In yesterday’s article, we looked at Psalm 15, and the testimonies of St. Ambrose, St. Leo the Great, and St. Basil the Great, all agreeing that godly people do not charge interest on loans. But suppose a person ignores this teaching, and lends at interest anyway. Specifically what sin is being committed?
St. Gregory of Nyssa says that such a person is guilty of theft.
In St. Gregory’s Homilies on Ecclesiastes, he goes into some very helpful detail:
If therefore something brings no benefit to those who pursue it, whether in terms of beauty or of physical well-being or of the relief of pains, for what reason is it pursued? And what is the affection of those who have set their heart on the stuff, when they come to be aware of such a possession? Do they congratulate themselves because they have gained something? If someone were to ask them whether they would welcome the chance to have their nature changed into it, and themselves to become what is honored among them with such affection, would they choose the change? [Would they choose to be] transformed from humanity into gold and be proved no longer rational, intelligent or able to use the sense organs for living, but yellow and heavy and speechless, lifeless and senseless, as gold is? I do not think that even those who set their desire passionately on the stuff would choose this.
If, therefore, for right-thinking people it would be a kind of curse to acquire the properties of this inanimate stuff, what is the mindless frenzy over the acquisition of things whose goal is futility, so that for this reason those who are driven mad with the desire for riches even commit murders and robbery? And not only these things, but also the pernicious idea of interest which one might call another kind of robbery or bloodshed without being far from the truth.
What is the difference between getting someone else’s property by seizing it through covert housebreaking or taking possession of the goods of a passer-by by murdering him and acquiring what is not one’s own by exacting interest?… If someone takes someone else’s money by force or steals it secretly, he is called a violent criminal or a burglar or something like that. But the one who advertises his felony in financial agreements, and who provides evidence of his own cruelty, and who enforces his crime by contracts, is called a philanthropist and a benefactor and a savior and all the worthiest of names. And the profit from thieving is called loot, but the person who strips his debtor naked by this kind of compulsion gives his harshness the euphemism “philanthropy”. This is what they call the damage done to those in distress.
“I gathered for me both silver and gold.” Yes, but the reason why the one who trains humankind wisely includes this also in the lists of things confessed is that human beings may learn, from one who has formed the judgment from experience, that this is one of the things condemned as wrong, and may guard before the experience against the onslaught of evil.
~ St. Gregory of Nyssa
Not only does St. Gregory identify interest as being a form of theft, he also contradicts the old canard that profit-based moneylending is a form of “philanthropy”, existing for the “good” of the poor.
Today, as at all times in history, unjust people have argued that interest-accruing loans are “helpful” to poor people, making funds available to them that they would not otherwise be able to access. But the Fathers of the Church have argued otherwise.
In his commentary on Psalm 15, St. Basil says,
We advise the poor … to persevere in their terrible situations rather than to accept the misfortunes that come from the payment of interest.
~ St. Basil the Great – Homilies on the Psalms
St. Gregory noted that–even in his day–the spin doctors were quick to call a moneylender “a philanthropist and a benefactor and a savior and all the worthiest of names.” Meanwhile, in truth, such loans constitute “damage done to those in distress”.
While the initial loan may provide some temporary relief to the poor, the end result is to drown them in even deeper debt. If they cannot afford necessities today, how will they afford their necessities plus debt payments and interest payments tomorrow?
Interest-accruing loans hurt the poor. They do not help them.
According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, lending money at interest is not philanthropy.
It is theft.