Catholic social teaching has held a clear position on the subject of debt for over a century: Lending is a necessary part of being a good neighbor, but don’t let a power structure emerge out of it that will deny people their human dignity. Also, keep the common good in mind—don’t create agreements that will hurt those who are already poor and vulnerable.
This kind of morality requires an ability to take multiple perspectives. In his first exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reaffirmed this teaching while expressing frustration with world leaders that use the rhetoric of justice but neglect it in policy:
The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies. At times, however, they seem to be a mere addendum imported from without in order to fill out a political discourse lacking in perspectives or plans for true and integral development. How many words prove irksome to this system?
While this articulation is recent by church standards, the story of debt and power has been a focus for church leaders at least since the Middle Ages when Pope Benedict XIV condemned usury as a system that keeps people destitute. Across religious lines, the ancients indicate a sharp awareness of the corrupting influence of money and objects of value that displace the value of people and relationships. Jewish tradition tries to address this by calling for Jubilee in which in the fiftieth year debts were forgiven to reset the economic balance. Leviticus 25 declares:
And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan.
In more recent efforts, as Catholics were celebrating the second millennium, the Vatican resolutely advocated for debt forgiveness for third world countries as part of the Jubilee Year. To reinforce Catholic social teaching in U.S. public policy, a consortium of Catholic advocacy groups including Network’s Nuns on the Bus launched the website, In This Together. At the grassroots level, in 2012, Occupy Catholics circulated a statement on usury, which included these words:
We will spread the spirit of jubilee by working to abolish debt that has no basis in justice. We will build a new economy based on the debts that we really owe: to our families, our co-workers, our friends, our neighbors, our Earth, and those who share our struggle around the world.
The statement called on all people of faith to demand Jubilee and justice in lending based on a relationship-oriented view.
A Catholic approach to the question of debt requires us to start by asking, “To whom are we truly indebted in life?” It is this deeper inquiry into the significance of relationships and power-sharing that may provide a useful frame for what’s next in debt resistance work for faith communities. In her book Everything is Workable: A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution, Buddhist spiritual teacher Diane Musho Hamilton writes of the shift she noticed while in negotiations as a court mediator—what she calls “the capacity for perspective-taking.”
Hamilton describes encountering people who had no capacity to sense their own perspective, possibly due to developmental deprivation, trauma, or youthful innocence. This inability to identify and advocate for their own needs left them very vulnerable to unfavorable agreements. Others could easily perceive their own perspective but could not put themselves in another person’s situation. Others could simultaneously perceive their own perspective alongside one other person’s perspective. And some could take multiple perspectives including that of the system that was at work. Hamilton found that this capacity for taking multiple perspectives was rare. And even rarer was the capacity to see these multiple perspectives, including one’s own, within a timeless, evolving context where one could consider past, present, and future consequences of these perspectives. Hamilton found that often the people with more capacity to step into others’ shoes would come out of negotiations with less for themselves. They lacked an egocentric desire for control and were able to give more to others. Isn’t this the morality that our traditions call for in terms of debt?
If we are going to demand just and fair debt relationships no longer hijacked by power plays, perhaps we need to instill in our systems and ourselves an understanding of childhood and adult development and build toward a capacity for perspective-taking. One organization that has devoted itself to building this capacity is Pacific Integral. Their research-based Generating Transformative Change program has extensive experience working with cohorts of individuals, who report feeling an expanded sense of self after the nine-month program. The New Economy Coalition is another group creating transformative change in the area of economy. The coalition characterizes itself as a “movement support organization.” Its focus is on creating collaboration among diverse groups working toward alternatives to the current economic structure by creating building cooperatives or strengthening the commons. Both of these organizations are working to develop a greater capacity for relationship. Where the Generating Transformative Change program works primarily on the interior domain (the self), the New Economy Coalition works on the exterior domain (the economy). If we are to develop an ethics-based economy that doesn’t fall prey to self-interested power, we must consciously transform both our interior and exterior environments.
(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Winter 2015 print issue: Jubilee and Debt Abolition. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/jubilee to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)