During the past month or so, two different people have made a statement so shocking that it caused me to doubt their sanity. It arose during discussions on Catholic instutional issues, including the papal conclave. They felt that American and western European people are too comfortable. I’ve heard this from other people, and disagree with this point, but I’ll withhold that argument. The shocking statement goes farther, much farther. I’ll make this a headline for emphasis:
There is not enough suffering in the world.
This is insane. At least, it’s insane with the proper definition of suffering. I’m using that from Salvifici Doloris, which I’ve meditated upon previously. From section 7 of that apostolic letter, “man suffers whenever he experiences any kind of evil.” Thus, to increase suffering means increasing evil. This is unthinkable.
The letter spends a great deal of time talking about the lessons from suffering, atonement and redemption and even completion. So much so, that I even noted that suffering sounds almost good. Thus, I can see how a person with an poorly formed conscience could leap from use to need. At least, I can see that until the consequences become apparent. To increase suffering is not just mortification. If we take suffering as good, we should exhibit that good – walk up and punch people, steal wallets, maybe even shoot a few folk. I pray, fervently, that once folks realize the implications of that statement, they will repent. To make it more obvious, I think if I ever hear that again I’m going to just slap the speaker to demonstrate the idiocy.
A speaker might qualify the statement, backing down from inflicting pain, instead talking about the wealth of the First World (Canada, western Europe, and the USA). If the comment was directed at poverty, I would agree; after all, there’s the Gospel verse about camels, needles, and rich men, and the Gospels mention poverty a lot. That’s not right, though; my opponents talk about comfort, particularly easy sexuality. Again, given their cellphones and tennis shoes and clean mixed fabric clothes and hot showers, I question their honesty, but there’s something there. Compared to 1850, or even 1950, there has been a big shift in prosperity. Instead of worrying about starvation and the great depression, now we battle against obesity and stock bubbles. As I’m fond of reminding people, in 1850 slightly over half of all babies born in London did not reach 25 years of age. Now it might be 5 percent. The vast majority of us enjoy food, housing, and structure exceeding the upperclass of 100 years ago. I am not forgetting the underclass, or youth hunger (the only appropriate number of underfed kids is zero), but in general, America has become a nation of kings.
Our problems are different now. The basics of survival are satisfied. When I had a blood infection in college, an antibiotic kept me from losing my arm. Glasses let me read. Electricity led to the light and the plane and the computer. I consider these all wonderful testaments to the brains God gave us. However, they change the rules. Our capacity for evil has increased, not just through the ability to destroy humankind via nuclear device. The consequences of sexuality (pregnancy and disease) are more avoidable, and generally less deadly, though AIDS is a major exception. Television and the Internet spread lots of concupiscence and evil, though they do have good parts. On a more basic level, almost everyone can read, and thus we’re not dependent on hearing the Word read to us. We have cheap Bibles, too. Some of us even read theological and pastoral works, making us more knowledgeable than the average priest of 300 years ago. We are not “simple lay people” anymore.
When the speakers talk about an excess of comfort, they feel that the lack of trial makes us more likely to ignore God. They spy lots more priests and religious in the Third World, where physical suffering is greater. The fact is true, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon our advances. There have always been people with comfort, and some of those believed, and some even became Saints. The Church has preached to the Kings as well as the Peasants. Though the truth of the message remains, the specific emphases and tactics change from time to time and place to place. The reduction of physical suffering doesn’t mean that we recreate it, for as I noted, suffering proceeds from evil. It means that we find new ways to talk about God, or adapt the old ways. There still are plenty of problems to serve as starting points. We might even use intelligence, and talk more about thought and theology. But I will never argue to create suffering. If anyone needs some, just ask and I’ll share.