Pope Francis’ critique of unfettered capitalism and trickle-down economics has unsettled many Catholics who identify as Republicans and proponents of the free market
— though more so among political and media elites than conservatives in the pews, who overwhelmingly support the Holy Father.
Some have simply ignored Francis’ message, as they did when Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II offered similar critiques. Others have argued that Francis does not understand American capitalism. His fiercest critics have charged him with being a left-wing ideologue and a Marxist.
But Francis’ critique of “an economy that kills” — an unjust global economic structure that leaves the poor behind, as economic elites grow richer and richer — could not be more in line with Catholic social teaching, as presented in more than a century of encyclicals and rooted in concerns that go back to Old Testament commands to establish social and economic justice.
At the heart of this tradition is an opposition to consumerism. For many (perhaps most) US Catholics, this represents a serious challenge.
We have grown to love the endless options and cheap consumer goods provided by our consumeristic culture without much (if any) consideration of those who make the goods. Black Friday has become a secular holiday with people scrambling and even brawling for bargains on big ticket items, while others stand by lacking even their most basic needs. Through expensive tutors and elite schools, parents can buy high standardized test scores for their kids and a ticket into the ‘meritocratic’ elite, while smart, hard-working kids get left behind in our country’s worst schools.
The philosopher Michael Sandel has warned us that there are some things money should not buy, but which are increasingly up for sale, as a market mentality grows more and more powerful even in the wake of the Great Recession.
The Church has long stood against the materialism and radical individualism that is so fundamentally at odds with the Christian belief in solidarity and the common good and that drives American consumerism. John Paul II warned against people becoming “slaves of ‘possession’ and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better.” Pope Benedict XVI cautioned, “Do not be fooled by those who see you as just another consumer.” And Pope Francis has linked consumerism to the throwaway culture that he has denounced time and time again.
Bishops too have offered powerful critiques of consumerism. Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces has said that the Church “stands, in some respects, in direct opposition to the reduction of the individual to nothing more than an autonomous rights-bearing consumer.” Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago has described a “frantic consumerism” in which “people are then defined — and they define themselves — in the measure that they can acquire things.”
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego has explained, “the three false cultures that materialism has created in our world: the culture of comfort that makes us think only of ourselves; the culture of waste that seizes the gifts of the created order only to savor them for a moment and then discard them; and the culture of indifference that desensitizes us to the suffering of others, no matter how intense, no matter how sustained.” These are just a few of the deleterious effects of consumerism.
Consumerism fosters insecurity. It blinds people to their intrinsic worth and authentic identity in order to convince them that they must buy particular consumer goods — whether a car, clothes, cosmetics, or anything else — so that they can be cool or normal or even worthy of love. It promotes the message that things can make a person happy, but only offers a false chimera of happiness that evaporates and demands the purchase of more and more consumer goods.
Consumerism fosters greed, envy, and even lust. We become bound by these chains, which keep us from authentic freedom and human flourishing. Our neighbors and friends become rivals and reminders of our inadequacy. The poor and needy become obstacles to possessing more and more things. They themselves become things, as everything is viewed through a materialist vision and the spiritual nature of the person is forgotten. No one sees God in another person if they are obsessed with how they measure up to that person.
So this consumerism inevitably distorts our relationships. Pope Francis has explained, “Indifferent individualism leads to the cult of opulence reflected in the throwaway culture all around us. We have a surfeit of unnecessary things, but we no longer have the capacity to build authentic human relationships marked by truth and mutual respect.” We throw human beings away, sometimes after we have objectified them and consumed them.
So the throwaway culture is not just about the structure of the global economy, though we certainly need a more just system that promotes the flourishing of all. It is also about our own mindsets and actions.
The international community and countries of the world have a responsibility to build an economy that serves the human person — all human beings. They are called to respect the universal destination of goods and ensure that the goods God has given to all will belong to all so that each person can reach their full physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual potential. This means regulating markets, redistributing wealth, ensuring a living wage, and fulfilling all of the other responsibilities that belong to public authorities. It does not mean snuffing out the market, as was done under the wretched totalitarian regimes of modern communism, but prioritizing the common good above a market ideology and placing God’s law above a market morality.
But ultimately this is not enough. Personal responsibility, too, must be embraced if we hope to eliminate the throwaway culture. Christians must learn to differentiate between wants and needs. They must pursue lasting joy rather than fleeting happiness or pleasure. They must remember that their worth and dignity is not dependent on keeping up with the Joneses, but based on being made in the image of God.
And ultimately, we must all remember that other human beings are not objects to be ignored or consumed. Only then will we eradicate the throwaway culture and rebuild the bonds of the one human family.