"The ancient Hebrew jubilee was a periodic Sabbath year in which debts would be cleared away, slaves would be freed, and lands lost in the course of commerce would be returned. Jesus declared a jubilee as he began preaching the forgiveness of sins. But the forgiveness he preached began with repentance. Likewise, any jubilee must begin with the recognition that there are wrongs to be righted. Clearing away debts does not make sense if we consider debt an immovable reality, an amoral fact of life. To celebrate a jubilee, we need to recognize the usury in our midst.
In centuries past, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all shared an anxious opposition to usury. Sometimes “usury” meant any kind of interest-charging on loans, sometimes just lending under especially unjust terms. But in any case, these traditions regarded finance as an activity of supreme moral concern, one rife with opportunities for the abuse of power and unjust accumulations of wealth. Imagine bishops worrying about adjustable-rate mortgages the way they worry about abortion. That is the kind of concern we’re talking about.
Jacques le Goff’s pithy book Your Money or Your Life reconstructs the tenor of medieval attitudes. “Usurious profit from money,” Pope Leo I (d. 461) held, “is the death of the soul.” The French theologian Jacques de Vitry warned lenders that “the amount of money they receive from usury corresponds to the amount of wood sent to hell to burn them.” In some cases the vitriol was a form of anti-Judaism, since Jews often held a monopoly on lending to Christians. But Jews themselves denounced usury just as strenuously in dealings with one another.
St. Thomas Aquinas, representing the scholarly consensus of the 13th century, argued on the one hand that usury “leads to inequality which is contrary to justice.” Charging interest on money, further, is contrary to nature; “This is to sell what does not exist.” Interest-charging severs the economy from actual production or people’s actual needs.
Centuries of clerical coziness with financiers made such denunciations less and less convenient. As the modern period progressed, concern about usury faded, then all but disappeared. Some tried to justify interest theologically, but mainly the shift was a matter of omission. The influential economist Msgr. John Ryan began his pamphlet The Church and Interest-Taking (1910) by stressing, “The Church has never admitted the justice of interest whether on money or on capital, but has merely tolerated the institution.” (http://americamagazine.org/issue/resetting-interest-usury?)