There has been no authoritative papal document on usury since 1745. Charles Edward Stuart was raising the Highlands for the King when the last Pope, with the zeal to take on this subject, sat upon the throne of Peter. When making war against the Pelagian fable of Implicitism, the complaint one so often hears is that Implicitism has been floating around for years, and the Popes have done nothing about it so it must be okay. One might think that in the new springtime of Pope Francis people might have given up on the doctrine of the divinely guided digestive grumblings of the Roman Pontiff, but alas no. It occurred to me the other day that the case of usury is very similar. It takes but the merest suggestion that the lending of money at interest might just be usury and a mortal sin to transform an apparently orthodox Catholic into a red faced raging gibbering Neo-con. I watched this metamorphosis take place before my eyes in a seedy European bar circa 2001. It was not a pleasant experience. The Neo-cons are all a bit bewildered at the moment. The Zenit-theology of the Kirchengeist has taken a beating since the last conclave. But the Neo-cons will still cite the absence of any pronouncement on usury in the last two hundred and fifty-six years as evidence that there is no problem anymore. But there it is in black and white in the Acts of the fifteenth ecumenical council:
If indeed someone has fallen into the error of presuming to affirm pertinaciously that the practice of usury is not sinful, we decree that he is to be punished as a heretic; and we strictly enjoin on local ordinaries and inquisitors of heresy to proceed against those they find suspect of such error as they would against those suspected of heresy.
But don’t worry folks, the moderns tells, us the fathers of Vienne don’t really mean it. ‘Usury’ actually means ‘bad usury,’ so long as you don’t practice ‘bad usury’ then don’t worry. Perhaps it is just that usury is such a rare practice nowadays that there has been no need for the Holy See to comment, unlike the dark days of the mid-eighteenth century, when vast international banking corporations bought the loyalties of heads of state and government, and demanded huge subsidies from the ordinary tax payer on the ground that they were too big to fail. Oh… hang on.
I am told by an old friend of her’s (anecdotal evidence alert) that Elizabeth Anscombe in 1967 was pretty convinced that the prohibition on contraception was going to go the way of usury. Terrified of the Catholic bourgeoisie, Paul VI would just let the matter drop, and the succeeding popes would be too terrified to raise the question again until everyone forgot there was ever a problem. Since the Revolution, the hierarchy has been (rightly) terrified of the left. Sheltering under the protective wing of the plutocracy, Popes and bishops have been very unenthusiastic about raising embarrassing questions that might render them unwelcome guests in the house of mammon. Leo XIII did mention the fact that the concentration of the hiring of labour and the conduct of trade in the hands of comparatively few, which he sought to remedy, resulted from a “rapacious usury … more than once condemned by the Church” but that has been just about it. I often think the verbosity of Papal social encyclicals comes from the fact that the Popes are going all round the houses trying to avoid stating straight-out what the real problem is: the lending of money at interest distorts market economies, so that capital automatically gravitates to capital, instead of gravitating to labour “so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”
The rise of Implicitism has many things in common with the magisterial loss of nerve about usury. Usury precisely treats created goods as if they were fertile and life giving of themselves. It treats nature as if it were grace. Usury is not condemned because it would offend comfortable wealthy respectable people. Implicitism seeks to achieve the same goals. It conflates the natural and the supernatural orders, and facilitates a worldview in which nice respectable ‘good people’ go to heaven through their fulfilment of the natural law. A spot of semi-pelagian assistance from on high will of course be most gratefully received.
Although dear Lord I am a sinner,
I have done no major crime;
Now I’ll come to Evening Service
Whensoever I have the time.
So, Lord, reserve for me a crown,
And do not let my shares go down.
‘Blessed are the poor’ says the Gospel, the miserable peasants whom God favours with the preaching of the Gospel and the efficacious grace to receive it. Those who know they are sinners and cannot possibly merit the grace of God are its fit recipients. Those who cannot imagine that ‘good people like us,’ who have had the random misfortune not to receive a preacher might be damned on account of a few trivial sins, will wait in vain for the mercy of God. As Oscar Wilde said, the Catholic Church is strictly for saints and sinners only, for merely respectable people the ‘Church’ of England must suffice. Our Lord says that it will be worse for those places where He preached and was rejected, than for Sodom on the last day. That does not mean that the inhabitants of Sodom are saved (indeed, they are the only specific group expressly designated as damned Jude 1:7), He means their torments are less than those who squandered the grace of God.
Woe to thee, Corozain, woe to thee, Bethsaida: for if in Tyre and Sidon had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in you, they had long ago done penance in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for you. And thou Capharnaum, shalt thou be exalted up to heaven? thou shalt go down even unto hell. For if in Sodom had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in thee, perhaps it had remained unto this day. But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee. At that time Jesus answered and said: I confess to thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to the little ones. Yea, Father; for so hath it seemed good in thy sight.
It is because we do not want to face this prospect. We do not want to face the pure gratuity of God’s grace, we want salvation to be in our power, that we try to imagine that somewhere noble pagans are redeemed by their own efforts, fulfilling the law with merely moral assistance from on high. And there is another motive, fear of the absolute opposition that faith and grace, establishes between the Church and the world. There was some dreadful debate a few years ago where some foolish Catholics agreed to defend against a baying mob of ‘new atheists’ the proposition “the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”. Madness! The Catholic Church (depending on which sense of Kosmos one is using) is either the only force for good in the world, or it is the world’s implacable enemy. “I have given them thy word, and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world; as I also am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from evil. They are not of the world, as I also am not of the world. Sanctify them in truth.”
Now I feel a little better,
What a treat to hear Thy Word,
Where the bones of leading statesmen
Have so often been interr’d.
And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait
Because I have a luncheon date.