Policy & Advocacy
A Parish Strategy on the International Debt Crisis
Thus, in the spirit of the Book of Leviticus (25:8-12), Christians will have to raise their voice on behalf of all the poor of the world, proposing the Jubilee as an appropriate time to give thought, among other things, to reducing substantially, if not canceling outright, the international debt which seriously threatens the future of many nations.]-- John Paul II, As the Third Millennium Draws Near, 51
At first glance, the debt crisis among poor nations may seem like an overwhelming issue for most parishes to address. But as we prepare to celebrate a jubilee, the world debt crisis presents an opportunity for U.S. Catholics to make this ancient tradition concrete in our day. As our church worldwide looks to the new millennium, working on the issue of debt can be a specific means of bringing "glad tidings to the poor," "liberty to captives," and letting "the oppressed go free" (Lk 4:18).
While the details of the debt crisis are quite complex, in essence it comes down to a fairly straightforward problem. Imagine that the head of your family borrowed a thousand dollars many years ago and that you are obligated to repay it. Also imagine that the interest was so high that you have already paid back the amount borrowed many times over and because of the interest still have not yet begun to pay off the principal. Imagine further that since you are obligated to pay the interest payments, you often have to go without essentials like food or health care for your family. Finally, to complete the picture, imagine a situation in which the original thousand dollars borrowed was used, not by your family, but by someone else to buy something of no use to you or your family.
This is what has happened in some of the world's poorest countries. Often through irresponsible practices on the parts of both creditors and debtor nations, the governments of some poor nations have taken (and been given) loans that they do not have the capacity to repay. As a result, they have reduced spending on desperately needed health and education programs in an effort to meet their obligations to international lenders. But even after cutting back on social programs, many countries still cannot make full payment, and so over time the debt builds up and makes it increasingly difficult to finance the health, education, and development programs that could pull their people out of poverty.
The Holy Father and the U.S. bishops have identified the debt crisis as a priority concern. Pope John Paul II has specifically called for debt relief and forgiveness as we approach the jubilee.
Parish Strategy Overview
The following suggestions are designed to help parish councils, parish social concerns committees, or parish jubilee committees consider the issue of international debt. The issue:
can be woven into ongoing social concerns, education, and legislative network efforts;
can be an element of a parish response to the Holy Father's call to celebrate the Great Jubilee; and
can be a follow-up to the Jubilee Pledge for Charity, Justice, and Peace, which many parishes are using during 1999 or 2000. For information call 202-541-3199 or visit www.usccb.org/jubileepledge.
It's important to begin with an education strategy, familiarizing parishioners with the tradition of jubilee and the debt issue. Since most parishioners will not be familiar with either of these topics, you'll need to allow plenty of time to share information. Most parishioners will want to have some basic information before they call or write policy-makers about the issue.
It is equally important to include an action strategy. Studying the problem without acting on it will only leave parishioners frustrated and will do nothing to help those who are the victims of the debt crisis.
During 1999 and 2000 as our Church celebrates the Great Jubilee, this tradition can provide a valuable context for working on the debt issue. There are two key topics that would be helpful to cover in an education strategy. As you make your plans, you'll want to allow enough time to cover both. They are:
Catholic teaching about debt and the jubilee, and
the current international debt crisis and how it affects the least among us.
Parishes can consider two primary ways of acting on the international debt issue: a) advocating for policies that help reduce the debt burden and provide aid for the poorest countries, and b) providing assistance to those in need in countries affected by the issue.
Advocating for debt relief and international aid are key strategies for addressing the debt issue. For immediate action opportunities, see the enclosed handout "What You Can Do." During 1999 and beyond, there will be several important opportunities to act:
The Debt Relief for Poverty Reduction Act of 1999, H.R. 1095, is currently being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives. It would provide more debt relief, more quickly, to more countries than current debt relief programs. And it would specifically target savings from debt relief to programs that help those who are poor. For information on what you can do to support this bill, see the handout on "What You Can Do About the International Debt Crisis" or the Action Alerts at www.usccb.org/sdwp.
Bread for the World's Offering of Letters for 1999 is focused on international debt and can complement our Catholic Campaign on Debt. The Offering of Letters kit provides all the materials you need to involve parishioners in writing letters on the debt issue and collecting them at masses or through parish groups. For information, call 301-608-2400.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, which hold a significant portion of the debt of the poorest countries, will hold their annual meetings in the fall. Prior to these meetings, the U.S. Catholic Conference and Catholic Relief Services will develop action alerts with specific messages to the leaders of these international financial institutions about relieving the debt of poor countries.
In June, 1999, the Group of Seven (G-7), composed of the world's leading industrialized nations, will meet in Cologne, Germany. We can join Catholics from each of the G-7 nations in contacting our leaders to urge greater debt relief. Action alerts with specific messages will be developed by the U.S. Catholic Conference and Catholic Relief Services prior to the meeting. For more information on these advocacy opportunities and to obtain action alerts, visit the U.S. Catholic Conference web site at www.usccb.org/sdwp or call your diocesan social action director or Catholic Relief Services director.
These are just a few of the possibilities for assisting those affected by the debt crisis.
- Tie your promotion of the Church's international collections to the debt issue.
The pooled resources of U.S. Catholics provide many vital services and supplies to people in countries affected by the debt crisis. The Church's international collections offer valuable opportunities for parishioners to share their blessings. These include the collections for the Church in Latin America and in Eastern Europe, as well as the American Bishops' Overseas Appeal and World Missions Sunday. Catholic Relief Service's Operation Rice Bowl materials for 1999 focus on the debt crisis. For information, contact CRS at (410) 625-2220 or visit their website at www.catholicrelief.org.
- Twin with a parish in a country affected by the debt crisis.
Twinning involves building an ongoing relationship with a parish in another country. The best and winning relationships involve the whole parish and are mutually helpful. *Sponsor a needy child from a country affected by the debt crisis, or provide support for people from developing nations by hosting an alternative gift fair.
Information on these and other ideas can be found in Called to Global Solidarity: International Challenges for U.S. Parishes available from the U.S. Catholic Conference (1-800-235-8722). For additional assistance contact your diocesan social action director or Catholic Relief Services director.