[Editor’s note: David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, where he specializes in moral theology with particular interests in economic ethics, sexual ethics, and the environment. He recently took part in a conference called “Erroneous Autonomy: The Dignity of Work,” held Jan. 10 at Catholic University. Here, Charles Camosy speaks to Cloutier about the event and its importance.]

Camosy: Some heavy hitters showed up at this conference. What do you think prompted the event? What were one or two of your most important takeaways?

Cloutier: It was really an honor to take part in an event featuring figures such as Cardinal [Sean] O’Malley [of Boston] and Joan Rosenhauer of Catholic Relief Services. They are doing such important work in the Church today, and to share that conversation with others in politics and culture like Thomas Frank and Richard Trumpka was a particularly important feature of the gathering.

I think the series of “erroneous autonomy” conferences seek to fill a void in our discourse, both in the Church and in American politics. We talk about individual issues a lot, but ignore larger underlying visions or worldviews that emerge and shape how we debate the issues. A key one is this whole idea of autonomy – or freedom – being misunderstood.

It often feels like the only direction the conversation moves, on either left or right, is a direction where we increasingly defend the rights of people to do whatever they want.

Even issues such as immigration get stuck between the freedom of a nation to defend its borders versus the freedom of people to migrate and not live in the shadows. The framing is off. My most important takeaway from the conference is that we have to pay more attention to framing issues, and tie them to deeper commitments.

Your remarks focused on care for the earth. What was your basic thesis?

Yes, my panel was devoted to exactly this task: addressing the framing problem on specific issues. Issues concerning the environment – and in particular, the large-scale problems like climate change, fresh water, and species extinction that Pope Francis highlights in chapter 1 of Laudato Si’ – are ultimately collective action problems. We can’t solve them without coordinated action.

The present system is structured to favor individual action – even conservative economists recognize this. Traditional economic growth does result in cleaner local air, better sewer systems, and the like, because these are immediate goods individuals want. Growth produces the resources to address these problems. But larger ecological programs aren’t like this – pressures for growth just exacerbate the commons problems.

So my thesis was that we need to recognize two clear Catholic principles: that the earth was created and ordered by God “prior to us” and that the material goods we need from the earth must be used in accordance with the universal destination of goods. So our use of the earth has to respect the prior order – we aren’t free to do whatever we want.

And our use of our own wealth and possessions isn’t entirely free, either – we have a duty to use excess wealth for the common good, to “promote natural solidarity,” as the Catechism says. We of course do have human creativity. But the freedom is qualified by the larger whole.

This seems to have important overlap with what you are up to in your most recent book, The Vice of Luxury.

Definitely. The book is really an extended application of the universal destination of goods to the lives of the upper-middle and upper classes in advanced economies.

We have enormous spare (or “discretionary”) economic resources flowing through our economies, but so much of that goes to fulfill really unnecessary personal pleasures and whims and the like. For a long time, both moral thinkers and the public at large retain a suspicion about luxury – having possessions was good, but going too far was bad both for the person and for the society.

I try to tell the story about how and why that changed – and why we should revisit this fundamental insight, in light of things like psychological research about true happiness and even economic insights about the different effects of different forms of spending.

On the environment, I doubt we can address these larger collective issues unless we shift social norms to be more skeptical about excessive personal consumption.

If you had a singular message for Crux readers about the vice of luxury what would it be? How do you think we need to change our lives?

Too often, when we talk about economic ethics or the environment, we make it all about policy. And policies do matter. But we must face the reality that policy change only happens if and insofar people accept the changes in lifestyles that will come about because of the policy.

As Christians, there is every reason why we should put the lifestyle changes first. Because we don’t have to wait on governments to do them. We can witness today – as Pope Francis has done so powerfully on the lifestyle issue.

Of course, what that looks like for any individual or household has to take account of so many factors. “Who am I to judge?” I might say. But I’m inviting people to judge themselves. We need to challenge our cultural assumption, which Msgr. John A. Ryan called “the higher-standard-of-living fallacy” – the idea that life is all about incremental improvements in our “standard of living,” defined by our house size, or our car, or our smartphone, or a thousand other things.

I would love to see small groups in parishes that committed themselves to these conversations, not to accuse one another, but to share in the steps and support one another in trying to get to a more sustainable, more human place. If Catholics recognized this imperative of our faith as widely as they do abortion, trust me, it would affect the larger cultural and political landscape.

This seems to challenge very deep assumptions on what the good life is. Many of our social structures (both in the Church and outside of it) seem to be designed to produce precisely the opposite of what you are calling for.

True, but there is a strand within American culture that also pushes against materialism, in favor of deeper ideals of community, work, family, and church. I was fortunate to have older, Depression-era parents who never forgot these lessons.

And somewhere deep down, we just know that a song like Madonna’s “Material Girl” is meant to be something that we laugh at, not something we take seriously.

The structural realities you talk about, after all, are not so much laws and policies as customs and ways of viewing things. No doubt many powerful people are very interested in promoting this vision, because it really is profitable. But they have to do so through market systems, and I do think (at least to some extent) markets respond to what people want. Even McDonald’s touts healthy food now.

As I write in the book, the critique is not about becoming Scrooges – it’s about spending differently, spending in ways that promote human solidarity, especially the dignity of workers and the advancement of products that truly enhance human well-being, rather than placing us on what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill,” where we become endlessly dissatisfied because we are always reaching for the next upgrade.

So I do think things can change. I’m not saying I’m optimistic about it. But it does draw on deep intuitions people still have in our culture. And of course, for Catholics, it is simply an application of our teaching on wealth that means we don’t all have to become St. Francis or St. Teresa of Calcutta…just take seriously the idea that spending beyond your necessities involves serious social responsibility.

Spend that extra money as if the reign of God depends on it. A lot could happen if we just tried that out together as a church.