A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom
Chapter 19 - From Leviticus to Political Economy

Retreat of the Church, Protestant and Catholic

But about the middle of the seventeenth century Sir Robert Filmer gave this doctrine the heaviest blow it ever received in England. Taking up Dr. Fenton's treatise, he answered it, and all works like it, in a way which, however unsuitable to this century, was admirably adapted to that. He cites Scripture and chops logic after a masterly manner. Characteristic is this declaration: "St. Paul doth, with one breath, reckon up seventeen sins, and yet usury is none of them; but many preachers can not reckon up seven deadly sins, except they make usury one of them." Filmer followed Fenton not only through his theology, but through his political economy, with such relentless keenness that the old doctrine seems to have been then and there practically worried out of existence, so far as England was concerned.

Departures from the strict scriptural doctrines regarding interest soon became frequent in Protestant countries, and they were followed up with especial vigour in Holland. Various theologians in the Dutch Church attempted to assert the scriptural view by excluding bankers from the holy communion; but the commercial vigour of the republic was too strong: Salmasius led on the forces of right reason brilliantly, and by the middle of the seventeenth century the question was settled rightly in that country. This work was aided, indeed, by a far greater man, Hugo Grotius; but here was shown the power of an established dogma. Great as Grotius was - and it may well be held that his book on War and Peace has wrought more benefit to humanity than any other attributed to human authorship - he was, in the matter of interest for money, too much entangled in theological reasoning to do justice to his cause or to himself. He declared the prohibition of it to be scriptural, but resisted the doctrine of Aristotle, and allowed interest on certain natural and practical grounds.

In Germany the struggle lasted longer. Of some little significance, perhaps, is the demand of Adam Contzen, in 1629, that lenders at interest should be punished as thieves; but by the end of the seventeenth century Puffendorf and Leibnitz had gained the victory.

Protestantism, open as it was to the currents of modern thought, could not long continue under the dominion of ideas unfavourable to economic development, and perhaps the most remarkable proof of this was presented early in the eighteenth century in America, by no less strict a theologian than Cotton Mather. In his Magnalia he argues against the whole theological view with a boldness, acuteness, and good sense which cause us to wonder that this can be the same man who was so infatuated regarding witchcraft. After an argument so conclusive as his, there could have been little left of the old anti-economic doctrine in New England.

But while the retreat of the Protestant Church from the old doctrine regarding the taking of interest was henceforth easy, in the Catholic Church it was far more difficult. Infallible popes and councils, with saints, fathers, and doctors, had so constantly declared the taking of any interest at all to be contrary to Scripture, that the more exact though less fortunate interpretation of the sacred text relating to interest continued in Catholic countries. When it was attempted in France in the seventeenth century to argue that usury "means oppressive interest," the Theological Faculty of the Sorbonne declared that usury is the taking of any interest at all, no matter how little; and the eighteenth chapter of Ezekiel was cited to clinch this argument.

Another attempt to ease the burden of industry and commerce was made by declaring that "usury means interest demanded not as a matter of favour but as a matter of right." This, too, was solemnly condemned by Pope innocent XI.

Again an attempt was made to find a way out of the difficulty by declaring that "usury is interest greater than the law allows." This, too, was condemned, and so also was the declaration that "usury is interest on loans not for a fixed time."

Still the forces of right reason pressed on, and among them, in the seventeenth century, in France, was Richard Simon. He attempted to gloss over the declarations of Scripture against lending at interest, in an elaborate treatise, but was immediately confronted by Bossuet. Just as Bossuet had mingled Scripture with astronomy and opposed the Copernican theory, so now he mingled Scripture with political economy and denounced the lending of money at interest. He called attention to the fact that the Scriptures, the councils of the Church from the beginning, the popes, the fathers, had all interpreted the prohibition of "usury" to be a prohibition of any lending at interest; and he demonstrated this interpretation to be the true one. Simon was put to confusion and his book condemned.

There was but too much reason for Bossuet's interpretation. There stood the fact that the prohibition of one of the most simple and beneficial principles in political and economical science was affirmed, not only by the fathers, but by twenty-eight councils of the Church, six of them general councils, and by seventeen popes, to say nothing of innumerable doctors in theology and canon law. And these prohibitions by the Church had been accepted as of divine origin by all obedient sons of the Church in the government of France. Such rulers as Charles the Bald in the ninth century, and St. Louis in the thirteenth, had riveted this idea into the civil law so firmly that it seemed impossible ever to detach it.

As might well be expected, Italy was one of the countries in which the theological theory regarding usury - lending at interest - was most generally asserted and assented to. Among the great number of Italian canonists who supported the theory, two deserve especial mention, as affording a contrast to the practical manner in which the commercial Italians met the question.

In the sixteenth century, very famous among canonists was the learned Benedictine, Vilagut. In 1589 he published at Venice his great work on usury, supporting with much learning and vigour the most extreme theological consequences of the old doctrine. He defines usury as the taking of anything beyond the original loan, and declares it mortal sin; he advocates the denial to usurers of Christian burial, confession, the sacraments, absolution, and connection with the universities; he declares that priests receiving offerings from usurers should refrain from exercising their ministry until the matter is passed upon by the bishop.

About the middle of the seventeenth century another ponderous folio was published in Venice upon the same subject and with the same title, by Onorato Leotardi. So far from showing any signs of yielding, he is even more extreme than Vilagut had been, and quotes with approval the old declaration that lenders of money at interest are not only robbers but murderers.

So far as we can learn, no real opposition was made in either century to this theory, as a theory; as to practice, it was different. The Italian traders did not answer theological argument; they simply overrode it. In spite of theology, great banks were established, and especially that of Venice at the end of the twelfth century, and those of Barcelona and Genoa at the beginning of the fifteenth. Nowhere was commerce carried on in more complete defiance of this and other theological theories hampering trade than in the very city where these great treatises were published. The sin of usury, like the sin of commerce with the Mohammedans, seems to have been settled for by the Venetian merchants on their deathbeds; and greatly to the advantage of the magnificent churches and ecclesiastical adornments of the city.

By the seventeenth century the clearest thinkers in the Roman Church saw that her theology must be readjusted to political economy: so began a series of amazing attempts to reconcile a view permitting usury with the long series of decrees of popes and councils forbidding it.

In Spain, the great Jesuit casuist Escobar led the way, and rarely had been seen such exquisite hair-splitting. But his efforts were not received with the gratitude they perhaps deserved. Pascal, revolting at their moral effect, attacked them unsparingly in his Provincial Letters, citing especially such passages as the following: "It is usury to receive profit from those to whom one lends, if it be exacted as justly due; but, if it be exacted as a debt of gratitude, it is not usury." This and a multitude of similar passages Pascal covered with the keen ridicule and indignant denunciation of which he was so great a master.

But even the genius of Pascal could not stop such efforts. In the eighteenth century they were renewed by a far greater theologian than Escobar - by him who was afterward made a saint and proclaimed a doctor of the Church - Alphonso Liguori.

Starting with bitter denunciations of usury, Liguori soon developed a multitude of subtle devices for escaping the guilt of it. Presenting a long and elaborate theory of "mental, usury" he arrives at the conclusion that, if the borrower pay interest of his own free will, the lender may keep it. In answer to the question whether the lender may keep what the borrower paid, not out of gratitude but out of fear - fear that otherwise loans might be refused him in future - Liguori says, "To be usury it must be paid by reason of a contract, or as justly due; payment by reason of such a fear does not cause interest to be paid as an actual price." Again Liguori tells us, "It is not usury to exact something in return for the danger and expense of regaining the principal." The old subterfuges of "Damnum emergens" and "Lucrum cessans" are made to do full duty. A remarkable quibble is found in the answer to the question whether he sins who furnishes money to a man whom he knows to intend employing it in usury. After citing affirmative opinions from many writers, Liguori says, "Notwithstanding these opinions, the better opinion seems to me to be that the man thus putting out his money is not bound to make restitution, for his action is not injurious to the borrower, but rather favourable to him," and this reasoning the saint develops at great length.

In the Latin countries this sort of casuistry eased the relations of the Church with the bankers, and it was full time; for now there came arguments of a different kind. The eighteenth century philosophy had come upon the stage, and the first effective onset of political scientists against the theological opposition in southern Europe was made in Italy - the most noted leaders in the attack being Galiani and Maffei. Here and there feeble efforts were made to meet them, but it was felt more and more by thinking churchmen that entirely different tactics must be adopted.

About the same time came an attack in France, and though its results were less immediate at home, they were much more effective abroad. In 1748 appeared Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws. In this famous book were concentrated twenty years of study and thought by a great thinker on the interests of the world about him. In eighteen months it went through twenty-two editions; it was translated into every civilized language; and among the things on which Montesquieu brought his wit and wisdom to bear with especial force was the doctrine of the Church regarding interest on loans. In doing this he was obliged to use a caution in forms which seems strangely at variance with the boldness of his ideas. In view of the strictness of ecclesiastical control in France, he felt it safest to make his whole attack upon those theological and economic follies of Mohammedan countries which were similar to those which the theological spirit had fastened on France.

By the middle of the eighteenth century the Church authorities at Rome clearly saw the necessity of a concession: the world would endure theological restriction no longer; a way of escape must be found. It was seen, even by the most devoted theologians, that mere denunciations and use of theological arguments or scriptural texts against the scientific idea were futile.

To this feeling it was due that, even in the first years of the century, the Jesuit casuists had come to the rescue. With exquisite subtlety some of their acutest intellects devoted themselves to explaining away the utterances on this subject of saints, fathers, doctors, popes, and councils. These explanations were wonderfully ingenious, but many of the older churchmen continued to insist upon the orthodox view, and at last the Pope himself intervened. Fortunately for the world, the seat of St. Peter was then occupied by Benedict XIV, certainly one of the most gifted, morally and intellectually, in the whole line of Roman pontiffs. Tolerant and sympathetic for the oppressed, he saw the necessity of taking up the question, and he grappled with it effectually: he rendered to Catholicism a service like that which Calvin had rendered to Protestantism, by shrewdly cutting a way through the theological barrier. In 1745 he issued his encyclical Vix pervenit, which declared that the doctrine of the Church remained consistent with itself; that usury is indeed a sin, and that it consists in demanding any amount beyond the exact amount lent, but that there are occasions when on special grounds the lender may obtain such additional sum.

What these "occasions" and "special grounds" might be, was left very vague; but this action was sufficient.

At the same time no new restrictions upon books advocating the taking of interest for money were imposed, and, in the year following his encyclical, Benedict openly accepted the dedication of one of them - the work of Maffei, and perhaps the most cogent of all.

Like the casuistry of Boscovich in using the Copernican theory for "convenience in argument," while acquiescing in its condemnation by the Church authorities, this encyclical of Pope Benedict broke the spell. Turgot, Quesnay, Adam Smith, Hume, Bentham, and their disciples pressed on, and science won for mankind another great victory.

Yet in this case, as in others, insurrections against the sway of scientific truth appeared among some overzealous religionists. When the Sorbonne, having retreated from its old position, armed itself with new casuistries against those who held to its earlier decisions, sundry provincial doctors in theology protested indignantly, making the old citations from the Scriptures, fathers, saints, doctors, popes, councils, and canonists. Again the Roman court intervened. In 1830 the Inquisition at Rome, with the approval of Pius VIII, though still declining to commit itself on the doctrine involved, decreed that, as to practice, confessors should no longer disturb lenders of money at legal interest.

But even this did not quiet the more conscientious theologians. The old weapons were again furbished and hurled by the Abbe Laborde, Vicar of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Auch, and by the Abbe Dennavit, Professor of Theology at Lyons. Good Abbe Dennavit declared that he refused absolution to those who took interest and to priests who pretend that the sanction of the civil law is sufficient.

But the "wisdom of the serpent" was again brought into requisition, and early in the decade between 1830 and 1840 the Abbate Mastrofini issued a work on usury, which, he declared on its title-page, demonstrated that "moderate usury is not contrary to Holy Scripture, or natural law, or the decisions of the Church." Nothing can be more comical than the suppressions of truth, evasions of facts, jugglery with phrases, and perversions of history, to which the abbate is forced to resort throughout his book in order to prove that the Church has made no mistake. In the face of scores of explicit deliverances and decrees of fathers, doctors, popes, and councils against the taking of any interest whatever for money, he coolly pretended that what they had declared against was exorbitant interest. He made a merit of the action of the Church, and showed that its course had been a blessing to humanity. But his masterpiece is in dealing with the edicts of Clement V and Benedict XIV. As to the first, it will be remembered that Clement, in accord with the Council of Vienne, had declared that "any one who shall pertinaciously presume to affirm that the taking of interest for money is not a sin, we decree him to be a heiretic fit for punishment," and we have seen that Benedict XIV did not at all deviate from the doctrines of his predecessors. Yet Mastrofini is equal to his task, and brings out, as the conclusion of his book, the statement put upon his title-page, that what the Church condemns is only exorbitant interest.

This work was sanctioned by various high ecclesiastical dignitaries, and served its purpose; for it covered the retreat of the Church.

In 1872 the Holy Office, answering a question solemnly put by the Bishop of Ariano, as solemnly declared that those who take eight per cent interest per annum are "not to be disquieted"; and in 1873 appeared a book published under authority from the Holy See, allowing the faithful to take moderate interest under condition that any future decisions of the Pope should be implicitly obeyed. Social science as applied to political economy had gained a victory final and complete. The Torlonia family at Rome to-day, with its palaces, chapels, intermarriages, affiliations, and papal favour - all won by lending money at interest, and by liberal gifts, from the profits of usury, to the Holy See - is but one out of many growths of its kind on ramparts long since surrendered and deserted.

The dealings of theology with public economy were by no means confined to the taking of interest for money. It would be interesting to note the restrictions placed upon commerce by the Church prohibition of commercial intercourse with infidels, against which the Republic of Venice fought a good fight; to note how, by a most curious perversion of Scripture in the Greek Church, many of the peasantry of Russia were prevented from raising and eating potatoes; how, in Scotland, at the beginning of this century, the use of fanning mills for winnowing grain was widely denounced as contrary to the text, "The wind bloweth where it listeth," etc., as leaguing with Satan, who is "Prince of the powers of the air," and therefore as sufficient cause for excommunication from the Scotch Church. Instructive it would be also to note how the introduction of railways was declared by an archbishop of the French Church to be an evidence of the divine displeasure against country innkeepers who set meat before their guests on fast days, and who were now punished by seeing travellers carried by their doors; how railways and telegraphs were denounced from a few noted pulpits as heralds of Antichrist; and how in Protestant England the curate of Rotherhithe, at the breaking in of the Thames Tunnel, so destructive to life and property, declared it from his pulpit a just judgment upon the presumptuous aspirations of mortal man.

The same tendency is seen in the opposition of conscientious men to the taking of the census in Sweden and the United States, on account of the terms in which the numbering of Israel is spoken of in the Old Testament. Religious scruples on similar grounds have also been avowed against so beneficial a thing as life insurance.

Apparently unimportant as these manifestations are, they indicate a widespread tendency; in the application of scriptural declarations to matters of social economy, which has not yet ceased, though it is fast fading away.

Worthy of especial study, too, would be the evolution of the modern methods of raising and bettering the condition of the poor, - the evolution, especially, of the idea that men are to be helped to help themselves, in opposition to the old theories of indiscriminate giving, which, taking root in some of the most beautiful utterances of our sacred books, grew in the warm atmosphere of medieval devotion into great systems for the pauperizing of the labouring classes. Here, too, scientific modes of thought in social science have given a new and nobler fruitage to the whole growth of Christian benevolence.

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