"[Debt ] is about how children live and die half a world away. It is about poverty and people. It is about what kind of world we live in. Debt must become a call to action, an opportunity to stand up for the least of these, a chance to make a difference."
Religious teaching on debt reaches back to the old testament and the ancient tradition of the jubilee. This is a rich tradition that has much to teach us today, particularly in light of the Holy Father's call to celebrate the year 2000 as a jubilee year. In ancient times, the jubilee was an ideal, held up periodically to remind the Israelites of the kind of societythe kinds of social relationships God expected them to build.
The tradition of the jubilee is most fully explained in the Book of Leviticus (25: 1-55). There we learn that the jubilee was a time to let the land rest and allow whatever it naturally produced to be shared by all, landowner and slave alike. It was a time to set slaves free and to return to its original owner any land that had been sold. The jubilee was also a time to cancel debts. "At the end of every seven-year period you shall have a relaxation of debts" (Deuteronomy 15:1-2).
Pope John Paul II describes the jubilee year this way:
The Jubilee year was meant to restore equality among all of the children of Israel, offering new possibilities to families which had lost their property and even their personal freedom. On the other hand, the jubilee year was a reminder to the rich that a time would come when their Israelite slaves would once again become their equals and would be able to reclaim their rights. At the times prescribed by law, a jubilee year had to be proclaimed to assist those in need
(As the Third Millennium Draws Near, 13).
As Christians, we interpret this tradition in light of Christ's ministry and message to us. When he announced his public ministry, he quoted the passage from Isaiah (61) that refers to the jubilee tradition. He said He had come to "bring glad tidings to the poor... to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free." Then he added, "Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing" (Lk. 4:18).
The tradition of jubilee, then, is deeply related to the Christian mission. As John Paul II has said:
It is he who proclaims the good news to the poor. It is he who brings liberty to those deprived of it, who frees the oppressed and gives back sight to the blind (cf. Mt. 11:4-5; Lk. 7:22). The jubilee, "a year of the Lord's favor," characterizes all the activity of Jesus (TMA, 11).
Christians are called to apply the tradition of jubilee and continue Christ's ministry to the poor and oppressed in our own day and time. An important part of the jubilee tradition was the forgiveness of debts, giving those who had become overwhelmed by unpayable debts a chance to start over (Dt. 15 ). Our Holy Father and the bishops of the United States have applied this tradition to the present day by identifying relief of debt among poor nations as an important element of our jubilee celebration during the year 2000.
The church's position on debt is rooted in the fundamental themes of Catholic social teaching.
The Life and Dignity of the Human Person
The starting point for Catholic social teaching is our belief in the dignity of human life. We believe that every human being is created in the image of God, is loved by God, and has been redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This belief requires not only that we treat all people in ways that reflect their inherent dignity, but that we measure every policy and program by whether it enhances or diminishes human life and dignity. This principle is violated when the debt crisis contributes to suffering among the world's poor.
The Common Good
In the Catholic tradition, sacred and social are not distinct categories. We realize our human potential in relationship to others and have an obligation to build a society that gives all people the opportunity to realize their basic human rights. We do this by promoting the common good, which we define as the sum of those conditions in society that make it possible for all people to achieve their full human potential. Our tradition demands that our decisions and actions, our policies and programs promote the common good. By creating suffering and draining resources from such basic needs as health care and education, the debt crisis violates the common good.
The principle of solidarity reminds us that we are one human family, that we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers whether they live across the street or across the globe. It calls us to pursue justice throughout the world no matter how distant the issues may seem. In the case of international debt, the principle of solidarity requires that we act to relieve the crisis and its dire consequences for the world's poorest people.
Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
While Catholic teaching demands that we care about all of our brothers and sisters, the poor and vulnerable have a particular claim on our concern because their needs are the greatest. The "preferential option for the poor and vulnerable" reminds us that a key measure of all policies and programs is how they affect the "least among us." The sad truth about poor country debt is that it is often the weakest members of society-the young who need education, the ill who need health care, the poor who need jobs-who, through no fault of their own, pay the greatest price.
Care for Creation
In the Catholic tradition, care for the environment is more than a scientific challenge. It is a moral obligation. God has given us the responsibility of protecting the earth and the plants and animals that inhabit it. We show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of creation.
The debt crisis can threaten the health of the environment in serious ways. Pressure to raise hard currency to make debt repayments can lead poor countries to deplete natural resources by exhausting fisheries, overusing the soil, denuding forests, and polluting waters.
The bishops of the United States have written:
The tragic fact is that in trying to pay their debts, the neediest
countries are sacrificing their future and the lives of millions of their people to contribute capital to the richest countries through debt service and debt payment.
In Economic Justice for All, we restated the classic principles of justice: Commutative justice calls for fundamental fairness in all agreements and exchanges between individuals or private social groups. Distributive justice requires that the allocation of income, wealth, and power in society be evaluated in light of its effects on persons whose basic material needs are unmet. Social justice implies that persons have an obligation to be active and productive participants in the life of society and that society has a duty to enable them to participate in this way (nos. 69-71). In our view, the Third World debt crisis violates all three of these forms of justice.
U.S. Catholic Bishops, Relieving Third World Debt, nos. 5 & 59
While commutative justice leads to the moral presumption that all debts must be paid, this concept must be understood within the broader context of distributive and social justice.
Distributive justice requires that judgements about the fairness of international loan agreements must take into account their impact on those who are poor. In many cases, international debts have a devastating impact on the poor and other vulnerable members of society.
Social justice requires that political, economic, and social institutions promote participation and human development. In many cases international loan agreements undermine these institutions by draining the funds that support them and by forcing individuals to focus on survival rather than participating in, and contributing to, society.
In the case of international debt, then, justice involves co-responsibility on the part of debtors and creditors, who must seek to relieve the suffering caused by debt while promoting sound political, social, and economic policies.
These principles and themes from Catholic social teaching make a compelling case for debt relief for the world's poorest countries. In his recent journey to America, Pope John Paul II renewed his call for solidarity and his appeal to forgive the debt of the poorest nations. He challenged us to speak out and to work for a new measure of justice and compassion. The Catholic Campaign on Debt is a response to his call.
- In what ways does the church's work on the debt crisis reflect Catholic social teaching?
- Are there aspects of debt cancellation that you feel are less clearly reflective of Catholic social teaching? Aspects that concern you? What are they?
- Are there other areas of Catholic teaching, not mentioned above, that you feel are relevant to the debt crisis?
- What does Catholic teaching say to U.S. Catholics about this issue?
For more information, contact the U.S. Catholic Conference Department of Social Development and World Peace (Phone 202-541-3199; website: www.usccb.org/sdwp) or Catholic Relief Services (Phone 410-625-2220 website: www.catholicrelief.org).