Usury vs. Contraception: Do Doctrines Die by Difficulty?

Melinda Selmys asks, “Is Contraception the New Usury?” and poses a variation on an old argument.   In her view, the Church’s teaching on usury has faded out of memory or practice because it’s just too difficult to obey; she forsees the Church’s teaching on contraception going the same way.

She isn’t original in this line of thought, and Catholic Answers treated the question back in 2006 in “Did the Church Change Its Stance on Usury?”

For a summary of the many different ways Catholic theologians have approached the usury question over the centuries, see this 2014 article from Canon Law Made Easy, “What Does the Church Say About Usury?”

The Distributist Review unravels the history of thinking on usury in extensive detail in “Is Usury Still a Sin?” If I were to very crudely summarize the development of doctrine on this point, it would go like this:

  1. The Church asserts, in continuity with the general thinking of the ancient world, that taking interest on a loan is sinful.
  2. But look!  There are certain fees the lender might reasonably charge, such as costs for all the secretarial work in managing in the loan.
  3. And also look at this!  You might have a situation in which a passive investor as a business partner agrees to split the profits of a venture in a way that provides a smaller but guaranteed return to the partner who’s fronting the cash, and a larger but not-guaranteed return to the partner who is doing all the hard work.
  4. Also: Opportunity Cost.  That’s a thing.
  5. So we can write up contracts on loans in ways that clarify that no interest is being paid on the loan, but here are these other transactions that do involve assorted legitimate payments to the lender that aren’t interest, but are related to the nature of the business going on.
  6. Major development: Even if you don’t write out the all the different transactions in painstaking detail, as long as the fees you’re charging are legit, that’s cool.
  7. Practical development of the 1800’s: Listen, priests: You don’t have to analyze all your penitents’ contracts.  It’s reasonable to assume that the “interest” is just the assorted legit fees and compensations we’ve been parsing out over the last hundreds and hundreds of years, and it’s usually cool.

If you’re used to our contemporary banking system, all this is very foreign to you.

***

What modern ears tend to hear is, “We used to not be allowed to charge interest. Then we thought up lots of excuses to cover for the fact that we charge interest and it’s okay.”

We hear this in part for an understandable reason: In the modern world to speak of interest on a loan as being sinful sounds like crazy-talk.  We just aren’t used to anyone saying this, ever.  There’s another darker reason we might push off thinking about development of doctrine with regards to usury: We’d rather not take this teaching seriously.

The irony is that because the heavy lifting has already been done with regards to thinking through whether percentage-based fees on loans are always and everywhere wrong (no they aren’t), it’s pretty simple for the average Catholic to follow Church teaching on usury without too much trouble, other than the risk of mortal embarrassment if your cosmopolitan friends find out you’re doing it.

But hey, you belong to a religion that believes exploiting the poor is wrong, having a mother and father is right, and the Resurrection is real.  Catholics are crazy that way.

***

Is sticking to the Church’s teaching on usury that hard?  Based on my present understanding of what the Church actually teaches, I don’t think it really is.

Is sticking to the Church’s teaching on contraception that hard?  Eh.  Your mileage will vary.   The part people usually complain about is the “not having sex” part.  Well, lots of people manage to not have sex all the time, and lots more of us manage to not have sex some of the time.  If your spouse doesn’t wish to follow Church teaching, that can make it really difficult — same as it’s difficult to get to Mass on Sundays if your spouse is opposed.

As with all moral teachings, some of us are more tempted than others to give in to this or that sin.  Some of us might succeed at not contracepting but easily fall into other serious sins, related or not.

But none of that changes Church teaching.

 

File:Quinten Massijs (I) - The Moneylender and his Wife - WGA14281.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.


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