Last year’s post on St Thomas Aquinas concentrated on the humanity of the man but with all the talk about bankers’ bonuses, the not-so-brilliantly-timed withdrawal of charity credit cards and the gloom that fills the media whenever the subject of money comes up, I’m tempted to roll out a few of his pronouncements on money and social justice.
The trouble is, medieval economics worked differently from ours and Thomas’s concept of usury (lending in hope of gain) is also different from ours. Thus, when he condemns usury as a violation of the natural moral law, he is applying an Aristotelian understanding of ends and means to money laid out for gain. Money is not an end in itself but a means of buying goods and services. Therefore lending money in order to gain more money is unnatural and can be described as evil. Although his view of the matter came to dominate much Church thinking on the subject, there were other views (e.g. Gregory IX was more nuanced than Thomas and brought into play consideration of risk) which existed alongside and have contributed to our modern understanding of social justice. If I may be allowed a sweeping generalisation, I’d say that on the whole the Church has always been a bit suspicious of banking and financial speculation although it was creative about insurance, assignability and negotiability, concepts which were developed in the Church courts.
The best way of honouring St Thomas’s thought about money and social justice is to read what the Church says about it today. A good place to start is with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos 2419 to 2463. You can find an online version in English here. There is a useful concordance to help with searching.