What is usury?

I was wondering about this recently, and read a couple of blog posts (this is one but I can’t remember the other) which gave me a basic idea of what usury is and is not. I thought I would regurgitate what I learned in my own words.

The Church’s condemnation of usury meant the charging of interest on the loan of something where, in lending it, you were neither risking nor losing anything by letting someone else have the use of it.

Money during the Middle Ages and earlier was considered “fruitless”, meaning that, unlike a cow for example, or land, it didn’t produce anything. Unlike in today’s modern capitalistic societies, there were very few opportunities for investing money to earn more money. All you could do with money was either spend it or hoard it.

If you had more money than you needed in order to live, then your excess money would just sit somewhere and be unproductive. Therefore, if you loaned it to someone, as long as you were paid back, you weren’t losing anything, beause the money would have just sat there gathering dust anyway. And if you took security on the loan — say, holding onto someone’s goat until he paid you back — then you weren’t risking anything either. You had nothing to lose.

Charging interest in that scenario was considered usury.

It would be different if the thing you were lending were something productive, for example a cow. If you loaned someone a cow for a year, you would be losing out on the milk that it produced during that time.
So it would be fair to be compensated for the lost milk that the borrower would be gaining, and you would be losing. Plus, you would be risking something (assuming he didn’t give you anything of equal value as security), because he might mistreat or neglect the cow, causing it to get sick or die. In that case, charging money for the loan of the cow would not be usury.

In modern capitalistic countries, money is not fruitless as it used to be. This is because there are abundant opportunities for investment, where your money can make more money for you in various ways, even by simply being parked, for example, in a certificate of deposit or a mutual fund. So, if you lend your money to someone and he simply pays you back the same amount, you have lost whatever money you could have earned by investing it in some way.

In other words, the definition of usury has not changed. What has changed is that money has gone from being fruitless, i.e. having no potential to earn additional money, to being fruitful in that there are any number of ways in which your money can earn you more money over the course of time, without any work on your part. Money used to be like a piece of gold that you could hide under your mattress, which, no longer how long you left it there, would remain the same size and weight of gold and would buy more or less the same amount of goods. Whereas now it’s more like a cow used to be, in that it can “bear fruit”, or in other words multiply itself, just by being put in the right place.

Deliver me by Thy most sacred Body


O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God: Who by the will of the Father, with the co-operation of the Holy Ghost, hast by Thy death given life to the world, deliver me by this Thy most sacred Body and Blood from all my sins and from every evil. Make me always cling to Thy commands, and never permit me to be separated from Thee. Who with the same God the Father and the Holy Ghost livest and reignest, God, world without end. Amen.

Prayer for Fidelity, The New Roman Missal (Fr. Lasance), 1956.

Brilliant new blog

If any of my followers or readers are interested in linguistics, you might want to check out “The Classical Technopunk“, in which is offered brilliant and insightful (and no doubt, correct) criticism and analysis on linguistic issues. Which, by the way, is written by my son, who is a college freshman.

He intends to write on other topics as well. Linguistics is one of his main academic interests — though it’s not even his major — but he is also well versed in mathematics, music theory and computer science, as well as philosophy and theology.

The Church Triumphant, Suffering and Militant

Just came across this graphic and thought it was kinda neat:


‘The illustration shows the continuous communication in the three portions of the Church spiritually united in Jesus Christ. The members on earth send up prayers to the angels and saints for themselves and for the poor souls in purgatory. They in turn are helped by the intercession of the saints and angels, and by the graces obtained thereby. The poor souls pray for the members on earth.’

Nothing new under the sun

“‘[M]en who have been brought up with opinions altogether different, even with different instincts as to politics, who from their mother’s milk have been nourished on codes of thought altogether opposed to each other, cannot work together with confidence even though they may desire the same thing. The very ideas which are sweet as honey to the one are bitter as gall to the other.'”

Anthony Trollope, The Prime Minister (1875).

Some thoughts on creation ex nihilo versus creation ex materia

“I answer that, As said above (Question 44, Article 2), we must consider not only the emanation of a particular being from a particular agent, but also the emanation of all being from the universal cause, which is God; and this emanation we designate by the name of creation. Now what proceeds by particular emanation, is not presupposed to that emanation; as when a man is generated, he was not before, but man is made from ‘not-man,’ and white from ‘not-white.’ Hence if the emanation of the whole universal being from the first principle be considered, it is impossible that any being should be presupposed before this emanation. For nothing is the same as no being. Therefore as the generation of a man is from the ‘not-being’ which is ‘not-man,’ so creation, which is the emanation of all being, is from the ‘not-being’ which is ‘nothing.'”

ST I, Q. 45, A. 1

“[W]hat is created, is not made by movement, or by change. For what is made by movement or by change is made from something pre-existing. And this happens, indeed, in the particular productions of some beings, but cannot happen in the production of all being by the universal cause of all beings, which is God.”

ST I, Q. 45, A. 3

St. Thomas is arguing, basically, that if God is the source of all being, then he had to have created ex nihilo. If he created from preexisting matter, then matter is a being which does not have God as its source. This holds true whether you believe that our universe is all that exists, or that ours is but one universe of a multiverse. In other words, even if you believe God is only God of our universe, he nevertheless can’t be the source of all being within even our own universe, if he did not create our universe ex nihilo.

Some believe God didn’t create ex nihilo, but merely formed things out of preexisting matter. But we know that all material things are formed from natural processes, going all the way back to the Big Bang. Even the “heavy” elements of which we and the earth are made are known to have been formed from the lighter elements hydrogen, helium and lithium, through the life cycles of stars.

So if God merely formed everything that exists, it seems that can only mean that he took a bunch of matter, compressed it into the singularity that existed just prior to the Big Bang, and somehow designed and shaped it such that after it exploded, it would form into galaxies, stars and planets, on which life would evolve — presumably according to a plan of his.

In which case the only difference between us, is that we believe God is the source of all the matter/energy that was compressed into the singularity, whereas those who deny creation ex nihilo contend that God took preexisting stuff and formed it into the singularity.

It has been argued (e.g. here) that God’s not being infinite (eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent) goes a long way towards solving the problem of evil. If he is not the source of all that exists and doesn’t have absolute power over it at every moment, then he can’t be held responsible for the evil that occurs. He does the best he can within certain constraints, but can’t do anything and everything he might want to do.

But even if God is not the source of all being, i.e. if matter did not come from him but is eternally preexisting, nevertheless, if he could form matter/energy into the singularity and guide and direct it such that it formed galaxies, stars and planets, and life evolved, all from natural causes — to do all that, wouldn’t he have to be effectively infinite? Wouldn’t he have to know pretty much everything about the universe, and have power over pretty much everything in it, in order to accomplish such a feat?

Whereas if he did not form matter into the singularity such that all things would develop and evolve as they have, and knowing and intending that they would do so, then it’s hard to know in what sense he may be called the Creator.

Is God’s infinitude unscriptural?

Some argue that God as described in the Bible is not like the Catholic idea: Infinite, omnipotent, the source of all being. (For simplicity of reference, I will refer to “infinite, omnipotent, the source of all being” all under the term “infinite”.) The Bible, they say, paints a different picture of God, not as an invisible, immaterial source-of-all-being, but as one to whom a man may speak face-to-face, and who works with what he finds in the cosmos (defined as “all that exists”) rather than creating everything from nothing.

I won’t identify to whom I’m referring that denies God’s infinitude, because I don’t want to get sidetracked on questions of whether a particular person said or meant what I think they did. I only want to discuss the ideas.

Quantity versus quality

Another way of putting it, is they claim that the difference between us and God is quantitative, not qualitative. If God is infinite and we’re finite, then there is a qualitative difference between us, not merely quantitative. This is because there can be no proportion between the finite and the infinite. If we are finite and God is infinite, then he is not 100 times greater than we, or 1,000 times, or a million times — resulting in a 100:1 proportion, or 1,000:1, or a 1,000,000:1 proportion, all of which might be huge but are nevertheless finite proportions. Rather, he is infinitely greater. Therefore there can’t be merely a quantitative difference between us, because you can’t quantify the infinite.

But they deny that God is infinite, and therefore maintain the idea of a quantitative difference only. God is what we are, only he’s much, much (though to a finite extent) stronger, smarter and more knowledgeable, and is also immune from sickness and death.

Those Greek eggheads

A problem that some express with the idea of God’s being infinite (as above defined) is that it comes not from the Bible but from Greek philosophy.

Rather than taking the Bible at face value, they argue, the early Church allowed itself to be influenced by Greek intellectual culture, and reinterpreted the scriptures and the Gospel in Greek philosophical terms, for the sake, I suppose, of making it more acceptable to that culture. And why make it acceptable? Perhaps out of pride? Or giving them the benefit of the doubt, maybe for the purpose of spreading the Gospel more easily — even at the cost of corrupting it? Continue reading