In one of his works (most likely The Problem of Pain) C.S. Lewis turns the usual debate over pain on its head.  Suffering is generally regarded as a cause for doubting either God’s existence or his goodness; but Lewis suggests that the lived experience of pain often turns out to be an argument for God.  In many people suffering brings out good: patience, gentleness, kindness, etc.; and this sanctifying power of suffering first-hand can constitute evidence for God’s providence.

Even on the mundane level pain and suffering wake people up.  Psychologists and social workers will say that a person needs to “hit bottom” before they can buck whatever’s troubling them, much like the prodigal son in Sunday’s Gospel.  It is only when he finds himself hungering for pigs’ feed that he “[comes] to his senses” and determines to return to his father.  And his older brother too experiences the jolt of awareness that suffering brings; for when he sees the prodigal welcomed by their father, he voices a long-standing resentment: “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends …”  The unwarranted resentment (as the father tells him, “you are here with me always; everything I have is yours”) must become acute before the older brother is able to voice it, and hopefully to mend his more subtle rift with their father.

The older brother’s unhappiness with his lot further underscores the fact that suffering can sometimes create clearer eyes than comfort.  Any number of rich and famous people might illustrate the point; one on my mind, because I recently read his memoir, is Ken Langone, the Wall Street billionaire who financed Home Depot’s founding. Langone’s memoir, I Love Capitalism, characterized by Langone himself and reviewers as a defense of the economic system, came out last year.  Langone was inspired to write it in part because of young Americans’ flirtation with Bernie Sanders’ socialist platform.

Now as a Catholic, I have little love for socialism (which the Church has condemned more than once), and as an American I have a soft spot for capitalism (which the Church has not condemned, though she characterizes it, in the words of Pope Pius XI, as having “its advantages, disadvantages and vices”—see also here for the Church’s stance on private property and here for John Paul II’s economic analysis).  In any case, Langone’s book is an incomplete illustration of capitalism; but it does explain Langone’s fondness for the economic system: he started out as a poor Long Island boy (his father, a plumber who hated to send bills; his mother, a cafeteria worker) who managed through Wall Street trading to become absurdly rich. From impoverished Italian kid (at a time when not being WASP was a liability) he rose to being a well-respected philanthropist and investor, thanks to the capitalist system.

Langone, a cradle Catholic, makes it clear that faith is a part of his life, but he is confused about its role. In the final chapter, “Net Worth,” Langone looks back on his youthful days as an altar boy, and concludes: “I don’t know if there’s a God or if there’s a heaven; I can’t prove it, but that’s what I believe.  There’s one part of me that thinks, when you’re dead, you’re dead.  You had your shot; move on.  But if there isn’t a God, what have I lost by praying?  Nothing.  It’s a no-downside bet.”

Langone seems to be permanently stuck in the first (inadequate) portion of Pascal’s Wager; he is using the same risk-benefit thinking that built a fortune on Wall Street. As Langone continues to meditate on religion and wealth, the thing stalling his spirituality becomes apparent.

“God is the most important part of everything I do,” he writes.  Then in the next paragraph he adds: “Yet I’m very conscious of the fact that I get praise, honor, and glory on a daily basis. I’m human: I like it.”  Some pages later he observes that “the Bible says that if I want to be really rich, I’ll give everything away”; but, although he’s already given more than half his own wealth away, he’s not ready to do what his interpretation of Scripture suggests: “I’ll be honest: I’m not giving everything away. Why? Because I love this life!  I love having nice houses and good people to help me. … You want to accuse me of living well? I plead guilty.”

This candor, a hallmark of Langone’s style throughout, is admirable. But here it reveals the tension between what Langone thinks he knows about religion and what he’s learned about life.  Interpreting personally Christ’s words to the rich young man (“If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me”), Langone figures he has a choice between either perfectly following his religion or subsisting in the comfort to which he has become accustomed.  The fact is, however, that not everyone is called to radical poverty, and there is not necessarily a conflict between being comfortable and being a good, religious Christian.

But there is oftentimes a conflict between the love of comfort and the love of God. That is why we mortify ourselves during Lent: by making ourselves marginally more uncomfortable than usual (no desert, no Netflix, no snooze-button, no hot shower ….).  By suffering a little, we detach; we wake up from our comfortable stupor.  We “come to our senses,” like the prodigal son and his older brother.  If I may boldly compare small sufferings to great ones—we find God in our pain.

Maybe that’s what Langone needs: a little more pain, or rather, a little less fear of pain—for love of comfort often reduces to that, and love of capitalism may well reduce to love of comfort.  “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and rich is better,” Langone says. Better; but is it better for you?

 

Postscript: Because the question of capitalism and Catholicism is so enduring, I offer this quote from John Paul II as an addendum.  I urge you, however, to read his encyclical in full—and, if you have time, to delve also into the earlier encyclicals and other works that he references.

“Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?

“The answer is obviously complex. If by ‘capitalism’ is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a ‘business economy’, ‘market economy’ or simply ‘free economy’. But if by ‘capitalism’ is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.”—John Paul II, Centesimus Annus.