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As We Forgive Our Debtors

  The Pope's Priority

Short-term Solutions Endanger Future

Support H.R. 1095

Do you owe any money? Do you carry a balance on your credit cards? Do you have a car loan or home mortgage? Did you take out a loan for college or to start your business? Do you worry that your children are overextended?

Reasonable debt is fine. Borrowing and paying back with interest is an integral part of capitalism. It's the growth spur to the economy—on personal, corporate and governmental levels.

But crushing debt is terrible; it can drive individuals to suicide. Some of the first European settlers came to the United States to avoid debtors' prisons or indentured servant status, often inherited from their fathers. For this reason, the United States developed compassionate bankruptcy laws.

On the international level, however, debt is out of control. The total external debt of the developing countries is more than $2 trillion, according to the April 1999 statement of the Administrative Board of the U.S. Catholic Conference, A Jubilee Call for Debt Forgiveness. The debt of the 41 poorest countries is more than $200 billion, a tenth of the total.

The problem is that "these impoverished nations spend four times more repaying their debts than on investing in health, education, sanitation and other basic needs," says Barbara Kohnen, U.S. bishops' policy adviser on international economic issues.

So these poorest countries are appealing to the United States and other nations for debt relief.

The Pope's Priority

In his plan for celebrating the new millennium, Pope John Paul II has identified international debt relief as a key priority for the Church (Tertio Millennio, #51).

At the Synod for America the bishops of Latin America pointed out that their countries have paid the United States the principal they borrowed but, with interest compounding, now owe more than they did originally. In 1970 they owed $70 billion and by 2000 they will owe $700 billion; they have already paid back $720 billion.

What is being proposed by an international group called Jubilee 2000 Coalition is cancellation of four types of debt: unpayable debt and debt which cannot be repaid without burdening already impoverished people, debt that in real terms has already been paid, debt on improperly designed policies and projects and odious debt incurred by repressive regimes.

If such debts are canceled, who will not be getting paid? In practical terms, it is the American taxpayers who will not receive the benefit of interest.

In retrospect, many of these loans should have been issued not as loans at all but as foreign aid, where more restrictions could have been imposed.

Short-term Solutions Endanger Future

Governments raise the money to service their debts by short-term solutions: cutting social services like health and education, laying off workers and reducing wages, privatizing industries, delaying necessary development and raising taxes.

The new U.S. bishops' board statement gives examples of what crushing debt repayment means in specific countries, such as Mozambique where, in 1998, the "annual debt service obligation was more than half of its public revenue. In a country still emerging from a 16-year civil war, half the rural population does not have access to safe drinking water; 200,000 children die annually from preventable diseases such as malaria, measles and respiratory infections; two thirds of adults are illiterate; and most children do not go to primary school."

Besides the moral imperative, there are a number of reasons why we should support debt-relief measures: These debts are unlikely to be paid back anyway; if not alleviated, the current crisis contains the seeds of World War III; debt relief would create viable trading partners in the future.

Forgiving the debt would not be a new policy for the United States. In recent years we reduced debts owed by Poland, Jordan and Egypt.

President Bill Clinton's new proposal for relieving the debt burden of the world's poorest countries garnered high praise from the bishop-chairmen of the U.S. Catholic Conference's International Policy Committee and Catholic Relief Services.

Support H.R. 1095

The ecumenical organization Bread for the World contends that debt reduction would reduce hunger worldwide. To that end, they are asking for an "Offering of Letters" in support of the U.S. House Resolution 1095, also known as the "Debt Relief for Poverty Reduction Act." Introduced March 11, this bill was developed with Catholic and other religious organizations. Each of us can write our representatives and senators in support of H.R. 1095.

The pope had based his plea for debt relief as an appropriate way to celebrate the new millennium by recalling the concept of jubilee in Leviticus 25:8-12: Every 50 years, we should let the land rest, free captives, forgive debtors. In the jubilee year of 2000, which so obviously recalls Jesus' birth, it's important to recall Jesus' mission: to bring glad tidings to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives and announce a year of favor from the Lord (see Luke 4). Debt reduction could be our way of sharing in Jesus' mission.

After all, it was Jesus who taught us to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." The phrase those who trespass against us is often translated debtors—an apt reminder of the jubilee demand.—B.B.

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