It goes without saying that you shouldn’t take on debt that you may have trouble paying back later. People should also be held accountable for reckless financial decisions that put them in difficult situations.
True as that may be, astronomical interest rates and predatory lending practices have had the awful effect of ensnaring many well-intending persons from ever being debt-free. Usury, in other words, is rampant in America and is unfairly keeping people tied down by onerous monetary obligations.
Dr. Levi Russell is a professor at the University of Kansas’ School of Business (read his bio here and here). Aside from teaching, he can be found giving lectures, appearing on podcasts, and writing about economics. He also runs the Leonine Institute for Catholic Social Teaching.
The Leonine Institute recently launched an exciting new project called the “Jubilee Debt Relief Program.” It’s a no-cost initiative that seeks to help persons who are having financial difficulties.
“Credit card debt and personal loans are financial burdens that many Catholics struggle to overcome,” the Institute’s website observes. “Many families have found themselves in this vicious circle with no good way out. The Jubilee Debt Relief program aims to help these families through a 3-step process:
- Assessment of the family or individual’s financial need and commitment to their parish and to the Church.
- Required education on household budgeting and methods to avoid this situation in the future.
- Relief from high interest credit card and personal loan debt.”
I emailed Professor Russell this week to learn more about the genesis of the debt relief program and to understand how people who are in need can take advantage of it. I think you’ll enjoy what he has to say.
Stephen Kokx: When did the Leonine Institute begin?
Dr. Levi Russell: The Institute started in 2020 with the intention to focus on contributions to Catholic Social Teaching both intellectually and practically. Over the last couple of years we have obtained 501(c)3 status and have focused more on direct action.
What is significant about Pope Leo XIII’s economic teachings?
Pope Leo XIII is credited as the progenitor of Catholic Social Teaching in the modern era. His best-known encyclical on the subject, Rerum Novarum, forms the basis of the teaching that popes have built over the last 130 years. It was so important that there were celebrations of the encyclical every ten years.
You may have read about Quadragesimo Anno by Pope Pius XI or Centesimus Annus by Pope St. John Paul II. They are so named because they were published on the 40th and 100th anniversaries of Rerum Novarum. The “new things” referred to in Pope Leo XIII’s seminal encyclical refer to the changes brought about by the industrial revolution.
The material wealth of the average person in the West had exploded and would continue to do so. Most men were now wage earners. The rising tide of communism made it crucial to emphasize the primacy of the family.
What is the reasoning behind starting the Jubilee Debt Relief Program?
The Jubilee Debt Relief Program began from a simple insight I’d heard years ago: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. We want to educate and converse with Catholics about the Church’s social teaching, but I felt we were less credible if we weren’t taking direct action.
Thankfully, our board is made up of wise Catholic men who have great ideas for how to take such action. In my view, usury is one of the most pernicious evils that Catholic Social Teaching can address, so alleviating onerous debt for those least able to service it seemed to be a natural starting place for us.
Given the lack of crystal-clear modern teaching on the subject, taking action on usury gives us credibility to improve the intellectual discussion on the subject as well.
What can people do to help?
Almsgiving is important and the Jubilee program is a great way for Catholics to help each other. The program is focused on helping Catholics who are in most need of debt relief, but a significant part of the time we spend with applicants is working through some basic budgeting.
Given the limits of our funds at this time, we are only paying off debt for those in the most dire financial circumstances. For other applicants, the free budgeting education we provide has proven very helpful. The debt relief we offer is intended to provide recipients with a fresh start, not to be an ongoing financial assistance program.
On the other hand, our free budgeting education is available to all applicants and past recipients. We provide budgeting education on an ongoing basis on request! Most of the people who have applied for help from us have a relatively small amount of debt that is making it very hard for them to make ends meet. As an example, if 1,000 Catholics donate $5 per month, we can significantly change the financial well-being of ten Catholic families per year.