Thursday, September 11, 2014

Zmirak on Usury

I find John Zmirak exasperating because he repeatedly shows himself unable to distinguish between his personal opinion of Catholic teaching and Catholic teaching itself, and yet insists on putting himself forward in published venues as if he were in any way an authority on the latter, while simultaneously failing to back up his comments with research worth taking seriously. He's done it again recently in an article entitled The Myth of Catholic Social Teaching; I find myself wondering if the editor came up with the absurd title because it is the least absurd thing about the article. The ridiculousness of it is too much to waste endless time on, so I will simply show an example of it here, from Zmirak's discussion of usury:

Lending at interest. Condemned for centuries by popes and councils (Clement V; Lateran II, III, IV & V) as a sin against nature akin to sodomy (Dante, following Aquinas, put bankers alongside pederasts in Hell), usury was later redefined from “any interest” to “excessive interest.” That is not a minor tweak, but a fundamental change. To appreciate its significance, imagine a future pope redefining “contraception” to make room for its general use, withholding permission only when it was employed “abusively.” Pius VIII and Pius XII each allowed for lending at interest, and the Vatican runs its own bank, which charges interest.

Where does one begin with such a tissue of falsehoods? Just a few of the obvious problems here:

(1) The definition of usury was not 'any interest'. For one thing, the word 'interest' has at different times and places been of wider or narrower scope (failure to recognize this is one of the first signs of complete ignorance on this subject), and everyone recognized that there were legitimate cases in which someone might charge a fee on a loan, which would sometimes have been counted as part of the interest -- for instance, if even giving the loan was costing someone something. And all of the condemnations Zmirak explicitly mentions are contemporary with recognition of at least some distinction between interest derived from intrinsic title and interest derived from extrinsic title: it was only ever the former that was considered to be usury.

(2) Usury was never redefined to mean 'excessive interest' by Catholics; this is a Protestant redefinition. The definition of the sin of usury for Catholics is still precisely the same as it was at Fifth Lateran in the sixteenth century: when, from its use, a nonproductive thing is used for gain and profit without any work, any expense or any risk. Notice, incidentally, that the word 'interest' didn't even have to be used for the actual definition.

(3) Zmirak's potted history makes the worst of amateur mistakes when dealing with the history of thought: it assumes that things stayed the same while the ideas changed. In this case it is especially ridiculous, since starting in the High Middle Ages massive expansion in banking increased the kinds of available loan contracts far beyond what they had previously been. Assuming that loan contracts were exactly the same at the height of Renaissance banking in the Late Middle Ages as they were in the twelfth century is utterly absurd. What really happened is that an ever-increasing crowd of different kinds of loans grew up, including, famously and importantly for the subject, the loan contracts used by mons-pietatis foundations created for the poor, and it wasn't always clear that these new kinds of contract fit the old definitions. The Church indeed explicitly ruled that some of them did not, as in Benedict XIV's famous Vix pervenit. This does not mean that the old-style contracts that had originally been condemned stopped being condemned. This is a truly egregious error; moral theology, like ethics itself, has to deal with specific, contingent circumstances, which are legion and constantly changing. Failure to recognize this guarantees not only that one will get one's historical claims wrong, but also that one will get one's moral claims wrong.

(4) The Church still condemns usury; it's not all that difficult to find examples. Nor is this surprising, because moral theology is still beholden to Scripture, which condemns usury, and still respects the Church Fathers, who condemn usury, and still takes the major scholastics seriously, who condemned usury. Nor is it surprising from the purely ethical side, either, since making usury permissible causes serious problems for any attempt to have a coherent account of the justice of contracts. The provenance of the kind of argument he is making, though, is telling; it originally started as an argument by liberal Catholics, cribbed from Noonan and the like, for the conclusion that they could ignore certain parts of the Church's moral teaching because the Church's moral teaching changed over time. It was a bad argument then; there's no excuse whatsoever for it now.

This is the sort of junk Catholics too often have to wade through these days. And junk it is; all you have to do to see that is to read Fifth Lateran on usury and Vix pervenit, both of which are excellent contributions to moral theology, and then Zmirak, to see that the third of these things is junk. Nor is there the slightest doubt what Zmirak is about; he comes out straightforwardly with it: he wants to ignore the moral teaching of the Church whenever he finds it inconvenient to take seriously. Of course, what I really love about the article is the elaborate pretense that you either agree with him or you are taking the Church to be "sacramentally married to every assertion on economics and politics by any pope," whatever in the world such a lunatic position would actually mean. In reality, of course, we are talking about teaching, and teaching is multifaceted by its very nature; it requires a multifaceted response and self-cultivation on the part of the students -- which would be people like myself and other Catholics, including, yes, Zmirak, whether he wants to be the student of the Bishops or not -- not the simplistic dichotomy Zmirak is trying to peddle, which is an improvement over exactly nothing.


  1. I
    too am disappointed to see "traditional" Catholics rummaging around in
    the Church's history and then presenting usury as a cover for their own
    "dissent from the right" (the new geocentrists do the same.)

    You wrote, "The Church still condemns usury; it's not all that
    difficult to find examples." Bingo!V ery far
    from being a matter of past history, the popes have continued right up
    to the present day to condemn usury. While I think that it would be
    very helpful if the Church were to issue a clarification on just which
    modern financial transactions run onto the shoals of usury (and that's
    not a simple question), it's facile to claim that somehow the Church has
    simply contradicted her prior position or "de facto" set it aside.

  2. branemrys11:54 AM

    Hi, David,

    Yes, exactly. It's very baffling to see the argument used this way; particularly since, for all that I find him exasperating, I am very sure Zmirak's intentions are to uphold the teaching authority of the Church.

    It certainly would be nice to have a clarification on usury -- I think the core teaching itself is fairly clear, but gray areas and confusions inevitably accumulate, especially in an area of human life that moves as quickly as banking does. But you're right that, however focus might shift, the key elements of it are perennial. (Protection of the poor? Still important. Taking money from people requires legitimate justification? Still true. Contracts, including loan contracts, must be held to standards of justice? Still the case. Monetary transactions should in some way be for mutual benefit? Insisted upon regularly. And so forth. We may be less careful or articulate about it, but all the basic elements of the old doctrine are still very visible.)

  3. It's interesting that usury should be the Church Mutant's best case for a reversal of doctrine, whereby something previously condemned as intrinsically evil is now permitted. My understanding of these matters is that even the early declarations by the Church were hedged round with distinctions and qualifications, so that, for example, entering into a joint stock company was licit even if one did not perform any labor; and I believe that one could legitimately charge a fee for a loan in order to defray the cost of lost opportunity. But when the early declarations against usury were made, there simply were not a wide variety of possible investments to make. I would like very much to see the Church, on the same grounds, come out against:

    state-run lotteries
    payday loans
    credit card interest that is five or ten times the rate of inflation
    and some of the wealth-gobbling bodiless financial vehicles that the big traders take advantage of ...

    That would require a precision of economic experience and economic knowledge far beyond my own.

  4. branemrys6:39 PM

    That is definitely the difficulty -- to do it properly, you really need people who have both a good sense of the theology and of the economics. That's why one still looks especially to the Renaissance and early modern period for the really good, detailed discussions of the morality of banking, because you had people like St. Antonino of Florence, in constant interaction with some of the most sophisticated bankers in the world, or like Bl. Bernardino of Feltre, actually going around redesigning banking systems to benefit the poor: saints who knew the moral theology inside and out, had active, definite knowledge of the field, and gave others something to work with. We don't have anything like it. One thing that would be nice, and I think could potentially be fairly effective, is if the Church just became active in insisting that loan contracts need to be very precise and explicit in justifying the interest in terms of work, recompensation for loss, or protection from risk -- it is a small thing that I think would definitely make a difference, and that I think could get some backing behind it.

    You're right about the qualifications. In the very earliest condemnations of usury (Scripture, Church Fathers), the scenario that is clearly in view is that of a system in which lending is relatively rare, and in which you have very rich people who, instead of just letting the poor borrow money and pay it back, insisted on skimming the desperate for even more profit. When we get to a period in which lending is becoming much more important for the economy, and much more widespread, the scholastic theologians are trying to define the question a bit more precisely, and they all agreed that you could under some circumstances make money from loans without committing usury, even though they didn't completely agree on exactly where the line was to be drawn.

  5. RufusChoate6:56 PM

    Excuse me, but what or who is a Church Mutant?

  6. Sorry -- my play on words: Church Militant (Church fighting), Church Triumphant (Church triumphing), Church Mutant (Church changing) ...

  7. Darwin9:38 PM

    I realized that although I'd been going around sharing links to this on Facebook and such, I hadn't actually dropped by to say that I enjoyed it and found it helpful.

    There are topics, some of them economic, where I'm conscious of being out on the edge of what I think the Church considers acceptable -- and where there are definitely CST types who inform me that I am a complete dissenter -- but tempting though it can be in such situations to simply go after the authority to teach in that area, I think that's always the wrong thing to do, or to even appear to do.

  8. RufusChoate9:57 PM

    Thank you. You were too clever for me. I was envisioning turtles, Zombies and the like from too much science fiction as a child.

    That is fine.

    l really admire your work everywhere it is found.

  9. branemrys10:01 PM

    Yes, exactly. It's entirely possible, and sometimes reasonable, to look at the proposals of the bishops, for instance, and say -- I take the essential point, but I propose that this other approach will be more consistent with it. But it always requires that we start with learning what the essential point of the teaching is, and work from that.

  10. Dan C6:42 AM

    Church militant is the Church on earth. Church triumphant is the Church in Heaven. Church Penitent is the Church in Purgatory.

  11. Jason Hall1:52 AM

    I'm seeing this months after it was posted, so you may never see my comment, but I just want to assure you that state bishops conferences in the US have been very active in opposing predatory lending practices, particularly with regard to payday loans, which particularly target the poor, and in opposing the expansion of lotteries and other gambling as a means of funding state government.


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