On June 29, both Houses of Congress passed, and President Obama signed, a law maintaining Stafford student loan interest rates at 3.4 percent for one more year – two days before they were scheduled to double. A number of human rights groups and religious communities have praised this development. The Jubilee USA Network, a coalition of over seventy-five churches, has been pushing for passage of this bill, and now celebrates it as a living-out of the Biblical practice of periodic forgiveness of debts. Even the organization’s use of the word “Jubilee” in its name is a reference to a practice God commanded for the Israelites in the Old Testament: “Thou shalt sanctify the fiftieth year, and shalt proclaim remission to all the inhabitants of thy land: for it is the year of jubilee,” (Leviticus 25:10). Similarly, the Catholic Church has a long tradition of periodically holding a Jubilee Year celebrating forgiveness. There’s no question that the concept of pardoning debts out of pure mercy is certainly a Judeo-Christian one. But intellectual honesty requires us to ask whether any particular event is an example of a given principle. Is maintaining the current Stafford student loan interest rate actually a Christian “jubilee” event?
The first Church-wide jubilee was proclaimed by Pope Boniface VIII on February 22, 1300, granting indulgences and remission of the penalty for sins to all the faithful who would make a pilgrimage to Rome and Saint Peter’s Basilica. As the concept of the Jubilee was gradually being developed, the details continued to change over the next hundred and fifty years (various lengths, such as 25, 33 and 100 years were proposed as the time span between Jubilees) but beginning in 1450, the Church has held Jubilees once every 50 years up to the present day, with only three omissions. (more…)