UCAN Spirituality Catholic Church News

Christianity and Consumerism

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Raymond J. de Souza

Pope John Paul II places his teaching about economics and the social order within the framework of his Christian personalism, in which the human person is the starting point of his analysis and the primary criterion of his evaluation…. John Paul’s approach is that of a pastor who asks whether the social order recognizes the human person for what he is and whether it renders him more or less free to live out his human vocation.

It is in this context that John Paul’s repeated and strong condemnations of consumerism should be understood. He regards consumerism as a threat to the freedom of the human person to live according to the higher demands of love rather than to the lower pull of material desires. It is important to understand why the pope sees such a danger in consumerism and how this is related to questions of economic liberty, which the pope has endorsed as an integral part of human freedom….

Every human person has a dual role in the economy. He is both a (potential) producer and a consumer….

What is consumerism? It is not very easy to define, but a good, working definition might be that consumerism is a way of living in which the person, at least in practice, makes consumer goods the object of his heart’s desire; that is, they become the source of his identity and the goal toward which his life is oriented. Consumption is obviously necessary – there would be no economy without consumers. Consumerism arises when the person becomes – in his own mind or in the view of others – primarily an object that consumes solely for himself, rather than a subject who uses material goods in order to give himself to others….

Consumerism is a major moral threat to the salvation of souls – the primary concern of religious thinkers. John Paul teaches that what is at stake is man’s fundamental vocation to give himself to others and to God, and a consumerist society that makes this more difficult is a society “alienated” from its true purpose….

If we are to speak of our consumer societies as being in “bondage,” how might we seek liberation? An analogy might be drawn to the issue of welfare, where religious thinkers considered how welfare affected the persons who received it: Did it expand or contract their ability to develop as persons who embrace the responsibility to live freely? The starting point was not economics but, rather, the effect on the human person, which the church insists is the “foundation, cause, and end of every social institution” (Mater et Magistra, n. 218-19). The ultimate “solution” to the problem of consumerism is conversion of heart, for only that can change the object of the heart’s desire. But a complete account of economic liberty from a Christian perspective needs to inquire as to what specific dangers can arise in the free economy with respect to consumerism. Some areas suggest themselves as good starting points.

Do high levels of consumption lead to consumerism?… How many possessions one has is, in a certain sense, independent of how much one is attached to those goods as defining his identity (either presently with goods he has or in the future with goods he does not yet have but desires). It is, of course, possible to be very rich and to be a saint, as history teaches us with Saint Louis of France, Saint Charles Borromeo of Milan, and Saint Thomas More of England. But it is also possible to walk away from Jesus sadly, as does the rich young man of the Gospels, leading Jesus to comment about the difficulty of the camel passing through the eye of the needle (Matt. 19:16-26; Mark 10:17-27; Luke 18:18-27). It is a grave warning. Is it sufficiently received as such by Christians living in rich societies?

One of John Paul II’s social teaching achievements has been to ground the Church’s traditional teaching on the productivity of man, present throughout the modern corpus of social teaching, in his distinctive theological personalism. That contribution has been commented upon and made accessible to an audience familiar with economic scholarship. The same needs to be done for his equally important teaching on the role of man as consumer, and the problem of consumerism. In a post-Communist world, it is part of the challenge of freedom.