Thomas Storck looks at Benedict XIV’s 1745 encyclical letter, Vix pervenit, which he says is surprisingly timely.
There is a certain group of Catholics, doubtless more often found in the US than in the UK, who reject the entire notion of Catholic social teaching. The popes, they say, have overstepped their bounds, they have no more right to teach on the morality of economic transactions than they have to give lectures on how to construct a building or how to bake a cake. Such critics usually know little of history. There is, in fact, a long list of papal interventions into matters of economic morality, dating back centuries.
Since the time of the Fathers of the Church, Catholic theologians had condemned the taking of interest on loans. At first these denunciations were somewhat unfocused. But during the course of a sophisticated theological debate from the 12th through to the 18th century, it became clear that what was objectionable was the taking of interest simply because of a loan contract.
The capstone of this debate was Benedict XIV’s 1745 encyclical, Vix pervenit. Benedict summed up more than six centuries of intense theological discussion in a few principles:
The nature of the sin called usury has its proper place and origin in a loan contract [when] the creditor desires more than he has given. [However] any gain which exceeds the amount he gave is illicit and usurious.
One cannot condone the sin of usury by arguing that the gain is not great or excessive, but rather moderate or small; neither can it be condoned by arguing that the borrower is rich; nor even by arguing that the money borrowed is not left idle, but is spent usefully …
[H]owever, We do not deny that at times together with the loan contract certain other titles – which are not at all intrinsic to the contract – may run parallel with it. From these other titles, entirely just and legitimate reasons arise to demand something over and above the amount due on the contract.
This is the Church’s doctrine in a nutshell: sometimes taking interest is usury, sometimes – “certain other titles” – it is not. But what is of interest here is that the popes felt perfectly justified in teaching authoritatively on a matter that today many would insist was purely the concern of “economic science”. But no. Economic activity, like any area of human life, has moral implications, and hence it is the right and duty of the Church to set bounds of justice and injustice.
To limit the Church’s teaching to matters of private morality is to acquiesce in the effort to privatise religion and drive the Church from the public square.