Making the Case for Jubilee: The Catholic Church and the Poor-Country Debt Movement

Article excerpt

The pledge by the Group of 8 (G-8) in July 2005 to cancel all the debt owed by eighteen, and ultimately more, heavily indebted poor countries to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the African Development Bank was the most recent victory in a series of campaigns by a broad-based coalition of churches and NGOs that had begun more than twenty-five years before. In the late 1990s, the movement grew considerably and achieved its most extraordinary mobilization in the Jubilee 2000 campaign, which successfully touched masses of people around the world with a moral message that politicians could not ignore. There are not many instances in modern history in which moral appeals based on religious principles drive political change (albeit limited). The civil rights movement in the United States may be one example. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa may be another. The anti-debt movement may be a third.

To better understand why the appeal has been so strong, this essay examines the ideas and ethical argumentation of the Catholic Church that have guided its involvement in the global debt campaign since the early 1980s. The focus is warranted because the Church played a leading role from the earliest days of the campaign by virtue of its size and vast array of resources. Its actors on the debt question have included individual Catholics, parish-based justice and peace groups, church personnel (especially missioners), religious orders and their social action offices, relief agencies, academics and universities, national episcopal conferences, the Vatican's justice and peace office, and Pope John Paul II. The global coalition's most extensive and best-known moral arguments for debt reduction originated at Catholic bishops' conferences and the Vatican. Statements from the Church leadership especially were addressed to both Catholics and non-Catholics among the general public and policy-makers. By stimulating discussion in policy circles, they strengthened the legitimacy of the fundamental claim that excessive sovereign debt servicing was unjust. The essay looks more closely at the two most widely disseminated and influential Church statements-by the Vatican and by the U.S. bishops which have served as benchmarks in the Church's long engagement with the anti-debt campaign.


Emblematic of the appeal of debt cancellation was Carmen Rodriguez, who headed the Catholic Charismatic Movement in a sprawling shantytown parish south of Lima, Peru. She and other lay leaders of her diocese prepared for the new millennium in a rather unusual way. In early 1999, they participated in workshops offering economic and theological perspectives on the theme the Peruvian Catholic bishops had chosen for that year's Lenten observance: debt relief. They went door to door and gathered some 90.000 signatures on a petition, calling for a one-time cancellation by the end of 2000 of the unpayable debt of highly indebted poor countries. More than 1.8 million Peruvians in just three months' time and 17 million people from over 160 countries signed the petition, which was organized by a coalition of churches, antipoverty groups, and other civil society organizations as part of the Jubilee 2000 campaign. The delegation presenting the petition to German chancellor Gerhard Schroder, who accepted it in the name of the G-8 leaders in Cologne in June 1999, included such disparate figures as Archbishop Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Bono of the Irish rock group U2.

Jubilee 2000 organizers, led by such groups as Christian Aid U.K., Oxfam, the European Network on Debt and Development, a Washington-based coalition of church and anti-poverty groups, and Catholic national episcopal conferences, relief agencies, and the Vatican, argued that heavily indebted countries devoted an inordinate portion of their national budgets to making interest and principal payments on their debt, leaving too little available for desperately needed outlays for health, education, housing, and job creation. …