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Andrew White Chapter19

The Warfare of Science With Theology

Chapter XIX

From Leviticus To Political Economy

by Andrew Dickson White


  • Universal belief in the sin of loaning money at interest
  • The taking of interest among the Greeks and Romans
  • Opposition of leaders of thought, especially Aristotle
  • Condemnation of the practice by the Old and New Testaments
  • By the Church fathers
  • In ecclesiastical and secular legislation
  • Exception sometimes made in behalf of the Jews
  • Hostility of the pulpit
  • Of the canon law
  • Evil results of the prohibition of loans at interest
  • Efforts to induce the Church to change her position
  • Theological evasions of the rule
  • Attitude of the Reformers toward the taking of interest
  • Struggle in England for recognition of the right to accept interest Invention of a distinction between usury and interest



  • Sir Robert Filmer’s attack on the old doctrine
  • Retreat of the Protestant Church in Holland
  • In Germany and America
  • Difficulties in the way of compromise in the Catholic Church
  • Failure of such attempts in France
  • Theoretical condemnation of usury in Italy
  • Disregard of all restrictions in practice
  • Attempts of Escobar and Liguori to reconcile the taking of interest with the teachings of the Church
  • Montesquieu’s attack on the old theory
  • Encyclical of Benedict XIV permitting the taking of interest
  • Similar decision of the Inquisition at Rome
  • Final retreat of the Catholic Church
  • Curious dealings of theology with public economy in other fields


AMONG questions on which the supporters of right reason in political and social science have only conquered theological opposition after centuries of war, is the taking of interest on loans. In hardly any struggle has rigid adherence to the letter of our sacred books been more prolonged and injurious.

Certainly, if the criterion of truth, as regards any doctrine, be that of St. Vincent of Lerins–that it has been held in the Church “always, everywhere, and by all”–then on no point may a Christian of these days be more sure than that every savings institution, every loan and trust company, every bank, every loan of capital by an individual, every means by which accumulated capital has been lawfully lent even at the most moderate interest, to make men workers rather than paupers, is based on deadly sin.

The early evolution of the belief that taking interest for money is sinful presents a curious working together of metaphysical, theological, and humanitarian ideas.

In the main centre of ancient Greek civilization, the loaning of money at interest came to be accepted at an early period as a condition of productive industry, and no legal restriction was imposed. In Rome there was a long process of development: the greed of creditors in early times led to laws against the taking of interest; but, though these lasted long, that strong practical sense which gave Rome the empire of the world substituted finally, for this absolute prohibition, the establishment of rates by law. Yet many of the leading Greek and Roman thinkers opposed this practical settlement of the question, and, foremost of all, Aristotle. In a metaphysical way he declared that money is by nature “barren”; that the birth of money from money is therefore “unnatural”; and hence that the taking of interest is to be censured and hated. Plato, Plutarch, both the Catos, Cicero, Seneca, and various other leaders of ancient thought, arrived at much the same conclusion–sometimes from sympathy with oppressed debtors; sometimes from dislike of usurers; sometimes from simple contempt of trade.

From these sources there came into the early Church the germ of a theological theory upon the subject.

But far greater was the stream of influence from the Jewish and Christian sacred books. In the Old Testament stood various texts condemning usury–the term usury meaning any taking of interest: the law of Moses, while it allowed usury in dealing with strangers, forbade it in dealing with Jews. In the New Testament, in the Sermon on the Mount, as given by St. Luke, stood the text “Lend, hoping for nothing again.” These texts seemed to harmonize with the most beautiful characteristic of primnitive Christianity; its tender care for the poor and oppressed: hence we find, from the earliest period, the whole weight of the Church brought to bear against the taking of interest for money.[265]]

The great fathers of the Eastern Church, and among them St. Basil, St. Chrysostom, and St. Gregory of Nyssa,–the fathers of the Western Church, and among them Tertullian, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome, joined most earnestly in this condemnation. St. Basil denounces money at interest as a “fecund monster,” and says, “The divine law declares expressly, `Thou shalt not lend on usury to thy brother or thy neighbour.'” St. Gregory of Nyssa calls down on him who lends money at interest the vengeance of the Almighty. St. Chrysostom says: “What can be more unreasonable than to sow without land, without rain, without ploughs? All those who give themselves up to this damnable culture shall reap only tares. Let us cut off these monstrous births of gold and silver; let us stop this execrable fecundity.” Lactantius called the taking of interest “robbery.” St. Ambrose declared it as bad as murder, St. Jerome threw the argument into the form of a dilemma, which was used as a weapon against money-lenders for centuries. Pope Leo the Great solemnly adjudged it a sin worthy of severe punishment.[266]

This unanimity of the fathers of the Church brought about a crystallization of hostility to interest-bearing loans into numberless decrees of popes and councils and kings and legislatures throughout Christendom during more than fifteen hundred years, and the canon law was shaped in accordance with these. At first these were more especially directed against the clergy, but we soon find them extending to the laity. These prohibitions were enforced by the Council of Arles in 314, and a modern Church apologist insists that every great assembly of the Church, from the Council of Elvira in 306 to that of Vienne in 1311, inclusive, solemnly condemned lending money at interest. The greatest rulers under the sway of the Church–Justinian, in the Empire of the East; Charlemagne, in the Empire of the West; Alfred, in England; St. Louis, in France–yielded fully to this dogma. In the ninth century Alfred went so far as to confiscate the estates of money-lenders, denying them burial in Consecrated ground; and similar decrees were made in other parts of Europe. In the twelfth century the Greek Church seems to have relaxed its strictness somewhat, but the Roman Church grew more severe. St. Anselm proved from the Scriptures that the taking of interest is a breach of the Ten Commandments. Peter Lombard, in his _Sentences_, made the taking of interest purely and simply theft. St. Bernard, reviving religious earnestness in the Church, took the same view. In 1179 the Third Council of the Lateran decreed that impenitent money-lenders should be excluded from the altar, from absolution in the hour of death, and from Christian burial. Pope Urban III reiterated the declaration that the passage in St. Luke forbade the taking of any interest whatever. Pope Alexander III declared that the prohibition in this matter could never be suspended by dispensation.

In the thirteenth century Pope Gregory IX dealt an especially severe blow at commerce by his declaration that even to advance on interest the money necessary in maritime trade was damnable usury; and this was fitly followed by Gregory X, who forbade Christian burial to those guilty of this practice; the Council of Lyons meted out the same penalty. This idea was still more firmly fastened upon the world by the two greatest thinkers of the time: first, by St. Thomas Aquinas, who knit it into the mind of the Church by the use of the Scriptures and of Aristotle; and next by Dante, who pictured money-lenders in one of the worst regions of hell.

About the beginning of the fourteenth century the “Subtile Doctor” of the Middle Ages, Duns Scotus, gave to the world an exquisite piece of reasoning in evasion of the accepted doctrine; but all to no purpose: the Council of Vienne, presided over by Pope Clement V, declared that if any one “shall pertinaciously presume to affirm that the taking of interest for money is not a sin, we decree him to be a heretic, fit for punishment.” This infallible utterance bound the dogma with additional force on the conscience of the universal Church.

Nor was this a doctrine enforced by rulers only; the people were no less strenuous. In 1390 the city authorities of London enacted that, “if any person shall lend or put into the hands of any person gold or silver to receive gain thereby, such person shall have the punishment for usurers.” And in the same year the Commons prayed the king that the laws of London against usury might have the force of statutes throughout the realm.

In the fifteenth century the Council of the Church at Salzburg excluded from communion and burial any who took interest for money, and this was a very general rule throughout Germany.

An exception was, indeed, sometimes made: some canonists held that Jews might be allowed to take interest, since they were to be damned in any case, and their monopoly of money-lending might prevent Christians from losing their souls by going into the business. Yet even the Jews were from time to time punished for the crime of usury; and, as regards Christians, punishment was bestowed on the dead as well as the living–the bodies of dead money-lenders being here and there dug up and cast out of consecrated ground.

The popular preachers constantly declaimed against all who took interest. The medieval anecdote books for pulpit use are especially full on this point. Jacques de Vitry tells us that demons on one occasion filled a dead money-lender’s mouth with red-hot coins; Cesarius of Heisterbach declared that a toad was found thrusting a piece of money into a dead usurer’s heart; in another case, a devil was seen pouring molten gold down a dead money-lender’s throat.[268]

This theological hostility to the taking of interest was imbedded firmly in the canon law. Again and again it defined usury to be the taking of anything of value beyond the exact original amount of a loan; and under sanction of the universal Church it denounced this as a crime and declared all persons defending it to be guilty of heresy. What this meant the world knows but too well.

The whole evolution of European civilization was greatly hindered by this conscientious policy. Money could only be loaned in most countries at the risk of incurring odium in this world and damnation in the next; hence there was but little capital and few lenders. The rates of interest became at times enormous; as high as forty per cent in England, and ten per cent a month in Italy and Spain. Commerce, manufactures, and general enterprise were dwarfed, while pauperism flourished.

Yet worse than these were the moral results. Doing what one holds to be evil is only second in bad consequences to doing what is really evil; hence, all lending and borrowing, even for the most legitimate purposes and at the most reasonable rates, tended to debase both borrower and lender. The prohibition of lending at interest in continental Europe promoted luxury and discouraged economy; the rich, who were not engaged in business, finding no easy way of employing their incomes productively, spent them largely in ostentation and riotous living.

One evil effect is felt in all parts of the world to this hour. The Jews, so acute in intellect and strong in will, were virtually drawn or driven out of all other industries or professions by the theory that their race, being accursed, was only fitted for the abhorred profession of money-lending.[270]

These evils were so manifest, when trade began to revive throughout Europe in the fifteenth century, that most earnest exertions were put forth to induce the Church to change its position.

The first important effort of this kind was made by John Gerson. His general learning made him Chancellor of the University of Paris; his sacred learning made him the leading orator at the Council of Constance; his piety led men to attribute to him _The Imitation of Christ_. Shaking off theological shackles, he declared, “Better is it to lend money at reasonable interest, and thus to give aid to the poor, than to see them reduced by poverty to steal, waste their goods, and sell at a low price their personal and real property.”

But this idea was at once buried beneath citations from the Scriptures, the fathers, councils, popes, and the canon law. Even in the most active countries there seemed to be no hope. In England, under Henry VII, Cardinal Morton, the lord chancellor, addressed Parliament, asking it to take into consideration loans of money at interest. The result was a law which imposed on lenders at interest a fine of a hundred pounds besides the annulment of the loan; and, to show that there was an offence against religion involved, there was added a clause “reserving to the Church, notwithstanding this punishment, the correction of their souls according to the laws of the same.”

Similar enactments were made by civil authority in various parts of Europe; and just when the trade, commerce, and manufactures of the modern epoch had received an immense impulse from the great series of voyages of discovery by such men as Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan, and the Cabots, this barrier against enterprise was strengthened by a decree from no less enlightened a pontiff than Leo X.

The popular feeling warranted such decrees. As late as the end of the Middle Ages we find the people of Piacenza dragging the body of a money-lender out of his grave in consecrated ground and throwing it into the river Po, in order to stop a prolonged rainstorm; and outbreaks of the same spirit were frequent in other countries.[271]

Another mode of obtaining relief was tried. Subtle theologians devised evasions of various sorts. Two among these inventions of the schoolmen obtained much notoriety.

The first was the doctrine of ” _damnum emergens_”: if a lender suffered loss by the failure of the borrower to return a loan at a date named, compensation might be made. Thus it was that, if the nominal date of payment was made to follow quickly after the real date of the loan, the compensation for the anticipated delay in payment had a very strong resemblance to interest. Equally cogent was the doctrine of “_lucrum cessans_”: if a man, in order to lend money, was obliged to diminish his income from productive enterprises, it was claimed that he might receive in return, in addition to his money, an amount exactly equal to this diminution in his income.

But such evasions were looked upon with little favour by the great body of theologians, and the name of St. Thomas Aquinas was triumphantly cited against them.

Opposition on scriptural grounds to the taking of interest was not confined to the older Church. Protestantism was led by Luther and several of his associates into the same line of thought and practice. Said Luther. “To exchange anything with any one and gain by the exchange is not to do a charity; but to steal. Every usurer is a thief worthy of the gibbet. I call those usurers who lend money at five or six per cent.” But it is only just to say that at a later period Luther took a much more moderate view. Melanchthon, defining usury as any interest whatever, condemned it again and again; and the Goldberg _Catechism_ of 1558, for which he wrote a preface and recommendation, declares every person taking interest for money a thief. From generation to generation this doctrine was upheld by the more eminent divines of the Lutheran Church in all parts of Germany.

The English reformers showed the same hostility to interest-bearing loans. Under Henry VIII the law of Henry VII against taking interest had been modified for the better; but the revival of religious feeling under Edward VI caused in 1552 the passage of the “Bill of Usury.” In this it is said, “Forasmuch as usury is by the word of God utterly prohibited, as a vice most odious and detestable, as in divers places of the Holy Scriptures it is evident to be seen, which thing by no godly teachings and persuasions can sink into the hearts of divers greedy, uncharitable, and covetous persons of this realm, nor yet, by any terrible threatenings of God’s wrath and vengeance,” etc., it is enacted that whosoever shall thereafter lend money “for any manner of usury, increase, lucre, gain, or interest, to be had, received, or hoped for,” shall forfeit principal and interest, and suffer imprisonment and fine at the king’s pleasure.[273]

But, most fortunately, it happened that Calvin, though at times stumbling over the usual texts against the taking of interest for money, turned finally in the right direction. He cut through the metaphysical arguments of Aristotle, and characterized the subtleties devised to evade the Scriptures as “a childish game with God.” In place of these subtleties there was developed among Protestants a serviceable fiction–the statement that usury means _illegal or oppressive interest_. Under the action of this fiction, commerce and trade revived rapidly in Protestant countries, though with occasional checks from exact interpreters of Scripture. At the same period in France, the great Protestant jurist Dumoulin brought all his legal learning and skill in casuistry to bear on the same side. A certain ferretlike acuteness and litheness seem to have enabled him to hunt down the opponents of interest-taking through the most tortuous arguments of scholasticism.

In England the struggle went on with varying fortune; statesmen on one side, and theologians on the other. We have seen how, under Henry VIII, interest was allowed at a fixed rate, and how, the development of English Protestantism having at first strengthened the old theological view, there was, under Edward VI, a temporarily successful attempt to forbid the taking of interest by law.

The Puritans, dwelling on Old Testament texts, continued for a considerable time especially hostile to the taking of any interest. Henry Smith, a noted preacher, thundered from the pulpit of St. Clement Danes in London against “the evasions of Scripture” which permitted men to lend money on interest at all. In answer to the contention that only “biting” usury was oppressive, Wilson, a noted upholder of the strict theological view in political economy, declared: “There is difference in deed between the bite of a dogge and the bite of a flea, and yet, though the flea doth lesse harm, yet the flea doth bite after hir kinde, yea, and draweth blood, too. But what a world this is, that men will make sin to be but a fleabite, when they see God’s word directly against them!”

The same view found strong upholders among contemporary English Catholics. One of the most eminent of these, Nicholas Sanders, revived very vigorously the use of an old scholastic argument. He insisted that “man can not sell time,” that time is not a human possession, but something which is given by God alone: he declared, “Time was not of your gift to your neighbour, but of God’s gift to you both.”

In the Parliament of the period, we find strong assertions of the old idea, with constant reference to Scripture and the fathers. In one debate, Wilson cited from Ezekiel and other prophets and attributed to St. Augustine the doctrine that “to take but a cup of wine is usury and damnable.” Fleetwood recalled the law of King Edward the Confessor, which submitted usurers to the ordeal.

But arguments of this sort had little influence upon Elizabeth and her statesmen. Threats of damnation in the next world troubled them little if they could have their way in this. They re-established the practice of taking interest under restrictions, and this, in various forms, has remained in England ever since. Most notable in this phase of the evolution of scientific doctrine in political economy at that period is the emergence of a recognised difference between _usury_ and _interest_. Between these two words, which had so long been synonymous, a distinction now appears: the former being construed to indicate _oppressive interest_, and the latter _just rates_ for the use of money. This idea gradually sank into the popular mind of Protestant countries, and the scriptural texts no longer presented any difficulty to the people at large, since there grew up a general belief that the word “usury,” as employed in Scripture, had _always_ meant exorbitant interest; and this in spite of the parable of the Talents. Still, that the old Aristotelian quibble had not been entirely forgotten, is clearly seen by various passages in Shakespeare’s _Merchant of Venice_. But this line of reasoning seems to have received its quietus from Lord Bacon. He did not, indeed, develop a strong and connected argument on the subject; but he burst the bonds of Aristotle, and based interest for money upon natural laws. How powerful the new current of thought was, is seen from the fact that James I, of all monarchs the most fettered by scholasticism and theology, sanctioned a statute dealing with interest for money as absolutely necessary. Yet, even after this, the old idea asserted itself; for the bishops utterly refused to agree to the law allowing interest until a proviso was inserted that “nothing in this law contained shall be construed or expounded to allow the practice of usury in point of religion or conscience.” The old view cropped out from time to time in various public declarations. Famous among these were the _Treatise of Usury_, published in 1612 by Dr. Fenton, who restated the old arguments with much force, and the _Usury Condemned_ of John Blaxton, published in 1634. Blaxton, who also was a clergyman, defined usury as the taking of any interest whatever for money, citing in support of this view six archbishops and bishops and over thirty doctors of divinity in the Anglican Church, some of their utterances being very violent and all of them running their roots down into texts of Scripture. Typical among these is a sermon of Bishop Sands, in which he declares, regarding the taking of interest: “This canker hath corrupted all England; we shall doe God and our country true service by taking away this evill; represse it by law, else the heavy hand of God hangeth over us and will strike us.”


But about the middle of the seventeenth century Sir Robert Filmer gave this doctrine the heaviest blow it ever received in England. Taking up Dr. Fenton’s treatise, he answered it, and all works like it, in a way which, however unsuitable to this century, was admirably adapted to that. He cites Scripture and chops logic after a masterly manner. Characteristic is this declaration: “St. Paul doth, with one breath, reckon up seventeen sins, and yet usury is none of them; but many preachers can not reckon up seven deadly sins, except they make usury one of them.” Filmer followed Fenton not only through his theology, but through his political economy, with such relentless keenness that the old doctrine seems to have been then and there practically worried out of existence, so far as England was concerned.

Departures from the strict scriptural doctrines regarding interest soon became frequent in Protestant countries, and they were followed up with especial vigour in Holland. Various theologians in the Dutch Church attempted to assert the scriptural view by excluding bankers from the holy communion; but the commercial vigour of the republic was too strong: Salmasius led on the forces of right reason brilliantly, and by the middle of the seventeenth century the question was settled rightly in that country. This work was aided, indeed, by a far greater man, Hugo Grotius; but here was shown the power of an established dogma. Great as Grotius was–and it may well be held that his book on _War and Peace_ has wrought more benefit to humanity than any other attributed to human authorship–he was, in the matter of interest for money, too much entangled in theological reasoning to do justice to his cause or to himself. He declared the prohibition of it to be scriptural, but resisted the doctrine of Aristotle, and allowed interest on certain natural and practical grounds.

In Germany the struggle lasted longer. Of some little significance, perhaps, is the demand of Adam Contzen, in 1629, that lenders at interest should be punished as thieves; but by the end of the seventeenth century Puffendorf and Leibnitz had gained the victory.

Protestantism, open as it was to the currents of modern thought, could not long continue under the dominion of ideas unfavourable to economic development, and perhaps the most remarkable proof of this was presented early in the eighteenth century in America, by no less strict a theologian than Cotton Mather. In his _Magnalia_ he argues against the whole theological view with a boldness, acuteness, and good sense which cause us to wonder that this can be the same man who was so infatuated regarding witchcraft. After an argument so conclusive as his, there could have been little left of the old anti-economic doctrine in New England.[277]

But while the retreat of the Protestant Church from the old doctrine regarding the taking of interest was henceforth easy, in the Catholic Church it was far more difficult. Infallible popes and councils, with saints, fathers, and doctors, had so constantly declared the taking of any interest at all to be contrary to Scripture, that the more exact though less fortunate interpretation of the sacred text relating to interest continued in Catholic countries. When it was attempted in France in the seventeenth century to argue that usury “means oppressive interest,” the Theological Faculty of the Sorbonne declared that usury is the taking of any interest at all, no matter how little; and the eighteenth chapter of Ezekiel was cited to clinch this argument.

Another attempt to ease the burden of industry and commerce was made by declaring that “usury means interest demanded not as a matter of favour but as a matter of right.” This, too, was solemnly condemned by Pope innocent XI.

Again an attempt was made to find a way out of the difficulty by declaring that “usury is interest greater than the law allows.” This, too, was condemned, and so also was the declaration that “usury is interest on loans not for a fixed time.”

Still the forces of right reason pressed on, and among them, in the seventeenth century, in France, was Richard Simon. He attempted to gloss over the declarations of Scripture against lending at interest, in an elaborate treatise, but was immediately confronted by Bossuet. Just as Bossuet had mingled Scripture with astronomy and opposed the Copernican theory, so now he mingled Scripture with political economy and denounced the lending of money at interest. He called attention to the fact that the Scriptures, the councils of the Church from the beginning, the popes, the fathers, had all interpreted the prohibition of “usury” to be a prohibition of any lending at interest; and he demonstrated this interpretation to be the true one. Simon was put to confusion and his book condemned.

There was but too much reason for Bossuet’s interpretation. There stood the fact that the prohibition of one of the most simple and beneficial principles in political and economical science was affirmed, not only by the fathers, but by twenty-eight councils of the Church, six of them general councils, and by seventeen popes, to say nothing of innumerable doctors in theology and canon law. And these prohibitions by the Church had been accepted as of divine origin by all obedient sons of the Church in the government of France. Such rulers as Charles the Bald in the ninth century, and St. Louis in the thirteenth, had riveted this idea into the civil law so firmly that it seemed impossible ever to detach it.[279]

As might well be expected, Italy was one of the countries in which the theological theory regarding usury–lending at interest–was most generally asserted and assented to. Among the great number of Italian canonists who supported the theory, two deserve especial mention, as affording a contrast to the practical manner in which the commercial Italians met the question.

In the sixteenth century, very famous among canonists was the learned Benedictine, Vilagut. In 1589 he published at Venice his great work on usury, supporting with much learning and vigour the most extreme theological consequences of the old doctrine. He defines usury as the taking of anything beyond the original loan, and declares it mortal sin; he advocates the denial to usurers of Christian burial, confession, the sacraments, absolution, and connection with the universities; he declares that priests receiving offerings from usurers should refrain from exercising their ministry until the matter is passed upon by the bishop.

About the middle of the seventeenth century another ponderous folio was published in Venice upon the same subject and with the same title, by Onorato Leotardi. So far from showing any signs of yielding, he is even more extreme than Vilagut had been, and quotes with approval the old declaration that lenders of money at interest are not only robbers but murderers.

So far as we can learn, no real opposition was made in either century to this theory, as a theory; as to _practice_, it was different. The Italian traders did not answer theological argument; they simply overrode it. In spite of theology, great banks were established, and especially that of Venice at the end of the twelfth century, and those of Barcelona and Genoa at the beginning of the fifteenth. Nowhere was commerce carried on in more complete defiance of this and other theological theories hampering trade than in the very city where these great treatises were published. The sin of usury, like the sin of commerce with the Mohammedans, seems to have been settled for by the Venetian merchants on their deathbeds; and greatly to the advantage of the magnificent churches and ecclesiastical adornments of the city.

By the seventeenth century the clearest thinkers in the Roman Church saw that her theology must be readjusted to political economy: so began a series of amazing attempts to reconcile a view permitting usury with the long series of decrees of popes and councils forbidding it.

In Spain, the great Jesuit casuist Escobar led the way, and rarely had been seen such exquisite hair-splitting. But his efforts were not received with the gratitude they perhaps deserved. Pascal, revolting at their moral effect, attacked them unsparingly in his _Provincial Letters_, citing especially such passages as the following: “It is usury to receive profit from those to whom one lends, if it be exacted as justly due; but, if it be exacted as a debt of gratitude, it is not usury.” This and a multitude of similar passages Pascal covered with the keen ridicule and indignant denunciation of which he was so great a master.

But even the genius of Pascal could not stop such efforts. In the eighteenth century they were renewed by a far greater theologian than Escobar–by him who was afterward made a saint and proclaimed a doctor of the Church–Alphonso Liguori.

Starting with bitter denunciations of usury, Liguori soon developed a multitude of subtle devices for escaping the guilt of it. Presenting a long and elaborate theory of “mental, usury” he arrives at the conclusion that, if the borrower pay interest of his own free will, the lender may keep it. In answer to the question whether the lender may keep what the borrower paid, not out of gratitude but out of fear–fear that otherwise loans might be refused him in future–Liguori says, “To be usury it must be paid by reason of a contract, or as justly due; payment by reason of such a fear does not cause interest to be paid as an actual price.” Again Liguori tells us, “It is not usury to exact something in return for the danger and expense of regaining the principal.” The old subterfuges of “_Damnum emergens_” and “_Lucrum cessans_” are made to do full duty. A remarkable quibble is found in the answer to the question whether he sins who furnishes money to a man whom he knows to intend employing it in usury. After citing affirmative opinions from many writers, Liguori says, “Notwithstanding these opinions, the better opinion seems to me to be that the man thus putting out his money is not bound to make restitution, for his action is not injurious to the borrower, but rather favourable to him,” and this reasoning the saint develops at great length.

In the Latin countries this sort of casuistry eased the relations of the Church with the bankers, and it was full time; for now there came arguments of a different kind. The eighteenth century philosophy had come upon the stage, and the first effective onset of political scientists against the theological opposition in southern Europe was made in Italy–the most noted leaders in the attack being Galiani and Maffei. Here and there feeble efforts were made to meet them, but it was felt more and more by thinking churchmen that entirely different tactics must be adopted.

About the same time came an attack in France, and though its results were less immediate at home, they were much more effective abroad. In 1748 appeared Montesquieu’s _Spirit of the Laws_. In this famous book were concentrated twenty years of study and thought by a great thinker on the interests of the world about him. In eighteen months it went through twenty-two editions; it was translated into every civilized language; and among the things on which Montesquieu brought his wit and wisdom to bear with especial force was the doctrine of the Church regarding interest on loans. In doing this he was obliged to use a caution in forms which seems strangely at variance with the boldness of his ideas. In view of the strictness of ecclesiastical control in France, he felt it safest to make his whole attack upon those theological and economic follies of Mohammedan countries which were similar to those which the theological spirit had fastened on France.[282]

By the middle of the eighteenth century the Church authorities at Rome clearly saw the necessity of a concession: the world would endure theological restriction no longer; a way of escape _must_ be found. It was seen, even by the most devoted theologians, that mere denunciations and use of theological arguments or scriptural texts against the scientific idea were futile.

To this feeling it was due that, even in the first years of the century, the Jesuit casuists had come to the rescue. With exquisite subtlety some of their acutest intellects devoted themselves to explaining away the utterances on this subject of saints, fathers, doctors, popes, and councils. These explanations were wonderfully ingenious, but many of the older churchmen continued to insist upon the orthodox view, and at last the Pope himself intervened. Fortunately for the world, the seat of St. Peter was then occupied by Benedict XIV, certainly one of the most gifted, morally and intellectually, in the whole line of Roman pontiffs. Tolerant and sympathetic for the oppressed, he saw the necessity of taking up the question, and he grappled with it effectually: he rendered to Catholicism a service like that which Calvin had rendered to Protestantism, by shrewdly cutting a way through the theological barrier. In 1745 he issued his encyclical _Vix pervenit_, which declared that the doctrine of the Church remained consistent with itself; that usury is indeed a sin, and that it consists in _demanding any amount beyond the exact amount lent_, but that there are occasions when on special grounds the lender may obtain such additional sum.

What these “occasions” and “special grounds” might be, was left very vague; but this action was sufficient.

At the same time no new restrictions upon books advocating the taking of interest for money were imposed, and, in the year following his encyclical, Benedict openly accepted the dedication of one of them–the work of Maffei, and perhaps the most cogent of all.

Like the casuistry of Boscovich in using the Copernican theory for “convenience in argument,” while acquiescing in its condemnation by the Church authorities, this encyclical of Pope Benedict broke the spell. Turgot, Quesnay, Adam Smith, Hume, Bentham, and their disciples pressed on, and science won for mankind another great victory.[283]

Yet in this case, as in others, insurrections against the sway of scientific truth appeared among some overzealous religionists. When the Sorbonne, having retreated from its old position, armed itself with new casuistries against those who held to its earlier decisions, sundry provincial doctors in theology protested indignantly, making the old citations from the Scriptures, fathers, saints, doctors, popes, councils, and canonists. Again the Roman court intervened. In 1830 the Inquisition at Rome, with the approval of Pius VIII, though still declining to commit itself on the _doctrine_ involved, decreed that, as to _practice_, confessors should no longer disturb lenders of money at legal interest.

But even this did not quiet the more conscientious theologians. The old weapons were again furbished and hurled by the Abbe Laborde, Vicar of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Auch, and by the Abbe Dennavit, Professor of Theology at Lyons. Good Abbe Dennavit declared that he refused absolution to those who took interest and to priests who pretend that the sanction of the civil law is sufficient.

But the “wisdom of the serpent” was again brought into requisition, and early in the decade between 1830 and 1840 the Abbate Mastrofini issued a work on usury, which, he declared on its title-page, demonstrated that “moderate usury is not contrary to Holy Scripture, or natural law, or the decisions of the Church.” Nothing can be more comical than the suppressions of truth, evasions of facts, jugglery with phrases, and perversions of history, to which the abbate is forced to resort throughout his book in order to prove that the Church has made no mistake. In the face of scores of explicit deliverances and decrees of fathers, doctors, popes, and councils against the taking of any interest whatever for money, he coolly pretended that what they had declared against was _exorbitant_ interest. He made a merit of the action of the Church, and showed that its course had been a blessing to humanity. But his masterpiece is in dealing with the edicts of Clement V and Benedict XIV. As to the first, it will be remembered that Clement, in accord with the Council of Vienne, had declared that “any one who shall pertinaciously presume to affirm that the taking of interest for money is not a sin, we decree him to be a heiretic fit for punishment,” and we have seen that Benedict XIV did not at all deviate from the doctrines of his predecessors. Yet Mastrofini is equal to his task, and brings out, as the conclusion of his book, the statement put upon his title-page, that what the Church condemns is only _exorbitant_ interest.

This work was sanctioned by various high ecclesiastical dignitaries, and served its purpose; for it covered the retreat of the Church.

In 1872 the Holy Office, answering a question solemnly put by the Bishop of Ariano, as solemnly declared that those who take eight per cent interest per annum are “not to be disquieted”; and in 1873 appeared a book published under authority from the Holy See, allowing the faithful to take moderate interest under condition that any future decisions of the Pope should be implicitly obeyed. Social science as applied to political economy had gained a victory final and complete. The Torlonia family at Rome to-day, with its palaces, chapels, intermarriages, affiliations, and papal favour –all won by lending money at interest, and by liberal gifts, from the profits of usury, to the Holy See–is but one out of many growths of its kind on ramparts long since surrendered and deserted.[285]

The dealings of theology with public economy were by no means confined to the taking of interest for money. It would be interesting to note the restrictions placed upon commerce by the Church prohibition of commercial intercourse with infidels, against which the Republic of Venice fought a good fight; to note how, by a most curious perversion of Scripture in the Greek Church, many of the peasantry of Russia were prevented from raising and eating potatoes; how, in Scotland, at the beginning of this century, the use of fanning mills for winnowing grain was widely denounced as contrary to the text, “The wind bloweth where it listeth,” etc., as leaguing with Satan, who is “Prince of the powers of the air,” and therefore as sufficient cause for excommunication from the Scotch Church. Instructive it would be also to note how the introduction of railways was declared by an archbishop of the French Church to be an evidence of the divine displeasure against country innkeepers who set meat before their guests on fast days, and who were now punished by seeing travellers carried by their doors; how railways and telegraphs were denounced from a few noted pulpits as heralds of Antichrist; and how in Protestant England the curate of Rotherhithe, at the breaking in of the Thames Tunnel, so destructive to life and property, declared it from his pulpit a just judgment upon the presumptuous aspirations of mortal man.

The same tendency is seen in the opposition of conscientious men to the taking of the census in Sweden and the United States, on account of the terms in which the numbering of Israel is spoken of in the Old Testament. Religious scruples on similar grounds have also been avowed against so beneficial a thing as life insurance.

Apparently unimportant as these manifestations are, they indicate a widespread tendency; in the application of scriptural declarations to matters of social economy, which has not yet ceased, though it is fast fading away.[286]

Worthy of especial study, too, would be the evolution of the modern methods of raising and bettering the condition of the poor,–the evolution, especially, of the idea that men are to be helped to help themselves, in opposition to the old theories of indiscriminate giving, which, taking root in some of the most beautiful utterances of our sacred books, grew in the warm atmosphere of medieval devotion into great systems for the pauperizing of the labouring classes. Here, too, scientific modes of thought in social science have given a new and nobler fruitage to the whole growth of Christian benevolence.[287]


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