The Sin of Usury

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

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I used my Visa card 12 times and my Mastercard 8 times. I took out a second mortgage on my house, and I accepted $2,000 interest on my IRA. Though such a confession might seem ludicrous to us today, it is nevertheless true that the Catholic Church once exacted the same penalties for usury -- charging interest on a financial loan -- as it does today for the sexual sins of lust and adultery.

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.

8/8/2014 8:15:27 AM

Oh, a little addendum to the above that I forgot to mention: Under the circumstances, the boss was probably very disappointed and angry with his steward for canceling the interest. However, he had no choice but to commend him, for if he did otherwise, he would admit to knowing that usury was occurring.

8/8/2014 8:10:36 AM

A few years ago, I heard an interesting homily about "the dishonest steward." According to this preacher, many wealthy Jews in New Testament times quieted their consciences by means of usury by proxy. They engaged stewards to do the dirty work on their behalf, no questions asked. These stewards would loan x sum of money with the understanding that more than x would eventually be repaid. If the owner were questioned about this practice, he could plausibly reply that his hands were clean and he knew nothing about it. So when the steward in the parable reduced what debtors owed, he was asking that only the original sum be returned. Hence he was not becoming dishonest, but was ceasing to be dishonest, as those who originally heard the story would easily understand. If this interpretation reflects a prevalent custom in that society, then it would seem to be correct one. It is only one example of how a little anthropology and cultural history can bring fresh meaning to biblical passages. I think that Catholics have no objection to considering such facts, whereas fundamentalist Protestants often reject it on grounds that God wrote the Bible to speak directly to readers regardless of era. Hence they draw conclusions at odds with what may actually be intended.

2/19/2008 12:00:00 AM

I always figured that there was something wrong with enslaving people with intrest before they even leave school. Aparently this has been an ongoing problem. There is great wisdom in the bible. I feel like walking down the finacial district with placards stating "usury is a sin".

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