Exclusive English translation of St. Alphonsus Liguori
What is the Sin of Usury?
The Church’s Doctor of Moral Theology explains
The sin of usury may very well be the most complex topic in all of Catholic moral theology. It involves a great many distinctions and nuances, and what adds to the difficulty is that usury is determined in part by the nature, function, and value of money, which has not always been the same throughout human history.
A pre-Vatican II Catholic dictionary defines “usury” succinctly as follows:
Usury is strictly speaking profit exacted on a loan of money just because it is a loan. This is unjust, because money as money has no value save in its use. But interest may be justly charged for reasons extrinsic to the loan itself, such as danger of non-repayment or loss of opportunities of other profit. In modern times this latter extrinsic title always exists owing to economic conditions.
(Donald Attwater, ed., A Catholic Dictionary, 3rd ed. [New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1958], s.v. “Usury”, p. 509)
Although confusion about usury and the concepts involved is quite understandable, tragically the complexity of the topic has led some to accuse the Catholic Church of having changed her doctrine on the issue. In our day there are even some who consider themselves traditional Catholics and yet believe that the Church founded by Jesus Christ has, for reasons of expediency, greed, or faithlessness, caved to the usurers and, compromising on the Divine Law, has betrayed her Lord and Master. What a frightful blasphemy!
Similar to how the so-called “Feeneyites” have made their own distorted interpretation of the dogma No Salvation Outside the Church the axis around which everything else in their belief system revolves, and to which everything else must conform (no matter how absurd the implications or consequences), so there are “traditional Catholics” today who believe in (their idea of) the condemnation of usury first — and in Catholicism only second.
However, salvation is not by rejecting usury alone. It would profit a man nothing if he were correct regarding the topic of usury but died without belief in the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. Much worse than the sin of usury is the sin of unbelief. The virtue of Faith requires that we believe what God has revealed because He has revealed it, not because we have examined it and found it to conform to our understanding of things and therefore worthy of our consent. There are consequences to that: “Faith, therefore, must exclude not only all doubt, but all desire for demonstration“, as the Roman Catechism says (p. 15; underlining added).
There are numerous Catholic resources explaining the morality concerning usury, lending money at interest, and unlawful gain. Here are a select few of them (in chronological order):
- Pope Benedict XIV, Encyclical Vix Pervenit (1745)
- “Usury”, The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, vol. I, 3rd series (Nov. 1880), pp. 620-623
- Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), entry “Interest”
- Catholic Encyclopedia (1912), entry “Usury”
- Rev. Thomas Slater, S.J., Questions of Moral Theology (New York, NY: Benziger Brothers, 1915), pp. 78-98
- Rev. J.B. McLaughlin, O.S.B., “Interest and Usury”, The Ecclesiastical Review, vol. LXVII (Sep. 1922), pp. 239-251
- Rev. Thomas Slater, S.J., A Manual of Moral Theology, vol. I, 5th ed. (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd., 1925), pp. 321-326
- Rev. Lewis Watt, S.J., Usury in Catholic Theology (Oxford: Catholic Social Guild, 1945)
- Rev. Henry Davis, S.J., Moral and Pastoral Theology, vol. II, 6th ed. (London: Sheed and Ward, 1949), pp. 373-377
- John T. Noonan, Jr., The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Harvard University Press, 1957)
- Anthony Hulme, Morals and Money (Sydney: St. Paul Publications, 1958)
- Rev. John A. McHugh, O.P., and Rev. Charles J. Callan, O.P., Moral Theology: A Complete Course, vol. II (New York City, NY: Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., 1958), n. 2136
- Cardinal Francesco Roberti, et al., eds., Dictionary of Moral Theology (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1962), pp. 1260-1262
- Brian McCall, The Church and the Usurers: Unprofitable Lending for the Modern Economy (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, 2013)
There have been quite a few magisterial pronouncements concerning usury in Church history, and even the Bible speaks about it directly.
Let us take a brief and abridged historical survey, beginning with a few quotes from Holy Scripture.
For example, in Exodus 22:25, we read: “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor, that dwelleth with thee, thou shalt not be hard upon them as an extortioner, nor oppress them with usuries.” In Psalm 14, King David asks: “Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle? or who shall rest in thy holy hill?” (v. 1) and answers: “He that hath not put out his money to usury, nor taken bribes against the innocent…” (v. 5).
Nehemias rebukes the rich for oppressing the poor with usury: “And my heart thought with myself: and I rebuked the nobles and magistrates, and said to them: Do you every one exact usury of your brethren? And I gathered together a great assembly against them” (2 Esd 5:7). Through the prophet Ezekiel, God praises the man who “hath not lent upon usury, nor taken any increase” (Ez 18:8; cf. v. 13).
Yet even in the Old Testament God appears to approve of the Jews practicing usury with regard to the Gentiles, at least for a time: “Thou shalt not lend to thy brother money to usury, nor corn, nor any other thing: but to the stranger. To thy brother thou shalt lend that which he wanteth, without usury: that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all thy works in the land, which thou shalt go in to possess” (Deut 23:19-20). The traditional Catholic Haydock commentary explains: “This was a dispensation granted by God to his people, who being the Lord of all things, can give a right and title to one upon the goods of another. Otherwise the Scripture everywhere condemns usury, as contrary to the law of God, and a crying sin.” The Dictionary of Moral Theology has a slightly different take, stating that “usury was permitted in dealing with Gentiles; however, it was simply tolerated, not considered as lawful” (p. 1261).
In the Gospel, our Blessed Lord tells us to “lend, hoping for nothing thereby” (Lk 6:35). It is perhaps somewhat surprising that in the Parable of the Talents, the nobleman tells the unprofitable servant: “Thou oughtest therefore to have committed my money to the bankers, and at my coming I should have received my own with usury” (Mt 25:27). However, as Fr. Cornelius à Lapide explains:
…the Lord in this palce does not speak so much according to the abstract right of the matter, as parabolically, partly because of the common practice of nations (for usury was allowed in many nations, especially among the Jews, who think that God permitted them to exact it from the gentiles, in Deut. 23:19), partly as a deduction from the words of the slothful servant, who attributed to his master the avarice of extorting money, by fair means or foul, from himself or others. This passage may, however, be accommodated to what is signified by the parable in the following manner: that God, by a most just claim, requires of us interest, as it were, for His gifts and graces, by that He will render us far greater interest of glory in heaven.
(The Great Commentary of Cornelius à Lapide: The Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. II, trans. by Thomas W. Mossman, rev. and compl. by Michael J. Miller [Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 2008], p. 487. Alternate edition available here.)
Since it is a kind of extortion to demand more money than is given as a condition for granting a loan, St. Paul’s warning that neither “the effeminate, nor liers with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:10) is also of relevance.
As regards magisterial pronouncements, we cannot touch upon all of them, but here are quite a few, in chronological order.
We begin in 325 with the First Council of Nicea, approved by Pope St. Sylvester I:
Since many enrolled [among the clergy] have been induced by greed and avarice to forget the sacred text, “who does not put out his money at interest”, and to charge one per cent [a month] on loans, this holy and great synod judges that if any are found after this decision to receive interest by contract or to transact the business in any other way or to charge [a flat rate of] fifty per cent or in general to devise any other contrivance for the sake of dishonourable gain, they shall be deposed from the clergy and their names struck from the roll.
(First Council of Nicaea, Canon 17)
In 1179, Pope Alexander III decreed during the Third Lateran Council:
Nearly everywhere the crime of usury has become so firmly rooted that many, omitting other business, practise usury as if it were permitted, and in no way observe how it is forbidden in both the Old and New Testament. We therefore declare that notorious usurers should not be admitted to communion of the altar or receive christian burial if they die in this sin. Whoever receives them or gives them christian burial should be compelled to give back what he has received, and let him remain suspended from the performance of his office until he has made satisfaction according to the judgment of his own bishop.
(Third Lateran Council, Canon 25)
During his short pontificate from 1185-1187, Pope Urban III recalled that “every usury and superabundance are prohibited by law” (Epistle Consuluit Nos; Denz. 403).
At the Fourth Lateran Council, ratified by Pope Innocent III in 1215, Catholics were forbidden from doing business with Jews, insofar as necessary, on account of the latter’s oppressive charging of interest:
The more the Christian religion is restrained from usurious practices, so much the more does the perfidy of the Jews grow in these matters, so that within a short time they are exhausting the resources of Christians. Wishing therefore to see that Christians are not savagely oppressed by Jews in this matter, we ordain by this synodal decree that if Jews in future, on any pretext, extort oppressive and excessive interest from Christians, then they are to be removed from contact with Christians until they have made adequate satisfaction for the immoderate burden. Christians too, if need be, shall be compelled by ecclesiastical censure, without the possibility of an appeal, to abstain from commerce with them. We enjoin upon princes not to be hostile to Christians on this account, but rather to be zealous in restraining Jews from so great oppression. We decree, under the same penalty, that Jews shall be compelled to make satisfaction to churches for tithes and offerings due to the churches, which the churches were accustomed to receive from Christians for houses and other possessions, before they passed by whatever title to the Jews, so that the churches may thus be preserved from loss.
(Fourth Lateran Council, Constitution 67)
In 1313, the Council of Vienne declared in its decree Ex Gravi: “If anyone shall fall into that error, so that he obstinately presumes to declare that it is not a sin to exercise usury, we decree that he must be punished as a heretic” (Denz. 479).
On the eve of the Protestant Revolution, a controversy had arisen regarding certain credit organizations that were lending money at interest. At the Fifth Lateran Council in 1515, Pope Leo X clarified that “that is the real meaning of usury: when, from its use, a thing which produces nothing is applied to the acquiring of gain and profit without any work, any expense or any risk.” After considering the matter at hand, His Holiness declared:
We wish to make suitable arrangements on this question (in accord with what we have received from on high). We commend the zeal for justice displayed by the former group, which desires to prevent the opening up of the chasm of usury, as well as the love of piety and truth shown by the latter group, which wishes to aid the poor, and indeed the earnestness of both sides. Since, therefore, this whole question appears to concern the peace and tranquility of the whole christian state, we declare and define, with the approval of the sacred council, that the above-mentioned credit organisations, established by states and hitherto approved and confirmed by the authority of the apostolic see, do not introduce any kind of evil or provide any incentive to sin if they receive, in addition to the capital, a moderate sum for their expenses and by way of compensation, provided it is intended exclusively to defray the expenses of those employed and of other things pertaining (as mentioned) to the upkeep of the organisations, and provided that no profit is made therefrom. They ought not, indeed, to be condemned in any way. Rather, such a type of lending is meritorious and should be praised and approved. It certainly should not be considered as usurious; it is lawful to preach the piety and mercy of such organisations to the people, including the indulgences granted for this purpose by the holy apostolic see; and in the future, with the approval of the apostolic see, other similar credit organisations can be established.
(Fifth Lateran Council, Session 10)
In the early 1740s, Pope Benedict XIV commissioned a number of theologians to study again the question of usury. On Nov. 1, 1745, he gave his authoritative judgment in the encyclical letter Vix Pervenit. It is not long and worth a complete read:
- Pope Benedict XIV, Encyclical Vix Pervenit (1745)
Alas, Pope Benedict’s encyclical did not put an end to all controversies about usury. In 1830, Pope Pius VIII was petitioned to end a dispute between confessors who were in vehement disagreement over how Vix Pervenit was to be understood:
The Bishop of Rheims in France explains that … the confessors of his diocese do not hold the same opinion concerning the profit received from money given as a loan to business men, in order that they may be enriched thereby. There is bitter dispute over the meaning of the Encyclical Letter, “Vix pervenit”. On both sides arguments are produced to defend the opinion each one has embraced, either favorable to such profit or against it. Thence come quarrels, dissensions, denial of the sacraments to many business men engaging in that method of making money, and countless damage to souls. To meet this harm to souls, some confessors think they can hold a middle course between both opinions. If anyone consults them about gain of this sort, they try to dissuade him from it. If the penitent perseveres in his plan of giving money as a loan to business men, and objects that an opinion favorable to such a loan has many patrons, and moreover, has not been condemned by the Holy See, although more than once consulted about it, then these confessors demand that the penitent promise to conform in filial obedience to the judgment of the Holy Pontiff, whatever it may be, if he should intervene; and having obtained this promise, they do not deny them absolution, although they believe an opinion contrary to such a loan is more probable. If a penitent does not confess the gain from money given as a loan, and appears to be in good faith, these confessors, even if they know from other sources that gain of this sort has been taken by him and is even now being taken they absolve him, making no interrogation about the matter, because they fear that the penitent, being advised to make restitution or to refrain from such profit, will refuse.
Therefore the said Bishop of Rheims inquires:
1. Whether he can approve the method of acting on the part of these latter confessors.
2. Whether he could encourage other more rigid confessors who come to consult him to follow the plan of action of those others until the Holy See brings out an express opinion on this question.
Pius VIII responded:
To 1: They are not to be disturbed. To II: Provided for in the first.
(Audience of Aug. 18, 1830; Denzinger 1609-1610)
Pius VIII’s pontificate was very short. His immediate successor, Gregory XVI, also had to deal with the matter of usury, in one case even being asked to clarify the meaning of his predecessor’s response to the Bishop of Rheims (see Denz. 1611-1612). Talk about answering dubia!
On Apr. 25, 1950, Pope Pius XII received in audience a group of Italian bankers. He asked them rhetorically: “Does not the social function of the bank consist in making it possible for the individual to render his money fruitful, even if only in a small degree, instead of dissipating it, or leaving it sleep without any profit, either to himself or to others?” (in Catholic Mind, vol. 49 [May 1951], p. 332).
On Nov. 21, 1953, the same Pius XII exhorted members of the Autonomous Institute for Popular Housing in Rome to “oppose, with every means that the common good justifies, usury in property and all economically unproductive financial speculation involving a good so fundamental as the soil” (in Catholic Mind, vol. 52 [May 1954], p. 310).
Remarkably, even the apostate Jorge Bergoglio (Antipope Francis) is on record condemning usury, but of course in his case it is a matter of Broken Clock Syndrome — like a broken clock, he is right twice a day, by accident.
Thus far our brief historical survey.
By way of summary, we can say that there is no controversy regarding the sinfulness of usury — it is clear that usury has always been considered a sin. However, just what constitutes usury has not always been so easy to determine or agree upon. As the nature, function, and value of money have changed over time, it was practically inevitable that disputes should arise as to whether taking interest under certain conditions is in fact usurious or not.
The Dominican moral theologians Fathers John A. McHugh and Charles Callan, whose manual on moral theology we included in the list of references above, summarize the Church’s position as follows:
2136. Usury.—The sin of usury is committed in two ways. (a) Usury in the strict sense is the taking of interest by reason of intrinsic title (i.e., on account of the use) for money or other fungible loaned on condition that it be restored in kind (mutuum). This is unjust since it exacts payment for that which is non-existent, that is, for use, as a distinct value, of a fungible whose only value is in its use (see Aristotle, Politics, Bk. I, Ch. 10, 1258b 2-8; St. Thomas, Summa Theologica II-II, q.78, a.1). This was the opinion of most medieval theologians based on the fact that money was solely a medium of exchange. Interest was permitted, however, on the grounds of extrinsic titles, e.g., compensation for the expense of a transaction (damnum emergens), the loss of opportunity to make good bargains (lucrum cessans).
(b) Usury in the wide sense, which is all too common, is the taking of interest for a fungible loaned at mutuum, where there is an extrinsic title (e.g., the loss or inconvenience suffered by the lender) for the interest, but the rate charged is unjust, exceeding that fixed by law or that which is fair and reasonable (see Canon 1543). This is unjust when the lender takes more than his loan is worth; it is uncharitable when the lender does not demand more than the worth of his loan, but does exact what is due in a heartless manner. Examples of usury in the wide sense are the acts of loan sharks who take advantage of the distress of the poor to make them pay enormous interest for small loans, or who hold the debtor to the strict letter of the agreement at a great loss to him.
In recent years a new concept of usury in the wide sense has emerged. It is based upon the fact that in modern times the function of money has changed. In ancient times it was solely a medium or measure of exchange that could not be turned easily into capital. With the emergence of the capitalistic system, opportunities for investment increased, and money assumed the role of a factor of production. Money assumed a new value and function: it became virtually productive, and so today money does fructify. To place money, then, at the disposal of another to be employed in profitable ventures constitutes an economic service and, as such, is worth its price as any other service. This price of money constitutes modern interest, which seems to differ radically from the old contract of interest and to be more one of hire or lease. So viewed, interest, or the price of money, is determined in the same way as the price of any other service; the unjust price, or usury, is an excessive price. This is the modern concept of usury.
(Rev. John A. McHugh, O.P., and Rev. Charles J. Callan, O.P., Moral Theology: A Complete Course, vol. II, rev. and enl. by Rev. Edward P. Farrell, O.P. [New York City, NY: Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., 1958], n. 2136, pp. 278-279; bold print and italics given.)
Of course, none of the above will satisfy those deniers and doubters who have made it their life’s work, so to speak, to spread the “truth” about usury. Thus we turn to what we might perhaps consider the “ultimate” theological authority on the question, short of a papal pronouncement.
Given his status as a formidable expert in moral theology, a canonized Saint, and a Doctor of the Church, there is no more suitable moral teacher to consult on this thorny subject than St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), a man not only of great intellect, learning, and wisdom but also of immense holiness, all of which have been recognized by the Church herself.
His enormous 9-volume work Theologia Moralis (1748-85), which has earned the highest praise and enjoys the approval of Pope Pius IX, contains a comprehensive treatment of usury. Unfortunately, it had never been translated into English, so we acted to remedy the situation.
Novus Ordo Watch commissioned an expert in ecclesiastical Latin to translate St. Alphonsus’ entire treatise on usury. We are pleased to be able to make this first and exclusive English translation available now for the benefit of the public. Click below:
by St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori,
Doctor of the Church
Clicking on the link above will take you to a separate page, where you will find the complete translation, along with notes by the translator.
It makes for difficult reading; there is no doubt about that. St. Alphonsus’ Theologia Moralis was not written for the laity, and he preferred clarity over style. However, we believe we can render no greater service to the public on this question than to present the most in-depth academic explanation by the Church’s greatest moral theologian.
Obviously, those who refuse to be taught by the Church will still not be convinced, even by the expertise of a man as holy, learned, and papally-approved as St. Alphonsus.
But that is not the Church’s fault.
Image source: Shutterstock (pathdoc)