Debt relief: Biblical jubilee concern is focus of Holy Year 2025, too

As St. John Paul II did with the Holy Year 2000, Pope Francis is calling on wealthy nations to forgive the debt of the world's poorest countries as part of the Jubilee 2025 observance. And, in line with the biblical precepts for a jubilee, he is calling for international reforms that will bring long-lasting relief to the poor and promote care for the Earth.

Debt relief: Biblical jubilee concern is focus of Holy Year 2025, too

Pope Francis meets with academic experts, policymakers, officials from multilateral institutions and religious leaders meeting with the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences to discuss the foreign debt crisis June 5, 2024, at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In the Hebrew Scriptures, God commanded his people to observe a jubilee as a time to restore their relationships with God, with other people and with the land.

Especially since St. John Paul II proclaimed the Holy Year 2000, part of the Catholic Church's jubilee efforts to repair those relationships has included working for the forgiveness or just restructuring of the foreign debt of the world's poorest countries.

Proclaiming the Jubilee 2025, Pope Francis appealed to the world's wealthiest nations to "acknowledge the gravity of so many of their past decisions and determine to forgive the debts of countries that will never be able to repay them."

"If we really wish to prepare a path to peace in our world, let us commit ourselves to remedying the remote causes of injustice, settling unjust and unpayable debts, and feeding the hungry," the pope wrote in "Spes non Confundit" ("Hope Does Not Disappoint"), his bull proclaiming the Holy Year.

But resolving the debt crisis, its impact on the poor and on the global economy, is not simple.

Jay Shambaugh greets Pope Francis
Pope Francis greets Jay Shambaugh, undersecretary for international affairs of the U.S. Treasury, at the beginning of a daylong meeting hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences to discuss the foreign debt crisis June 5, 2024, at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences gathered top academic experts, high-level policymakers, officials from multilateral institutions and religious leaders June 5 "to discuss these major problems for the global society and propose international reforms -- both those dealing with existing debt burdens and those that might make a recurrence of another debt crisis such as this less likely."

The United Nations "reports that 19 developing countries are spending more on debt interest than on education and 45 (are spending) more on debt interest than on health," the program notes for the gathering said.

Meeting the experts at the start of their conversations, Pope Francis told them after the COVID-19 pandemic, "we find ourselves facing a debt crisis that mainly affects the countries of the South of the world, generating misery and anguish, and depriving millions of people of the possibility of a decent future."

Servicing the debt means cutting government spending, but, the pope said, "no government can morally demand that its people suffer deprivations incompatible with human dignity."

Pope Francis called for "a new international financial architecture" and the creation of a "multinational mechanism, based on solidarity and harmony among peoples," one that promotes shared responsibility between lenders and borrowers but offers relief in times of crisis.

No one can have an easy conscience knowing there is "a multitude of brothers and sisters who are hungry and submerged in social exclusion and vulnerability," the pope said. "Letting this happen is a sin, a human sin; even if one does not have faith, it is a social sin."

Eric LeCompte at the Vatican
Eric LeCompte, executive director of the Jubilee USA Network, poses for a photo at the Vatican June 4, 2024. Jubilee USA Network is an alliance of faith-based development and debt-relief advocacy organizations. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA Network, an alliance of faith-based development and debt-relief advocacy organizations, was one of the speakers at the Vatican meeting.

Speaking to Catholic News Service ahead of the gathering, he said that in the Scriptures a jubilee "is about a continuing process to address inequities, a continuing process that protects all of us from having too much or too little."

Thanks to St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and all the religious and civic partners who came together to push for debt relief in the early 2000s, he said, the foundation was laid "for $130 billion in debt relief for developing countries; 55 million kids in Africa, who never would have seen the inside of a classroom, are going to school. We also changed how aid works, how accountability works. And we moved forward some very significant anti-corruption policies."

But then the pandemic struck.

As governments struggle to pay their debts, decades of progress in development have stalled or even been rolled back, poverty rates among women and children around the world are soaring, unemployment is high in the developing world and price increases -- especially for food and fuel -- are creating hardships even in the wealthiest countries. And all of that pushes migration.

The other financial issue that has become an urgent priority since the Holy Year 2000 is the cost associated with climate change and climate mitigation efforts, and on that count, Pope Francis has been a leading voice.

"One of the most shocking things that we found is that because of the crisis and because of the high debt payments, monies for climate mitigation and adaptation were wiped out in the developing world," LeCompte said.

In his formal convocation of Jubilee 2025, Pope Francis decried that as an injustice.

"A true 'ecological debt' exists," he said, since much of the environmental destruction in the world's poorest countries was caused by the world's wealthiest countries exploiting their natural resources and paying very little for them.

Allowing the Earth to rest and recover is a key part of God's commands for a jubilee year described in the Book of Leviticus and is part of the biblical formulation for restoring one's relationship with God and with one another.



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