The Sin of Usury

A question for Catholics: Why is a bank purer than a brothel?

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It sometimes seems that we Catholics belong to the church of the sex-obsessed, that issues of sexuality and gender are at the forefront of our ecclesiastical life. Homosexuality, birth control, divorce, a male-only priesthood -- these issues apparently define contemporary Catholicism; they are the main topics of debate in our church both within clerical circles and among the laity. Meanwhile the poor continue to go hungry, the rich grow richer, and a bloated nuclear arsenal persists in spite of the end of the Cold War.

If the church is so concerned about the morality of sexual issues, there should be a deeper recognition regarding the use of sex by the corporate principalities in advertising and entertainment to enhance the consumer ethos. There should also be a deeper sense of compassion for the individual 'sinner' who is constantly assaulted by a sexual environment.

Despite its ubiquity, sex may not be the essential moral issue of our age. On the other hand, the moral issue of credit and debt, the very foundation of our world financial system -- the issue of usury -- once a prominent issue within church circles, is debated not at all. We have chosen to join sexuality with money because we believe that within the Christian community a critique of power and mammon should take precedence over a personal morality.

As theologian William Stringfellow once wrote: 'Human sin is quickly transposed into human willfulness or human selfishness or human pride -- greed, duplicity, lust, dishonesty, malice, covetousness, depravity, and similar vices. Yet human wickedness in this sense is so peripheral in the biblical version of the Fall that pietistic interpretations that it represents the heart of the matter must be accounted as gravely misleading.'

Overemphasis on sex and gender issues obscures the larger moral issues of justice, equality, and disarmament. We wish to decry the moral casuistry that allows the church to live comfortably with war makers, bomb builders, and the architects of world famine but has such difficulty with homosexuals, women priests, and practitioners of birth control.

By far the greatest moral evil of our time is what the Bible calls the sin of usury. It is the very basis of the capitalist system. It has made debt slaves of not only the entire Third World, but also most of the First World, where consumers eagerly seek to encumber themselves with debt through credit cards and mortgages. At one time the church called usury 'the queen of sins' and refused the sacrament to its practitioners. Though it has never officially abandoned this moral position, very few Christians outside of the Catholic Worker movement have any idea that such a teaching even exists. Catholic Worker groups have always called upon the church to reaffirm its prohibition of loaning money at interest. We recognize that this puts us on the fringe of a society whose very dynamic is fueled by usury, and opens us up to ridicule. But we realize that until relatively recently, the teachings on usury were at the core. In fact, much of the strident language now reserved for feminists and homosexuals was once directed toward those who lent money at interest. A usurer was barred from the church, and usury was denounced not only because it was, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, 'unnatural,' but also because it was prohibited by both the Old and the New Testaments.

We believe that our church is sincere in its desire to offer moral leadership, but it often seems that her moral stridency is focused below the belt and that the life and death issues precipitated by the immoral uses of power and money are dealt with not at all.

We do not ask that the church apply the same scrupulous outlook to the sin of usury as it applies to the sins of sex; we just ask that it be on the moral record books one again. The mere discussion of usury as a moral issue would be enough to ensure that our church would once again be relegated to the peripheries of power and social prestige, where the ethics of compassion and forgiveness take precedence over moral scrupulosity and righteousness.