By Frank Wessling
What a complicated life we have in this 21st-century USA. The system of money exchange that made us rich and powerful turns out to be a combination confidence game and shell game. Only in this one, even the operators couldn’t keep track of which shell covered the money.
And to make a bad situation worse, all of us are supposed to keep spending from our vanishing retirement and savings accounts. We can’t go frugal and stop spending now, economists tell us, because that will hurt business, which will cause more unemployment, which will add to debt and deficits and, in general, speed up the disaster train rushing at us.
In other words, what this economy needs is more irrational shopping. We’re living in a real-life theater of the absurd.
Lent may make things worse. Its influence may reduce shopping. There are millions of Christians in this country who take Lent seriously as a time for pausing in our normal habits and pulling back for a look at how we’re measuring up to the Gospel. As we do that, we’re likely to feel a little guilty about how much we’re attracted to material things and how acquisitive we get sometimes.
We might look for more spiritual forms of satisfaction. Our fresh practice of self-denial might include turning away from the ads and commercials for our favorite stores. We might forego a restaurant meal for the family table at home. Instead of a theater or movie date we might play Scrabble or charades with friends.
We might spend more time reading and praying the Gospel. We might let Jesus invade our imaginations rather than the latest game, toy or fashion.
The modern economy, as represented most aggressively by the United States, is built on a theology of growth. Grow or die, is the mantra. This requires a churning of money and debt that can both build giant businesses and lead to the current sprawling collapse. There is no such thing as steady-state prosperity in this vision of the world.
In the news last week there was a notice that Pope Benedict XVI is holding up his planned encyclical on social and economic life. He wants to take a second look to ensure that it makes sense in the current turmoil. It wouldn’t do to have the center of the church appear out of touch on a topic that has everyone’s attention now.
That encyclical should be a very interesting experience, maybe even getting the kind of attention Pope John XXIII earned with his 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher). Some Catholics thought Pope John was out of his league in writing about social problems such as the maldistribution of goods in the world and inequality among peoples. Pope Benedict should expect a similar response.
We’ll always have a faction that wants the church to be mum on issues in public life, especially those that touch our pocketbooks. As the current pope prepares his word on the economy, he knows he must be careful because “moralizing will not help if it is not supported by an understanding of reality.” He said “the error at the basis of (current problems) is human greed,” but that’s only an opening line. What follows that will be what counts.
We’re all waiting for some light in the gloom. We’re all nervous. We need a little wisdom that not only fits this time but will help us and our children in the future.