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Difficult Subjects, Forgotten Teaching

June 21, 2019 (1,544 words)

One good thing (among many) about belonging to a universal church is the way it naturally and organically responds to every local culture known to man. Another good thing is how it has encountered every human condition down through the centuries, and developed the teaching to address each new circumstance.

For those who may be unfamiliar, we refer to this as the Magisterium of the Church. It is built on Scripture and Tradition, and is responsible for making the teaching applicable in all times and places.

One cutting-edge subject currently being tackled by Catholic ethics scholars is what is referred to as “end of life issues.” The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) leads this effort. Established in 1972 and currently headquartered in Philadelphia, it conducts research, consultation, publishing, and education to promote human dignity in health care and the life sciences.

The Center is unique among bioethics organizations in that its message is derived directly from the teachings of the Catholic Church, which in turn are drawn from a moral tradition that acknowledges the unity of faith and reason and builds on the solid foundation of natural law.

meeting with the Vatican and public policy makers…

The NCBC staff consults regularly with the Vatican, the U.S. bishops, and public policy makers, hospitals, and international organizations of all faiths. Vatican agencies which regularly consult with the Center include the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pontifical Academy for Life, and the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers.

In addition to publishing two periodicals and a variety of books on various bioethical topics, NCBC educational programs include the National Catholic Certification Program in Health Care Ethics, one and two-day seminars, and other events. NCBC ethicists travel to speak at gatherings of clergy, at pro-life events, and to professional associations and conferences upon request.

One of my American traveling companions in Guatemala this week had recently attended one such NCBC presentation. A retired OBGYN physician herself, she was impressed with the level of scholarship offered by the Reverend Tad Pacholczyk, PhD. and other NCBC personnel on the panel that day.

To hear this individual tell it, though, “when life ends” is such a complex issue, even this assembly of esteemed scholars could not agree on a single definition that can be applied to every possible scenario.

another, much older teaching…

Another, much older Catholic teaching that was touched on in casual conversation this week in Guatemala, while our small traveling party was on a short Vision Trip and Spiritual Pilgrimage, revolves around the old-timey concept of “usury”. This is a word no longer in common parlance, as most people think of it as having been replaced by the much more familiar term “interest.”

But the historical definition of usury still applies, or should apply: The practice of making unethical or immoral monetary loans that take advantage of another’s misfortunes and unfairly enriches the lender.

Most Catholics have only a vague sense of biblical passages that condemn the charging of interest of any kind on a loan, as well as consistent Church teaching supporting this condemnation, right up through Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). And we have the same vague sense that all that somehow changed once Italian fabric merchants invented double-entry bookkeeping in 14th Century Florence.

That’s not an altogether inaccurate summary of events. Even though Benedict XIV’s encyclical Vix Pervenit of 1745 reiterated doctrine against the charging of any interest, by then improved trading/commercial techniques and increased availability to capital had weakened religious scruples about lending at interest.

So while debate on the subject continued in the ivory tower, “work arounds” were routinely being employed at street level.

In fact, according to John Noonan’s The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Harvard University Press, 1957),
“By 1750, then, the scholastic theory and the counter theory… agree in approving the common practice [of demanding interest on loans].”

a change in Canon Law…

Finally, the 1917 Code of Canon Law modified the ban and allowed church monies to be used to accrue interest. Today, of course, lending at interest in virtually universally accepted.

(Except in majority Muslim countries, where Islam still strongly encourages charity and interest-free lending. As an alternative to usury, Islam still teaches [as Christianity once did] a loan should become a direct investment in which the creditor “shares” whatever profit or loss the business may incur. Amounting to what would typically be described today as an “equity stake” in the business.)

No contemporary theologian or Pope has turned their attention to this issue in any comprehensive manner. This is an oversight that really needs to be addressed.

To their everlasting credit, every single Pope has provided yeoman commentary on the rights and duties of capital and labor, and on the injustices perpetrated by the free market system as currently pursued, since Leo XIII first raised the subject in 1891. But none of them have evaluated modern banking and lending practices with the same acuity.

Even the marvelous 1994 compendium known as The Catechism of the Catholic Church, compiled under the auspices of John Paul II (author of 1991’s Centesimus Annus, honoring and updating Leo’s Rerum Novarum), only deals with the subject of usury in the broadest possible terms. Here is what passes for the contemporary “condemnation” of usury:

The acceptance by human society of murderous famines, without efforts to remedy them, is a scandalous injustice and a grave offense. Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them. (CCC 2269)

The evidence clearly indicates a change on this issue since the time of Aquinas, but how to characterize that change? Has the Church reversed herself? Catholics who seek a reversal in the teaching against artificial contraception, or priestly celibacy, or women’s ordination certainly think so. They cite what they see as a “reversal” on usury as a precedent upon which to reverse other teaching they don’t like.

circumstances change, and teaching develops…

But wait, there are those who say a solid case can be made that the original outright condemnation against interest being charged in all cases rests on circumstances that have themselves undergone a thorough redefinition. In contemporary market situations investment growth is virtually assured. As secure ways of investing money have developed, the lender does lose profit on money unless interest is charged.

In other words, Catholic teaching still holds that usury is morally impermissible, but it does not follow from this that any charge above principle on a loan is always wrong.

So if the teaching on usury is not a simple reversal and rejection of what came before, but rather a development of the same principles used by Thomas Aquinas applied to radically new circumstances, the obvious question is: How do we differentiate between moral and immoral loans in today’s world?

It seems to me we need a National Catholic Usury Center to help elucidate the teaching as it applies to our times. Because many contemporary loans are still taking advantage of others’ misfortunes, or of our fallen human nature, and are unfairly enriching the lender.

Aquinas reminded us of one of Aristotle’s enduring insights, and played it forward: Money cannot buy happiness. Money used in pursuit of material advancement constitutes a limited good, and should only be utilized to the extent it helps lead us to a higher good, which is a life of virtue, and perfect happiness, and eternal salvation.

leading people away from virtue…

In trying to sort all this out and come up with workable definitions, we should begin by noting the current banking system encourages over-consumption by offering easy credit at high interest rates. This leads people away from virtue and into sin. (When one is led away from virtue, there is only one destination possible.)

A wise man once told me that when you are in debt, you don’t own your own soul. While the development of the mortgage industry has made home-ownership available to a much larger percentage of the population than could previously afford to buy, the amount of interest charged over the length of these loans is unconscionable, and overburdens many families of modest means for decades.

Some members of Congress have tried to create a federal usury statue that would limit the maximum allowable interest rate, but the attempts have not gotten very far. In July 2011, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was signed into law by President Obama. The act provides for a Consumer Protection Bureau to regulate some credit practices, but contains no interest rate limit.

Again I say, we need a National Catholic Usury Center to explore the interface between morality and money. Where do we find a financial version of the stellar bioethicist Reverend Tad Pacholczyk, Ph.D., who will help bring Catholic teaching to bear on issues related to modern banking and lending practices?

Such an organization, and such an individual, could provide leadership to reroute the conversation in a more just and equitable direction, by consulting with the Vatican, the U.S. bishops, public policy makers, and those in the financial services industry, both in this country and around the world.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
June 21, 2019

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