“Ask a Priest: Is our personal participation in debt considered immoral and sinful?”

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Q: Pope Francis has called debt immoral. It is easy to see that we are to care for the poor — the others — and not be guided by the “me” consumerism of our day. My question: Is our personal participation in debt (i.e., borrowing money, credit cards, etc.) considered immoral and sinful? Could simply using a credit card be wrong in terms of supporting a debt-inducing banking system? -C.L.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) was quoted as calling social debt “immoral, unjust and illegitimate.” By “social debt” he seemed to refer to economic structures and practices that led to extreme poverty in parts of society.

As Pope, he mentions in the apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, “Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power” (No. 56).

The debt that the Holy Father laments is the kind that weighs down nations recklessly. It is the kind of overly burdensome debt that consumes resources that could otherwise alleviate poverty.

Debt comes in different doses. Some debt can serve a genuine human need. A mortgage, for instance, can enable a family to have its own house. A college loan can help a person attend classes and develop skills that lead to a better job. Other kinds of debt can be debilitating, such as those that result from overspending or those that trap poor nations in a constant level of underdevelopment.

To answer your specific question, the answer is: it depends. Debt that you take on for genuine needs — say, for education, or for a car that enables you to get to work, or for an emergency — can certainly be OK. Debt that is taken on for the sake of needless or frivolous goods or services should prompt us to examine our lifestyle and attitudes.

If you use a credit card to take on debt for a legitimate and prudent reason, are you contributing to a debt-inducing banking system? You could be said to give remote material cooperation in the case of a banking system that is faulty or unjust. But that doesn’t mean you are committing a sin. We all, in some degree, cooperate materially in evil — for instance, a fraction of the taxes we pay might used by the government to pay for abortion or related services.

Still, there is something positive we can do in the face of world poverty. Pope Francis in No. 188 of his apostolic exhortation asks us not only to perform “small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter,” but also to “work to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor.”

The Catechism in No. 2405 says, “Goods of production — material or immaterial — such as land, factories, practical or artistic skills, oblige their possessors to employ them in ways that will benefit the greatest number. Those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor.”

These tasks might seem overwhelming. Suffice it to say that, through prayer, acts of sacrifice and almsgiving, by living modestly, and by speaking up as citizens, we can contribute to a more just world. I pray that you do so and that your example inspires others to follow suit. God bless.

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