Bishops call on wealthy to forgive debts of poor

19-page statement links Roman Catholics' push to approach of year 2000


Roman Catholic bishops in the United States have called on the federal government, other wealthy governments and international lending agencies to grant debt relief to the world's poorest nations, so those nations can spend more of their resources on their citizens, rather than on repaying loans.

In the 19-page statement, released Friday, the bishops link their call to the approach of the year 2000, which a growing number of religious leaders, including Pope John Paul II and some secular organizations, have said ought to be the occasion of a "jubilee," a concept envisioned in the Book of Leviticus as a time of financial relief for the poor.

"In Hebrew Scriptures, the jubilee was to be a time to free slaves, to return land to its rightful owners and to forgive debts," says the statement, "A Jubilee Call to Debt Forgiveness."

It was issued by the U.S. Catholic Conference's administrative board, which speaks for the bishops outside their twice-a-year meetings. In the statement, the bishops said they began from the presumption that countries, like individuals, had an obligation to repay their debts. But, the bishops added, that condition may not apply in some circumstances.

"One such instance," the statement said, "is when a country cannot repay its debt without critical reductions in spending for health, education, food, housing and other basic needs, and when the debt has become a serious obstacle to development."

A similar call for debt relief was issued in December by the World Council of Churches, which represents 339 Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches, at a meeting of the council's policy-making Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe.

But the bishops' statement grew out of a conference on poor nations' indebtedness, sponsored in October by the Catholic Conference, at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. The conference was attended by James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, and Michel Camdessus, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, along with Catholic officials from the Vatican and other nations.

One participant, Archbishop Medardo Mazombwe of Zambia, said his nation's debt was such that "every man, woman and child owes $750," a crushing burden that had led to a lack of spending on education, health care, housing and other necessities. The archbishop is quoted in the bishops' statement, as is the pope, who recently called for "reducing substantially, if not canceling outright," poor nations' debts.

Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J., who helped arrange the Seton Hall meeting and has been an outspoken proponent of debt relief, said the bishops' statement, which couched discussion of the issue in terms of Catholic social teaching, was meant to "create some moral ground" from which possible solutions could be devised.

McCarrick said the bishops were particularly interested in drawing attention to the issue as the millennial year approached.

The bishops' statement said the United States, as a major creditor nation, "has a special responsibility" to help find solutions to poor countries' debt crises.

But the statement also placed responsibility on debtor nations, saying that the debt relief must include "accountability" on the part of those countries, and that poor citizens are the ones who truly benefit from the process.

Pub Date: 4/25/99

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