Monday, July 8, 2013

2) Biblical and Patristic Foundations of Catholic Social Teaching on Usury

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The early Christian uncompromising rejection of usury in all its forms had its earliest origin in the scriptures. To this day, “a primary source for Catholic social ethics is the social teaching of the Bible.”[1] In the Hebrew Bible, each part of the Tanakh – the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings – contain prohibitions against usury. From the Torah, Leviticus directly proscribes the practice: “You shall not lend him your money at interest” (25:37). Among the Prophets, the Lord said to the prophet Ezekiel: “If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right... [he] does not lend at interest or take any increase” (18:5, 8). From the Writings, Psalm 15 celebrates the one “who walks blamelessly, and does what is right, and speaks truth from his heart” in part as one “who does not put out his money at interest” (15:2, 5). In the New Testament, Jesus maintained and even intensified this teaching. He taught,
And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:35).
Jesus is saying that not only should people lend without taking interest, but they should also lend even to their enemies from whom they may not even receive back the principal. Jesus wants his followers to give freely to all who have need.

St. Clement of Alexandria
The early fathers of the Church take the teaching of Jesus and the scripture to heart. They seek to follow it literally and in all cases, though, of course, their constant condemnation of the practice of usury demonstrates that the practice went on in full force throughout the patristic period. Sometimes the fathers strongly appealed to the authority of scripture, as with Clement of Alexandria (c. 195), who wrote, “Let it suffice to remark that the Law prohibits a brother from taking usury.”[2] Yet, he also has more developed reasons for his disapproval of usury. He deems it “right not to take usury for money” because he recognizes that it is better “with open hands and heart to bestow on those who need.”[3] If one needs a loan, a gift would serve him still better, and serving others is what Christ means his followers to do. The command against usury, says Clement, is “marked by philanthropy” and concern for the poor.[4]  

Yet not even the notion of using interest for charity would persuade Commodianus (c. 250) that usury could be permissible. Concerning this, he writes,
You have lent on usury, taking twenty-four percent, yet now you wish to bestow charity that you may purge yourself, as being evil, with that which is evil. The Almighty absolutely rejects such works as these. You have given that which has been wrung from tears.”[5]
This passage is interesting. On the one hand, its rejection of usury is absolute. On the other, it describes usury with specificity: “twenty-four percent.” Could this mean that a more moderate interest rate would not be usurious? If so, this would place him against the general opinion of the fathers. “For the Greek Fathers, however…, any percentage above the amount loaned was usury, and usury was equally foul regardless of the percentage of interest.”[6] They regarded it as a kind of theft, always born of avarice. They thought of it as the sale of nothing, a fraud, an abuse. They did not consider the time and risk of the lender as having any value that the borrower could justifiably have to pay for. 

Just as petty theft is still theft and still a sin, so low-interest was still a sin even if its consequences were bearable by all concerned. Commodianus, however, decries usury precisely for its evil consequences. He says it is “wrung from tears.” For Commodianus, then, would an interest rate that did no harm and deprived no one of need be usurious? It seems that, primarily, usury is evil primarily for the harm that it does to the poor.

It is clear that the Old and New Testaments and, in continuity with these scriptures, the fathers of the early Church forbade usury absolutely as a social evil against the poor. In the context of discussing the special concern in the Hebrew prophetic books for the poor and those cut off from familial support structures, Curran, in Catholic Social Teaching 1891-Present, writes, “Usury or interest-taking on loans was forbidden, at least in the community”[7] Usury, as discussed above, unjustly afflicted the poor.

This is Curran’s only comment on usury in this book, which, after all, deals not primarily with scripture or Christian antiquity, but with the present and the more recent past. Perhaps it is partly possible to gauge the perceived importance of this issue in contemporary Catholic social thought by looking at the lack of attention paid to it – except as a historical issue – by contemporary Catholic ethicists. Thomas Massaro actually lists interest taking on loans as one of the “economic questions about which the Church has chosen to remain silent.”[8] Specifically, Massaro states, “the Church has chosen to remain silent” on “the proper… interest rates on federal college loans.” Note that his question is not whether or not such interest rates are permissible at all. That seems to be a settled question in contemporary social ethics – but when was it settled and how? Is usury no longer an important issue of social justice?

[1] Charles E. Curran. Catholic Social Teaching 1891-Present. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press,   2002. 2.
[2] Clement of Alexandria. “The Stromata.”Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 2. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1885. 366.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Commodianus. “The Instructions of Commodianus.”Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 4. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1885. 216.
[6] Ihssen, Brenda. “‘That which has been wrung from tears’: Usury, the Greek Fathers, and Catholic Social Teaching.” Reading Patristic Texts on Social Ethics. Ed. Johan Leemans et al. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2011. 128
[7] Curran, 2.
[8] Massaro, Thomas. Living Justice. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2012. 124.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Social justice is an arm of the communist party meant to destabilize and destroy the last vestiges of Christian/Catholic society,values,morals,and families.Notice the "civil rights leaders" march behind the banners of sodomite marriage,abortion,and single mothers receiving money to not have a husband/father figure in their govt housing?

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