Usury in Christendom: The Mortal Sin that was and is not

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Puritanboard Clerk
Hoffman, Michael. Usury in Christendom.

It's fun watching a traditionalist Roman Catholic destroy modern Catholic practice on usury. Hoffman explodes the claim that it was the Protestant Reformation that unleashed usury on the world. The seeds were already planted by Catholic theologians.

Hoffman’s broad thesis is that the Catholic church practically ceased viewing usury as a mortal sin due to clever re-phrasings of the law. A corollary is that the Protestants did not begin usury (or capitalism). Many Protestants opposed it, and those who did support it used neo-Catholic arguments.

Hoffman’s narrative doesn’t appear to follow a noticeable pattern, but his argument is fairly clear: the church has uniformly condemned usury, defined as receiving extra on the loan. The key villains are the Medici and Fugger banking clans. And while later Popes would condemn worker exploitation, none undid the damage of Renaissance popes in making usury acceptable. And by the time of JPII and Benedict XVI, it became mandatory

The Argument Against Usury

(1) God is the supreme owner of land and leases it to men (Hoffman 30).

(2) The idea of just price is often ridiculed, but misunderstood. It does not exist within a vacuum. A just price cannot work in a society that uses interest (43).

(3) The Old Testament intended usury to be used as a weapon against the nokri, the Canaanite in the land. It was not to be used against the ger, the sojourner.

(4) Money is fungible, so it cannot reproduce artificially.

(5) God’s provision for man in nature is a presupposition against usury. “To make a claim to wealth that outstrips that provision…is to produce injustice” (105).

(6) When money becomes abstracted (from use), its usefulness becomes obscure.

(7) Profit can only come from nature’s goods, which requires discipline and patience.

(8) The Logic of Mutuum: in a mutuum loan, ownership actually passes from creditor to debtor, so to “receive a fee for this, I profit from what is yours, not mine. Therefore, the creditor sells nothing that is his, but only time, which is God’s” (99, emphasis added).

(9) In a modern day usurious system, “the worker is separated from the material means of production to be brought again into contact only by means of the credit system in which everything is capitalized” (333).

What do we make of the above points? Some hold, but others do not.
(1') This is true. And for what it's worth, Wyclif made the same argument.
(2') This is harder to square. Much of "just price doctrine" assumes that an entity has a monetary price within it, yet this is all but abandoned in modern economic theory. Y is worth x because someone subjectively values it at that price.
(3') This seems fairly true.
(4') On one level this is a good rebuttal to the (literal) sorcery that is fractional-reserve banking. But there is something about this claim that I just can't put my finger on.
(5') Aquinas's argument seems to be that the usurer is claiming a stake in future (and not yet-existing) wealth without having the disciple and patience that keeping it requires.
(6') I'm not sure.
(7') seems to turn on (5').
(8') If (1') obtains then it appears that (8') obtains
(9') This sounds awfully close to Marxism. In any case, I reserve judgment.


Hoffman’s case appears to be air-tight, if at times incomplete. He destroys the historiography of the ChesterBelloc school, which blames usury and capitalism on the Jew and Protestants. They never bother to investigate the Medici banking clan. Hoffman also gives a fine bibliography.


This book could have used a professional editor and formatter. Secondly, Hoffman isn’t consistent in how he cites sources. On one page he will give us a detailed source in Latin but elsewhere he will say, “St Basil said this” or King St. Alfred the Great said this, but not tell us where. Thirdly, while his argument is usually fine and polished, occasionally (Chapter 8) he rants and collapses a number of complex ethical discussions into a sentence or two.
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