Usury and the Reformability of Church Teaching

Hi, everyone. This is a post on the topic of whether or not it is possible for some of the Church’s teachings to “change” (and, if so, which ones and how).

As near as I can figure, it is not possible for Church teachings to “change” in the sense of “It is ‘A’, it is ‘A’, it is ‘A’, it is ‘A’…whoops, now it’s ‘B’!” This is because it is believe that the Church was given the whole entire Truth by Christ from the very beginning–the Deposit of Faith. None of this Truth can be lost, nor can anything truly new (regarding faith or morals) be learned. This is apparently why the “Universal Magisterium” is considered infallible. If the entire Magisterium teaches something, in can’t be false, because that would mean the entire Magisterium fell into entire and an aspect of the Deposit of the Faith was lost. That can’t happen, so the teaching must be true.

However, it is possible that, while an aspect of the Divine Truth can’t be lost, it can be marginalized or forgotten by the greater part of the Magisterium (defined as the entire episcopacy in its teaching authority) or even that the great part of the Magisterium can fall into error, as happened famously with Arianism. Thus, while no teaching can change, it is possible for a teaching to “shift” or be reformulated, so long as it can be evidenced that this “new” formulation was always at least implicit somewhere within Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, even if highly marginalized. Then, it can be argued that is in an authentic part of the Deposit of Faith. At least, that is my understanding from what I’ve read.

Such “shifts” in Church teaching can also be seen in history, with her teachings on slavery, religious rights, and the possibility of salvation for those outside the visible Church being commonly mentioned examples. However, the most obvious example, in my opinion, is that of usury. I’ve read quite a few current apologetic arguments to the effect that there was never any real shift in the Church’s teaching on this subject, that it never really meant all money-lending on interest, or that the nature of money has changed. However, none of these arguments have been satisfactory to me. My own look into the history has suggested to me that the, for most of her history, the Church authoritatively taught that (a) usury is a sin and (b) usury applies to all loans on interest and (b) that’s that, period. This is especially clearly shown in 17th and 18th century debates regarding the sinfulness of usury, and the numerous condemnations from Rome of theological opinions allowing for “loopholes” in the usury teaching.

Most interestingly, it appears that there has never been any actual, definitive shift in Magisterial teaching on this topic. That is because the last authoritative Magisterial statement on the subject (as far as I’ve been able to find) occured in 1745. It is the encyclical Vix Pervenit of Pope Benedict XIV. It is the most recent statement of the Magisterium on usury and it seems to explode most of the current apologetic arguments regarding the nature of that teaching. It states:

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. The law governing loans consists necessarily in the equality of what is given and returned; once the equality has been established, whoever demands more than that violates the terms of the loan.*

So much for arguments that the Magisterium now teaches usury only means “exhorbitant” interest or interest on non-profitable loans (which still wouldn’t allow for most credit card usage, by the way). Vix Pervenit, the most recent teaching specifically addresses and condemns both those arguments, as well as arguments to the effect that “times have changed and the nature of the money/the economy is different now.” Rather, it states:

We exhort you not to listen to those who say that today the issue of usury is present in name only, since gain is almost always obtained from money given to another…it is clearly invalid to suggest, on the grounds that some gain is usually received from money lent out, that the issue of usury is irrelevant in our times.

cont. below

The only exception Benedict XIV allows is for gains on “other titles” that may “run parallel” to the loan without being “at all intrinsic” to it:

We do not deny that at times together with the loan contract certain other titles-which are not at all intrinsic to the contract-may run parallel with it. From these other titles, entirely just and legitimate reasons arise to demand something over and above the amount due on the contract.

From this, I suppose we could argue that current economic practices are not usurious, if we somehow argue that the loans involved are not really loans and the interest involved is not really interest! But that’s really stretching it, don’t you think?

Since there has been no Magisterial statement after this encyclical, it seems that the current apologetics are based on theological opinions rather than actual Church teaching. Rather, the Church has been basically silent on the issue for 250+ years! We can only assume that the teaching has shifted based on her pastoral behavior (the Holy Office in 1830 deciding that confessors should “not disturb” money-lenders taking legal interest) and her silence (the current Catechism of the Catholic Church has nothing to say about usury or interest-earning at all), but there is no definitive statement suggesting this. Otherwise, we have to believe that the older teaching still stands and the Church, in her silence, is leading us all astray and that doesn’t seem likely, unless you’re a really extreme traditionalist! What seems most likely to me is that the teaching that usury is defined as “all money-lending on interest” was always either erroneous or imcomplete, even given authoritative documents like Vix Pervenit stating otherwise, that contrary opinion was always implicit within the Church, that the teaching was reformulated in the manner suggested above, and that the Church just hasn’t stated that reformulation occured.

That’s fine to me, as far as it goes, but there are two things to consider. Firstly, while all evidence shows that the Church teaching on usury has been modified, the Church hasn’t admitted that that happened. The hierarchy seems to be highly reluctant to admit, let alone discuss in detail, the possibility that any changes of any kind have occured, in spite of evidence showing that this did happen on this and other occassions, probably because the fear loss of credibility. However, this fear or embarrassment as to what actually has happened seems to me to be harmful to the Church. By trying to whitewash or bury this history, rather than confront it, accept it, and strive to understand it, we allow the Church’s enemies to run wild with it. Also it hinders the Church in dealing with many issues today. There are many important economic issues even today in which the Church’s wealth of historical teachings on usury may come in handy. But to openly draw from this history would require admittal of the shift in the teaching that took place. The silence also causes uncertainity amongst the faithful as to the nature of the current teaching, which is why there are so many differing opinions on it even among orthodox believers. Currently and in the past, the rule appears to be to ignore such issues as much as possible, so as not to give the false impression that the Church just can float and shift with the times. However, I would like to register the hope that the Church may one day feel able to address the nature of such shifts and developments in teaching and the quesiton of reformable vs. irreformable teaching, in a clear and open manner.

Secondly, many will see this as directly relevent to the controversy surrounded the Church’s teachings on sexuality. Well, there are striking parallels between this issue and the old usury issue. For one thing, both the traditional teaching against usury and the traditional teaching against non-procreative sex are based, in a large part, on the Natural Law theory. Usury, like sodomy (non-procreative sex) was seen as unnatural, because money, being inanimate, couldn’t “breed.” Personally, I would say, given the past historical developments, that it might be possible for the Church to reform the current sexuality teachings. However, it must be understood that this is for the Church herself to determine and as long as the current teachings stand, they should be obeyed. If the Church ever does modify these teachings, however, I would hope that it would happen in a clear and open way.

These are all just my own opinions based on my own personal research. I would like to know if anyone has any differing opinions or any evidence to the contrary of any this. These are questions I consider very important and I very interested in any discussion/information regarding them.

The change on usury was occasioned by the question of the use of the money. If the borrower used it to enter into a business venture in order to realize a financial gain, then the borrower had the right to share in the profit of the venture. Today this corresponds to mortgage loans, business loans, etc.
Unfortunately this does not apply to credit cards which are used to purchase personal items or car loans or personal loans. The sin of usury is still involved there.
But the Church stance on borrowing has been so muddied by the passage of time that no one much pays attention to the distinctions any more. This is a case of the Church saying, "Do not trouble the consciences of the simple faithful."
We also changed our stance on slavery during the nineteenth century but only after many civil authorities had condemned and outlawed it.
Can the Church’s teaching change? It has in the past and will continue to change in future as our collective understanding of God’s love and concern for his children changes. We will also change teachings which are based on “natural law” as our understanding of “human nature” continues to develop.


I’m asking as the instructed person regarding this matter (and regarding the history of world economies) because I haven’t really researched it as you have, but I thought this might be a pertinent question:

Why do we conclude from the excerpt provided that due to the contents of Vix Pervenit, all arguments to the effect of “times have changed and the nature of money/the economy is different now” are inapplicable? It seems to me to certainly possible that since VP’s publication in 1745 economic conditions could have changed substantially enough to justify a “change/shift/modification” of the teaching on usury that actually preserves its essence while applying it in the context of the modern world.

I found this interesting.

In my opinion, this part of your OP miscontrues the Deposit of Faith, and also misstates the doctrine of infallibility. Christ left the Church with the whole entire Truth, but that does not mean that Christ left the Church with answers to every question on faith and morality. Its not that Peter understood the nuances of usury and could have readily applied them to modern financial markets, but intervening Popes forgot. Nor did the Apostles think through and understood the detailed theological questions underlying Montanism or Arianism but neglect to pass that knowledge on clearly enough to avoid those heresies. The whole entire Truth is the Good News, the New Covenant, the New Commandments – in short the Gospel and Sacred Tradition. The detailed teachings on faith and morals flow from this Truth. Each generation studies and learns about the Faith, and applies the Faith to life. This application of faith to life must be in accord with the Truth, but cannot be done in advance. Each generation faces new challenges.

Infallibity does not mean that all the answers are in the Deposit of Faith as if that were some big book in the basement of the Vatican. Infallibilty means that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church and that Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit will not let the Church stray too far from the path. The fact that so few Church teachings are understood as infallible is a recognition that we humans have only a limited ability to understand God and that even under His guidance we can err.

The usury laws are often brought up by those that want to take a swipe at infallibility (not saying this is your intent, but if it is just say so, we can still discuss it). I think it is a particularly weak example of ‘changing’ Church rules because the nature of the thing being regulated (money, finances) has changed so much. If the Church applied different rules to cars than to chariots no one would blink. The difference between ancient and modern monetary systems is larger, IMO, than the difference between cars and chariots.

If you really want to look into this, you need to study up on the history of inflation. Did inflation exist at the time usury was most recently discussed? It may be that what changed wasn’t church teaching, but the economic system of the world.

If I’m right, then the church simply hasn’t digested the impact that the introduction of inflation has caused on the teachings of usury. Silence is neither an endorsement or condemnation, its just silence.

Usury is surely still a sin. Its just that right now, its hard to know where the line between adjusting repayment for inflation and usury lies. IMO, credit card companies and most sub-prime mortgage brokers are usurers. Rent-to-own places? Shakey, IMO. Honest bankers and mortgage brokers are OK.

Very interesting, fix! Thanks for the citation.

From the article cited by fix: (bold my emphasis)

This provides the historical question which must be asked: did the Church condemn the taking of all interest on all loans? A simple reading might lead some to answer the same way the Scriptures and Fathers did, “Absolutely, unequivocally, without exception, all return on a loan was condemned.” Yet a further reading of the sources gives an unequivocal answer quite the opposite: there existed legitimate titles to payment beyond the principal on a loan. If the former view was actually the Church’s teaching, then the Church has reversed its teaching; but if the latter, then we have exceptions to the usury prohibition which become the basis of an authentic development of the concept of interest.

I’m skeptical of the theory that the reason the usury prohibition has changed is because the nature of money has changed over the course of time, which is the theory many suggest. Now, I don’t hold myself up as a great expert on the history of economics, but from what I do know, it doesn’t appear to me that this has been the case. The major reason people suggest this is because of the greater possibility of using loans to make profitable investments. While it is true that there are many more opportunities to invest money today, it is not as if such possibilities were non-existant in the past. Take Medieval Venice, for example, with its maritime trade and industry. It was the growth of investment opportunities that led to the growth interest-loan banking. As quoted above, the concept that interest was acceptable if used for investment was condemned by Benedict XIV in 1745. It was also apparently condemned in the Decretals of Gregory IX, way back in 1234. Now, I do not see how anything intrinsic to economics or to money has changed to allow for this today. If anything, the negative effects of such economic practices are more keenly felt today, with nations and individuals now being under the thumb of massive debts. If its nature has changed in any way, it is that it is no longer commodity-backed, which makes it even more intrinsically worthless than before. Finally, this theory fails to account for why the Church does not seem to condemn even non-profitable interest loans today.

Personally, I think it is more likely that the teaching itself, more than the nature of the economy, “changed,” though not in a way that undermined the doctrine of the Church. Specifically, my thinking is that while the teaching the usury is a sin was infallibly taught, the teaching that defined usury as meaning all loans on interest was not infallibly taught. It was, however, authoritatively taught, and with great authority. But it must have been a reformable teaching. As I said above, this can only have been the case if the other interpretation (that usury does not mean all loans on interest) was extant within Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, even if it was not predominant. This may be where such arguments about previously allowed exceptions, the questionable basis of the belief about the “barrenness” of money and the 17th century theological debates regarding the issue come into play. Is it possible for the Church to authoritatively (though not infallibly) proclaim something, and then modify the teaching in reaction to new social, scientific, historical, etc information? History seems to suggest to me that it is possible.

Some may dislike this idea, because of what it may imply about the potential reformability of current teachings. However, it is not my intention to question any current teachings and I uphold the authority of the Church to make such determinations. Furthermore, there is the problem that this sort of things tends to lead people to jot down all the apparent infallible teachings and try to “work around” them. That is not my intention, nor to a believe that, just because something hasn’t been infallibly defined, it can be tossed out the window.

My greater concern is that there has been no definitive statement by the modern Church on the apparent shifts or changes that have already taken place. We are thus left to speculate on them individually and I also think it only gives ammunition to anti-Catholics to argue that the Church can’t be trusted. I would therefore like to see the Magisterium address these issues specifically in the future.

I just realized that sounds a little confusing and self-contradictory. What I meant was that the Church maybe be able to shift certain teachings in reaction to new information, but only if they haven’t been infallibly defined and only if the new formulation of the teaching was already extant, to some degree, within the Tradition.

This is not a subject in which I have any expertise, but for those of you who have studied this, does it change the complexion of the matter to note that in Deuteronomy 23:19-20 provision is made for exacting interest on a loan?

You shall not lend upon interest to your brother, interest on money, interest on victuals, interest on anything that is lent for interest. To a foreigner you may lend upon interest, but to your brother you shall not lend upon interest; that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land which you are entering to take possession of it.

Also, Exodus 22:25 seems to offer a loophole:

If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be to him as a creditor, and you shall not exact interest from him.

In other words, someone seeking to justify collecting interest might argue that to lend at interest to someone who is undertaking a venture for profit is not lending to someone who is poor.

In the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25), Jesus asked the lazy servant, “Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?”

Clearly, interest itself is not sinful.

I think that both are true - that money has changed some and that the Church has reformulated a teaching that was not infallible.

Today we view money in the abstract, as a number which represents that individual’s right to draw upon our combined productive efforts. The right is exercised by exchanging that right with a willing party. This abstract understanding of money has many implications, one of which is that the time value of money is more apparent. As you point out, there were clearly some in ancient times that understood money in this way, but most did not. That is one of the reasons why most early monetary systems used materials of inherent value (silver coins) or guaranteed exchange for the same.

My understanding is that interest was seen as wrong because you were allowing someone to use something you didn’t need at the time, and charging him for the privilege even when the money was returned before you needed to use it. It was seen as uncharitable. (I am not sure why the same reasoning was not applied to rent, especially on land.)

Our understanding of money is not completely different, but it has changed. Our understanding of usury has also changed independent of the changes to money. So I think both are true.

I’ll buy that.

My understanding is that interest was seen as wrong because you were allowing someone to use something you didn’t need at the time, and charging him for the privilege even when the money was returned before you needed to use it. It was seen as uncharitable.

That was one reason, but another major reason was that it was seen as unnatural, according to Aristotle. He saw it as forcing money, seen as a sterile (“barren metal”), to breed more money. In the Middle Ages, this mis-use of money was seen as unnatural under the teleology-based natural law. St. Thomas Aquinas had other arguments against it as well, as seen here:

Our understanding of money is not completely different, but it has changed. Our understanding of usury has also changed independent of the changes to money.

Yes, although in one sense, I think our current conception of money could make its use in this regard seem even more usurious than previously. Aquinas brings up (and refutes) the argument that if silver vessel can be lawfully sold so can a silver coin, and therefore it is lawful to take payment (interest) for the use of money. Our modern fiat money could be seen as even more “barren” than ancient money, which was at least backed by a commodity.

The servant is a character in a parable. Jesus is not a character in a parable. The servant & Jesus occupy different realities.

Therefore, one cannot transpose attitudes in the parable to the historical reality in which Jesus lived: the attitude of a character in a parable may or may not express those of the teller of the parable. So it’s not clear that Jesus approves of interest, merely because a character in one of his stories does.

This bears (for me anyway) further study. I will say, though, that there are some things about this that seem almost definitional.

If a fellow comes to me with the proposition that we jointly invest in the purchase of some timber which we will then sever and resell, am I a lender or a partner? I think people would say I’m a partner. Suppose all I’m providing is the cash to buy the timber, and he’s providing all the labor. Am I a lender then? What if he doesn’t want me to get half but proposes that I receive 10% of the proceeds. Does that change things? What if he perceives my nervousness about the deal and “guarantees” me “at least” 10% return on my investment?
Are we still partners, or am I now a lender? What if, because he is guaranteeing me “at least” a 10% return, he also insists on a “cap” of 15%? What if we’re both satisfied with 10% which is both the minimum and the maximum? At that point, I think all would say I’m now a lender for sure. But am I a usurer?

Perhaps Pope Benedicts use of the word “titles” is equivalent to “entitlement”. Certainly if I receive only my principal back, due to inflation I’m not really receiving my principal back. But to what am I “entitled”? A reasonable return, based on the risk taken, the benefit to the borrower, the devaluation of the money repaid and the alternative uses to which I might put the money? After all, in the case of the timber deal, I could just go buy the timber myself and hire somebody to cut it.

If I buy stock in a corporation, and I lending money? Am I a usurer? If I buy a corporate bond, then am I? What if I just plain loan money to a corporation. What then?

Lots of questions.

The Church never taught error on usury.

The early documents were decretals, not teachings.

Decretals are matters of discipline, NOT teachings.

Church teachings are those concerning faith or morals, that are authorized by the Pope, that apply to ALL CHRISTIANS, when the Pope is teaching as Pope (as the head of the Church)

Decretals do NOT apply to all Christians. And they are matters of discipline, NOT teachings.
What the Popes believe are NOT Church teachings. All Popes and all Christians believe error. It is ONLY when the Pope intends to teach, for all Christians, matters of faith or morals that they are Church teachings and that is when the Popes are protected from teaching error.

I continually notice that when someone is trying to show the Church taught error, then suddenly everything the Popes have done or said is blindly accepted as infallible Church teaching. That way the errors the Popes made when they were not officially teaching can be lumped in with all their teachings and with the teachings of the Church in order to discredit the whole Church.

Then when someone doesn’t like what the Church teaches, such as on contraception, then suddenly the infallible teachings of the Popes are restricted to two dogmas.

And often by the same scholar.

Then the blind pick up these errors and post them here.


On the other hand, it seems awfully convenient to just say “Oh, that wasn’t REALLY an infallible teaching, just a reformable discipline” whenever something seems to have changed, no matter how repeatedly, emphatically, and/or authoritatively it had been taught in the past. This sort of thing gives hope to those who expect other teachings (male priesthood, no contraception, etc.) to also change in the future. For centuries, usury was just as roundly condemned as ABC is today.

Personally I do believe that usury (original definition-- i.e. taking interest) probably is objectively immoral. I also notice that the Church has never actually said that it was ok. I wouldn’t be surprised if the traditional anti-usury teaching was reemphasized again sometime in the future.

Don’t Muslim countries use some sort of alternative (non-interest-based) banking/investment system? Why can’t we? It just makes me a bit nervous that our entire economic system is built upon a practice that was condemned as immoral by the Church for 1700+ years.

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