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CDOs were at the heart of the last crisis, but spiritually, aren’t you trading in them?

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Brian Caulfield - published on 01/31/20

Don't we all start off all in (or trying to look like it) but second guess when the going gets tough?

Check today’s financial news sites and you may be shocked to see that CDOs are back. After all, CDOs – collateralized debt obligations – were at the heart of the last financial crisis. Investment experts claim there are now ways to dissuade traders from “shorting” the market with these high-risk financial products, and I don’t pretend to understand the underlying financial principles. But we Catholics know something about the inherent dangers of CDOs, at least in spiritual terms.

In fact, the idea of making an investment that you later bet against sounds something like my spiritual life. Maybe you can relate:

  • If you’ve ever resolved that you’ll never do that sin again, then found yourself in a weak moment saying just this once, you’re trading in spiritual CDOs.
  • If you’ve ever asked God for something, then tried to take it back because you couldn’t control his response, you’re trading in spiritual CDOs.
  • If you’ve given up a Lenten resolution or other spiritual practice with the excuse that you don’t want to become a religious fanatic, you’re trading in spiritual CDOs.

But let’s not despair over our penchant for such CDOs. Almost everyone we meet trades in the same market, most times hurting only themselves, but sometimes hurting others, including loved ones. We’re all sinners, and spiritual CDOs are the perfect currency for our human weakness. We get to look holy with our initial good intention, then secretly take it all back in after-hours trading.

We get to look holy with our initial good intention, then secretly take it all back in after-hours trading.

Ever wise and never shy, Jesus summed up our attachment to such duplicity nicely with a few choice words: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62).

Yet who doesn’t relate to the father of the possessed boy who expressed the essence of the CDO mindset, as he cried out: “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24)? The Gospels also show St. Peter in the role of an apostolic trader. Besides trying to divert Jesus from his sacrificial death and denying him three times to save face, Peter bet against his own investment after catching a great number of fish, declaring, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am sinful man” (Lk 5:8).

When the demands of our faith seem too high, wouldn’t we all wish the Lord would depart, or at least ease up a bit? The possibilities for self-serving double dealing are many: 

  1. Do we really have to attend Mass every Sunday?
  2. When someone attacks the Catholic faith, must we really stand up humbly yet firmly to defend it? 
  3. How open to life do my wife and I need to be when our Catholic friends are using contraception? 
  4. Are we really obligated to help the poor and needy with our own hard-earned money and precious time?
  5. Is looking with lust really like adultery?
  6. How can I possibly love my neighbor as myself?

Living our faith with a hand on either side of the scale may be the way of “smart money,” but we know deep down it’s not what God wants.

So how do we stop trading in spiritual CDOs?

For most of us, it will be a lifelong struggle, with God’s grace building on our wounded human nature. Going to the sacrament of Confession regularly is key. It also helps to have friends who strive toward the same goals and build us up or pick us up when we fall short – a band of brothers we can find in groups such as the Knights of Columbus.

Let’s make a small step toward leaving our CDOs behind this Sunday by taking to heart the words we say before Communion: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”


Woman, Middle age, thinking

Read more:
How a midlife crisis can lead to sanctity

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Brian Caulfield works at the Knights of Columbus headquarters, where he is editor of knights.net and fathersforgood.org.

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