Quote of the Week: St Bonaventure

Quote of the Week: St Bonaventure August 8, 2008

There are different types of stealing, since stealing is the taking of things belonging to another aginst the owner’s will. This is done either by pure deceit, by violence, or by fraud. If it is done by pure deceit and in secret, then it is called stealing. If it is done by violence, either the violence is done in the open and is called plundering, or it is hidden and it is called a robbery. If the taking of things belonging to another is done by fraud, this can involve an agreement in one of three ways. It can be done with an agreement that is either fraudulent, sinful, or sacrilegious. The first way happens in business and can be done in one of three ways: in weight, or in number, or in measure. Merchants rarely escape committing this sin. If it is done by a sinful agreement, it is called usury, in which that which is sold is public, namely time. If it is done by a sacrilegious agreement, in which things belonging to God are sold, it is called simony.


Some people believe that usury is evil because it is prohibited, but clearly it is prohibited because it is evil. In a monetary loan, that which is mine becomes yours. But if you acquire something from that loan by your industry, and I claim anything of that, then I sell time, which is public and cannot be sold lawfully.

–St Bonaventure, Collations on the Ten Commandments. trans. Paul J. Spaeth (St. Bonaventure, New York: The Franciscan Institute, 1995), 91.

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  • Its too bad that this is the foundation of our entire economy. Maybe, the economic crisis right now should be viewed as God calling people to repent.

  • blackadderiv

    The Church’s teaching on usury has developed a bit since the time of St. Bonaventure, fortunately.

  • One could of course ban Jews from most professions and open usury to them, and then in turn condemn them for being greedy moneylenders.

    Oops. Done that already.

  • ben


    It is always nice to hear from the Seraphic Doctor. Thank you.


    The church’s teaching on the evil of usury has not changed, the Holy Father has remarked on this evil recently:


    What has changed is the readiness of authorities in the church to trust secular authorieties and economists who claim that the nature of money has changed over the past 500 years.

  • I guess it depends on how usury is defined. Does the pope mean ANY interest on loans ? That can’t be it, one’d think, as it’d be ridiculous. Does he mean loan sharks ? Hardly anybody would own a house without a bank.


    As the Jews were ostracized from most professions by local rulers, the church and the guilds, they were pushed into marginal occupations considered socially inferior, such as tax and rent collecting and moneylending. This was said to show Jews were insolent, greedy usurers. Natural tensions between creditors and debtors were added to social, political, religious, and economic strains.

    … financial oppression of Jews tended to occur in areas where they were most disliked, and if Jews reacted by concentrating on moneylending to non-Jews, the unpopularity – and so, of course, the pressure – would increase. Thus the Jews became an element in a vicious circle. The Christians, on the basis of the Biblical rulings, condemned interest-taking absolutely, and from 1179 those who practised it were excommunicated. Catholic autocrats frequently imposed the harshest financial burdens on the Jews. The Jews reacted by engaging in the one business where Christian laws actually discriminated in their favour, and became identified with the hated trade of moneylending.

    Peasants who were forced to pay their taxes to Jews who were coerced and forced into being the “front men,” would personify them as the people taking their earnings while remaining loyal to the lords on whose behalf the Jews who were themselves economically squeezed into working for.

    Non-Jewish debtors may have been quick to lay charges of usury against Jewish moneylenders charging even nominal interest or fees. Thus, historically attacks on usury have led to antisemitism. According to Walter Laqueur,

    “The issue at stake was not really whether the Jews had entered it out of greed (as antisemites claimed) or because most other professions were barred to them… In countries where other professions were open to them, such as Muslim Spain and the Ottoman empire, one finds more Jewish blacksmiths than Jewish money lenders. The high tide of Jewish usury was before the fifteenth century; as cities grew in power and affluence, the Jews were squeezed out from money lending with the development of banking.”

    In England, the departing Crusaders were joined by crowds of debtors in the massacres of Jews at London and York in 1189-1190. In 1275, Edward I of England passed the Statute of Jewry which made usury illegal and linked it to blasphemy, in order to seize the assets of the violators. Scores of English Jews were arrested, 300 hanged and their property went to the Crown. In 1290, all Jews were expelled from England, allowed to take only what they could carry, the rest of their property became the Crown’s. The usury was cited as the official reason for the Edict of Expulsion.

  • T. Shaw

    Does any one herein believe that no usurer may be in a state of grace?

  • Ben

    St Bonaventure is my favorite scholastic theologian (I know, most follow Aquinas over Bonaventure — for me, it depends; but one of the things I really appreciate in Bonaventure is his understanding of the problematic relationship between academia and theology, even in his time).

  • Gerald

    You are right in saying that the way the Jews were treated, making them to go into moneylending, was a grave evil done to them in history. And knowing the situation, one can almost say they were forced into it, against their will, and so the issue of culpability — well, is not for me to decide.

  • I had a professor who gave us take-home tests with the instruction that we could study before hand, but once our eyes gazes upon the test sheet, notes should not be used. He also gave us a time limit. Asked why he trusted the students to follow the said instructions, he remarked that cheating constituted a form a stealing, and that even if we went to confession, unless we owned up to the theft and had our grade changed, it wouldn’t be a complete absolution.

  • Blackadder

    It’s true that the Church still condemns usury, but Her understanding of what constitutes usury (i.e. the unjust taking of interest) has developed significantly over time. I would refer you to the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on the subject.

  • david

    Usury is disproportionate to those most in need of financial help. I’m thinking of “payday” loans which charge outrageous APRs (1000%+). This sort of exploitation is gravely immoral.

    Since hoping for a more charitble, just society is naive, I have no idea what can be done. I’m just gonna pray and make sacrifices. And hope.

  • David Nickol

    It’s true that the Church still condemns usury, but Her understanding of what constitutes usury (i.e. the unjust taking of interest) has developed significantly over time.


    From what I have read on the topic, usury for approximately a thousand years was defined by the Catholic Church not as the “unjust taking of interest,” but as the taking of any interest on a loan. From the encyclical Vix Pervenit:

    I. The nature of the sin called usury has its proper place and origin in a loan contract. This financial contract between consenting parties demands, by its very nature, that one return to another only as much as he has received. The sin rests on the fact that sometimes the creditor desires more than he has given. Therefore he contends some gain is owed him beyond that which he loaned, but any gain which exceeds the amount he gave is illicit and usurious.

    II. One cannot condone the sin of usury by arguing that the gain is not great or excessive, but rather moderate or small; neither can it be condoned by arguing that the borrower is rich; nor even by arguing that the money borrowed is not left idle, but is spent usefully, either to increase one’s fortune, to purchase new estates, or to engage in business transactions.


    To maintain that the Church has never “flip-flopped” and has remained consistenly correct on this issue by arguing that the Church has always condemned something called usury but has changed the definition of what usury means seems to me to leave wide open the possibility that the Church will change its teaching on, say, contraception by redefining what is meant by “open to the transmission of life.” (Actually, I think some such change is possible, but I am sure the idea horrifies others.)

    Now, if by usury Benedict XVI truly means the taking of any interest on a loan, then perhaps I would have to grant that he has brought the Church back into line with earlier and long-held Catholic positions on the evil of charging interest on a loan. But if he really does mean that, hasn’t he basically condemned the economy of the United States and indeed the entire world economy? Must faithful Catholics shred their credit cards, figure out how to buy homes without mortgages, and keep their money somewhere other than a bank?

  • Blackadder

    Usury is disproportionate to those most in need of financial help. I’m thinking of “payday” loans which charge outrageous APRs (1000%+).

    It’s true that things like payday loans have a high annual interest rate. But since the typical time frame of the loan is not years but days, I don’t think evaluating the loan in terms of its annual interest rate makes much sense. A large proportion of the costs of making loans is fixed, and, as such, the interest rates on short term loans are going to be considerably higher than those on longer term loans.