A common, recurring theme I have heard from the extreme right in the current sexuality debates has been one that claims that "Holy Tradition" holds that issues of sexuality are settled. Since tradition can only be changed by an ecumenical council, which cannot be called due to the fracturing of the one, holy catholic church, no innovation can be made. Of course, this patently ignores the history of how decisions have been made in the church - a primary example being usury. The argument I make here is not that since the church has changed its mind without theological justification on usury that it MUST do so in regards to sexuality. I simply argue that to claim that the church cannot debate this issue with some prospect for change due to some idea of the immovability of tradition is a argument based in a misreading of church history. I believe we are facing a decision of what to "bind" and what to "loose" (Matt 18:18) and that what we need is debate, not a shouting match.
Usury is the lending of money at interest. In modern times, we take this to mean at EXCESSIVE interest, but for most of the history of the church, it was read as lending at ANY interest.
The primary scriptural basis for the universal patristic denunciation of lending money at interest comes from four sources,
- “Ex. 22:25 ¶ If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.”
- “Deut. 23:19 ¶ You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent.”
- “Psa. 15:1, 5 O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? … (those) who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.”
- “Luke 6:34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.”
Other verses cited include Leviticus 25:36-37, Jeremiah 5:7, Jeremiah 5:10, Proverbs 28:8, Isaiah 24:2, Jeremiah 15:10, Ezekiel 18:8, Ezekiel 18:13, Ezekiel 18:17, Ezekiel 22:12 and Matt 6:19-21.
A good summary of Holy Tradition on the subject is Volume IX of the Nicene and Post-Nicene fathers, Series II. In the article, “Excursus on Usury”, the editors quote the Canonist Van Epsen that Usury is contrary to both divine and natural law and then continues, “There can be no doubt that Van Espen in the foregoing has accurately represented and without any exaggeration the universal opinion of all teachers of morals, theologians, doctors, Popes, and Councils of the Christian Church for the first fifteen hundred years. All interest exacted upon loans of money was looked upon as usury, and its reception was esteemed a form of theft and dishonesty. Those who wish to read the history of the matter in all its details are referred to Bossuet's work on the subject, Traite de l'Usure, where they will find the old, traditional view of the Christian religion defended by one thoroughly acquainted with all that could be said on the other side.
The new moral code on the subject, by which that which before was looked upon as mortal sin has been transfigured into innocence, if not virtue, belongs to John Calvin! He made the modern distinction between "interest" and "usury," and was the first to write in defense of this then new-fangled refinement of casuistry. “
“Although the conditions of the mercantile community in the East and the West differed materially in some respects, the fathers of the two churches are equally explicit and systematic in their condemnation of the practice of usury. Among those belonging to the Greek church we find Athanasius (Expos. in Ps. xiv); Basil the Great (Hom. in Ps. xiv). Gregory of Nazianzum (Orat. xiv. in Patrem tacentem). Gregory of Nyssa (Orat. cont. Usurarios); Cyril of Jerusalem (Catech. iv. c. 37), Epiphanius (adv. Haeres. Epilog. c. 24), Chrysostom (Hom. xli. in Genes), and Theodoret (Interpr. in Ps. xiv. 5, and liv. 11). Among those belonging to the Latin church, Hilary of Poitiers (in Ps. xiv); Ambrose (de Tobia liber unus). Jerome (in Ezech. vi. 18); Augustine (de Baptismo contr. Donatistas, iv. 19); Leo the Great (Epist. iii. 4), and Cassiodorus (in Ps. xiv. 10).”
St. Jerome was especially critical, and applied the injunction against lending at interest to all people, Christian or otherwise, due to the fact that under the salvific will of God, all were now brothers. (Commentarium in Ezechiel VI:18)
It is hard to find a better pedigree for a tenet of moral theology than this, as it encompasses many of the greats from BOTH east and west. Usury was denounced in the councils of Arles (314), Nicea (325), Carthage (348) and the first council of Aix (789).
Usury was considered a Mortal Sin in the western Church which could not be removed by penance. In Dante's Inferno, usurers were in one of the lowest levels of hell. Far from being a Medieval innovation, it was a patristic belief that was beginning to erode in late Medieval times – not due to any theological reason, but because it was inconvenient and unprofitable to have to borrow all money from the Jewish community which was not bound by the same interpretation. Even Luther and the 16th Century Anglican divines still condemned Usury. John Calvin was the innovator here.
Calvin reasoned that the ancient ban on usury was an accommodation to the needs of a primitive society, and since there was no similarity between that society and Geneva of his time, interest could be charged. He made a break with Holy tradition simply on the basis of cultural accommodation and without conciliar action at all.
The Roman Catholic Church was not far behind, using a complex series of casuistic arguments to come to the same conclusion. It was a convoluted enough argument that Blaise Pascal called casuistry, “magic words … which have occult virtue to dispel usury.” (The Provincial Letters, Letter VIII) Once again, this took place after the Great Schism. No ecumenical council, defined by the Anglican term, ever took place to ratify this.
Anglicans at first resisted both the reason approach of Calvin and the tradition approach of Rome, but eventually succumbed simply because England needed more financial power. Some historians believe that the loosening of the bonds of usury had more to do with the slackening of clerical power than any sort of theological reasoning. Those countries that had less clerical power made the switch sooner.
Therefore, I see two alternatives, depending on your view of Holy Tradition:
1. If you accept that Holy Tradition cannot be modified except by a general council of the church that includes all bishops in Historic Succession, then you have a quandary. Lending at interest has been condemned by several ecumenical councils of the church catholic and that ruling has never been rescinded. Approval of lending at interest was a local innovation that made its way into catholic tradition but has never been properly ratified as many suggest innovations must be. Since our banking system is different than it was in the Middle Ages, it is impossible to be sure that the money you place in an institution is not being lent to another Christian at interest. (Jerome would go further and say that money should NEVER be lent at interest to anyone.) Knowledge that it might be is enough to confer guilt if it is. Therefore, it would behoove Christians to withhold all of their monies from any banking or investment firm unless that firm first certifies in writing that they will not loan money to Christians at interest. To do otherwise would be “revisionist,” because it takes pretty clear scriptural and patristic opinion and changes it to suit modern cultural desires without first receiving the necessary stamp of approval of an ecumenical council.
2. If you accept that Holy Tradition is a more organic process – that “innovations” start out at the local level and are eventually passed to the church catholic when accepted by the sensus fidelium (The sense of the faithful), then there is no problem with lending at interest. Although no ecumenical council has approved this major change in Moral Theology, the sense of the people and leadership of the church catholic has clearly accepted that interest is a necessary part of a modern economy and has moved from strict prohibition to simply trying to make it more equitable.
Although it is quite apparent from a cursory reading of Church History that most things decided by ecumenical councils came from a local practice first, including the canon of scripture, it is also apparent that these innovations took years if not centuries to evaluate. Calvin was roundly derided in his day for his opinion on interest, yet we all follow his dictum today.
Acceptance of proposition one causes trouble with all sorts of modern institutions such as democracy, banking, medicine, technology, women’s rights and other areas, as we do not have the ability to call an ecumenical council and adapt clear patristic teaching to modernity.
Acceptance of proposition two, which we all seem to accept at least on this one issue, indicates that the debates we are having about sexuality are important As I stated before, it does not make a case for either accepting or rejecting the particular proposed innovations we are talking about, but it does make a case that such innovations CAN be made and lived with. On the other hand, we could always dismantle our entire economic system in order to be in full agreement with Holy Tradition.
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