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The Unrepentant Traditionalist
September 24, 2009

Just Say No to Mammon
by Frank Creel

ARLINGTON, VA — What is real? What is useful? Pace, Hamlet, those are the questions. Their interplay pretty well defines human rationality.

Not that human rationality always comes up with the right answers. Most of the time — just a wild guess here — it appears to be missing the mark.

Romans had a refined sense of the useful. They had three different words (utensilis, utibilis, utilis) for expressing the notion’s nuances. Such refinement apparently stood them well since their republic/empire lasted for a millennium (two millennia if you count the Eastern Roman/Byzantine empire). Avid utilitarians, those Romans.

One thing Romans did not find very useful was usury (also derived from their verb utor, to use). Cato, Cicero, and Plutarch (not to mention those Greek fellows, Plato and Aristotle) condemned it. All of them thought it was unnatural to demand back more than was lent, especially when the “thing” lent was not really a thing but a convention, the agreed-upon medium of exchange, a mere symbol of value.

From the good earth spring olive, grape, and wheat. Copper, tin, and iron could be melted and shaped by the hand of man into a fine sword. But gold does not grow gold. Nor does the image of Caesar stamped in base metal purchase gold outside the realm.

Aquinas, good Aristotelian that he was, also condemned usury as the selling of “what does not exist,” a self-evident injustice. Half a millennium later, in Pope Benedict XIV’s encyclical Vix Pervenit (loosely translated as “Just Barely Made It”), the Catholic Church got around to a formal condemnation of the practice, even while allowing that there may arise legitimate reasons “to demand something over and above the amount due on the contract.”

Today’s financial movers and shakers don’t much care what an 18th-century pope thought of their business practices. They don’t even care what Benedict XVI thinks of them today. It is worth noting, nonetheless, that L’Osservatore Romano (OR), which many believe is a good index of Vatican sentiment on any issue, had praise for Islamic banking practices, which do not permit the usurious nose of the camel under the tent flaps. “The ethical principles on which Islamic finance is based,” OR observed, “may bring banks closer to their clients and to the true spirit which should mark every financial service.”

Aquinas could not have said it better. How ironic that Muslim Puritanism should nudge Christ’s Church back to the future, toward the judgment of usury best nestled in the demands of tradition and justice.

Modern theologians will not be comfortable with any return to tradition. The one who wrote the Catholic Encyclopedia article on usury a century ago, Arthur Vermeersch, said that the New Testament was “silent” on the subject.

A leading authority on the New Testament, however, counseled: “From him who takes away your goods, ask no return… lend, not hoping for any return.” Yes, this from him who taught not as the scribes but with authority. Vermeersch dismissed these words from the mouth of the incarnate God as “only an exhortation to general and disinterested benevolence.”

This leads us to the other axis of human rationality: What is real?

It was not the logic of the utilitarians that was defective, but their conception of reality. As children of the so-called Enlightenment they were all inclined to dismiss anything beyond the grasp of their physical senses as unreal. Truth propositions not grounded in the empirical sciences revealed nothing but the emotional state of the speaker. To them, a law-giving God was not real.

So, the only realities fit for their calculus were the avoidance of pain and the enhancement of pleasure.

I consider myself a utilitarian — but with this difference: I accept the reality and the inevitability of divine justice. If I choose to ignore the counsel of him who spoke with authority, I will be ignoring the demands of my personal utilitarianism.

I would be irrational.

Logic and reason are fairly severe disciplines. They do not permit a heck of a lot of leeway in obeying their demands. Therefore, if human rationality does not invariably lead to beneficial results (the multiple messes in which we find ourselves argue powerfully that it does not), then the fault necessarily lies elsewhere.

The problem is that there are so many different opinions about what is real. If a person’s idea of reality does not accord with that of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Jesus Christ, then it becomes okay, even rational, to demand interest, even excessive interest, from a borrower who is down on his luck; to foreclose on properties with mortgage payments in arrears; to raise a credit card APR from 8.9 percent to 19.9 percent after a late payment; to take 10 percent of a laborer’s paycheck in return for paying him a day or two early; to act as loan shark in the ghettoes and slums of America.

To worship Mammon.

If we want to save ourselves, we do not need to be more logical and rational. We just need to get real.

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The Unrepentant Traditionalist is copyright © 2009 by Frank Creel and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.

Frank Creel, Ph.D., a columnist and author, was an English teacher in the Peace Corps in Turkey. He is fluent in the Turkish language and in Arabic script.

See a complete biographical sketch.

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