Christian Democracy is dedicated to St. Joseph the Worker. The icon of St. Joseph the Worker is by Daniel Nichols.

The Saint Thomas Aquinas Rules of Online Etiquette

January 25th, 2016

It started with a picnic in a park.

I got involved in a brief discussion with a few acquaintances about the well-known vice of internet trolling.  What surprised me most was hearing about some sort of anti-sexism campaign that had reportedly geo-located certain people making offensive Facebook comments, then purchased billboard ads quoting those people directly in the areas where they lived.  This was reported favorably and, I thought, somewhat condescendingly as a form of shaming that works in those “homogeneous” small-town communities where everybody knows each other.

Maybe it does.  And maybe we would all do well to ask ourselves whether we would want to see our words on a billboard in our hometown before clicking that “post” button.  And that’s arguably not far from what we’re doing anyway when we post online comments, at least when they are under our real names.  But still, I wondered whether the satisfaction derived from that sort of comeuppance isn’t just part of the same problem, another spiraling-out of the self-feeding cycle of vitriol. When I raised some (less articulate) question to that effect, the person who had told that story responded that when such bigotry that gets put out there is voiced, “you gotta shut that down.”  Which still leaves me with the same question: isn’t that the same kind of thought process that leads to trolling behavior in the first place? This person is so wrong. This cannot be let go. I must SHUT THEM DOWN!

It’s a thought process I’m all too familiar with, I must confess. Although the above discussion was brief and not at all heated, the same instinct may even be ironically at work in my recounting of it. Being temperamentally contrarian since long before I had any help from the quasi-anonymity of the internet, I am the chief of sinners on this point. I have long wrestled with the question of how best to respond to things that demand a response, or seem to in a given moment—including how to tell the difference.

An unexpected insight came, though, when the conversation turned to a lawn game that involves throwing wooden batons at wooden blocks. As someone explained, at a certain point in the game, “You have to knock down your own before you knock down your opponent’s.” Systematician that I am, a light came on: that would make a great first rule of online comments. Furthermore, it would be taking a page from none other than the Angelic Doctor, whose whole methodology famously began by countering his own argument, and in a genuinely compelling rather than merely straw-man way. Hence, the concept of the Thomas Aquinas Rules of Online Etiquette.

I haven’t thought out what any other such rules might sound like, and I’m really talking more about a kind of thought experiment than anything enforceable. Still, it wouldn’t hurt for Catholics, and other Christians who appreciate the Thomistic tradition, to start setting an example. Granted, it would be a bit too much to ask that everyone read the Summa as a prerequisite to online commenting, but “knock down your own point before you knock down your opponent’s” might not be a bad place to start.

—Julia Smucker
Julia Smucker writes for Vox Nova where this article previously appeared.




January 10th, 2016

Within the pages of Christian Democracy there has arisen a spontaneous dialogue on the question of Socialism versus Catholic Social Teaching. Both Christian Democracy editor Doran Hunter and Keith Estrada have expressed their advocacy for a certain kind of Socialism that passes muster with magisterial authority. In October of last year, I wrote an article entitled “Catholicism, Socialism, and Expressing Ourselves Clearly,” [1] wherein I examined the history of papal responses to Socialism, and concluded that, while it has certainly come to pass that there are economic models identified as “Socialist” which are fully reconcilable with Catholic teaching, “Socialism” was becoming too broad a term for cogency.

Mr. Hunter followed up with an article in November, entitled “Can a Catholic Be a Socialist?” [2] Fully consistent with his previous writing, he answered in the affirmative. His article doesn’t mention mine, so it would be a tad narcissistic if I treated it as if he was responding to me. Indeed, it is the fact that he did not grapple with the conclusion of my article that, in part, inspires the following. Let it be expressed clearly, then, that what follows is a response to Mr. Hunter’s article. Even though he and I disagree little as to substantive matters, I am compelled to insist that the ambiguity that has attached to the term “Socialism” makes communication of the idea that both Mr. Hunter and Mr. Estrada want to present more difficult than it needs to be.

It is undeniable that “Socialism” doesn’t always mean Stalinism, as Mr. Hunter points out. I am all too happy to agree with him, since I make that very point in my article when I say that there are a lot of things that get called “Socialism” nowadays that do not resemble Socialism as classically understood. My point is not to take issue with everything that calls itself “Socialism,” but to challenge the ambiguous use of the term. The same name should only be given to identical, or at least similar, things. A society consisting of worker-owned businesses is entirely different than one where the government owns the means of production, yet both get called “Socialism.” But if a system where everyone owns productive property is given the same name as one where nobody owns it, we are dealing with a name, a word, which has been divested of all coherent meaning.  

Of course, if we are going to call a system of worker-owned enterprises “Socialism,” then we can say that we have found a Socialist model that avoids the objection of Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno that Socialism, even in its moderate forms, involves a materialist conception of humanity. [3] A worker controlled enterprise need not be materialist. But Pius XI was not addressing worker-owned enterprises. In point of fact, in the very encyclical where the pontiff was criticizing Socialism he says this:

“First of all, those who declare that a contract of hiring and being hired is unjust of its own nature, and hence a partnership-contract must take its place, are certainly in error and gravely misrepresent Our Predecessor whose Encyclical not only accepts working for wages or salaries but deals at some length with it regulation in accordance with the rules of justice.

“We consider it more advisable, however, in the present condition of human society that, so far as is possible, the work-contract be somewhat modified by a partnership-contract, as is already being done in various ways and with no small advantage to workers and owners. Workers and other employees thus become sharers in ownership or management or participate in some fashion in the profits received.” (¶¶ 64, 65)

It thus appears that Pius XI anticipated something close to Mr. Hunter’s proposal, and approved of it. He just didn’t call it “Socialism.”

Thus, there is really no satisfactory answer to Pius XI’s objection that Socialism “must be brought into being and maintained by force.” Workers’ cooperatives are, indeed, entered into voluntarily. But Pius XI wasn’t thinking about workers’ cooperatives when he wrote about Socialism, and a complete seizure of the means of production by the government, which is what the pontiff was thinking about, does indeed require a great deal of force for its accomplishment.

Ultimately, the question is about whether business enterprises should be, in the main, owned by the government or privately. The popes have uniformly held for private ownership. So, apparently, does Mr. Hunter. The real dispute here is over what deserves to be called “Socialism,” and my point is that when “Socialism” is used to describe different things that are completely unalike it engenders unnecessary confusion.

To see just what kind of confusion can arise when one uses “Socialism” in such a broad manner, an example can be found in Gabriel Sanchez’s Opus Publicum, where he took both Mr. Hunter and myself to task for falling to what he calls the “socialist seduction.” [4] He seemed to be saying that we both were trying to squeeze Socialism into magisterial compliance.

Mr. Hunter is more than equal to the task of defending himself, but I wasn’t attempting any such thing. I was surveying papal encyclicals for their teaching on Socialism, and found that as Socialism has developed into different forms the papal response to it has changed. It is, therefore, no longer a simple matter of rejecting Socialism on Catholic grounds. Instead, one must look to what particular version of Socialism is being advocated. While the old-style state Socialism remains wholly outside of what can magisterially be condoned, workers’ cooperatives are entirely acceptable according to Catholic teaching. Strangely, both of these are called “Socialism,” and the popes have had to respond to economic ideologies as they present themselves. Thus, in Centesimus annus, Saint Pope John Paul II limited the Church’s condemnation of Socialism to the state Socialism of Pope Leo XIII’s time. [5]

But Mr. Sanchez’s response in Opus Publicum demonstrates the level of confusion that can arise from calling different things by the same name. He even accuses me of having no problem with the idea of capturing “state power in order to strip people of their wealth and redistribute it across the board,” an idea also given the “Socialist” moniker, but which in no way was advocated in my article. He also accuses both Mr. Hunter and me of arguing for a command style economy, which applies to neither of us as best as I can tell, but is an understandable misunderstanding given the use of the term “Socialism.”

But there is a still more pernicious outcome made possible by such a confusing use of the word “Socialism.” There is an extant economic ideology, inspired by Catholic social teaching, which calls for as widely disbursed as possible ownership of the means of production, of which workers’ cooperatives have become a classic expression, and that is Distributism. While Distributists are hardly uniform in their approach to all issues, the idea of wide ownership of productive property is central. But what are currently being presented as Socialist ideas are really Distributist ideas, and calling them “Socialist” creates a reflexive opposition, as exemplified by Mr. Sanchez’s response, that Distributism doesn’t deserve.

Jack Quirk

Jack Quirk is a Contributing Editor of The Distributist Review and former Editor of Christian Democracy.

Christian Populism and the Western Fathers

January 2, 2016

Russian Christianity has, sometimes with good reason, a tendency to cloak itself in the language of its own philosophical heritage. One can trace this tendency back many centuries—the Russian monastics always had a spiritual character peculiar to their patria, and the devotional life of the Russian people is unlike any other—but it can safely be asserted that this tendency took off with the romantic reaction against the Westernising elements in the governments of Tsar Pyotr I and Tsarina Ekaterina II. The main proponents of this peculiarly-Russian religious philosophy included both the broad philosophical movement of the Slavophils and the religious movement back to the Early Church Fathers spearheaded by Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow. It is shown in the treatment of the language of sobornost’, of integral knowing, of the forms that attach to the monastic community and to the peasant commune, of the deep and rich spiritual soil that has always belonged solely to the crude, unlearned, rural Russian peasant—the roots of political narodnichestvo, of Russian populism. Yet this tradition, though it often uses the language of exceptionalism, has a firm basis in Christian thinking which predates any Russian state.
I may be treading out on some thin ice, here. But it strikes me that the religious populism of these 19th-century Russian philosophers and clergymen reflects very strongly the thinking and practice of two of the early Western Church Fathers: Holy Father Irenæus of Lyons and Bishop Saint Ambrose of Milan. Special care must be taken here, because it is very clear that the Russian philosophers of the 19th century imbibed from highly modern sources, including from the German idealists like Hegel and especially Schelling. And the parallels are far from perfect. But it is not accidental—indeed, in the case of the ‘rediscovery’ of the Patristics under Saint Filaret, it is wholly intentional—that the special concern and even admiration of both Irenæus and Ambrose for the accessibility and commonality of Orthodox Christian belief to even the simplest of believers, and their implacable hostility to elitist artifice, strongly prefigures the Russian tradition.
Hieromartyr Irenæus, one of the most important ante-Nicene Church Fathers in both East and West, lived only two generations removed from the Apostles. He was a countryman and, in his youth, a disciple of the Apostolic Father, Hieromartyr Polycarp of Smyrna, who in turn learned from the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John. Though he has written a number of other works which are now lost, he is remembered for two writings which have survived to the present day: On the Detection and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called (popularly known as Against Heresies) and The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching.
Though an Asian Greek by language and heritage, Holy Father Irenæus spent most of his life ministering and preaching among the Gauls from the Roman city of Lugdunum (now Lyon), first as a cleric and later as a bishop. He has, as he himself humbly acknowledges, a rather rough and unrefined style of writing, though he is certainly capable of a biting and Juvenalian wit, which occasionally turns up in Against Heresies. But in preaching the faith and witnessing some of the egregious contortions of it by con men, predators, hucksters and street magicians who claimed for themselves a special spiritual insight, or gnosis, Irenæus applied himself with admirable vigour to the defence of a proto-Orthodoxy which was still beginning to be fully articulated. It is notable that he was strongly motivated to do this for the people who found themselves exploited by these Gnostics—who often took full advantage, whether financial or social or sexual, of their victims.
Though the heresy of Gnosticism has wide and seemingly inexhaustible permutations (all of which are made up, as far as I can tell, of tedious metaphysical codswallop), these share a similar theme in that they all seem to construct elaborate, labyrinthine cosmologies with male-female mating pairs of spiritual powers (Æons) in groups of eight (an Ogdoad) or ten (a Decad) or twelve (a Duodecad), which exist entirely apart from the physical material world, in the spiritual realm of the Pleroma. The reason that the physical material world exists is because one of the female members of the Duodecad began to experience impure passions for her ‘father’, and gave birth to an abortive, non-spiritual substance, which she gave to another of her offspring (the Demiurge), from which he shaped and formed the material world. In Gnostic thought, human beings, as part of this lifeless and impure material reality, can only communicate with the spiritual realm, and thus achieve salvation from it, by the means of magic incantations and formulæ, which can range from invocations of the names of the spiritual powers to nonsensical phrases to just strings of vowels. These the Gnostics proceeded to justify through the use of a numerological reading of certain passages of Scripture, whose ‘true meaning’ had been cunningly hidden, such that it would reveal itself only to those possessing the proper knowledge to interpret it—that is, only to them.
This pretension is what Irenæus attacks with such relentless drive in Against Heresies. ‘These doctrines,’ Irenæus writes of the teachings of Valentinus, ‘are… abstruse and portentious… to be got at only with great labour by such as are in love with falsehood.’ But these he contrasts with the doctrines of the Church, which ‘believes… as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them… with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth… and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth’. Those who turned in faith to Christ, those who attained to true spiritual gnosis, were not the superior men, not ‘Caiaphas, and Annas, and the rest of the chief priests, and doctors of the law, and rulers of the people’, but instead they were ‘those who sat begging by the highway, the deaf, and the blind’. Indeed, Irenæus cannot lay it out more clearly as when he says,
‘It is therefore better and more profitable to belong to the simple and unlettered class, and by means of love to attain to nearness to God, than, by imagining ourselves learned and skilful, to be found among those who are blasphemous against their own God, inasmuch as they conjure up another.’
The Gnostic teachers almost to a man belonged to the upper and educated class, and—as Irenæus showed—adapted concepts at will, syncretically, from ‘the wisdom of the Egyptians’, from Homer, from Pythagoras, from Plato and Aristotle. And yet, they used these ideas with all the integrity of sophists, to defraud and debauch the innocent—and they did so by dividing knowledge (gnosis) from the practice of love. But for Holy Father Irenæus, love is preferable to learning not because learning is of no worth (Irenæus does not despise the intelligent), but because we are only capable of learning of divine things through the practice of love. This teaching lies at the root of the integral-knowing of Khomyakov and Kireevsky. It is possible, and indeed easier, for the ‘simple and unlettered’—for Khomyakov, Kireevsky and the Slavophils embodied in the model of the rough, crude Russian peasant situated in his commune—to practise love of God and neighbour. In Slavophil eyes the peasant thereby easily and freely attains to a wisdom that the Russian intellectual—lusting as he does with the knowledge of modern France and Germany which gives him power, influence and social high standing—has difficulty reaching.
Speaking of France and Germany, though, their knowledge had not always been marked by the libido dominandi. On the contrary, this selfsame preference for the simple folk, for the peasantry and for the unlettered, pervades the letters of the blessed and erudite Bishop of Milan. He gives voice even more stridently to what might today be considered a populist stance:
‘Let them take the estates away, if it pleases the Emperor!’ Holy Father Ambrose writes in his seventy-fifth Letter. ‘I am not giving them away, yet I am not withholding them either. They ask for gold. I can say, “I ask for neither silver nor gold”. However, they stir up ill-will against me because gold is being spent. But that kind of ill-will does not frighten me, I have riches of my own. The poor of Christ are my riches. This is a treasure that I know how to amass. I only wish that they may always charge me with expending gold on the poor! But if their charge is that I use the poor as a bodyguard, I will not repudiate it. I even vaunt it! I do indeed use them as a bodyguard, but my defence lies in their prayers. Though blind and lame, weak and old, they are stronger [in faith] than vigorous warriors.’
And later, in the same Letter:
‘They assert that the people have also been deceived by the spells of my hymns. I am obviously not denying that. They are indeed a mighty enchantment! There is nothing more powerful — for what is more powerful than the glorification of the Trinity which is celebrated day after day by the voices of the whole people? All eagerly vie with one another to confess the Faith. All know how to praise in verses Father, Son and Holy Spirit! So they have all become teachers, where before they were pupils.’
It is necessary to note that Holy Father Ambrose’s opponents are not Gnostics, but they are still ‘elitists’ of a sort. The followers of Arius, whose cause was then alternating with the doctrines of Nicæa in royal favour, were as much representatives of a class and of a political position inhering to the interests of that class, as they were proponents of a Christological heresy. Arianism, according to historian Robert Pattison, ‘was a theological expression of nostalgia for the economic laissez-faire of classical civilisation. Arians were the apologists for a fading libertarianism which reached its high-water mark two hundred years earlier in the age of ambitious Trimalchios and virtuous Epictetus… a coalition of intellectuals, bureaucrats, professionals, artisans, merchants and freedmen.’ The Arian Christ who was of different substance from, separate from, and subordinate to the Father, appealed equally to men who had no interest in claiming solidarity with people who were beneath them, or in obeying those above them, particularly when Imperial taxes were under consideration.
When the opponents to whom he addresses himself in his Letter are placed in this light, Ambrose’s stolid championship of Nicene Orthodoxy and his full-throated, even defiant preference for what is clearly the vulgus, for the common and impoverished rabble who sang hymns in his Church, begin to make much more sense in juxtaposition. The truth of Christ’s Incarnation to which the Council at Nicæa confessed was radical—intolerably so, to people who believed in their own self-sufficiency and political and metaphysical independence from their ‘inferiors’. But to the vulgus, it was nothing more and nothing less but the promise that they were not abandoned, that they were saved by a God, even the One who is Creator of all things, who took on flesh—as one of them. Nicene Orthodoxy holds out for nothing less than divine solidarity with even the least, the poorest and the most wretched of mortal creatures. Indeed, the blessed Bishop—directly prefiguring the spiritual pilgrimage of the Slavophils and the narodniki—looks to the poor and the wretched, not as objects of pity, as those who have immediate access to a spiritual wisdom unattained by the learned or the wealthy, or by ‘vigorous warriors’ of the sort who were drawn to the teachings of Arius.
It is with a Chestertonian apology that I write this article. It’s as if I am setting out to sea in search of some long-lost and uncharted land only to discover not only that many people have come thence before, but in fact it is the very same beloved home town I set sail from. Naturally there is a strong and deliberate connexion between the Russian Slavophils and the earliest of the Western Church Fathers—a connexion which indeed ought to be shared by Christendom in the main—and this modest contribution likely amounts to little more than a restatement of it. But it is still worth showing forth, again and again. Christian West and East are perhaps not as foreign to each other as one might be led to believe.

Matthew Franklin Cooper

Matthew F. Cooper is an AmeriCorps alumnus, ESL teacher and policy analyst currently based in Rhode Island, where he makes up about a third of the bass section in the choir of St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Pawtucket. He has done some policy writing for PlaNet Finance China, as well as for the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council; the opinions he rather haphazardly scribbles elsewhere are very much his own, however. He is a contributing editor at the Solidarity Hall thinkerspace, and maintains a blog at The Heavy Anglo-Orthodox, where he meanders about theology, geopolitics, economics, and heavy metal.

A Few Words on Usury

November 28, 2015 

It’s difficult to think of an economic activity more ubiquitous under capitalism than the charging of interest on loans meant for consumption. Modern commercial banking, including those banks in which most of us (myself included) have savings accounts, depends fully on the lending of money at interest, and has done so ever since the first silver-smithies of the Renaissance city-states of northern Italy and Flanders began printing their own bank-notes. We live in an age and a society where credit card debt and payday lenders are systematic and ubiquitous. And yet the sin of usury finds a round condemnation in a broad unanimity of Church Fathers both East and West. 

So says Holy Father Basil the Great: ‘Tell me, do you seek money and means from a poor man? If he had been able to make you richer, why would he have sought at your doors? Coming for assistance, he found hostility. When searching around for antidotes, he came upon poisons. It was your duty to relieve the destitution of the man, but you, seeing to drain the desert dry, increased his need… And just as farmers pray for rains for the increase of their crops, so you also ask for poverty and want among men in order that your money may be productive to you. Do you not know that you are making an addition to your sin greater than the increase to your wealth, which you are planning from the interest?’  

And so says his brother, Holy Father Gregory of Nyssa: ‘Do not live with feigned charity nor be a murderous physician with the pretense to heal for a profit; if you do this, a person trusting in your skill can suffer great harm. Money lending has no value and is rapacious. It is unfamiliar with such trades as agriculture and commerce… Money lending wants everything to be wild and begets whatever has been untilled… Usury’s home is a threshing-floor upon which the fortunes of the oppressed are winnowed and where it considers everything as its own. It prays for afflictions and misfortunes in order to destroy such persons. Money lending despises people contented with their possessions and treats them as enemies because they do not provide money. It watches courts of law to find distress in persons who demand payment and follows tax collectors who are a nest of vultures in battle array prepared for war. Money lending carries a purse and dangles bait as a wild beast to those in distress in order to ensnare them in their need. Daily it counts gain and cannot be satisfied. It is vexed by gold hidden in a person’s home because it remains idle and unprofitable. Usury imitates farmers who immediately plant crops; it takes and gives money without gain while transferring it from one hand to another.’ 

Holy Father Gregory the Theologian, in full agreement with his friends the brothers Basil and Gregory, holds that the usurer ‘is gathering where he has not sowed and reaping where he has not strawed; farming, not the land, but the necessity of the needy.’  

Archbishop Saint John Chrysostom preaches against usury with his wonted vigour: ‘Nothing, nothing is baser than the usury of this world, nothing more cruel. Why, other persons’ calamities are such a man’s traffic; he makes himself gain of the distress of another, and demands wages for kindness, as though he were afraid to seem merciful, and under the cloak of kindness he digs the pitfall deeper, by the act of help galling a man’s poverty, and in the act of stretching out the hand thrusting him down, and when receiving him as in harbour, involving him in shipwreck, as on a rock, or shoal, or reef.’  

And again: ‘Of what favour canst thou be worthy? of what justification? who in thy sowing of the earth, gladly pourest forth all, and in lending to men at usury sparest nothing; but in feeding thy Lord through His poor art cruel and inhuman?’  

Note that again and again in the homilies and writings of the Eastern Fathers we can see at work an agrarian analogy with money, and one at that all the more striking, because the analogy serves to contrast the two. Ss. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazanzius and John Chrysostom all understand perfectly well the wickedness of treating money like seed corn, and they all use the analogy of farming (which they naturally consider an honourable occupation) to highlight the contradistinction. ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees’, or so the old saw goes—but often the hawkers of such platitudes wield them as weapons against the poor and indebted, as a way of upbraiding their laziness, profligacy or other presumed moral flaws.  

When used today, the platitude of course ignores that the monetary system that we live with treats money as though it grows on trees. Commercial banks literally increase the money supply by lending at interest; money created in this way exists as a bookkeeping entry, listing the loan as an asset of the bank which lent it. Moneylending, as S. Gregory of Nyssa very aptly observed, ‘has a reed for a plough, papyrus for a field and black ink for seed’. Now, calling to mind my brief earlier treatments of wealth and money in the Church Fathers, who insisted that wealth should be intrinsically tied to work, a distinction has to be made between two different kinds of loans. It is not necessarily usurious, for example, to contribute a loan to an industrial firm, to a small business, to a farm or to some other productive project which can be reasonably expected to pay back over time, and do so by making, raising or providing things which are useful to human flourishing.  

What the Eastern Fathers are condemning here in their treatment of usury, are loans which maldistribute wealth by making the acquisition of money the aim of its own lending. Using loans to prey upon the basic living and consumption needs of the debtor—food, clothing, shelter, education—these things justly fall under S. Gregory of Nazanzius’s damning description of ‘farming the necessity of the needy’. The money so produced, as the Church Fathers clearly realised, does not grow on trees—it grows on the desperation and insecurity of the poor. Payday lending easily falls into this category, as does most credit card debt, particularly in the wake of deregulation. But usury is not restricted only to these kinds of small-scale individual lenders, and any examination of usury has to take into account the pressures of necessity on poor people to appear as though they consume at a standard they can’t actually afford, just to secure the necessities of living. S. Basil in his exegetical homily on Psalm 14, counsels the poor to constrain their own spending and remain free, without becoming entangled in debt, even to ‘persevere in terrible situations’, but he also makes clear that he only so advises them ‘because of [rich men’s] inhumanity’. As the popular essayist Barbara Ehrenreich writes 

‘If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced. If you need a loan, as most poor people eventually do, you will end up paying an interest rate many times more than what a more affluent borrower would be charged. To be poor—especially with children to support and care for—is a perpetual high-wire act.’  

But payday lenders and credit card companies are only the most obvious end of the problem in its modern manifestation. It is the logic of commercial consumer lending itself, of collateral and credit scores, that precipitates a desperate environment into which the poor are unceremoniously cast, such that more cut-throat forms of usury can prey upon them. In fact, S. Basil bears forth this logic explicitly as one of the reasons for condemning usury in his homily: ‘the avaricious person, seeing a man bent down before his knees as a suppliant, practising all humility, and uttering every manner of petition, does not pity one who is suffering misfortune… rigid and harsh he stands, yielding to no entreaties, touched by no tears, persevering in his refusal. But, when he who is seeking the loan makes mention of interest and names his securities, then, pulling down his eyebrows, he smiles… fawning upon and enticing the wretched man with such words, he binds him with contracts.’  

Because it ought to be regarded as a medium of exchange, and not as a commodity with its own ‘intrinsic value’, money cannot rightly have such a self-reflexive teleological orientation. If money is used in a usurious way, it becomes, in S. Basil’s words (echoing Aristotle), an ‘unnatural animal’. It involves using the debtor’s labour and the debtor’s need to consume for mere survival—in other words, the debtor’s very flesh—for the sole satisfaction of the creditor’s lust for wealth, in a way which precludes the debtor from participating fully in his own pro- and co-creative work, what Fr. Sergei Bulgakov would perhaps controversially call his own sophic genius. A monetary system informed by Patristic ethics would do its best, on behalf of all those who make their livings through wage labour, to structurally discourage usury.

Matthew Franklin Cooper

Matthew F. Cooper is an AmeriCorps alumnus, ESL teacher and policy analyst currently based in Rhode Island, where he makes up about a third of the bass section in the choir of St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Pawtucket. He has done some policy writing for PlaNet Finance China, as well as for the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council; the opinions he rather haphazardly scribbles elsewhere are very much his own, however. He is a contributing editor at the Solidarity Hall thinkerspace, and maintains a blog at The Heavy Anglo-Orthodox, where he meanders about theology, geopolitics, economics, and heavy metal.