Q. I am wondering about Church law (and your own feelings) on people coming to Mass and being confronted every week with different parish clubs and organizations trying to sell something.
In my parish on any given Sunday, there might be as many as three “sales” going on before and after Mass. (A couple of weeks ago, we even had a woman walking up and down the church aisle selling candy bars.)
I’ve always thought that we go to Mass to show our reverence for the Lord and not to walk into a flea market. (Upstate New York)
A. From time to time, I have heard people decry the practice of selling anything on church property — with the claim that it violates the direct teaching of Jesus who is seen (in all four Gospels) evicting moneychangers from the temple.
A careful reading of those Gospel accounts, though, shows a more nuanced lesson: What troubled Jesus was not the practice itself, but the fact that the merchants were defrauding people — selling sacrificial animals at considerable personal profit or exchanging money at an extortionate rate.
The transactions themselves were understandable: Worshippers making their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem’s sacred site could not be expected to carry sheep with them from a considerable distance, and the Roman currency of the realm was not acceptable for paying the temple tax.
How, then, does the action of Jesus translate to the current practice you reference — selling food, religious books or tapes, raffle tickets, etc., in the gathering area (lobby) of the church? Note that I said the “gathering area.” Walking down the church aisle selling candy bars is, I agree, outrageous.
To your question, I am not aware of any Church “laws” that relate to this, and there is certainly no absolute prohibition against it. Rather it is, I believe, a matter of balance and discretion. From time to time in our parish, I have approved the sale of merchandise as people exit Mass — handmade goods crafted by poor people from around the world; coffee to support efforts to raise people out of poverty; even, on occasion, Girl Scout cookies to support a local troop or tickets to an upcoming Christmas dinner for parish seniors.
I do, however, have rules. It should only happen occasionally and there should never be multiple sales on the same day (parishioners should not be made to “run the gauntlet” as though they were in a shopping mall). Also, it should be done as people exit Mass, not as they arrive.
I have two other concerns. First, we often have visitors to the parish, including non-Catholics who have sometimes absorbed the myth that the Catholic Church cares most about raising money. I don’t want to foster that myth.
And I also have a philosophical concern: Rampant consumerism dominates America. Rather than promote it, I would prefer to create a space and a time on Sunday mornings for people to be free of the pressure to buy something.
Q. I am a 20-year-old Catholic from the United Kingdom who happened to stumble on your column, and I am hoping that you can answer my question. I have always heard that usury is a sin, but I’m not sure exactly what usury is. Is it any interest on a loan or just an excessively high interest rate (more than just to cover the cost of handling the loan)? And if charging interest is a sin, can a Catholic morally take out loans which have interest, such as mortgages or student loans — or even own a bank account which pays a small amount of interest? (London)
A. In modern times, usury is thought of as exploiting the poor by lending money at an exorbitant rate of interest. But for the first 1,500 years of the Church, it was taken to mean charging any interest at all and was generally condemned by Church fathers, popes, and councils. The history of how the current position evolved is a long and complicated one, and conflicting statements can sometimes be found.
In the Gospel of Luke (Luke 6:35), Jesus says, “Love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back.” Situated in the passage on the Beatitudes, this would seem to be an appeal for Christian generosity rather than a proclamation on the intrinsic immorality of interest-taking.
In fact, in the parable of the talents, Jesus criticizes the “lazy” servant for failing to invest his money where it could have borne interest (Matthew 25:14-30).
In the largely agrarian society of medieval Europe, lending money involved the few rich people making loans to their dirt-poor neighbors for basic needs such as food or winter clothing. In such circumstances, it was thought to be wrong to profit from another’s distress.
By the year 1515, though, usury had acquired a more nuanced definition, as stated by the Fifth Lateran Council: “That is the real meaning of usury: when, from its use, a thing which produces nothing is applied to the acquiring of gain and profit without any work, any expense or any risk.”
Moralists were slowly beginning to see that the borrower could legitimately be charged for the opportunity foregone by the lender to use the money himself and also for the risk that the lender might never get his money back.
So, to sum up, charging a moderate rate of interest is permitted by the Church. Mortgages and students loans meet the test, as does gaining interest on a bank deposit.