Father Patrick Ryan, left, delivers the McGinley Lecture at the Rose Hill campus. Seated at the table are Donna Rapaccioli, Ph.D., dean of the Gabelli School and the evening’s moderator; and respondents Rabbi Daniel Polish and Hussein Rashid.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

For his semiannual McGinley Lecture, delivered on April 8, Patrick J. Ryan, S.J., examined the moral and religious questions that have always surrounded usury—more commonly referred to today as interest, the bane of credit card holders everywhere.

“I dedicate my lecture to my credit card company … that recently tried to charge me $24.34 in interest and late fees on a bill for $2,” said Father Ryan, the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society, at the outset of his talk, “Usury: A Moral Concern for Jews, Christians and Muslims.”

From that light beginning, he delved far back into history, to the Book of Exodus, which forbade Israelites to charge one another interest, and exhorted them to repay loans in short order. The ability to lend at interest to non-Jews helped the Jews survive during the diaspora that followed the Roman devastation of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., Father Ryan said. Other “landless merchant minorities” have included the Armenians, Parsees, Huguenots and Quakers, he said.

Until the 16th century, Christian authorities opposed the charging of interest, finding justification in the words of Christ, Father Ryan said. St. Thomas Aquinas condemned the practice, “claiming that it involves selling the same thing twice: the money loaned and the use of that money,” he said.

Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians “eventually overcame their hostility to charging interest on loans as money came increasingly to be recognized as a commodity that fluctuated in value—like fresh fruit and vegetables—and that its use as a loan involved a risk for the lender, a risk that had to be shared with the borrower,” Father Ryan said.

Today, most Christian churches only define usury as interest that’s excessive. “Some form of reasonable interest is more or less taken for granted,” he said.

Father Ryan spoke at the Lincoln Center campus and delivered the lecture again on April 9 at the Rose Hill campus. The lecture took a “trialogue” format, with visiting Jewish and Muslim scholars offering responses to Father Ryan’s talk.

Hussein Rashid, Ph.D., a professor of religion at Hofstra University, said the proscription of usury in Muslim thought “must be seen as part of an ethical complex that forces an individual to consider their obligations to God and to God’s creation, including humanity,” he said.

“The network of conditions on capital revolve around the idea that it is meant to be put into service” and not hoarded through the charging of interest, he said.

Rabbi Daniel Polish, Ph.D., of Congregation Shir Chadash in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said the presence of usurers and financial fraudsters poses a challenge to all three faiths.

“How do each of our traditions go about educating our adherents that ‘religion’ is not limited to ritual, or expressions of faith, that ethics and morality are not restricted to sexual matters … that our work and the way we pursue it is a powerful witness to our faith commitments or a mockery of it?” he said.

“This is a subject we would do well to struggle with together.”