The link between Lent and American economic recovery

Thought experiment: What if a lot of Catholic Americans had a really good Lent this year? Or even just a moderately good Lent, involving more than simply a half-hearted commitment to “give up chocolate” that quickly falls to the wayside? 

I’m not talking about anything dramatically penitential; just quietly weeding out of our lives some of what distracts us from Christ, and building some habits that bring us (and those with whom we come in contact) closer to him. And a commitment to persevere for the entire six weeks so that God has an opportunity to work some lasting change on us — breaking in some little ways the hold that glitter and gold have on us, and reorienting us toward eternity and those things that bring authentic happiness. 

Catholics account for 25 percent of Americans (and the other Orthodox and mainline Protestant Christians who celebrate Lent probably account for at least another 20 percent). So imagine if six weeks from now, nearly half of all Americans were less materialistic, less grasping; and more generous and more grateful. 

It literally would transform society (not to mention our Church, and its effectiveness in evangelization). 

And it would also put — though this obviously is not the primary purpose of penitential practices and asceticism — America on a surer path to economic security and sanity. 

I listen to a fair bit of news radio in the car on the way to and from work, and the state of our national and global economy is a constant topic these days (as it has been for many months) — Greek defaults, billion-dollar bailout packages, austerity measures, street protests, budget deficits, ballooning public debt, lack of consumer confidence, unemployment and on and on. The assumption also seems to be that the source of the problem must be financial, and therefore that the solutions are financial. 

But are they really? The contrary voice stands out these days, and the one I happened across was a recent commentary in U.S. News & World Report by a Swiss-born, Princeton-educated American professor of political science. 

Louis René Beres wrote: “We are what we buy. There is nothing controversial about this assertion. ... Nor is it in any way a uniquely American condition. 

“The true and unacknowledged generic or universal problem is that in any society where one’s perceived value as a person is determined by observable consumption, the derivative economy is necessarily built upon sand.” 

He criticizes the attempt in consumerism “to seek refuge from the excruciating emptiness of daily life,” and offers this warning: “Until we can finally get a handle on the insatiable public need for more and more things, on the unceasing search for shiny goods that can seemingly validate us as persons of merit, our economic problems will not go away. 

Thoughts or Lenten plans? Write