Prophets from testaments old and new condemned it, the Catholic Church considered it a sin, and the practice of lending money for unusually high interest — sometimes called usury — now has another foe: White House hopeful Bernie Sanders.
Speaking in New York Tuesday, the US Senator from Vermont invoked the 13th century Catholic poet Dante Alighieri to bolster his argument that the government should impose strict limits on how much interest consumers can be charged for common banking tools such as credit cards.
“The Bible has a term for this practice. It’s called usury. And in The Divine Comedy, Dante reserved a special place in the Seventh Circle of Hell for those who charged people usurious interest rates,” Sanders said.
Today, we don't need the pitchforks or rivers of boiling blood, but we do need a National Usury law. #BreakEmUp
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 5, 2016
Writing at the Canon Law Made Easy blog, Cathy Caridi notes that Church teaching no longer expressly prohibits lending money with interest, but that the Church still holds a skeptical view of it –especially when it seems exploitative.
“Speaking broadly, we normally tend to know exploitation when we see it, even if there is no official, mathematical formulation upon which our conclusion is based,” she wrote.
“The Catholic Church isn’t opposed to charging or paying interest on a loan per se,” she continued, “but its moral teachings on dealings with our fellow man can definitely be applied when the conditions for obtaining a loan fail to take into consideration the humanity of the borrower.”
Church leaders in Rome and here in the United States share this view.
In a 2014 address to pilgrims in Rome, Pope Francis called the practice a “dramatic social evil,” and he again condemned the practice in his September speech to the United Nations.
He called on world leaders gathered in New York to create international lending structures that “limit every kind of abuse or usury.”
Such institutions, he said, should ensure that poorer nations “are not subjected to oppressive lending systems which, far from promoting progress, subject people to mechanisms which generate greater poverty, exclusion and dependence.”
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops urged the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2013 to limit a modern form of usury, so-called payday loans, which often come with triple-digit interest rates.
These loans, wrote Stockton, Calif., Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, take advantage of “the financial hardship of poor and vulnerable consumers, exploits their lack of understanding, and increases economic insecurity.”
And the organization representing Catholic bishops in Texas has “prioritized ending this form of usury as one of its top public policy goals” and has put pressure on municipal lawmakers to pass ordinances that make these types of loans more difficult to obtain.
“Big banks need to stop acting like loan sharks and start acting like responsible lenders,” he said.
In September, the self-described democratic socialist took to the Senate floor to read quotes from “Evangelii Gaudium,” the pope’s apostolic exhortation, and praised Francis for “speaking out with courage and brilliance about some of the most important issues facing our world.”