In the late Middle Ages the problem of financing the royal exchequer and setting up capitalist institutions in the face of the Christian ban on usury was resolved by allowing Jews to act as bankers.

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ETHICAL CONUNDRUMS

When and why did the Christian Church stop viewing usury as a sin?

NO DENOMINATION of the Christian Church has ever condoned usury, which we might define as an extortionate charge for the use of money or fungible goods, but the charging of interest is no longer regarded as usurious in all circumstances. In fact there is no direct condemnation of interest-taking in the New Testament; it is even tolerated in the Parable of the Talents. The Old Testament authority – Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:35, and Deuteronomy 20:19 – does not constitute a blanket ban on interest-taking, but condemns taking interest from the poor, and within the Jewish community. The taking of interest was forbidden to clerics from AD 314. It was strictly forbidden for laymen in 1179. The beginning of the end as far as the total ban on interest was concerned came in the sixteenth century. Although Luther and Zwingli still condemned it utterly, Calvin and some progressive Catholic thinkers such as Collet and Antoine argued that interest-taking did not constitute usury, as long as it represented the real difference between the value of present and future sums of money, and was not mere extortion. The Catholic Church still forbids usury, meaning extortionate charges, providing penalties in c2354 of the Code of Canon Law, but this does not mean that all interest-taking is sinful. The Vatican itself invests in interest-bearing schemes, and requires Church administrators to do likewise. That all interest was not in itself sinful was finally decided in a series of decisions in the institutions of the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century.

Gwen Seabourne, London

 

 

I DON’T think Gwen Seabourne should be allowed to get away with her anodyne answer. That the Christian Church banned usury for many centuries is not invalidated by reference to the Bible (family planning is not disallowed in the Bible). Nor can usury be defined as the extortionate charging of interest: usury is the charging of any interest. The Vatican ties itself up in complex circumlocutions to divert attention from the fact that it runs capitalist institutions based on the most blatant condoning of usury. The verbal acrobatics testify to the contradictory situation it finds itsef in. Usury – all usury – is banned by Christian doctrine, as it is by Muslim doctrine. In the late Middle Ages the problem of financing the royal exchequer and setting up capitalist institutions in the face of the Christian ban on usury was resolved by allowing Jews to act as bankers. They therefore came to be viewed as pariahs, just as cow hide tanners are pariahs in Hindu society. It was in this way that the Jewish community was able to accrue vast wealth and thereby to bring down on its head the loathing of the Christians. Hence Shylock. This enmity is still the underlying basis of modern anti-Semitism. The fact that (mainly) Jewish bankers did very well out of the collapse of free-market economics in Weimar Germany was the determining reality in the rise of Hitler and the Nazi movement. Gwen Seabourne states that the Catholic Church still forbids usury. That’s good enough for me.

Jonathan Morton, London  

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