Editor’s Note: William Cavanaugh is a professor of Catholic studies and director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University, a research center housed in the Department of Catholic Studies and focusing on the Catholic Church in the global South — Africa, Asia, and Latin America. After earning a master’s degree from Cambridge in England, he spent two years working for the Church in a poor area of Santiago, Chile, under the military dictatorship. He then received his Ph.D. from Duke. His most recent book is The Myth of Religious Violence, and he recently spoke with Charles Camosy about consumerism, the possibility of a conflict with North Korea or Iran, and the challenges for Catholics in American political life.
Camosy: You’ve written several texts I use in the classroom, but one of my favorites is your book Being Consumed. Among other things, it opens my students to how dominated their lives are by the organized dissatisfaction large corporations create to get people to buy their products. But that book came out a decade ago; have the views you lay out in that book changed at all during the last ten years?
Cavanaugh: A few things have changed since I wrote the book. For one thing, the detachment I talked about has gotten accelerated by online shopping. When I wrote, huge retailers like Wal-Mart were taking human relationships out of shopping by their size and by shutting down family retailers. Today, more people shop without leaving home or making any human contact; Amazon is the new behemoth. And Amazon has taken workplace surveillance to new extremes, recently patenting a device that tracks the movements of its workers’ (“fulfillment associates”) arms.
Since writing the book, I have come upon Charles Taylor’s concept of “excarnation,” which is a richer concept than detachment in some ways. Taylor shows how modernity has distanced ourselves from bodies. Our faith lives have moved from being embodied in ritual and gesture, and are now located more in the mind. In social and economic life, bureaucracies have depersonalized relationships—we live by what Taylor calls the “fetishization of the code”—and consumerism detaches us from production, producers, and even products.
The cellphone is the ubiquitous instrument that removes us from the material world and into a world of two-dimensional images. Excarnation is a rich concept theologically because it is the opposite of incarnation; it would have helped me flesh out my analysis of the Eucharist.
Pope Francis hardly talks about the economy without mentioning idolatry, and there is certainly something that the concept of idolatry adds to the critique of consumerism. I’ve thought that I missed something in the book by not discussing idolatry. The more I think about it, however, consumerism is different from at least the old style of idolatry, where someone builds a golden calf and declares “Here is your god!”
Jean-Luc Marion has written critiques of idolatry, but he laments in one passage “the ease with which we desert idolatry” today and merely flit from one object to another; the image of flipping through images on our phones comes to mind. Some kinds of idolatry have a moral seriousness lacking in other kinds of idolatry; dedication to a cause like nationalism is superior to mere shopping.
This, of course, makes nationalism more dangerous. The critique of globalization in Being Consumed did not anticipate the resurgence of nationalism as a reaction against globalism. I argue for a complex relationship between the global and the local, founded in a kind of Eucharistic imagination that is simultaneously particular and universal.
I would write the chapter on globalization slightly differently were I doing it today, considering the pathologies of nationalism, which is neither global nor local. It seems to me that contemporary nationalism further attenuates the virtues of old-fashioned patriotism. Today’s nationalism is less about self-sacrifice, and more caught up in the same kind of mutual self-display that consumerism exhibits.
Do you think this is at all related to our current levels of substance addiction and other mental illness, especially among young people?
I am no expert in these areas, but it would not surprise me to find a link between detachment and substance abuse and mental illnesses like depression. Beyond the biological mechanisms driving addiction, there is a spiritual element, often a despair at the lack of meaning and connection in one’s world. If the truth has been reduced to whatever sells, then people’s withdrawal into a pharmacological fantasy world does not seem like an irrational step.
There is perhaps something of the search for transcendence, even for God, in the attempt to exit the immanent world in which meaning is always deferred. For some, I suppose it is possible that opium is the religion of the masses, to turn Marx’s saying on its head.
What are some primary ways the Church can be a witness to the Gospel in this context?
It is certainly the case that churches can sponsor and create a space for conventional types of treatment for mental illness and substance abuse—AA has done wonders for people, for example. In a broader sense, churches provide the kinds of community and connection that people need in a disconnected world.
I don’t think it is enough, though, to be a community. The real question is, ‘What kind of community are we? What is the true end that gathers us?’ There has to be something true about what we do, a great Truth that gathers us every week, that is not just a matter of personal preference or opinion.
There are at least two ways of practicing truth, however. One is to insist that the Catholic Church has the Truth in its entirety and can spell it out in great detail for a world riven by confusion. The other is to point not to the Church itself but to Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life.
Rather than insist on doctrinal clarity, we prioritize charity, accompanying the bruised and hurting and addicted and depressed and offering them not just incarnation, but Incarnation, the dwelling of God in all the messiness of human life. This is the approach championed by Pope Francis, I think, and it offers hope to get at the root causes of detachment and unhappiness.
Speaking of opportunities for the Church to witness to the Gospel, it looks like some familiar forces may be pushing us toward war with North Korea. In light of these new war drumbeats, what lessons, if any, can we can take from the failure of U.S. Catholics to witness to the Gospel as our leaders pushed us toward war in Iraq?
It does look again like voices around Washington are trying to gin up the evidence to support another war of choice against Iran or North Korea. The Iraq War has turned out to be a calamity for the Middle East and for the U.S., and if anyone can say ‘I told you so,’ it is the Catholic Church hierarchy.
Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger, the U.S. bishops, and many others were quite outspoken in opposition in the lead up to the war launched in March 2003. Once the war was started, however, such voices were muted. The assumption seems to be that the main thing the Church can do to oppose unjust wars is to lobby governments. If they don’t listen, then we move on to other things, and hope the war ends soon. At that point we—meaning Catholics—don’t think there is anything left to do but support the troops and wish them success in prosecuting the war.
The failure was not of the hierarchy to oppose the war before it started, but the failure of the rank and file Catholics to resist it once it started. Although the pope and other Church leaders had called the war unjust—which would make Catholic complicity in the violence sinful—Catholics, with very few exceptions, went and fought the war anyway, with the general support of the people in the pews, even those who did not favor the invasion.
If we are to have a working Just War tradition, Catholics must be willing to refuse to fight in and support unjust wars. If Catholics are willing to fight in whatever war the president decides to send them into, then there is no Just War tradition.
This point becomes even more acute when the president is a loose cannon. Some conservative Catholic commentators argued, leading up to the Iraq War, that the pope’s opinion deserves respect, but it is the president who decides when a war is just and when it is not. That argument was a craven sell-out to the powers and principalities in the context of the Iraq War; it looks even worse today. We must, as Peter and the apostles say, obey God rather than human authorities (Acts 5:29). We cannot give our consciences over to whomever a corrupted electoral process happens to cough up.
Many believe we are in the middle of a major political realignment in the United States. Assuming for the sake of argument that we are, what would your advice be for Catholics trying to live, move, and have our being in such a fluid and uncertain political context?
Political polarization is bad at the moment, and with it comes the demand to choose one of two sides. I think the best thing we as Catholics can do in the current climate is to intentionally refuse to embed ourselves in either camp, and rather deliberately cultivate a sense of homelessness.
I don’t necessarily mean to withdraw from electoral politics entirely. I do mean to focus more effort on local, grassroots initiatives, sowing seeds of hope and creating the kinds of community in which people can encounter each other face to face as persons, as bearers of the image of God. This is our primary politics.