The Sin of Usury

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.

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.

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