The Church and Usury: Error, Change or Development?

A Research Paper Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in Theology

By Father Gary L Coulter

Submitted August 15, 1999

Mount Saint Mary's Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland


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Table of Contents

Preface

Introduction

The Church once condemned usury as the taking of profit on a loan, yet today it allows profitable investment. Did the Church teaching change?

Yes, the Church teaching changed:

Chapter One

The Church reversed its erroneous moral teaching, and thus is not a reliable teacher of morals.

Chapter Two

Something about the nature of the usury teaching allowed it to be changed by the Church.

No, the Church teaching remains the same:

Chapter Three

Interest was permitted as an exception to the rule. When the economic system changed, the exception became the norm, but did not change the basic teaching.

Chapter Four

The nature of the financial transaction itself changed. Interest is justified on loans for production because money is now productive.

Chapter Five

The Church's prohibition of usury is still identical with the teaching of the middle ages, but it is being completely ignored and violated today.

Conclusion

Epilogue

Bibliography


Preface

The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys [this] infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful, he proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. For that reason his decisions are rightly said to be irreformable by their very nature and not by reason of the assent of the Church.... For in such a case the Roman Pontiff does not utter a pronouncement as a private person, but rather does he expound and defend the teaching of the Catholic faith as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the Church's charism of infallibility is present in a singular way.1

The Catholic Church, in asserting to be the one true Church of Jesus Christ, holy, catholic and apostolic, claims the characteristic of indefectibility. This means that being founded by Christ, she will always remain, in duration and immutability, the institution of salvation. Being indefectible "affirms that the Church is essentially unchangeable in her teaching, her constitutions, and her liturgy. It does not exclude modifications that do not affect her substance."2

In close connection with the Church's indefectibility is her infallibility. This is the guarantee that the universal Church will be free from error in teaching on matters of faith and morals. Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Pope and Bishops in union with him are protected from misleading the people of God. Thus Catholics believe that the Church maintains the entire deposit of faith; listening, guarding, explaining, and transmitting everything received from Christ and the Apostles without corruption or error.3

Yet it seems to be in vogue today to find ways to attack the Church, calling it too hierarchical and oppressive, patriarchal and domineering in wielding its power over its members. To support such a position, many often look to those cases in history where the Church may have been mistaken in its judgments and teachings (e.g. that the sun revolved around the Earth) or when some of its individual members may have been excessive (e.g. the crusades, inquisition, book burning, etc.)

Then we move to the case of morals, where the Church is accused of arbitrarily deciding that certain actions are sins while others are not. In particular, it holds onto those teachings of the "dark" Middle Ages which are simply the result of prudery, oppressing the freedom of the moderns who want to express themselves.

As a believer and member of the Catholic Church, I am often confronted with these two very opposite positions. Trusting in the Holy Spirit and the Church's indefectibility and infallibility, I thus attempt to defend my faith and the Church against such attacks. In fact, many of these accusations are usually greatly tempered with a simple objective look at the actual facts of history. Yet there is one such attack that seems to come up again and again, one for which there seems to be no clear answer. This is the case of usury, that teaching of the Church (for at least 1500 years) which condemned the taking of interest on loans as a sin.

Did the Church err or change in its teaching on usury? This paper is the result of my search for the answer.

1 Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," Lumen Gentium (21 November 1964), 25; in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, O.P., (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1975).

2 John A. Hardon, "Indefectibility," Pocket Catholic Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 192; abridged edition of Modern Catholic Dictionary.

3 cf. Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," Dei Verbum, (18 November 1965), 10.

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