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Usury in Christianity

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The Christian Church’s position on usury began with the First Council of Nicaea in the year 325, which forbade clergy from engaging in usury. Later ecumenical councils applied this regulation to any member of any religious faith. Lateran III decreed that persons who accepted interest on loans could receive neither the sacraments nor Christian burial. Pope Clement V condemned the practice of charging interest as “hateful to God and man, damned by the holy canons and contrary to Christian charity.

The historical performance of usury as an evil enterprise stems not only from a spiritual view but also with social implications of perceived “unjust” or “discriminatory” practices. The Christians, on the basis of the Biblical rulings, condemned interest-taking absolutely, and from 1179 those who practiced it were excommunicated.

Despite its Judaic roots, the critique of usury was most favorably taken up as a cause by the institutions of the Christian Church where the debate prevailed with great intensity for well over a thousand years. The Old Testament decrees were resurrected and a New Testament reference to usury added to fuel the case. Building on the authority of these texts, the Roman Catholic Church had by the fourth-century ad prohibited the taking of interest by the clergy; a rule which they extended in the fifth century to the laity. In the eighth century under Charlemagne, they pressed further and declared usury to be a general criminal offense. This anti-usury movement continued to gain momentum during the early Middle Ages and perhaps reached its peak in 1311 when Pope Clement V made the ban on usury absolute and declared all secular legislation in its favor null and void. The rise of Protestantism and its pro-capitalism influence is also associated with this change. As a result of all these influences, sometime around 1620, according to the theologian Ruston, “usury passed from being an offense against public morality which a Christian government was expected to suppress to being a matter of private conscience and a new generation of Christian moralists redefined usury as excessive interest”.

This position has remained pervasive through to present-day thinking in the Church, as the indicative views of the Church of Scotland suggest when it declares in its study report on the ethics of investment and banking: “We accept that the practice of charging interest for business and personal loans is not, in itself, incompatible with Christian ethics. What is more difficult to determine is whether the interest rate charged is fair or excessive.” Similarly, it is illustrative that, in contrast to the clear moral injunction against usury still expressed by the Church in Pope Leo XIII’s as “voracious usury … an evil condemned frequently by the Church but nevertheless still practiced in deceptive ways by materialistic men”, Pope John Paul II’s 1989 Sollicitude Rei Socialis lacks any explicit mention of usury except the vaguest implication by way of acknowledging the Third World Debt crisis.

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