilty of usury; usury may exist on money or something else; one who receives usury is guilty of rapine and is just as culpable as a thief; the prohibition against usury holds for laymen as well as clerics but, when guilty, the latter will be more severely punished.24

This historical overview brings out the most basic and indisputable facts concerning the history of the Church's usury teaching. Though once taught by Scripture, the Fathers, and the Magisterium, it appears that the Church has now changed its teaching by its complete acceptance of modern interest banking. This is why so many continue to use the subject of the usury teaching as a means to criticize the Church.

There is yet another criticism, perhaps even more dangerous, that comes from those Catholics who see usury as proof that the Church can change its moral teaching. These people are not trying to discredit the Church as founded by Christ, but as mentioned in the introduction, they usually have serious disagreement with some moral teaching of the Church, and so are trying to weaken the credibility of the Church as a moral guide. Usually known as revisionist or dissenting theologians, often these people think the Church erred in its prohibition of contraception. They seek to prove that the Church has erred and changed before, fostering a hope that the Church's teaching on contraception also will now be able to change.

In attempting to legitimize their dissent, usury is used as the primary example of the Church contradicting herself, an example of one of the "erroneous teachings of the the hierarchical magisterium."25 Their repetitious arguments often talk about how "the official Church has changed its teachings in other matters - e.g. religious liberty and usury."26 Yet these authors will provide little support for such vaunted claims, looking only superficially at these issues. Until one examines more deeply, the Church appears to have changed its teaching.

Others do not so blatantly charge the Church with erroneous teachings, rather usury is "used by scholars to illustrate the fact that the church does have an evolving theology on some matters."27 Usury is used as a prime example to support the claim that all of the Church's teachings are historically conditioned. Usury shows that Church teachings only apply for the time they were made. "What may have been perceived as morally wrong in one set of circumstances - e.g. charging interest on a loan in the Middle Ages - would be regarded as morally justifiable in another situation - e.g. charging interest on a loan today, in the context of modern commercial life."28

"Historically conditioned" and "new experience" have become the new buzz-words for legitimizing change in the Church's teaching. "Human beings do not reach moral conclusions apart from the whole web of language, custom, and social structure surrounding them.... Only as social structures changed did moral mutation become possible."29 Arguments such as this one would make all teaching open to change and revision, for these arguments claim that the Church cannot teach a universally applicable moral teaching.

Most of these claims which say that all teachings are "historically conditioned with new experiences" are based on a subjectivism and individualism which do not have a consistent view of man, truth and divine revelation. They bring up issues much too broad to be properly addressed here, including: the existence of a constant and unchanging human nature, which is common to men of different times and cultures; the existence of objective truth, which man can know from revelation and human reason; the existence of the natural law, the ability of man to discern good from evil by the light of reason.

"The Church maintains that beneath all changes there are many realities which do not change and which have their ultimate foundation in Christ, Who is the same yesterday and today."30 Pope John Paul II has addressed all of these problems (and more) in his encyclical on "The Splendor of Truth:"

The great concern of our contemporaries for historicity and for culture has led some to call into question the "immutability of the natural law" itself, and thus the existence of "objective norms of morality" valid for all people of the present and the future, as for those of the past.31

The pope answers this position by saying that man is not completely defined by culture. There is something in man which transcends culture, and this "something" is precisely human nature. In this way, man "asserts his personal dignity by living in accordance with the profound truth of his being."32

Another argument dissenters will invoke is the 'experience of the faithful', a theological principle often called the sensus fidelium. As taught by Vatican II, "the entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief."33 Thus some claim that this consensus of the faithful helped the Church see that "changing factors made the old condemnation obsolete. The experience of lay Christians had to be heeded."34 This claim might seem to have some strength because we see historically a sizable number of Christians who violated the prohibition by practicing banking.

Some might go so far as to say that there was a "partial non-acceptance" of the Church's teaching, based on the number of Catholics in financial centers who rejected the prohibition. As Pope Alexander III observed, "the crime of usury has become so firmly rooted that many practice usury as if it were permitted, and in no way observe how it is forbidden."35 There was a real divergence between the usury rule and the practice of the faithful, but this does not necessarily mean that the teaching was wrong or changeable. I think most would agree with Noonan that such a way of thinking "runs too much the risk of making moral law in the Church depend on democratic adhesion."36

Even if we reject each of these positions, it is plainly clear that they have an important element of truth, for something has changed in the usury teaching. Thus the question must be asked: can there be a legitimate development in the Church's moral teaching? The concept of development in Church teaching was cogently treated by John Henry Newman in his 1845 Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. His basic conclusion was that yes, we can and should expect to find development in Christianity, as the faith has been developed and refined since the time of the Apostles. This argument leads Noonan to claim that "Newman's approach is adaptable to the development of moral doctrine."37 This claim is verified by Pope John Paul II in 1994:

there is a need to seek out and to discover "the most adequate formulation" for universal and permanent moral norms in the light of different cultural contexts, a formulation most capable of ceaselessly expressing their historical relevance, of making them understood and of authentically interpreting their truth. This truth of the moral law - like that of the "deposit of faith" - unfolds down the centuries: the norms expressing that truth remain valid in their substance, but must be specified and determined eodem sensu eademque sententia38 in the light of historical circumstances by the Church's Magisterium.39

Development in moral teaching occurs, but we must still have a way to distinguish legitimate developments of truths from corruption, deviation and error. One sure guide for Cardinal Newman is that no legitimate development will ever contradict or nullify a previous teaching. This makes one wonder how a "new moral doctrine" on usury that is "substantially different from that taught throughout the Middle Ages"40 can be considered a "development" of the older teaching. To remain faithful to the thought of Newman, one must maintain that "new doctrines were only more elaborate formulations of older truths that brought out features that were implicit but unstated in the earlier expressions of the truth."41 This would agree with the First Vatican Council which says there is a possibility of development of doctrine only if "that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy Mother Church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext, or in the name of, a more profound understanding."42

Pope John Paul II says that the development of the Church's moral doctrine is similar to that of the doctrine of the faith. "The words spoken by John XXIII at the opening of the Second Vatican Council can also be applied to moral doctrine:"

This certain and unchanging teaching (i.e., Christian doctrine in its completeness), to which the faithful owe obedience, needs to be more deeply understood and set forth in a way adapted to the needs of our time. Indeed, this deposit of the faith, the truths contained in our time-honored teaching, is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else.43

This lays out the tight-rope which we must be careful to walk: there has obviously been development and change in the Church's teaching on usury, but what aspects of the Church's teaching on usury have been maintained, and what truths have been and must be preserved?

Even if an authentic development of the usury teaching is found to exist, this does not mean that all Church teaching is up for grabs, and this includes the Church's moral teaching. "Moral doctrine is plainly subject to genuine development.... authentic development can appear to be a reversal (although not really such): for example, development in the Church's teaching on usury."44 The next three chapters will be a search for this "authentic development" in the Church's teaching.

When dealing with such development, very clear distinctions and careful analysis will be required. Our examination on usury will require in depth and careful reading of the earlier teachings, looking for those "implicit features" of the original teachings which show that there is actually a harmony with the Church's teaching today. This is something which we have seen so many fail to do. In fact, as we will continue to examine in the next chapter, the problem with many of these arguments is their sweeping generalizations which fail to examine exactly what the Church taught during each period of its tradition.

1 Jeremy Bentham, Defense of Usury (London: 1918), 96-106, quoted by Noonan, Usury, 376.

2 In actual fact, the early Protestant reformers still protested against usury, and Luther condemned interest, until later reformers would change the proscription. Cf. Sidney Homer and Richard Sylla, A History of Interest Rates (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 80.

3 Noonan, "Authority," 71.

4 Paul Halsall, Syllabus of Papal and Magisterial Errors (1998), version 1.6, sec. B2, 66; [ONLINE]. Available from [accessed 6 September 1998].

5 Ibid, 71.

6 Cf. chapter three for more information on this encyclical and its prohibition of "all" interest.

7 Canon 1523, 4° says administrators of Church property must use for the benefit of the Church, money which can be invested profitably. Cf. T. Lincoln Bouscaren, S.J. and Adam C. Ellis, S.J., Canon Law: A Text and Commentary, 2nd ed. (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1951), 826. Many actually misinterpret this Canon according to this commentary: "To invest money means to exchange it for non-consumable and productive goods, such as real estate, stocks, bonds, etc. Money deposited in a bank at call is not considered as invested." Ibid., 251.

8 Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1994), 2449.

9 Halsall, 83.

10 Andrew Dickson White, "From Leviticus To Political Economy," The Warfare of Science With Theology (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1895), XIX.2.

11 Ibid., XIX.1.

12 Noonan, "Authority," 58-59.

13 Lois Miles Zucker, S. Ambrosii: De Tobia: A Commentary, with an Introduction and Translation The Catholic University of America Patristic Studies, vol 35 (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1933), 65.

14 Ibid., 61.

15 Exodus 22:25, "If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be to him as a creditor, and you shall not exact interest from him." Leviticus 25:36-37, "Take no interest from him or increase, but fear your God; that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit." All Bible citations are from the Revised Standard Version.

16 Quoted in Jacques Le Goff, Your Money or Your Life: Economy and Religion in the Middle Ages, trans. Patricia Ranum (New York: Zone Books, 1988), 26.

17 Luke 6:25 was translated by Jerome in the Latin Vulgate with clearly phrased legal exactness, "Mutuum date, nihil inde sperantes, 'Lend hoping nothing thereby.'" David J Palm, "The Red Herring of Usury," This Rock 8 (September 1997), 21.

18 Psalm 15:1,5 "O LORD, who shall sojourn in thy tent?... He who does not put out his money at interest."

19 "If any [of the clergy] are found after this decision to receive interest by contract... or in general to devise any other contrivance for the sake of dishonorable gain, they shall be deposed from the clergy and their names struck from the roll." Nicea (325), Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed. Norman P. Tanner, (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990), canon 17.

20 "The inclusion of the laity under the prohibition [of 300 A.D.]... is of very dubious authenticity." William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1970), 1:258. Cf. Divine, Interest, 34 and Noonan, Usury, 15.

21 Second Lateran Council (1179), Decrees, canon 13.

22 Council of Vienne (1312), Decrees, canon 29.

23 Noonan, "Authority," 61.

24 T.P. McLauglin, C.S.B., "The Teaching of the Canonists on Usury (XII, XIII, and XIV Centuries)," Mediaeval Studies 1 (1939), 82.

25 Fr. Charles Curran, Origins (1986), 376, quoted by Fr. Matthew Habiger, O.S.B., S.T.D., "Is the Magisterium a Reliable Moral Guide? The Case of Usury," Social Justice Review (May/June 1989), 73.

26 Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism: Study Edition (Minneapolis, MN: Winston Press, Inc.,1981), 1020.

27 Timothy Unsworth, "What the Church has Taught About U$ury," Salt 8 (April 1988), 14.

28 McBrien, 1004.

29 Noonan, "Development," 673.

30 Second Vatican Council, "Pastoral Constitution: On the Church in the Modern World," Gaudium et Spes (7 December 1965), 10.

31 Pope John Paul II, "The Splendor of Truth," Veritatis Splendor (Boston, Pauline Books & Media,1993), 53.

32 Ibid.

33 Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," Lumen Gentium (21 November 1964), 12.

34 Unsworth, 16.

35 Third Lateran Council (1179), Decrees, Canon 25.

36 Noonan, "Authority," 72.

37 Noonan, "Development," 672.

38 "by the same meaning and the same thought" St Vincent of Lerins, "Commonitorium Primum," c. 23: PL 50, 668; translation mine.

39 John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 53.

40 Noonan, "Development," 676.

41 Patrick M. O'Neil, "A Response to John T. Noonan, Jr. Concerning the Development of Catholic Moral Doctrine," Faith & Reason (Ft. Royal, VA: Christendom Press, Spring/Summer 1996); available from, 5.

42 First Vatican Council, Session 3 (24 April 1870), "Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith," Decrees, chapter 4.

43 Pope John XXIII, "L'Osservatore Romano," (12 October 1962), 2; quoted in John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, footnote 100.

44 Germain Grisez, Christian Moral Principles, vol. 1 of The Way of the Lord Jesus (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983), 898; hereafter cited as Principles.

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