The prodigal

Jack Cashill’s book “Popes and Bankers” has led me to think about the sin of the prodigal. A prodigal is a person who spends rashly, extravagantly, recklessly, wastefully, without necessity. Cashill points out that Aristotle praised those who spent according to their substance and on right objects and condemned the prodigals who spent foolishly and exceeded their income. Dante condemned the prodigals to fourth circle of hell.

For those unfamiliar with Dante, he divides the afterlife into various sections according to the life choices of the deceased: heaven, purgatory, and hell. Hell is divided into nine descending circles. The first is for those who lived virtuous lives, but did not know Christ. These do not suffer, but, in the next eight, the tortures of the damned become progressively harsher. In the second circle, we find the lustful. The third is for the gluttons. In the fourth circle, the greedy are punished; this includes the miserly and the prodigal.

It is interesting to note that while Christians are often criticized for being overly concerned about sexual sins, in Dante’s scheme of things avarice is worse than lust. In his view, the misuse of money is more serious than the sins of the flesh.

While the miser refuses to spend money even for basic necessities, preferring to hoard his wealth, the prodigal spends what he has wastefully, and, if he can, borrows in order to consume.

We all know the story of the prodigal son. He took his inheritance and squandered it on high living and fast women. When the money ran out, he came to his senses and went home. His father rejoiced when he saw him, but his inheritance was gone and his father’s estate went to his brother. Today, the situation might have been worse, for a young man with a substantial estate would undoubtedly have been offered any number of credit cards. Every time he made a purchase, the smiling clerk would ask if he wanted a store credit card and did he know that he could get a 10 percent discount on today’s purchase if he applied for one.

Thus, before his money ran out, our prodigal son could have piled up thousands of dollars of debt, plus massive interest payments. It should be noted that Dante puts usurers -- those who lend money at interest -- in the seventh circle of hell, undoubtedly recognizing how they take advantage of the prodigals.

It is one thing to borrow in order to invest in a business that will produce goods or services or to buy something with the reasonable expectation that it will increase in value, provided you are willing to bear the loss should it not. In that case, the lender’s money is making money and he should be rewarded. It is quite another to borrow to consume. Of course, one can use credit cards rather than cash, if one knows that one is able to pay the full amount back before any interest can accrue. However, when a person consistently spends money he doesn’t have and can’t immediately pay back, and must pay interest on the balance due, he is a prodigal and sooner or later it will catch up with him.

Living with an ever-increasing burden of debt hanging over your head, watching interest charges grow, being harassed by creditors, is -- in a very real sense -- hell on earth.

I could point out that governments who spend what they do not have and pile up massive debt, will eventually have to face the consequences of their prodigal behavior. Those who demand government programs and subsidies when these cannot be paid for out of revenue, but must be financed by borrowing, are another kind of prodigals. In supporting continued spending and ballooning debt, they are laying the burden of the paying for their consumption on their children.

When we read the parable of the prodigal son, we focus on the forgiveness of the father, as well we should; but the son can only receive the father’s forgiveness because he came to his senses and repented. It is long since time prodigals among us -- both individuals and collective come to their senses.

Dale O’Leary is an internationally recognized lecturer and author of “The Gender Agenda: Redefining Equality.”