Usury is Not a Red Herring

[This might be David Palm’s argument. I can’t tell.]

This is an old-school Letters to the Catholic Right post.

In fact, I’ve had a draft of this post on my computer for a couple of years, but never gotten around to posting it. As I’ve said before, I have a dumb tendency to get myself involved in pointless combox debates on the religious-right-o-sphere. And, as I’ve also said before, the original purpose of this blog was to make those debates less work for me: I thought I’d write the arguments that I have to keep making over and over, and then, when someone would bring up the incest argument, or the food analogy, I could just point them over here and save myself the time of repeating myself endlessly.

Well, readers, I fell off the wagon, and got myself embroiled in another dumb argument, wherein the following predictable exchange took place. I paraphrase:

Other Commenter(s): The Church will never permit sexual acts that it doesn’t permit now!

Me: How can you say that? Even the staunchest traditionalists admit that doctrine develops.

Other Commenter(s): But development is just the clarification of doctrine! Not a reversal!

Me: Yeah, but it sometimes happens in surprising directions. Think of the case of usury: For centuries, Christians were denied communion for lending money at interest–an act the Church itself now engages in.

Other Commenter(s): Oh yeah? Read this David Palm piece on the red herring of usury!


So let’s talk usury. The scholar to go to is John T. Noonan, who in 2005 wrote a book with a very provocative title: A Church that Can and Cannot Change. What he’s getting at with this title is a paradox apparent to any objective observer of Catholicism: the church’s teachings can change, have changed, and will change, and yet the church bases its authority (in large part) on its inability to change its teachings.

Well before that book, he explored the paradox in a 1966 paper, “Authority, Usury, and Contraception.” The year is important, because that was the moment of Vatican II, and the moment before Humanae Vitae, when Pope Paul VI (to some observers’ surprise) refused to permit Catholics to use most forms of birth control.

Conservative critics of “Authority, Usury, and Contraception” rightly got that Noonan’s argument that church had changed its historical teaching on usury could open the door for arguments that doctrine on contraception should change, too. And their response was predictable: outright denial. “We have not changed our teachings on usury,” they insisted.

How did they make this argument, when—as Noonan outlined—the Church had gone from refusing communion to anyone who lent money at interest to, by the early 20th century, insisting that its orders put their money in interest-bearing bank accounts? Short answer: convoluted sophistry.

But you deserve a longer answer, and so I want to look at the Catholic Right’s response to Noonan, because it illustrates the lengths that apologists can go to in order to avoid acknowledging the simple truth that’s staring them in the face.

Specifically, let’s look together at David Palm’s “The Red Herring of Usury,” published at It’s a nice, clear attempt at rebutting Noonan that fits with the general contours of Catholic apologists’ arguments on the subject. So, go, take a few minutes and read it. I’ll wait.

Back? Okay. First, I’m sure you noticed that Palm agrees with Noonan that the condemnation of usury in Catholic teaching is—at least until the 1800s—“unambiguous, binding, and irrevocable.” The Church, for eighteen centuries, taught that usury was a sin. Period. Palm suggests that if Noonan is right that the Church changed its teaching, then the Church and its apologists have to drop their insistence that the Magisterium is unchanging. And trad Catholics everywhere have to lose their faith and become hedonistic, murderous atheists. Those are literally the stakes here, because they cannot conceive of a church that can and cannot change.

But, Palm says, Noonan bases his argument on a faulty definition of usury. Where Noonan says that usury is the taking of any interest on any loan of money, Palm says, no, usury means taking interest on a loan of “unfruitful” money—that is, money that the loaner has no use for except for hoarding and spending. I’ll quote Palm:

It is a bit hard for us to understand, but, during the greater portion of antiquity, economies were characterized by a lack of competitive markets and thus few opportunities for investment. Money itself was considered primarily a medium ofprivate and not commercial exchange. As Joseph Rickaby says of the Middle Ages (and his comments apply to much of antiquity as well): ‘In those days land was hard to buy, agriculture backward, roads bad, seas unnavigable, carrying-trade precarious, messages slow, raids and marauders frequent, population sparse, commerce confined to a few centers, mines unworked, manufactures mostly domestic, capital as yet unformed. Men kept their money in their cellars or deposited it for safety in religious houses…-They took out coin as they wanted it to spend on housekeeping, or on war, or on feasting. It was very hard, next to impossible, to lay out money so as to make more money by it. Money was in those days really barren’ (Moral Philosophy, 261).

The argument is basically this: it’s a sin, and always has been, to demand interest for a loan of something that costs you nothing to give. If you don’t have anything to do with your money, it’s one of those fungible, barren, unfruitful things.  In ye olden days, all you could do with your money was stash it under your mattress—so if your neighbor asked for $100, and promised to pay it all back, you had no cause to ask for more.

But that’s not the case nowadays; nowadays, we have myriad opportunities to invest, and the possession of money has its own market value, and so we actually lose money by loaning it. So, now, we’re totally justified in asking a special fee for the risk and cost that we incur by loaning our cash.

You probably already see holes in Palm’s argument. If not, notice all the weasel words and passive voice Palm employs: money was considered this; money tended to be that. Remember, Palm is trying to justify an absolute rule; the fact that he can’t speak absolutely about the nature of money ought to clue you in to the fact that he’s trying to cheat.

But let’s go deeper. Palm’s argument boils down to this: the Church’s teaching hasn’t changed, the nature of money has. That’s absurdity number one: Catholic teaching insists that the nature of things is unchanging; in fact, as this post helpfully reminds us, if a thing changes its nature, it’s no longer the same thing.

It’s also possible that Palm is saying that money isn’t a thing. Or (ahem) that money ain’t a thang. See video above.

Let’s assume that Palm knows that, and he’s really saying that money now is a different thing than it used to be.

Well, that’s simply false. After all, Jesus himself recognized the “fruitful” nature of money: in his Parable of the Talents, he chided a fictional servant for failing to invest his master’s money well. And papal condemnations from the middle ages also show this argument to be a lie: as Palm notes, Canon 25 of the Third Lateran Council (1179) says, “Nearly everywhere the crime of usury has become so firmly rooted that many, omitting other business, practice usury as if it were permitted and in no way observe how it is forbidden in both the Old and New Testament.”

Did you get that? In 1179, the Church itself was complaining that too damn many people were using money to make money—too many people, in other words, saw money as a fruitful, non-fungible good.

Palm may be right that we have more opportunities to invest money now than people did back then, but he can’t legitimately argue that, by nature, money has ever been barren. The evidence contradicts him.

And his argument leads to further absurdities. For example: it sets up a situation whereby the measure of an act’s sinfulness depends not on the consequences or intentions of the act, but on the wealth and power of the person doing it. Let’s go back to those wild-eyed speculators in 1179. Imagine, for instance, that one of them is a rich, well-connected prince who makes a point of using his fortune to grow his fortune. He knows that the going rate for a financial loan is 1.5%, and when someone comes to ask him for a loan, he insists on getting that rate.

Now imagine that one of his serfs has managed to sock away 100 gold pieces over several years, and one of his neighbors, knowing he has money, comes to ask him for a loan. Let’s say that this serf has also heard around the village that money can be lent at an interest rate of 1.5%, and he asks his neighbor for that.

Now, the Lateran Councils condemn both of them, but modern-day apologists basically argue that the serf’s actions are inherently sinful, while the prince’s are not. That’s crazy. But then Palm’s argument isn’t meant to be an honest exploration of the Church’s stance on interest; it’s meant to shut down any hope that the Church might alter its position on sexual matters.

A much more realistic reading of usury’s history comes from Patrick M. O’Neill. O’Neill shares Palm’s concerns about the implications of Noonan’s arguments, and, like Palm, he writes to show that the Magisterium’s infallibility is unassailable. But he comes to very different conclusions than Palm does: “The error concerning the charging of interest,” he writes, “is an example of correct moral principles (against economic exploitation and so forth) mistakenly applied on account of the inadequacies of early economic theory.”

As O’Neill points out, the Church’s error—and he uses the word error—came from its taking a position in falsos testes, that is, based on false or incomplete information. That information, he writes, can include “general scholarly opinion, or even the general popular opinion, in an area outside of faith and morals, but related to those judgments made regarding issues of faith and morals.” And, he says, “Changes under these circumstances do not threaten the claims of the magisterium of the Church in any way.”

Basically, O’Neill argues that the Church was wrong, that it just didn’t know enough about the nature of money, when it argued that money was barren–that Dante was mistaken when he put money-lenders in one of his lowest rungs of hell (right next to the sodomites, in fact).


See the difference?

While Palm argues that the nature of money changed at some point in the second millennium, O’Neill argues that the Church’s understanding of money changed.

Like I said, O’Neill’s argument is much more reasonable than Palm’s. Unfortunately for traditionalists, O’Neill’s argument actually strengthens the comparison between debates about usury and debates about sex. Because, just as the early and medieval Church applied sound moral precepts to an underdeveloped knowledge of economics, the early Church also operated under some serious misunderstandings about human sexuality. We’ve talked about these misunderstandings before, but briefly, I mean things like the placement of the clitoris, the human shift away from estrus, the expendability of sperm–a whole host of biological facts that were totally unknown or unconsidered by the Church’s early theorists on sex. And many of the things they missed challenge the central assumption of the Catholic sexual teaching: that non-procreative sex is inherently unnatural.

The Catholic Right ought to be able to acknowledge that. Not just because it’s true, but because, as O’Neill points out, it doesn’t challenge the Magisterium’s authority one bit.

But I won’t hold my breath for any of them to admit it.

One more note: an objection I get when I bring up usury in debates about sexuality is that the two subjects are totally unrelated. But that’s a modern view. Aristotle, Aquinas, and about a dozen medieval popes explicitly linked the two, arguing that they were unnatural in the same way. And as I mentioned above, Dante put sodomites and usurers in the same ring of hell, ranking usury as the slightly worse sin. In fact, in Canto XI of the Inferno, he connects Sodom to Cahors, a French city known as a medieval banking center: “And so the smallest ring has set its seal / On both Sodom and Cahors and all those / Whose words betray their hearts’ contempt of God.” The connection between the two sins goes way back–if the Church can rethink its understanding of one, it can definitely rethink its understanding of the other.


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