On Usery

Our Catholic Study Group encountered this passage in the Roman Catechism last week:

“To this class also belong usurers, the most cruel and relentless of extortioners, who by their exorbitant rates of interest, plunder and destroy the poor. Whatever is received above the capital and principal, be it money, or anything else that may be purchased or estimated by money, is usury; for it is written in Ezechiel: He hath not lent upon usury, nor taken an increase (Ezech. 18: 8; 22: 12); and in Luke Our Lord says: Lend, hoping for nothing thereby. (Luke 6: 33). Even among the pagans usury was always considered a most grievous and odious crime. Hence the question, “What is usury?”was answered: “What is murder?” And, indeed, he who lends at usury sells the same thing twice, or sells that which has no real existence. “ (McHugh, O.P. and Callan, O.P. 478)

The Roman Catechism, on the Seventh Commandment

This question immediately arose, “Does the Church still forbid usery since the entire global economic system seems to be based upon charging interest for extended credit (loans)?”

The only reference to usery that I could find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is here:

“…Those whose usurious (emphasis added) 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 (Catechism of the Catholic Church: Complete and Updated 605)

As you can see our present Catechism is not very helpful to us on this particular issue.

What is usery?

As many of us are wont to do lately, we can turn to Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s “Credo” for a little help:

Usery is “Theft by exacting interest on a loan without legitimate title, or in excess of just proportion.” (Schneider 197)  Not all loans at interest are usurious, as Bishop Schneider explains, “Interest may be justifiable in proportion to the resulting loss and risk undertaken.” (Schneider 197) 

And also to a wonderful summary of St. Thomas’s Summa Theologica:

“To St. Thomas – and rightly, in view of the place and function of money in his times – any interest at all is usery and is unjust and forbidden” (Glenn 236) 

What Changed?

“In some market situations—apparently the ones prevalent in the thirteenth century—the likelihood of growing money through investment was seen as greatly uncertain. But in contemporary market situations, investment growth is virtually assured. As secure ways of investing money developed, the lender did lose profit on money unless interest was charged.” (Kaczor)

What then, is “legitimate title” to exact interest?

Since the modern economic system virtually assures investment growth of some type, then absent some sort of interest fee, lending money will always be a losing proposition for the lender.  Fr. Dominic M. Prummer, O.P. presents five reasons, gleaned from the Magisterium, which could make the charging of interest lawful (Prummer, O.P. 156-157):

  1. When the lender is reasonably fearful of not recovering the loan.
  2. As a penalty for late payment.
  3. To compensate for the loss of immediate gain the lender would have received if he put his money to another use.
  4. To cover the loss resulting from contracting the loan, e.g. fees incurred.
  5. If the law provides such an entitlement to encourage trade, provided the interest charged is not excessive.

So the teaching remains, but the societal economic system has changed such that the teaching truly results in justice for the lender and the borrower. A thoughtful consideration of these points, however, can allow us to easily determine the usurious, predatory practices still extant in our society.

Works Cited

Catechism of the Catholic Church: Complete and Updated. Crown Publishing Group, 1995.

Glenn, Paul J. A Tour of the Summa. Tan Books, 1992.

Kaczor, Christopher. “Did the Church Change Its Stance on Usury?” Catholic Answers, 1 July 2006, https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/did-the-church-change-its-stance-on-usury. Accessed 22 June 2024.

Maino, Thomas. “What Benedict XVI, Francis and Other Popes and Councils Say About Usury.” National Catholic Register, 31 October 2022, https://www.ncregister.com/blog/what-the-church-says-about-usury. Accessed 22 June 2024.

McHugh, O.P., John A., and Charles J. Callan, O.P., translators. Catechism of the Council of Trent. Charlotte, North Carolina, TAN Books, 2009.

Prummer, O.P., Dominic M. Handbook of Moral Theology. Edited by Rev. John Gavin Nolan, S.T.D., translated by Rev. Gerald W. Shelton, S.T.L., New York, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1957.

Schneider, Athanasius. Credo: Compendium of the Catholic Faith. Manchester, NH, Sophia Institute Press, 2023.