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Excursus on Usury.



Excursus on Usury.

The famous canonist Van Espen defines usury thus: "Usura definitur lucrum ex mutuo exactum aut speratum;"1 and then goes on to defend the proposition that, "Usury is forbidden by natural, by divine, and by human law. The first is proved thus. Natural law, as far as its first principles are concerned, is contained in the decalogue; but usury is prohibited in the decalogue, inasmuch as theft is prohibited; and this is the opinion of the Master of the Sentences, of St. Bonaventura, of St. Thomas and of a host of others: for by the name of theft in the Law all unlawful taking of another's goods is prohibited; but usury is an unlawful, etc." For a proof of usury's being contrary to divine law he cites Ex. xxii. 25, and Deut. xxiii. 29; and from the New Testament Luke vi. 34. "The third assertion is proved thus. Usury is forbidden by human law: The First Council of Nice in Canon VII. deposed from the clergy and from all ecclesiastical rank, clerics who took usury; and the same thing is the case with an infinite number of councils, in fact with nearly all e.g. Elvira, ij, Arles j, Carthage iij, Tours iij, etc. Nay, even the pagans themselves formerly forbid it by their laws." He then quotes Tacitus (Annal. Lib. v.), and adds, "with what severe laws the French Kings coerced usurers is evident from the edicts of St. Louis, Philip IV., Charles IX., Henry III., etc."

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,2 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 glory of inventing 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 defence of this then new-fangled refinement of casuistry.4

That the student may have it in his power to read the Patristic view of the matter, I give a list of the passages most commonly cited, together with a review of the conciliar action, for all which I am indebted to a masterly article by Wharton B. Marriott in Smith and Cheetham's Dictionary of Christian Antiquities (s. v. Usury).

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).

The canons of later councils differ materially in relation to this subject, and indicate a distinct tendency to mitigate the rigour of the Nicaean interdict. That of the council of Carthage of the year 348 enforces the original prohibition, but without the penalty, and grounds the veto on both Old and New Testament authority, "nemo contra prophetas, nemo contra evangelia facit sine periculo" (Mansi, iii. 158). The language, however, when compared with that of the council of Carthage of the year 419, serves to suggest that, in the interval, the lower clergy had occasionally been found having recourse to the forbidden practice, for the general terms of the earlier canon, "ut non liceat clericis fenerari," are enforced with greater particularity in the latter, "Nec omnino cuiquam clericorum liceat de qualibet re foenus accipere" (Mansi, iv. 423). This supposition is supported by the language of the council of Orleans (a.d. 538), which appears to imply that deacons were not prohibited from lending money at interest, "Et clericus a diaconatu, et supra, pecuniam non commodet ad usuras" (ib. ix. 18). Similarly, at the second council of Trullanum (a.d. 692) a like liberty would appear to have been recognised among the lower clergy (Hardouin, iii. 1663). While, again, the Nicaean canon requires the immediate deposition of the ecclesiastic found guilty of the practice, the Apostolical canon enjoins that such deposition is to take place only after he has been admonished and has disregarded the admonition.

Generally speaking, the evidence points to the conclusion that the Church imposed no penalty on the layman. St. Basil (Epist. clxxxviii. can. 12), says that a usurer may even be admitted to orders, provided he gives his acquired wealth to the poor and abstains for the future from the pursuit of gain (Migne, Patrol. Groec. xxxii. 275). Gregory of Nyssa says that usury, unlike theft, the desecration of tombs, and sacrilege i9erosuli/a, is allowed to pass unpunished, although among the things forbidden by Scripture, nor is a candidate at ordination ever asked whether or no he has been guilty of the practice (Migne, ib. xlv. 233). A letter of Sidonius Apollinaris (Epist. vi. 24) relating an experience of his friend Maximus, appears to imply that no blame attached to lending money at the legal rate of interest, and that even a bishop might be a creditor on those terms. We find also Desideratus, bishop of Verdun, when applying for a loan to king Theodebert, for the relief of his impoverished diocese, promising repayment, "cure usuris legitimis," an expression which would seem to imply that in the Gallican church usury was recognised as lawful under certain conditions (Greg. Tur. Hist. Franc. iii. 34). So again a letter (Epist. ix. 38) of Gregory the Great seems to shew that he did not regard the payment of interest for money advanced by one layman to another as unlawful. But on the other hand, we find in what is known as archbishop Theodore's "Penitential" (circ. a.d. 690) what appears to be a general law on the subject, enjoining "Sie quis usuras undecunque exegerit . . . tres annos in pane et aqua" (c. xxv. 3); a penance again enjoined in the Penitential of Egbert of York (c. ii. 30). In like manner, the legates, George and Theophylact, in reporting their proceedings in England to pope Adrian I. (a.d. 787), state that they have prohibited "usurers," and cite the authority of the Psalmist and St. Augustine (Haddan and Stubbs, Conc. iii. 457). The councils of Mayence, Rheims, and Chalons, in the year 813, and that of Aix in the year 816, seem to have laid down the same prohibition as binding both on the clergy and the laity (Hardouin, Conc. iv. 1011, 1020, 1033, 1100).

Muratori, in his dissertation on the subject (Antichita, vol. i.), observes that "we do not know exactly how commerce was transacted in the five preceding centuries," and consequently are ignorant as to the terms on which loans of money were effected.

IT has come to the knowledge of the holy and great Synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters, whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer. And this also has been made known, that certain deacons now touch the Eucharist even before the bishops. Let all such practices be utterly done away, and let the deacons remain within their own bounds, knowing that they are the ministers of the bishop and the inferiors of the presbyters. Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let either the bishop or the presbyter administer to them. Furthermore, let not the deacons sit among the presbyters, for that is contrary to canon and order. And if, after this decree, any one shall refuse to obey, let him be deposed from the diaconate.


Ancient Epitome of Canon XVIII.

Deacons must abide within their own bounds. They shall not administer the Eucharist to presbyters, nor touch it before them, nor sit among the presbyters. For all this is contrary to canon, and to decent order.

Van Espen.

Four excesses of deacons this canon condemns, at least indirectly. The first was that they gave the holy Communion to presbyters. To understand more easily the meaning of the canon it must be remembered that the reference here is not to the presbyters who were sacrificing at the altar but to those who were offering together with the bishop who was sacrificing; by a rite not unlike that which to-day takes place, when the newly ordained presbyters or bishops celebrate mass with the ordaining bishop; and this rite in old times was of daily occurrence, for a full account of which see Morinus De SS. Ordinat. P. III. Exercit. viij. . . . The present canon does not take away from deacons the authority to distribute the Eucharist to laymen, or to the minor clergy, but only reproves their insolence and audacity in presuming to administer to presbyters who were concelebrating with the bishop or another presbyter....

The second abuse was that certain deacons touched the sacred gifts before the bishop. The vulgar version of Isidore reads for "touched" "received," a meaning which Balsamon and Zonaras also adopt, and unless the Greek word, which signifies "to touch," is contrary to this translation, it seems by no means to be alien to the context of the canon.

"Let them receive the Eucharist according to their order, after the presbyters, and let the bishop or the presbyter administer to them." In these words it is implied that some deacons had presumed to receive Holy Communion before the presbyters, and this is the third excess of the deacon which is condemned by the Synod.

And lastly, the fourth excess was that they took a place among the presbyters at the very time of the sacrifice, or "at the holy altar," as Balsamon observes.

From this canon we see that the Nicene, fathers entertained no doubt that the faithful in the holy Communion truly received "the body of Christ." Secondly, that that was "offered" in the church, which is the word by which sacrifice is designated in the New Testament, and therefore it was at that time a fixed tradition that there was a sacrifice in which the body of Christ was offered. Thirdly that not to all, nor even to deacons, but only to bishops and presbyters was given the power of offering. And lastly, that there was recognized a fixed hierarchy in the Church, made up of bishops and presbyters and deacons in subordination to these.

Of course even at that early date there was nothing new in this doctrine of the Eucharist. St. Ignatius more than a century and a half before, wrote as follows: "But mark ye those who hold strange doctrine touching the grace of Jesus Christ which came to us, how that they are contrary to the mind of God. They have no care for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the afflicted,none for the prisoner, none for the hungry or thirsty. They abstain from eucharist (thanksgiving) and prayer, because they allow not that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which flesh suffered for our sins, and which the Father of his goodness raised up."1

In one point the learned scholiast just quoted has most seriously understated his case. He says that the wording of the canon shews "that the Nicene fathers entertained no doubt that the faithful in the holy Communion truly received `the body of Christ.'" Now this statement is of course true because it is included in what the canon says, but the doctrinal statement which is necessarily contained in the canon is that "the body of Christ is given" by the minister to the faithful. This doctrine is believed by all Catholics and by Lutherans, but is denied by all other Protestants; those Calvinists who kept most nearly to the ordinary Catholic phraseology only admitting that "the sacrament of the Body of Christ" was given in the supper by the minister, while "the body of Christ," they taught, was present only in the soul of the worthy communicant (and in no way connected with the form of bread, which was but the divinely appointed sign and assurance of the heavenly gift), and therefore could not be "given" by the priest.2

This canon is found in the Corpus Juris Canonici, Decretum. Pars I. Dist. XCIII., c. xiv.

Concerning the Paulianists who have flown for refuge to the Catholic Church, it has been decreed that they must by all means be rebaptized; and if any of them who in past time have been numbered among their clergy should be found blameless and without reproach, let them be rebaptized and ordained by the Bishop of the Catholic Church; but if the examination should discover them to be unfit, they ought to be deposed. Likewise in the case of their deaconesses, and generally in the case of those who have been enrolled among their clergy, let the same form be observed. And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity.


Ancient Epitome of Canon XIX.

Paulianists must be rebaptised, and if such as are clergymen seem to be blameless let then, be ordained. If they do not seem to be blameless, let them be deposed. Deaconesses who have been led astray, since they are not sharers of ordination, are to be reckoned among the laity.


(Dict. Chr. Ant. s.v. Nicaea, Councils of.) That this is the true meaning of the phrase o!roj e0kte/qeitai, viz. "a decree has now been made," is clear from the application of the words o!roj in Canon xvii., and w!risen, in Canon vi. It has been a pure mistake, therefore, which Bp. Hefele blindly follows, to understand it of some canon previously passed, whether at Aries or elsewhere.


Here xeiroqesi/a is taken for ordination or consecration, not for benediction, . ..for neither were deaconesses, sub-deacons, readers, and other ministers ordained, but a blessing was merely pronounced over them by prayer and imposition of hands.


Their (the Paulicians') deaconesses also, since they have no imposition of hands, if they come over to the Catholic Church and are baptized, are ranked among the laity.With this Zonaras and Balsamon also agree.


By Paulianists must be understood the followers of Paul of Samosata the anti-Trinitarian who, about the year 260, had been made bishop of Antioch, but had been deposed by a great Synod in 269. As Paul of Samosata was heretical in his teaching on the Holy Trinity the Synod of Nice applied to him the decree passed by the council of Arles in its eighth canon. "If anyone shall come from heresy to the Church, they shall ask him to say the creed; and if they shall perceive that he was baptized into the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost,1 he shall have a hand laid on him only that he may receive the Holy Ghost. But if in answer to their questioning he shall not answer this Trinity, let him be baptized."

The Samosatans, according to St. Athanasius, named the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in administering baptism (Oral. ii, Contra Arian. No. xliii), but as they gave a false meaning to the baptismal formula and did not use the words Son and Holy Spirit in the usual sense, the Council of Nice, like St. Athanasius himself, considered their baptism as invalid.

There is great difficulty about the text of the clause beginning "Likewise in the case, etc.," and Gelasius, the Prisca, Theilo and Thearistus, (who in 419 translated the canons of Nice for the African bishops), the PseudoIsidore, and Gratian have all followed a reading diako/nwn, instead of diakonissw=n.

This change makes all clear, but many canonists keep the ordinary text, including Van Espen, with whose interpretation Hefele does not agree.

The clause I have rendered "And we mean by deaconesses" is most difficult of translation. I give the original, 'Emnh/sqhmen de\ diakonissw=n tw=n e0n tw=| sxh/mati e0cetasqeiswn, e0pei\ k.t.l. Hefele's translation seems to me impossible, by sxh/mati he understands the list of the clergy just mentioned.

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