"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Usury: the progs are cracking

Over the last several years, it has seemed to me that the Left, ecclesial as well as political, is getting dottier. And I don't think it's just me. As an orthodox Catholic I'm actually encouraged by the public face that theological "progressives" (whom I call 'progs' for short) are presenting. Thus, the political denunciations are actually sane by comparison with the latest example I want to discuss: conflicted, gay Catholic Andrew Sullivan's astonishing rant about Pope Benedict's recent remark about "usury."

During the last presidential election, it was not uncommon to hear some of John Kerry's more avid supporters liken the President to Adolf Hitler; given how FUBAR the situation in Iraq is portrayed by the MSM as being, I have lately heard over and over that Bush is actually "worse than Hitler." (For a more balanced, on-the-ground perspective, try Major K., an articulate Catholic officer serving with valor and distinction in Iraq.) But we cooler heads are inured to that sort of thing. It is the hyperbole of passion, a species of what the late Harry Frankfurt, one of my favorite analytical philosophers, called "bullshit": something one knows deep down is not true, and knows that others will not be deceived by hearing, but which it's useful for one reason or another to say anyhow. Since bullshitting is fun, I am not dismayed by it; most of us, yours truly included, have permitted ourselves the luxury at some time or another. Yet, what I've started having to accommodate in my rhetorical universe is much more disturbing: guilt-by-association conspiracy theories that, when propounded for other purposes by right-wing cranks, were and are rightly dismissed as loony.

Here are Sullivan's ipsissima verba:

Benedict XVI's latest enthusiasm is, apparently, the "infamy of usury". The original formal condemnation of usury - i.e. interest-bearing loans - emerged at roughly the time the Church also created the formal doctrines condemning Jews and "sodomites" in the early medieval era, so it is not surprising Benedict would seek to re-emphasize it. He recently honored the National Anti-Usury Consultancy, and described interest-bearing accounts as a "social plague," and all financial interest as something that "annihilates the life of the poor." If you are versed in the ancient anti-Semitic tropes of the medieval Church, you will be unsurprised by this language. Just so all you Catholics with 401ks and interest-bearing bank accounts: according to this pope, you are enmeshed in evil. Welcome to the club. By the way, does the Vatican earn interest?

There we have it: "condemning sodomites" is the same sort of thing as "condemning Jews" (Hitler really did both, BTW), and since Jews were often bankers, that's why the Church condemns and still condemns "all financial interest." Periodic ritual denunciation of usury, far from showing concern for the poor and/or desperate, is really a covert way of being nasty to Jews and homosexuals.

Never mind that the Church never condemned anybody just for being Jewish; she has and does condemn rejecting Jesus Christ as she understands him, but Jews are hardly unique in that regard. Never mind that the condemnation of sodomy does not and could not translate into the canonization of active homosexuals to hell; nobody at all has been or could be so condemned by the Church. Never mind that Sullivan took the Pope's remark about "usury" to mean the condemnation of all interest—which it clearly does not in the text, and could not have unless the Pope were poised to announce the shutdown of the Vatican bank, which he's not about to do. The truly astonishing thing is that the basis of such an imagined condemnation is taken to be covert anti-Semitism. The bit about homophobia, though conceptually irrelevant, is thrown in for good measure as further evidence of Ratzinger's neanderthality; in any event, Sullivan almost always manages to throw in homophobia when discussing Catholic matters, and nobody who knows him needs to hear why.

As I pointed out in a recent Pontifications article, the development of Church teaching about usury since the Middle Ages has been logically consistent but not at all clear to the average Catholic. See, e.g., Fr. Gary Coulter's master's thesis and J. T. Noonan, The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge, MA, 1957). It's a topic that could benefit from a clear, nuanced, authoritative statement from the papacy, and this pope has the sort of mind needed. Indeed, this topic is one on which the Church is often but falsely charged with reversing her past solemn teaching. It's a stick that progs love to beat her with (when they're not talking about sex and gender, that is). But the standard critique won't bear scholarly scrutiny. That progs like Sullivan are going over-the-top with dottiness about the topic indicates their increasing desperation.

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