President Obama and House Republicans still might avert sending the nation over the fiscal cliff. What should really disturb us is policy that continues to favor rich lenders over middle-income and low-income borrowers. The system is both fiscally unwise and morally corrupt.
When the middle and lower classes of a society lose support and confidence, they stop spending and the economic engine is starved of fuel. This does no one good.
Some hardliners believe lenders should always be paid off in full and on time, no matter what the borrowers may lose — homes, health, joy itself. This controverts many gospel teachings, notably the vivid tale of the Rich Man and Lazarus and the parable of the landowner who hoards goods, but dies that very night.
As the year 2000 approached, Pope John Paul noted Old Testament teaching on jubilee, calling for forgiveness of debts for poor nations. We should reclaim the notion of jubilee now for individuals in need.
In ancient Israel, jubilee was a time to set slaves free, to let the land rest and to cancel debts. The idea was to rebuild the kind of social relationships God expected.
Pope John Paul said jubilee was meant to "restore equality among all of the children of Israel, offering new possibilities to families which had lost their property and even their personal freedom." Jubilee, the late pope added, was also a reminder to the rich that a time would come when their Israelite slaves would once again become their equals and would be able to reclaim their rights.
These ancient principles should be operative in modern society, lest our faith seem like a museum piece. Jesus himself evoked jubilee when he said he had come to "bring glad tidings to the poor... to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free."
The church's position on jubilee and debt is rooted in the life and dignity of the human person. These truths, the U.S. Catholic bishops have said, is violated when debt contributes to suffering among the poor.
Ideally, all debts should be paid. But in a broader context of justice, we need to ask if the loan was fair and if enforcing the debt is really a greater good than reducing or forgiving it. Let's allow our informed consciences to process that.