“The Church changed its teaching on usury.” If I had ten cents for every time I have heard this, by now I might have enough to buy myself lunch – and more! However, if I had been collecting interest on that money, would I have earned enough to make me immoral?
It seems to be a hard pill to swallow either way: is the classical teaching on usury wrong, or is the modern banking system wrong? It might be a facile dilemma for the intellect – the Church has more authority than do modern financiers – but for the will it is not so easy to reject what has become so deeply engrained in public and private commerce.
Perhaps, however, there is a third way which can account for what seems to be a full reversal of doctrine without actually being such.
Money is complicated, after all. And so too is religious liberty. What seemed to be a simple compromise of mutual toleration and encouragement to follow one’s conscience in pursuit of spiritual truth has become an increasingly litigious and sometimes violent experiment. The issue of religious liberty has also been a major point of contention for some groups who insist that Vatican II “changed” the Church’s teaching on the matter. Despite several decades since Dignitatis Humanae, the various attempts at reconciling the classical and post-conciliar approaches to the confessional state, and to the state’s role in religious affairs more generally, have apparently not been satisfying for a large number of people. The confusion continues.
The notion of the state itself, however, is coming under more and more intense scrutiny, especially in Europe. What about the EU? What about mass immigration? What about America? Do people still really believe in the “nation-state”? The Gospel doesn’t tell us precisely how to run our borders, nor whether we should have them at all. To paraphrase Tertullian: What has Westphalia to do with Jerusalem? But of course, the Gospel has significance for everything, including secular politics. It’s our job to make the connections and balance competing values.
Nobody disputes that there are differences between the positions of the churchmen of yesteryear and today over these important topics. The real question is whether the Church has changed its teachings on usury, religious liberty, and the nation-state. If so, what is the nature of such developments, and what are their sources and justifications?
It is precisely this kind of intellectual quest for which St. John Henry Newman is so well equipped to guide us. And this is very reason to attend Acton’s Rome conference “Newman and Controversies in Catholicism” this December 5th at the Pontifical Urbaniana University. While the Saint himself used his famous “seven notes” to explore speculative dogmas, we should be confident that this apparatus is up to the task of navigating the increasingly complex world of Catholic social teaching in the 21st century.