Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
"The Border Crisis: a Systemic Crisis"
by Bishop Blase J. Cupich
(From the Aug. 21, 2014 edition of the Inland Register)
Debt is something that touches most of us. To some degree, all of us have experience in paying off debts such as mortgages, car loans and credit card balances. While debt can be a problem for us, a reasonable amount of debt is part of the reality of life in our society today.
There are justifiable reasons to be concerned about our own national debt. We need to live within our means, and policies that continue to borrow more and more only transfer our present obligations to our children.
But in many developing countries around the world, the debt has become an even greater problem, one of crisis proportions. Just the interest payments on the debt in these countries drain desperately needed resources, robbing their people, especially those who are poorest and most vulnerable, of needed economic development assistance, health care and education. This of course results in civil unrest and violence, higher crime rates and unemployment, corruption and graft by elected officials and people in power. It also makes people very desperate to the point that they attempt to cross the border into our country or send their children to do so, simply because they are seeking security and safety and a better life for their families, who are enslaved by an unjust system. To be sure, there are many factors involved in the increased border crossings, but the impact of national debt is often a cause that is overlooked, and should be addressed if our country is serious about improving the situation and addressing the systemic causes.
To get a better handle on this situation and how it developed, just imagine that you borrowed a large sum of money many years ago. However, because you had difficulty in paying it back, you’ve refinanced the loan.
While the refinancing gave you more time to pay, it increased the interest payments so that you entered into an endless cycle of refinancing. The end result is that you owe more than the original amount of the loan.
Imagine further that the original loan was used by someone else to pay for something of no use to you. Moreover, because of your obligations to make these high interest payments, you periodically have to put off taking your children to the doctor or buying them shoes.
Finally, imagine that there are no bankruptcy provisions – no system to help you get out from under your crushing debt. In the end, no matter what you do, you are caught in an endless cycle of debt payments at the expense of providing the necessities for your family.
This is precisely what has happened in many developing countries. The governments have borrowed from western nations, including the United States, and from the international financial institutions like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Citizens of these developing countries were not informed of the purpose of the loans or their terms. In fact, in a few cases the loans were used to enrich a small group of people or for projects that were economically or environmentally unsound.
A further complication arises when financial conditions beyond the governments’ control made loan repayment impossible. Thus, in order to keep up with the interest payments to the western creditors, these governments were forced to reduce spending on health care, education and economic development.
The people who pay the greatest price are those who are the weakest – the young who need education, the ill who need health care, and the poor who need jobs.
Catholics are called to view the international debt crisis through the lens of Catholic social teaching. Our moral stance begins with the presumption that debts must be paid. However, this presumption can be overridden when other compelling moral and ethical concerns are at stake.
We believe that every human being is precious, created in the image of God, loved by God, and redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This belief requires not only that we treat all people in ways that reflect their God-given dignity, but that we measure every policy and program by whether it enhances or diminishes human life and dignity. This principle is violated when the debt crisis contributes to suffering among the world’s poor.
Our Catholic social tradition also teaches us that care for creation, protecting the earth and the environment, is an important moral challenge. God has given us responsibility as stewards over creation.
The debt crisis can threaten the health of the environment in serious ways. Pressure to raise hard currency to make debt payments can lead poor countries to deplete natural resources by exhausting fisheries, overusing the soil, denuding the forest and polluting the waters.
When the debt situation contributes to the endless and crushing poverty suffered by our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, the principle of solidarity requires that we act to relieve the crisis and its dire consequences for the world’s poorest people.
While Catholic teaching demands that we care about all our brothers and sisters, the poor and the vulnerable have a particular claim on our concern because their needs are the greatest.
This “preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable” reminds us that a key measure of all policies and programs is how they affect the “least among us.”
The sad truth about poor country debt is that it is often the weakest members of society who, through no fault of their own, pay the greatest price.
There are several steps individual creditor countries and the nations of the world can take to improve this situation: They could 1) provide deeper debt reduction more quickly to more countries than existing debt relief programs; 2) target debt relief for the poor by depositing savings from the reduced debt service in a human development fund; 3) ensure that the terms and conditions of the debt relief and the arrangements for the human development fund would be open to public review and participation.
Every effort must be made in the future to ensure that loan agreements avoid the kind of abuses noted above involving corrupt leadership and a lack of accountability.
Of course, letting our elected officials know that we support debt relief for poor nations is a very concrete step that we can take to show solidarity with millions of our sisters and brothers who need our help to overcome the terrible poverty they experience every day.
We have a principle in Catholic moral teaching of solidarity. It reminds us that we are one family. Contrary to Cain in the Book of Genesis, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, whether they live across the street or across the globe.
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