Usury in Christendom (Hoffman)

Hoffman’s broad thesis is that the Catholic church practically ceased viewing usury as a mortal sin due to clever re-phrasings of the law.  A corollary is that the Protestants did not begin usury (or capitalism).  Many Protestants opposed it, and those who did support it used neo-Catholic arguments.

Hoffman’s narrative doesn’t appear to follow a noticeable pattern, but his argument is fairly clear: the church has uniformly condemned usury, defined as receiving extra on the loan.  The key villains are the Medici and Fugger banking clans.  And while later Popes would condemn worker exploitation, none undid the damage of Renaissance popes in making usury acceptable.  And by the time of JPII and Benedict XVI, it became mandatory

The Argument Against Usury

(1) God is the supreme owner of land and leases it to men (Hoffman 30).

(2) The idea of just price is often ridiculed, but misunderstood.  It does not exist within a vacuum.  A just price cannot work in a society that uses interest (43).

(3) The Old Testament intended usury to be used as a weapon against the nokri, the Canaanite in the land.  It was not to be used against the ger, the sojourner.

(4) Money is fungible, so it cannot reproduce artificially.

(5) God’s provision for man in nature is a presupposition against usury.  “To make a claim to wealth that outstrips that provision…is to produce injustice” (105).

(6) When money becomes abstracted (from use), its usefulness becomes obscure.

(7) Profit can only come from nature’s goods, which requires discipline and patience.

(8) The Logic of Mutuum: in a mutuum loan, ownership actually passes from creditor to debtor, so to “receive a fee for this, I profit from what is yours, not mine.  Therefore, the creditor sells nothing that is his, but only time, which is God’s” (99, emphasis added).

(9) In a modern day usurious system, “the worker is separated from the material means of production to be brought again into contact only by means of the credit system in which everything is capitalized” (333).


Hoffman’s case appears to be air-tight, if at times incomplete. He destroys the historiography of the ChesterBelloc school, which blames usury and capitalism on the Jew and Protestants.  They never bother to investigate the Medici banking clan.  Hoffman also gives a fine bibliography.


This book could have used a professional editor and formatter.  Secondly, Hoffman isn’t consistent in how he cites sources.  On one page he will give us a detailed source in Latin but elsewhere he will say, “St Basil said this” or King St. Alfred the Great said this, but not tell us where.  Thirdly, while his argument is usually fine and polished, occasionally (Chapter 8) he rants and collapses a number of complex ethical discussions into a sentence or two.


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in Book Review, church, Philosophy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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