Religious Freedom, Slavery, and Usury

Three Challenges to the Hermeneutic of Continuity

The Lord Is My Shepherd, Eastman Johnson (American, 1863).

Early on in his pontificate, Benedict XVI laid down the challenge of reading the Church’s teaching according to a hermeneutic of continuity, rather than according to what he characterized as a hermeneutic of rupture.1

The hermeneutic of continuity is an approach to reading the Church’s teaching that makes the effort, sometimes strenuous, to read both old and new doctrine on related matters in such a way as to see the harmony that exists between them. By way of contrast, the hermeneutic of rupture abandons this effort and proclaims that, on various topics, the Church has fundamentally changed her doctrine. This is because, it is claimed, the doctrine of old, on this or that matter, is irreconcilable with newer statements on the same issue. Some lament this and go on to reject the authority of the modern Magisterium, while others rejoice and seek to use this supposed U-turn in doctrinal matters as a springboard for widespread changes in established Church teachings, especially on moral issues.

In this essay, I will take three issues that those promoting a hermeneutic of rupture often point to as examples of fundamental changes in doctrine. I will seek to show that this position can only be maintained by a superficial reading of what the Church has said, and is saying, whereas a more profound reading reveals, in all three cases, an essential strand of continuity.

Religious Freedom

Perhaps the most bitterly contested issue in this struggle between the two hermeneutics revolves around the question of religious freedom. This is not at all surprising when one considers how, at first sight, various statements by Gregory XIV and Pius IX on the subject seem irreconcilable with the approach taken by Vatican II in Dignitatis Humanae.

Compare, for instance, the following. In his Syllabus of Errors, Pius IX condemns as wrong the following statements:

In the present day, it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship. Allocution “Nemo vestrum,” July 26, 1855

Hence, it has been wisely decided by law, in some Catholic countries, that persons coming to reside therein shall enjoy the public exercise of their own peculiar worship. Allocution “Acerbissimum,” September 27, 18522

Whereas Dignitatis Humanae says:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise, that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.3

At first sight, the Church seems to have gone from demanding the control of non-Catholic religious practice to proclaiming that all religious practices are to be treated equally and, aside from public order, left unrestrained.

Various solutions have been offered which seek to show compatibility between the old and the new doctrine,4 whereas not a few authors simply abandon this task and claim there is, after all, an irreconcilable contradiction between the two positions.5 Among those solutions that try to respect the hermeneutic of continuity, the one offered by Thomas Pink is among the best. Here, I will briefly paraphrase and interpolate it a little.6

The first thing to note is that the context of the Syllabus of Errors (1864) and Dignitatis Humanae (1965) are quite different. The Syllabus of Errors is addressed to a world in which there still exist states that confess the Catholic religion to be the true religion, whereas Dignitatis Humanae has its eye on the seemingly ever-expanding menace of atheistic communism.7 Now, straight away, we must note that the Catholic Church sees nothing wrong at all in a state recognizing the Catholic Church as the true religion: quite the contrary, there is an obligation for it to do so once it has recognized the unique mission of the Church. Dignitatis Humanae recognizes this duty even if it does not hold or call the modern state to it, since it says that its own doctrine, “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”8 The relative silence on this matter in Dignitatis Humanae must be respected: it implies consent to what went before.

That said, the key doctrine of Dignitatis Humanae is that the state, in and of itself, has very limited jurisdiction in matters of religion. This is because of the state’s near total incompetence in religious matters. Since the state does not have access to divine revelation, when it is not subject to the Catholic Church, it can only make judgments on religious matters from the standpoint of human reason alone. This does not mean that the state cannot judge and regulate in religious matters at all; it does mean, however, that its competence is very limited indeed, stretching only as far as human reason can into matters of religious truth.

Dignitatis Humanae says the state ought to promote religion in general (allow it to flourish) because the state, by means of human reason, can know there is a God and that he ought to be worshiped.9 Likewise, the state can restrict religious freedom when issues of morality are at stake, since sound judgment in morality does not always demand faith.10 For example, it might forbid polygamy (even if some religions practice it) because polygamy is contrary to natural law: this is a truth that human reason, even without the aid of faith, can know.

Another thing that the state can know without revelation is that the Catholic Church is the true religious authority on earth. This can be known from the fact that she manifests what one might call superhuman qualities such as unnatural historical endurance and the superhuman ability to preserve the purity of her teaching over millennia.11 Now, once the state has recognized this—and this is the situation to which the Syllabus of Errors speaks—guided by the Church, the state can judge between true and false religious belief and practice because the state now acts in collaboration with (or subordination to) the Church, which does have access to revelation.

For example, once subordinated to the Church, the state can judge that God is a Trinity and that, in the Eucharist, the Second Person of the Trinity is substantially present. Of itself, it cannot know this—and this is what Dignitatis Humanae is pointing out. Yet, once submitted to the Catholic Church, it can know this, and this is what the Syllabus of Errors is pointing out. Of course, once the state can make these judgments, it can—and perhaps ought to—legislate in favor of the true religion. It might do this by giving the Catholic religion special privileges in matters of public worship, such as allowing Corpus Christi processions that close the highway for half a day, while not allowing other religions the same benefits.

But notice, the Syllabus of Errors does not suggest (any more than Dignitatis Humanae) that other religions should be suppressed, or that their followers should be coerced into converting to the Catholic religion. Yet, the question might be raised: why not, if the state now knows which is the true religion and can judge well in these matters with the help of the Church? The answer lies in what Dignitatis Humanae says about human dignity, namely, that in indifferent matters (matters of opinion), it is against human dignity to coerce the conscience.12 Now, here we need to be careful to remember that this is only the case in matters of opinion. In other matters, despite a common misconception, coercion of conscience is normal: after all, the owner of a bus company might, in conscience, believe that white persons and black persons ought to be segregated. Does the law not rightfully coerce such a person in these matters? Here, we see that a man with an invincibly ignorant erring conscious ought to be coerced.

However, in matters of opinion, like climate change, or whether Richard III did kill the two princes in the Tower, it would be contrary to human dignity to coerce someone to act against his conscience. Now, the point is this: a person cannot assent to the Catholic religion without faith and, so, without this supernatural gift, the claims of one religion or another is, to him, just opinion. Hence, in such matters, neither the Church nor the state acting under the guidance of the Church, has a right to coerce.

This is a very different matter from the historical coercion of heretics. Heretics are precisely persons who had the gift of faith and have, culpably, lost it. They are also persons who, by baptism, have taken on certain obligations to which the Church claims the right to hold them. That these obligations were incurred involuntarily (by infant baptism) is not a sufficient objection, since there are many obligations—such as honoring father and mother—that come with birth and are, likewise, involuntary.

In summary, then, the underlying principle which unites both the Syllabus of Errors and Dignitatis Humanae is that the state, in and of itself, has very limited competency in religious matters and so, left to itself, cannot do much more than treat all religions as equal. Now, this was precisely the historical situation facing the Church and the world in 1965 (and has remained so since then). However, were the state to recognize the Catholic Church as the religious authority on earth (the situation in some nation states in 1864), the state might legitimately favor the true religion, since it can now make judgments in these matters, not from its own competency, but from the competency of the Church. The principles remain constant: the situation to which the Church speaks has changed.


From the side of those favoring the hermeneutic of rupture, the accusation is sometimes made that, once upon a time, the Church saw little wrong in slavery and only came to condemn it rather belatedly. Hence, it seems we have here a U-turn in Church doctrine. John T. Noonan, for example, claims that “only after the cultures of Europe and America changed through the abolitionists’ agency, and only after laws of every civilized land eliminated the practice, did Catholic moral doctrine decisively repudiate slavery as immoral.”13

Noonan’s assertion is inaccurate because he fails to take into consideration both what the Church understands by the word “slavery,” as well as important distinctions to be made with regard to the character of servitude.

The Church understands by “slavery” or “servitude” (the words servitus in Latin can be rendered in either way) not that one man owns another man, but that one man owns the labor of another man. Now, while the former is intrinsically evil, there is nothing inherently wrong in the latter arrangement. What matters is how it came about that one man owns another man’s labor. For example, a great majority of Britons who left their homeland to make a new life in the North American colonies during the 17th century did so by entering into an agreement with a settler, that if the settler paid for their passage, they would work for him for, perhaps, two years for the added remuneration of a place to live and food to eat. This agreement—commonly called indentured servitude—is a form of slavery, according to the definition given above, and the indentured servant was held to his work by courts and punishments, if need be. However, even if it is far from an ideal social arrangement—better that the emigrating adventurer had enough money to pay the fare up front—it is not an intrinsically unjust arrangement.

Of course, the reality was that, throughout history, indentured servants were often mistreated and deprived of fundamental rights, such a human standard of habitation and nutrition, or the right to found a family by marriage.14 Moreover, servitude often has the side effect of morally degrading both master and servant, the one through pride, the other through humiliation. These factors, in themselves, might be reasons to qualify such arrangements as far from an ideal way to arrange society. However, even this does not make servitude, in and of itself, an evil: it is the secondary effect that is to be condemned.

Another so-called just title for servitude or slavery is penal servitude. In this case, the slave—the one whose labor is owned by another (perhaps the state)—is enslaved as a just punishment for his crime. Hence, few would find it strange that criminals are put to work in the laundry of the prison for little more remuneration than food, shelter, and pocket money. Even the Geneva Convention allows prisoners of war to be put to work.15 This explains the fact that, in the past, soldiers captured in battle were often enslaved. The logic here is that these soldiers were unjust aggressors, and so, worthy of punishment. In wars gone by, the alternative was often capital punishment: enslavement was a merciful commutation of this sentence.16

It is obvious that these forms of servitude contrast with chattel slavery, where one man owns another. That the Church, from the very beginning, has never accepted this more radical form of servitude, can be seen from the fact that she, unlike the cultures into which she was born, has always defended the right of slaves to marry and even to marry a freeman or freewoman.17 This would be impossible under chattel slavery because the slave does not have the freedom to dispose of himself in this fundamentally free way.18

All this goes to show that the Church has always made a careful distinction within the phenomenon of slavery, and also explains why the Church never made a blanket condemnation of slavery, and still has not.19 However, the types of slavery just described (indentured and penal) are something quite different from the slavery that accompanied the discovery of the New World. This new form of slavery was based on no just title, and was nothing more that the involuntary and unwarranted subjection of whole populations to the most miserable form of servitude. About this type of servitude, the popes consistently and very vigorously complained long before the British or American abolitionists took up the cause.

Nearly 60 years before Columbus discovered America in 1492, Eugene IV condemned the enslavement of the native inhabitants of the Canary Islands.20 Anyone dubious of the Church’s stance on these matters should read Paul III’s Sublimis Deus, which is a stirring vindication of the humanity of the natives of South America, and an ex cathedra statement condemning their enslavement and demanding that all enslaved natives be released. But what is also important to note about this letter is that Paul III calls this form of slavery “a means never before heard of.” By this, he clearly indicates that the form of slavery being practiced in the New World is different from at least some forms of servitude previously practiced in the Old World, such as those mentioned above.

In any case, the point should be clear: it is not true to say that the Church has changed her teaching on slavery, at first permitting it, and only very recently condemning it, as Noonan suggests. This is not true for two reasons. First, she did not come to the game late in the day: she condemned the type of slavery that we associate with the New World slave trade long before it became an issue in Britain or the Americas. Second, even now, the Church does not condemn all forms of servitude as intrinsically evil, and Noonan’s conclusion about a change in teaching fails to take into account this rather important fact. He, like John Maxwell, seems to conflate all forms of servitude into the ownership of one man by another.21 This is certainly wrong, and the Church has never said otherwise. Yet, it is not what the Church understands by the word slavery, and is but one form of servitude among others.22


The third supposed weak link in Benedict XVI’s hermeneutic of continuity is the issue of usury. Surely here we have a case of clearly documented condemnations of the practice followed by a tacit approval?

The condemnation itself is most clearly stated in Benedict XIV’s Vix Pervenit (1745). In that encyclical, the pope says that “the financial contract between consenting parties demands, by its very nature, that one return to another only as much as he has received.”23 In short, there is no intrinsic right to demand interest on money that is loaned. The encyclical was addressed to the Catholic bishops in Italian, but then extended to the whole Church by the Holy Office on July 29, 1836. However, since the document itself was penned just to the Church in one country, it seems to fall short of the requirements for infallibility as laid down by Vatican I (cf. Pastor Aeturnus), and a retrospective extending of its scope cannot make its doctrinal note different. Nonetheless, given the amount of times the practice of usury has been condemned by various popes and councils, it is unbelievable to imagine it is not a certain teaching, at least according to the ordinary and universal Magisterium.24

Now, there is no reason to think that the Church has changed her doctrine on this matter. The paucity of more recent statements on usury does not lead in this direction, and silence, as we have seen, should be taken as consent.25 Moreover, what is fundamentally unjust remains so, no matter in what age a man lives.

Now, what is unjust about usury is this: when a man sells something to another man, there may well be a range in which what he charges is just, but there will come a point where what he asks is unjust, even if the market would bear it. This is part of the reason why we consider war profiteering to be wrong. When it comes to the value of money, the demands of commutative justice are even clearer. If a person stops me in the street and asks if I have change for a five euro note in order to make a phone call from a public telephone booth, he expects me to give him the value of five euros in coins, because a five euro note is worth exactly that, five euros. If I gave him just four euros, I would rightfully be accused of being a cad.

Now, a second point: when money is lent, the money is handed over into the possession of the borrower, since he now really owns it and can dispose of it as he wills. This is different from a rental agreement on a car where the ownership is not transferred. After all, the borrower of money can give the money to a poor beggar if he wants: the borrower of the car cannot. And again, if the car is destroyed by a freak meteor shower, the borrower is not liable: but if the money were destroyed by this heavenly deluge, the borrower himself has lost out.

The upshot of all this is as follows: if I lend a man $1000 (which is worth, in and of itself, $1000), he now owns the $1000 and ought to pay me back exactly that amount at a given and agreed upon time in the future. If I then ask him to pay me additionally $100 per month for the use of that money, then I am charging him for what he now already owns. It would be like selling a bottle of wine for $20 (one that is worth about that), and then charging the new owner for the use of the wine, say $5 per glass he drinks. In fact, the word usury comes from the word “to use”: it is charging for the use of what one no longer owns!

At first sight, this teaching seems to destroy the whole basis of modern economies. This was the conclusion of C.S. Lewis when he gingerly addresses the issue in Mere Christianity.26 However, this is not the full story. It should be carefully noted that Benedict XIV says that, “the financial contract between consenting parties demands, by its very nature, that one return to another only as much as he has received.” The “by its nature” is rather important. It indicates that there might be just reasons to demand back more than was lent, as long as these reasons are extrinsic and not intrinsic to loaning, itself. For example, in making a loan, say that a person incurs costs, such as administrative costs, or needs to take out an insurance policy in case the loan goes bad. These would be reasons to ask for more back than was lent, but they are not titles built into loaning as such (otherwise you would be obliged in justice to charge your aged father interest on a loan you make him for his medical bills). Another potential just title would be that the lender deprives himself of some opportunity to use the money in another way that will yield a profit.27 Finally, and most importantly, the prohibition on usury in no way touches upon the morality of business investment in the sense of a joint-stock company. The reason is that, in this case, the lender and the borrower enter into a collaborative agreement in which the lender only receives dividends if the borrower makes a profit. But again, any additional money received by the lender over and above the value of the money lent out comes not from the very act of lending, but from the additional generation of wealth.

I suspect it is because most lending in modern context normally involves at least some of these titles, that the Church does not raise her voice against lending and borrowing at low levels of interest.

It is also worth noting that the Church’s teaching on usury is in conformity with another important principle of Catholic social doctrine, namely, that as far as possible, capital and labor should be in collaboration. Usury is the ultimate separation of capital and labor because the lender has no incentive in collaborating in the use of this money for the generation of wealth, since he claims interest no matter what the outcome of the business venture is. The effects of divorcing capital from labor—a necessary feature of usury—are becoming more acute in a globalized economy, where employees have less and less security in employment precisely because they have no share in the capital that funds the companies they work for. In these cases, there is nothing to stop companies relocating almost overnight in the search for cheaper labor.

The idea that interest is built into loaning also encourages reckless lending, and, in the wake of this, reckless borrowing. It is hard to deny that part of the financial difficulty we currently face in the West comes from such reckless lending (and its correlative reckless borrowing). Here I am thinking of the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market in the U.S.A. in 2007, and the insanely overextended borrowing of many European governments. These are manifestations of recklessness directly related to what Benedict XIV, at least, would recognize as usury.

While, in recent times, the mention of usury in Magisterial teaching has been fleeting, this can hardly be taken as a change in principle. The Church has not, and obviously will not, change her teaching on this: in fact, bearing our current economic woes in mind, it is a remarkably timely teaching that should be brought to the attention of the public once again.


In this essay, I have addressed three contentious issues that seem to threaten the plausibility of the hermeneutic of continuity. I have argued that any apparent discontinuity is superficial, and that, in each case, the self-same phenomenon is evident. We observe that, in each case, the underlying principle at stake is constant, whereas a change in the social situation yields a new application of this stable principle.

This is why Pope Benedict XVI calls the hermeneutic of continuity also the hermeneutic of reform: reform implies some change along with a fundamental continuity at the level of principles. After all, the “reform” of a religious order implies reassessing the lived experience of a charism, while seeking to remain ever-faithful to the principles of life laid out by the founder. In the speech to the Roman Curia from 2005, Pope Benedict makes exactly this point when he says:

It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists. In this process of innovation in continuity, we must learn to understand more practically than before that the Church’s decisions on contingent matters … should necessarily be contingent themselves, precisely because they refer to a specific reality that is changeable in itself. It was necessary to learn to recognize that in these decisions, it is only the principles that express the permanent aspect, since they remain as an undercurrent, motivating decisions from within. On the other hand, not so permanent are the practical forms that depend on the historical situation, and are therefore subject to change.28

Thus, in the case of religious freedom we have the principle that the state, in and of itself, has a very limited competence in religious matters. This means that the secularized or even militant-atheist state typical of the 20th century cannot restrict citizens in religious matters other than where it threatens public order. However, applying the same principle to another setting, namely the confessional state of the 19th century, the state can enact laws that favor the true religion because it inherits, as it were, a competency in making judgments in religious matters under the supervision of the Church.

Something similar transpires when we consider what the Church has taught about slavery. Holding to the principle that there might be just reasons for one man to own another man’s labor (but never his person), the Church distinguishes between different types of servitude on the basis of how this ownership came about. Therefore, while it has never said that all forms of indentured or penal servitude are unjust, when the New World slave trade emerged in the 15th century, the Church was unflinching in its condemnation.

Again, with regard to usury, we distinguish principle from conclusion. The principle of justice remains firm: there is no right in justice to ask for more money back than was lent, simply because it was lent. However, the Church has also recognized that parallel to the mere fact of loaning money, other titles of interest may arise. Therefore, with the evolution of economic systems (and especially the opportunity for investment), such titles have emerged, and so, without at all changing the principle one stroke, charging interest in some cases might be justified.

My contention is not that all difficulties in harmonizing things old and new have been done away with. In all three cases, the complexity of the subject matter is real and not to be underestimated. However, I do contend that making the right distinctions, as I have sought to do here, goes a long way to demonstrate the fundamental continuity of Church teaching in all three areas.

I also contend that part of the mission of the theologian is to put himself at the service of the Church particularly to this end. His job is to wrestle with these and other difficult issues seeking the thread of continuity that runs unbroken through manifold social changes. Often this will require considerable effort to avoid the temptation, springing either from the lure of notoriety or from a kind of academic sloth, of throwing in the towel and succumbing to the appeals of the hermeneutic of rupture. Making this effort and vindicating the hermeneutic of continuity would be a lasting tribute to Pope Benedict XVI, both as theologian and pastor.

  1. Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia, 22 December 2005.
  2. Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors, 77, 78.
  3. Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae, 2.1
  4. Roger Aubert, “Religious Liberty from ‘Mirari Vos’ to the ‘Syllabus’,” in Historical Problems of Church Renewal (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1965); 89–105: Brian Harrison, Religious Liberty and Contraception (Melbourne: John XXIII Fellowship, 1988).
  5. Charles Curran, Catholic Social Teaching: 1891-Present (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002); Martin Rhonheimer, “Benedict XVI’s ‘Hermeneutic of Reform’ and Religious Freedom,” Nova et Vetera, English Edition, Vol. 9, No. 4 (2011): 1029–1054.
  6. Thomas Pink, “Conscience and Coercion: Vatican II’s teaching on religious freedom changed policy not doctrine,” First Things August 2012. See,, accessed 10 February, 2013.
  7. Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae, 15
  8. Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae, 1.4, cf. 13.1,2.
  9. Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae, 3.5.
  10. Vatican II, Dignitatis Humanae, 3.4, 4.2.
  11. Leo XIII, Aeterni Patris, 5.
  12. Leo XIII, Libertas, 23.
  13. John T. Noonan, “Development in Moral Doctrine,” Theological Studies 54 (December 1993): 675.
  14. Leo XIII, Arcanum, 14.
  15. Cf. Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War of August 12 1949, Part III, Section III, aa.49-57.  See, Joel S. Panzer, The Popes and Slavery (New York: Alba House, 1996), 3.
  16. Justified penal slavery is the premise behind Nicholas V’s letter to Alfonso King of Portugal, Dum Diversas, giving the latter permission to conquer and enslave the inhabitants of Guinea Coast.  Nicholas was convinced by the Portuguese that the inhabitants were “Saracens” and hence were combatants in an unjustified war against a Christian nation.
  17. Cf. Councils of Verberie, 752 and Compiègne, 759.
  18. Neither the New Testament nor the early ecclesial writers take a determined line on the abolition of slavery as it was practiced in the Greek and Roman world of that time (cf. Philemon 1:10-18).  Slavery was such a part of the social fabric and the penalties for slaves who sought to throw off their bondage were so severe that it seems the ecclesial writers saw more benefit in exhorting Christian masters to gentleness and benevolence than preaching a radical social change.  The Church is always cautious about revolutions precisely because in them the weakest normally end up suffering the most. Nonetheless, through treating master and slave as equal within the Church (Col 3:11, Gal 3:28), the Church unlike no other institution contemplated a world without slavery.  It acted as if slavery was not there and, by this, greatly contributed to its demise.
  19. Noonan claims that such a blanket condemnation of slavery is found in John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor (§80) when the Pope, along with phenomena like abortion, genocide, and suicide says that slavery is “intrinsically evil” (John T. Noonan, The Church that Can and Cannot Change {Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005}).  However, as Dulles points out, John Paul II also lists deportation among these evils. But it is clear that some deportations are justified: for example illegal aliens who have committed serious crimes might be sent back to their own country. The Pope is clearly thinking of mass deportations as in the case of ethnic cleansing (see, Avery Dulles, “Development or Revival?” First Things {October 2005}, accessed 8 February 2013).
  20. Eugene IV, Sicut Dudum (1435).
  21. Furthermore, the Church has never accepted as a basis for slavery that some men are naturally inferior to others and, therefore, naturally slaves. This was the premise of Aristotle’s argument in favor of the practice (Aristotle, Politics, 1254b16–21). It is clearly rejected by Paul III in Sublimis Deus.
  22. Cf. John Maxwell, Slavery and the Catholic Church (Chichester: Ross, 1975).
  23. Benedict XIV’s Vix Pervenit, 3.I.
  24. The following Councils condemned usury: First Council of Carthage (345), Council of Aix (789), Third Council of the Lateran (1179), Second of Lyons (1274), and Council of Vienne (1311).
  25. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 65.  Cf. Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 3; The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church mentions it in passing, §323, §341; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2269, 2438.
  26. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 85.
  27. This title does not result in a general right to interest because whether an alternative business venture (that is itself not usurious) will in fact be profitable is seldom certain (Cf. Decree of the Holy Office, 4 March 1679 {Denzinger, 1191}).
  28. Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia, 22 December 2005.
Dr. William Newton About Dr. William Newton

Dr. William Newton is an associate professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Chair of Faculty, Austrian Program.


  1. Avatar bill bannon says:

    Popes in the 15th century opposed the enslavement of baptised natives only not all natives therefore the Canary Island document against slavery mentioned by the above author was only against the enslaving of baptised natives in the Canary are it’s words but check the whole thing online:

    Sicut Dudum
    Pope Eugene IV
    ” we will that like sentence of excommunication be incurred by one and all who attempt to capture, sell, or subject to slavery, baptized residents of the Canary Islands, or those who are freely seeking Baptism, from which excommunication cannot be absolved except as was stated above.”

    Shortly thereafter another papal document permits Portugal to perpetually enslave pagans in the new world…unbaptised…

    Pope Nicholas V
    Romanus Pontifex
    mid 4th large paragraph
    ” We [therefore] weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso — to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to REDUCE THEIR PERSONS TO PERPETUAL SLAVERY…”

    Dr. Newton then praises Sublimus Dei without noticing that it is reproving
    the papal text of Romanus Pontifex just cited which three subsequent Popes after 1454 had confirmed in writing …ergo Sublimus Dei was correcting the slavery position of four previous Popes.

    Pope Paul III
    Sublimus Dei
    “We define and declare by these Our letters… notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property..”

  2. Avatar James Foley says:

    This is a vexed question and deserves a longer treatment. An article in Christianity Today discussed this issue some time ago. Basically it shows that slavery was regarded as a moral evil by the Church in the medieval period. Here is a quote: “As early as the seventh century, Saint Bathilde (wife of King Clovis II) became famous for her campaign to stop slave-trading and free all slaves; in 851 Saint Anskar began his efforts to halt the Viking slave trade. That the Church willingly baptized slaves was claimed as proof that they had souls, and soon both kings and bishops—including William the Conqueror (1027-1087) and Saints Wulfstan (1009-1095) and Anselm (1033-1109)—forbade the enslavement of Christians.” In the this early period essentially everyone was Christian, with a exception of a few Vikings and Jews. It is true that at the periphery of Europe where Islam threatened it was standard practice for both sides to enslave prisoners but this was regarded as a special case. The problem could then be viewed dispassionately. St. Thomas Aquinas regarded it as a moral evil and three popes condemned it. What happened to change all this? Islam again went on the offensive and threatened Italy with invasion by sea. The galleys and other ships of the period were powered by slaves. Europe could only be defended from the Saracen invasions through the use of slave labor. The great Catholic victory at Lepanto, which finally blunted the conquering march of Islam, was accomplished by slave-powered ships. Catholic moralists were confronted with a complex problem with multiple evils. There were also powerful economic interests with lobbies from Spain and Portugal pressing the issue since they claimed the only way to make a profit out of the New World was with slave labor. All of this fogged the Church’s moral compass for a time.

    • Avatar bill bannon says:

      For Aquinas, slavery was in accord with the second intention of the natural law. This linked section to the Summa Theologica will show you the attitude at his time and in one spot he notes that the decretals of the Church affirm that a child born to a slave mother is ergo a slave:

      • Avatar Jim Foley says:

        You may be right. I am put in the strange position of defending Aquinas on what a bunch of Protestants think. The points made are as follows: Aquinas never issued a blanket condemnation of slavery because he felt he had to respect Aristotle’s position. In specific instances, however, he showed a humane sensitivity. He condemned serfdom and the enslavement of whole populations conquered in war. Prisoners of war, however, could be compelled to work under compulsion by the victor. The kind of slavery Aquinas [and Aristotle] tolerated was the family slave as found in antiquity. It is argued that Aquinas would never have approved of the widespread brutal enslavement of whole indigenous populations as practiced in the New World. That philosophic nicety was the work of later Spanish moralists.

      • Avatar bill bannon says:

        Aquinas’ frequent dependence on Aristotle might be why the usury explanation is most often
        overly complex. Vix Pervenit nevertheless sticks to that Aristotelian paradigm of not a cent of interest but Vix Pervenit was only addressed to Italy’s Bishops and clergy: It was far from universal. It was contradicted in 1830 when the Holy Office said those taking moderate interest were not to be disturbed ( Calvin’s 1545 position) and yet a later Holy Office 1836 made Vix Pervenit binding on the whole Church but later in the 1917 canon law, Dioceses were permitted to accept interest for their money in banks…and later religious orders were required to keep their assets in interest bearing vehicles.
        And like Aquinas, Vix Pervenit basically didn’t adequately face the problem that God permitted interest taking by the Jews from foreigners (Deut.23:19-29)…as by the way He permitted slavery over foreigners in Leviticus 25:44. Did God permit sin to the Jews? No and the example of divorce doesn’t contradict that because God’s non denunciation of polygamy from post Abraham to David ( and Augustine’s affirmation of it for the OT…showing that women were strictly forbidden many husbands since the intent was growing the population) means our Sacrament with its perfectly binding one flesh, Adam and Eve permanence was not probable for multitudes prior to sanctifying grace brought by Christ ( Jn.1:17). Christ expresses regret that God had to permit divorce due to their hardness of heart but Christ no where signals regret about God permitting them the taking of interest from foreigners or slavery over foreigners or polygamy. Keep in mind that slavery saves lives in the original nomadic contexts of no prison systems for multiple captives. It solves for nomadic cultures the problems of those captured in war, petty criminals, and hopeless debtors. I’d venture to say that the savage Islamic State terrorists right now…kill all three. Uncontacted tribes in Brazil hopefully are using slavery to solve those three problems or they too might be executing out of proportion to the offense.

      • “It was contradicted in 1830 when the Holy Office said those taking moderate interest were not to be disturbed..”

        That is a misinterpretation. Aquinas and Vix Pervenit are exactly right and not really complicated, but ignorant confessors were misunderstanding the doctrine and persecuting innocent businessmen. The Holy Office basically decreed that a businessman penitent was required to commit to following the instruction of the Holy See, and confessors were not to go beyond that in their own (the confessors’) personal interpretations.

        There was no change in position or doctrine. Read all of the references in Denzinger.

  3. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Hermeneutic of continuity exists ; let us give the fact that Jesus and the Holy Spirit state that they are with the Church, with the Papal magisterium, with the extraordinary episcopal magisterium forever. The Church therefore has never changed doctrines and morals re religious freedom, usury, and slavery. God be praised. Thank you Dr. Newton

    • Avatar bill bannon says:

      Fr. Brian Harrison of the Roman Forum wrote extensively on ” Torture and Corporal Pumishment as a Problem in Catholic Theology”. Google it in its Part II version and you’ll see his comments on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in such matters in section c2. It is not a simple area but a complex one.
      Here is part of what he says in c2 section as he infers that bad actions can occur at the prudential of commands not of doctrine that is clearly infallible:
      ” enjoys such a guarantee, but only that which is “universal”, not just in the geographical sense of applying throughout the Catholic world, but in the anthropological sense of applying to the faithful as a whole. In other words, we can be sure the Holy Spirit is never going to allow Peter’s Successor to command, or even authorize, the Church as a whole – the great bulk of the faithful round the world – to commit sin, or to do something that will cause grave harm. For that would be contrary to the ’note’ of sanctity (“One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”) which is a revealed attribute of the Church.”

      For example, Pope Leo X in art.33 of Exsurge Domine condemned Luther’s saying that burning heretics was against the Holy Spirit yet John Paul II in sect.80 of ” Splendor of the Truth” said that ” coercion of spirit” was an intrinsic evil. But Exsurge Domine was not infallible because the Pope says his view is supported by the “Cardinals”….but he does not reference all the Bishops of the Church which is what is needed for the communal form of the extraordinary magisterium. Thus a non infallible document need not harmonize with a document that infers the opposite….( see Ludwig Ott ” Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma”/ Intro./ last par. of section 8 after 1-6 list).

  4. My take on usury doctrine is that it is if anything even more continuous – and harmless to legitimate business investment – than is proposed in this article:


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