Nathan SchneiderJanuary 28, 2016

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.

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William Rydberg
5 years 7 months ago
I disagree with your statement that the Jubilee is off to a slow start. I can ASSURE you that millions of people have passed through Holy Doors in Churches Worldwide. I can also, UEQUIVOCALLY assure you that millions of Catholics are attending Mass weekly with large numbers attending Mass and the Sacraments. The challenge is that there are over a billion of us, and we are a minority of the world population. Do the math my friend, One Holy Door in Rome versus the numbers available now. Concerning, penance this is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We have to not judge people's motives. It should be noted that Usury is quite different from bankers money lending. Furthermore, in a parable, leaving a valuable with bankers is described as an option. Finally, in my opinion you are quite wrong to lump Islamic understanding with Christian or even Jewish understanding of lending. Suggest you research further. In Christ, Pax et Bonum
Nathan Schneider
5 years 7 months ago

Thank you for your response. I certainly hope you're right that the Jubilee of Mercy has been more eagerly received than the news reports suggest. And I very much appreciate the pope's decision to decentralize the jubilee ritual, making it less an excercise in Rome's centrality than a celebration of the diversity and diffusion of the faith. At least in my small corner of the universal church, however, I've noticed a striking lack of interest in the Jubilee of Mercy. At my own church, it was not mentioned the week it was proclaimed, nor last week, when the Gospel reading including Jesus announcing a jubilee in the synagouge. (Tonight, at least, the Jubilee was mentioned in the Prayers of the Faithful.) Perhaps I'm overly influenced by that anecdotal experience.

I think you're incorrect that usury, as it has been historically understood by the church, differs from what is common practice by bankers today. Thomas Aquinas states plainly, in the articles linked to above, that the question at hand is whether "it is lawful to receive interest for money lent." I personally am not convinced that any interest at all necessarily counts as usury, but there is no doubt that this has been the position of large swaths of church tradition, and so it's not an opinion we are at liberty to dismiss too quickly.

I'm also not sure why you're so quick to dismiss the connection between usury prohibitions in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The three faiths emerged and developed in fairly interconnected milieus, and their reasonings for usury prohibitions—both social and metaphysical—overlap in many respects. While today's Islamic banking sector is by no means perfect, I think that we Christians could benefit from learning from its efforts to carry forward the ancient wisdom in usury prohibitions even in the hostile context of globalized capitalism.

Wayne Walton
5 years 7 months ago
AGREED! Usury has USURPED all of our institutions. Including the Church, government, elections, military. It's the root of all evil. "Borrower is servant to the Money Lender". Meanwhile, we are commanded to serve God. Jubilee releases captives. 2 billion Christians are serving satanic Money Lenders who hate us. Solution? Certainly 2 billion Christians can issue their own usuryFree money. Checkout "Hour Money Jubilee". We have a step by step plan to implement God's economic laws.
Nathan Schneider
5 years 7 months ago

Your reminder about the importance of "releasing captives" for the jubilee is so valuable, and I wish I had emphasized it more above. The supposed "debt" that serves to justify mass incarceration in this country is a profoundly troubling act of usury, and it is surely in need of a jubilee.

John Casper
5 years 7 months ago
Mr. Rydberg, Unless I missed something, your assertions, "Do the math...," about pilgrims to Rome and the three Abrahamic religions are unsupported. You're on better ground when you observe that there are different kinds of lending. Exodus 22:25 confirms your observation and Mr. Schneider's position: "If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him." Even the conservative Jesus Seminar scholars believe Jesus preached something close to what we call, "the parable of the talents." Mark 13: 33-37; Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27.
Margi Sirovatka
5 years 7 months ago
Your article's intent with respect to the definition of "usury" is unclear. Yet, the term is used freely. If the intention is that usury equates to any money-"lending" practice (interest-bearing), you omit any mention of the related change in human behavior -- on both the "borrower's" and "lender's" part -- when this practice is stopped in favor of non-interest-bearing monetary giving. Monetary giving (whether interest-bearing or not) typically uses "Other People's Money, or OPM" and incurs administrative costs to distribute OPM. If there is no yield potential to encourage the giving nor to cover the costs, the source of funds typically dries up. A friend of mine works for an NGO and provides low-cost housing mortgages in developing nations under shariah law. Interestingly, when I asked how they get around the "interest" conundrum, the response is that they embed it in the total amount and structure the loan as a monthly payment (principle and interest rolled into one). Your premise is simply naive.
John Walton
5 years 6 months ago
Condemnation of usury is no more than a fig-leaf for the Anti-Semitism of the medieval (and later) church. If the owner of a plow lends it out to the farmer is he not entitled to rent? Money is fungible for capital assets, and the just man who borrrows the asset is bound to render unto the owner of the capital asset his due.
Beth Cioffoletti
5 years 6 months ago
Thank you for this article. "Usurious profit from money is the death of the soul." - Pope Leo 1, gets to the heart of it. Selling what does not exist. THIS is what enslaves and impoverishes so many. Francis is so prophetically right in returning us to the ancient tradition of Jubilee when every generation the slate was wiped clean, debts cancelled, land redistributed, and prisoners and slaves freed. I don't know how long it will take us to get this ancient wisdom, but at least Francis is leading us down the road.
Rob S
5 years 5 months ago
Having attended a Catholic grade school and high school and having both an undergraduate and graduate degree from two different Catholic Universities, I wish I could say I was surprised by the economic ignorance espoused in this article and by theologians in general. Sadly, I am not. My first question to you Mr. Schneider is do you own a house and if you do my second question is did you pay cash for it? Without lending money at interest or usury as you put it, only the very rich could afford their own homes. It would take many decades for even an upper middle class person to accumulate enough money to buy his own home. And of course accumulating savings would be even harder without compounding interest. Even the ability to buy a car would be out reach for much of society without the ability to get a car loan. Forget retirement that would only be for the wealthy too. Without interest accumulating a nest egg would be impossible and no one would be able to live off the interest provided by a nest egg. And of course being able to start a business would be very difficult without a business loan and businesses would find it harder to expand their operations without obtaining financing at interest. All of this would put a lot of people out of work. Without lending money at interest industrial civilization with all of its comforts would not exists. Without interest our economy would be agrarian and semi-feudal with the wealthy owning all the land and renting it to everyone else. Of course this was the economic model for most of human history. No one (except for socialists) has ever objected to the morality of renting land or tools. Economists view interest as simply rent for money. If I let you use my land for a time I am entitled to rent. The same applies when I let you use my money for a time. I am entitled to rent which is known as interest.

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