Resetting Interest on Usury for the Year of Mercy
The doings of Pope Francis have tended to be popular by default, but his Jubilee Year of Mercy is off to an unusually slow start. Pilgrims aren’t pouring into Rome as expected; media reports have been little better than dutiful. Fears of terrorism might have something to do with the pilgrim count, together with the jubilee’s purposeful avoidance of Rome-centrism. But I wonder if there’s another problem—that we are forgetting what jubilee means in the first place.
The ancient Hebrew jubilee was a periodic Sabbath year in which debts would be cleared away, slaves would be freed, and lands lost in the course of commerce would be returned. Jesus declared a jubilee as he began preaching the forgiveness of sins. But the forgiveness he preached began with repentance. Likewise, any jubilee must begin with the recognition that there are wrongs to be righted. Clearing away debts does not make sense if we consider debt an immovable reality, an amoral fact of life. To celebrate a jubilee, we need to recognize the usury in our midst.
In centuries past, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all shared an anxious opposition to usury. Sometimes “usury” meant any kind of interest-charging on loans, sometimes just lending under especially unjust terms. But in any case, these traditions regarded finance as an activity of supreme moral concern, one rife with opportunities for the abuse of power and unjust accumulations of wealth. Imagine bishops worrying about adjustable-rate mortgages the way they worry about abortion. That is the kind of concern we’re talking about.
Jacques le Goff’s pithy book Your Money or Your Life reconstructs the tenor of medieval attitudes. “Usurious profit from money,” Pope Leo I (d. 461) held, “is the death of the soul.” The French theologian Jacques de Vitry warned lenders that “the amount of money they receive from usury corresponds to the amount of wood sent to hell to burn them.” In some cases the vitriol was a form of anti-Judaism, since Jews often held a monopoly on lending to Christians. But Jews themselves denounced usury just as strenuously in dealings with one another.
St. Thomas Aquinas, representing the scholarly consensus of the 13th century, argued on the one hand that usury “leads to inequality which is contrary to justice.” Charging interest on money, further, is contrary to nature; “This is to sell what does not exist.” Interest-charging severs the economy from actual production or people’s actual needs.
Centuries of clerical coziness with financiers made such denunciations less and less convenient. As the modern period progressed, concern about usury faded, then all but disappeared. Some tried to justify interest theologically, but mainly the shift was a matter of omission. The influential economist Msgr. John Ryan began his pamphlet The Church and Interest-Taking (1910) by stressing, “The Church has never admitted the justice of interest whether on money or on capital, but has merely tolerated the institution.”
We now regard lending as principally a technocratic province of economics, computerized markets and swashbuckling self-interest. Even government regulators tend to be once-and-future bankers, as if no one else could or should be concerned with the matter. The result is a financial system whose most serious risks are borne by the most vulnerable. Foreclosure, eviction and eventual homelessness are part of a tolerable business model. Through international debt, lenders dictate policy to debtor governments with little oversight from the people who will be expected to obey. And, as Aquinas warned, financiers lavish on themselves money from out of thin air. These are moral problems, but without a concept of usury it can be hard to see that. It is hard to imagine a jubilee.
Pope Francis, for his part, spoke of usury against poorer countries when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly last year. And in Rome, at a general audience in 2014, he said: “When a family doesn’t have enough to eat because it has to pay off loans to usurers, this isn’t Christian. It’s not human.” As he began the Jubilee Year in Advent, he called for world leaders to forgive crippling debts or renegotiate them under more humane terms. For him, the meaning of jubilee remains rooted in its most ancient, tangible form.
Forgiveness goes unnoticed without repentance. A jubilee, similarly, is an empty celebration unless we notice the usury from which it frees us. We need to lose our tolerance for usury again.