By Dr. Judith Dwyer
Executive vice president

The Jubilee Year

I have been asked by the Planning Committee of today’s Community Day to address you briefly on the topic of "The Jubilee Year" and I am honored to do so. My presentation has three major divisions: (I) The Biblical Foundations and Significance of "The Jubilee Year"; (II) Contemporary Implications of "The Jubilee Year"; and (III) The Role of the Catholic University in "The Jubilee Year." I conclude with several specific thoughts related to the University of St. Thomas.

I. The Biblical Foundations and Significance of "The Jubilee Year"

The concept of "The Jubilee Year" is a late development in Israelite law and refers to the 50th year following seven cycles of seven years. The Jubilee law (Leviticus 25:8-55) appears only in the Levitical Holiness Code (Leviticus 19-26), which took its final form sometime after the Exodus, that is after 516 B.C.E. (1) The celebration attempted to redress some of Israel’s sins against its own people and therefore the year opened with a Day of Atonement, inaugurated by blowing a particular kind of ram’s horn, known in Hebrew as a yobel, from which the word jubilee derives (Leviticus 25:9).

To appreciate the significance of the Jubliee law, one must understand that most people lived with little economic security in that period of time. Droughts, wars, and plagues destroyed crops and disrupted harvest cycles, frequently causing a family to borrow heavily in order to plant crops the following year. Without external controls over debts, lenders could demand disproportionately high interest and require payment at any time. If debts could not be met, families would sell off their land and frequently indenture themselves as slaves.

Hence, the significance of the Jubilee year during which the land would be fallow and the community would eat directly from the field (Leviticus 25:11-12). During Jubilee, land was also to be given back to the original owners through repurchasing procedures that ensured a just price (Leviticus 25:13-17), a testimony to the belief that the land ultimately belonged to God.

An additional concern of the Jubilee law was the release of slaves, that is, those who had indentured themselves (Leviticus 25: 35-55). During Jubilee, the Israelites were commanded to treat the poor among them with dignity and justice, neither charging them interest on debts nor making a profit on food sold to them (Leviticus 25:35-37). Within this context, that is, within the law of Jubilee, one sees an early and striking introduction of moral principles into Israelite economic life. (2)

Compliance with the Jubilee law prevented the development of a permanent landless class and/or a permanent class of slaves with the Israelite community. It "sought a return to the original, perfected state in which God created the world and intended it to exist.” (3) In subsequent years, the concept of Jubilee would live in Israel’s imagination, and give it hope as it struggled under oppressive regimes.

Christian Tradition

In the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ fulfills the hope inspired by the Hebrew Year of Jubilee. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by announcing the following:

The Spirit of one Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord (Luke 4:18-19).

Central to Jesus’ teachings was the proclamation that the poor and the hungry are blessed by God (Luke 6:20-21). As the Gospel indicates, Jesus had special concern for the rejected and marginalized of society — the lepers and others who were sick, crippled or disturbed in mind or spirit and those who were classified as public sinners such as prostitutes and tax collectors. (4) In the end, the political authorities rejected Jesus and put him to death because they perceived his message and his life to undermine their power.

II. Contemporary Theological Analysis of the Concept of "The Jubilee Year"

Throughout the centuries since the time of Christ, Christians have struggled with the challenge of making the teachings of Jesus applicable to a particular time and place. Our own century is no different, although the scope and complexity of contemporary moral problems has shifted the international picture dramatically. Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes, December 1965) recognizes this fact as it opens its address to all women and men of good will with the following statement:

The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the [women and] men of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts. … That is why Christians cherish a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history. (5)

Here and elsewhere in the Counciliar documents is an implicit reference to the natural law foundation of Catholic morality, namely, that human experience is real and intelligible and one can reflect on human experience, especially one’s own experience, and derive from that reflection certain moral principles that enhance human living. This rational approach to morality, therefore, holds that reflection on human experience yields a certain "rightness" to life, a moral code of living, applicable to all people of good will — be they Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Christian or agnostic and atheist, namely that one does good and avoids evil in every sphere of human life. As a foundational principle, therefore, Catholic morality has argued that the good Catholic life is really the worthwhile, authentic human life, and thus, the teaching has universal appeal. (6)

It is in this context that Vatican II calls for a sustained "dialogue" between the Church and modern-day culture, especially with certain "i
mbalances" on the personal, family, technological, demographic and international levels. (7) For today’s reflections, I would like to highlight two "imbalances" that are prominent in the modern world but that harken back to the Jubilee law. The first is economic; the second, environmental. Here I merely identify them, as an exhaustive analysis is well beyond the scope of this brief address.

The Poor

Today, over 1 billion people throughout the world live in grinding poverty. As even the World Bank has recognized, the policies of several "development decades" have only served to widen the gap between rich and poor, as John O’Brien notes in a recent essay on international poverty. (8) As an example, O’Brien cites one statistic: namely, the gross national product of the whole of sub-Saharan Africa is roughly equal to that of Belgium, although its population is forty-five times greater. The problem is compounded when local corruption results in even these meager resources being yet more inequitably distributed, especially among women and children, who remain the poorest of the poor throughout the world. (9)

In addition to the traditional dependencies of many poor countries, international human rights organizations such as Jubilee 2000 note that fifty-two of the poorest countries in the world are being crushed by overwhelming debt. These countries, of which 37 are in Africa, owe a total of $354 billion to various governments — mainly Japan, the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, and Italy (the "G7"). The remaining debt is "multilateral" debt owed to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. (10)

For this reason, Pope John Paul II, in a meeting with a Jubilee 2000 delegation on Sept. 23, 1999, declared "I appeal to all those involved, especially the most powerful nations, not to let this opportunity of the Jubilee Year pass without taking a decisive action step towards resolving the debt crisis. It is widely recognized that this can be done.” (11) Six days later, President William Clinton declared that the United States intended to cancel 100 percent of bilateral debt owed to the United States by the world’s poorest countries. Other countries have also responded in some measure. The British and Canadian governments have become proponents of debt relief at the international level. The Japanese recently cancelled a small amount of debt for Bolivia and the French have taken unilateral action to cancel debt owed by Central American countries in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, although the French remain opposed to comprehensive debt cancellation. (12)

The Land

Despite the growing awareness of the ecological crisis and the proliferation of environmental groups, the Bruntland Report claimed that the "sources and causes of pollution are far more diffuse, complex, and interrelated and the effects…more widespread, cumulative, and chronic than hitherto believed.” (13) This grim assessment remains even more relevant for the decade of the 1990s and beyond. The gradual depletion of the ozone layer and the related "greenhouse effect" have now reached crisis proportions as the consequences of industrial growth, massive urban concentrations, and vastly increased energy needs. Industrial waste, the burning of fossil fuels, unrestricted deforestation, the use of certain types of herbicides, coolants, and propellants: all are known to harm the atmosphere and environment. The resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low lying lands. Recent events with global ramifications include the Prince William Sound oil spill, the drought of 1988, the Rhine chemical spill, the rapid burning of the Amazon rain forests, the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and the threat of "red tides" to the earth’s waters.

Environmentalists suggest numerous interlocking reasons for the current ecological crisis: 1) a specific, though erroneous, interpretation of such Scriptural passages as the mandate of Genesis 1:28, "be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and conquer it," which has led some to dominate nature; 2) a gnosticism in which God utterly transcends and human beings and nature are alienated; 3) a dualism rooted in Descartes which sharply distinguishes between the spiritual and the material, between the subject and the object. Here, scientific objectification of a natural world, perceived to be inferior, justifies the technological exploitation of nature by human beings; 4) a crass consumeristic mentality and a "throw-away culture"; 5) libertarian political theories, such as that of John Locke, that foster an unrestricted approach to private property. (14)

Recent contributions to an environmental ethic include efforts by Scripture scholars to evaluate the authentic meaning of the Genesis account of "having dominion,” (15) writings by theologians Jürgen Moltmann, Elizabeth Johnson, John Haught, and Sallie McFague, among others, that stress the interdependence and interconnectedness of reality, (16) and the insights of Catholic social thought concerning consumerism, greed, indiscriminate development, and a certain use of private property which remains insensitive to the common good. (17) John Paul II, for instance, frequently insists that "respect for life, and above all for the dignity of the human person, is the ultimate guiding norm for any sound economic, industrial or scientific progress.” (18) The pontiff links the ecological question with the quest for a peaceful society and calls on the international community to respect the cosmic order, that is, the endowment of the universe with its own integrity, its own internal dynamic balance. John Paul II also requests a renewed sense of common heritage and a more internationally coordinated approach to the management of the earth’s goods, since the fruits of the earth are for the benefit of all. A new moral solidarity among all peoples, with a special responsibility to address the structural forms of poverty, requires that modern society examine its life style with simplicity, moderation, discipline, and a spirit of sacrifice becoming part of everyday life.

III. The Role of A Catholic University in a "Jubilee Year"

Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities (1990), must always be read within the context of Vatican II, especially The Pastoral Constitution in the Church in the Moder
n World
, from which Ex Corde Ecclesiae draws its inspiration for such key themes as the belief that one can seek truth within a context of faith, the mandate to engage the culture in sustained dialogue and the call to serve both the Church and society. (19)

I quote at length from Ex Corde Ecclesiae:

A Catholic University, as any University, is immersed in human society; as an extension of its service to the Church, and always within its proper competence, it is called on to become an ever more effective instrument of cultural progress for individuals as well as for society. Included among its research activities, therefore, will be a study of serious contemporary problems in areas such as the dignity of human life, the promotion of justice for all quality of personal and family life, the protection of nature, the search for peace and political stability, a more just sharing in the world’s resources, and a new economic and political order that will better serve the human community at a national and international level. University research will seek to discover the roots and causes of the serious problems of our time, paying special attention to their ethical and religious dimensions.

If need be, a Catholic University must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society.

A specific priority is the need to examine and evaluate the predominant values and norms of modern society and culture in a Christian perspective, and the responsibility to try to communicate to society those ethical and religious principles which give full meaning to human life. In this way a University can contribute further to the development of a true Christian anthropology, founded on the person of Christ, which will bring the dynamism of the creation and redemption to bear on reality and on the correct solution to the problems of life.

The Christian spirit of service to others for the promotion of social justice is of particular importance for each Catholic University, to be shared by its teachers and developed in its students. (20)

In its service to the Church, the Catholic university enables Catholics and others to seek out the relevance of the Christian message to all the problems and opportunities that confront the contemporary world, and to do so at the highest intellectual level. (21) As Father Theodore Hesburgh frequently states, "a Catholic university is the place where the church does its thinking.” (22) Notes Ex Corde Ecclesiae:

Through teaching and research, a Catholic University offers an indispensable contribution to the Church. In fact, it prepares men and women who, inspired by Christian principles and helped to live their Christian vocation in a mature and responsible manner, will be able to assume positions of responsibility in the Church. Moreover, by offering the results of its scientific research, a Catholic University will be able to help the Church respond to the problems and needs of this age. (23)

Poverty, with its cycle ensured by crushing debt, and environmental concerns, complex issues rooted in the Jubilee tradition, require the type of sustained, intellectual rigor appropriate to a university. In order to address them appropriately, these topics, as well as many others, necessitate interdisciplinary analysis and warrant a certain level of intellectual imagination, components that ought to be central to the mission and identity of a Catholic university.


The "Jubilee Year" (and indeed the University of St. Thomas Community Day) is a time for hope, an opportunity to explore justice as right relationship to God, to one another, to the earth. Within the context of the University of St. Thomas, with its commitment to excellence in teaching, research, and service to the broader community, analysis of contemporary understandings of a "preferential option for the poor," and an investigation into human freedom and its many expressions (intellectual, physical, psychological, political, moral) among many moral issues, seem appropriate in a "Jubilee Year."

On "Community Day 2000," may the University of St. Thomas recommit itself to service to the wider community. In the spirit of the "Jubilee Year," may this community of scholars testify to a hope for a day in which international justice and peace eternally embrace.


1. See Kathleen M. O’Connor, "Jubilee Year," in Carroll Stuhlmueller (general ed.), The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996), pp. 499-501.

2. See Lionel Koppman, "Jubilee, Year Of," in William H. Gentz (general ed.), The Dictionary of Bible and Religion (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), p. 557.

3. "Jubilee Year," in Jacob Neusner (editor), Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period 450 B.C.E. to 600 C.E. (New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1996), p. 344.

4. Donal Dorr, "Poor, Preferential Option For," in Judith A. Dwyer (ed.), The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994), pp. 755-59.

5. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) in Austin Flannery (general ed.), Vatican II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing Company, 1992), #1, pp. 903-04.

6. See Josef Fuchs, "Natural Law," in The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought, pp. 669-75.

7.Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, #8, pp. 908-09.

8. John O’Brien, "Poverty," in The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought, pp.770-76.

9. See "The State of the World’s Children 2000,"

10. "Ten Questions about Jubilee 2000&q

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. "World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 21.

14. See Lynn White, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," Science 155 (March 10, 1967): 1206; H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Philadelphia; Fortress Press, 1986); Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983); Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985); Robert L. Simon, "Troubled Waters: Global Justice and Ocean Resources," in Tom Regan, ed., New Introductory Essays in Environmental Ethics (New York: Random House, 1984).

15. See, for example, Richard J. Clifford, "Genesis 1-3: Permission to Exploit Nature?," Bible Today 26 (May, 1988): 133-37.

16. Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation; Elizabeth A. Johnson, "Turn to the Heavens and the Earth: Retrieval of the Cosmos in Theology," Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 51 (1996): 1-14; John Haught, The Promise of Nature: Ecology and Cosmic Purpose (New York: Paulist Press, 1993); Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987).

17. John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Origins 17 (March 3, 1988): 641-60; Drew Christiansen, "Ecology, Justice and Development," Theological Studies 51 (March, 1990): 64-81.

18. John Paul II, The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility, issued January 1, 1990 (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1990), 6.

19. J. Bryan Hehir, "Observations and Conversations," in Occasional Papers on Catholic Higher Education vol. 1., no. 1 (November 1995): 34-43.

20. Ex Corde Ecclesiae #32-34.

21. Theodore M. Hesburgh, "Introduction: The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University," in Theodore M. Hesburgh (ed.), The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), pp. 1-12.

22. For this reference, see Richard P. McBrien, " What Is a Catholic University?" in The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University, p. 156.

23. Ex Corde Ecclesiae # 31.


Judith A. Dwyer holds a Ph.D. in moral theology from the Catholic University of America and is the author and editor of numerous articles and books on topics related to Christian social ethics, especially issues concerning nuclear warfare, deterrence and disarmament. Among her scholarly achievements are the award-winning The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought (1994) and her most recent book, Vision and Values: Ethical Viewpoints in the Catholic Tradition, published in fall 1999 by Georgetown University Press.

Dwyer holds an appointment as a tenured, full professor at the university’s School of Divinity. She has taught both undergraduate and graduate theology at Chestnut Hill College, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and Villanova University. She also has been a guest professor at the University of Notre Dame, Seton Hall University and numerous other institutions. In 1988-89, Dwyer received a Fulbright Post-Doctoral Fellowship to Germany.


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