Contemporary Issue: Consumerism


Header_consumerism
"All of us experience firsthand the sad effects of this blind submission to pure consumerism: in the first place a crass materialism, and at the same time a radical dissatisfaction, because one quickly learns - unless one is shielded from the flood of publicity and the ceaseless and tempting offers of products - that the more one possesses the more one wants, while deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled." (SRS, 28)

What is Consumerism?

Simply, but elegantly defined, consumerism is: A style of life directed towards “having” rather than “being."  Pope Saint John Paul II described it as

"...a web of false and superficial gratifications..." (CA, 41)

A person who is concerned solely or primarily with possessing and enjoying – who can no longer subordinate his instincts, cannot be free.

Pope Saint John Paul II touched upon the issue of consumerism many times in his writings and letters:

"In singling out new needs and new means to meet them, one must be guided by a comprehensive picture of man which respects all the dimensions of his being and which subordinates his material and instinctive dimensions to his interior and spiritual ones. If, on the contrary, a direct appeal is made to his instincts — while ignoring in various ways the reality of the person as intelligent and free — then consumer attitudes and life-styles can be created which are objectively improper and often damaging to his physical and spiritual health." (CA, 36)

In a country as abundant and prosperous as the United States - where arguably, the structures of our society appear to revolve increasingly around the consumer versus the human person, Saint John Paul II's words give us quite a bit to consider:

"A given culture reveals its overall understanding of life through the choices it makes in production and consumption. It is here that the phenomenon of consumerism arises." (CA, 36)
"...an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily makes people 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. This is the so-called civilization of "consumption" or "consumerism," which involves so much "throwing-away" and "waste." An object already owned but now superseded by something better is discarded, with no thought of its possible lasting value in itself, nor of some other human being who is poorer." (SRS, 28)

Since Saint John Paul II's papacy, moving with with the swift tides of globalization, the topic of consumerism has indeed been positioned at the forefront of international news and public conscience; fittingly, the Church has remained committed to communicating Her position on the issue in the 21st century. Pope Francis has expanded upon Saint John Paul II's themes of "waste" and "throwing away" in his most recent letters and addresses:

“Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading.” (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 24 November 2013, 53)
“The culture of prosperity deadens us”. “Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.” (Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 24 November 2013, 54)
  • Why is Consumerism a problem?
    • "In singling out new needs and new means to meet them, one must be guided by a comprehensive picture of man which respects all the dimensions of his being and which subordinates his material and instinctive dimensions to his interior and spiritual ones. If, on the contrary, a direct appeal is made to his instincts--while ignoring in various ways the reality of the person as intelligent and free--then consumer attitudes and life-styles can be created which are objectively improper and often damaging to his physical and spiritual health." (CA, 36)
  • Is it ‘wrong’ to want to live a better life?
    • Let’s be clear: “It is not wrong to want to live better, what is wrong is a style of life…which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.” (CA, 36)
  • What does Catholic Social Teaching call for with regards to Consumerism? 
    • 
CST invites society,
    • “to a serious review of its lifestyle, which in many parts of the world is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences.” (CIV, 51)
    • Pope Benedict XVI also linked work and consumerism when he said,
    • “Work must serve the true good of humanity...” 
    • “At the same time, it is indispensable that people not allow themselves to be enslaved by work or idolize it, claiming to find in it the ultimate and definitive meaning of life.” (Homily at the Eucharistic Celebration for all Workers on the Feast of St. Joseph, 19 March 2006)
    • These warnings go back in the Church's historical social doctrine. Remember Pope Pius XII, who told us, 
    • “Those who look for the salvation of society from the machinery of the world economic market have remained thus disillusioned because they had become not the lords and masters but the slaves of material wealth, which they served without reference to the highest end of man, making it an end in itself.” (Pius XII, Radio message for Christmas to all faithful December 24, 1943)
  • How can we solve the problem of Consumerism?
    • Catholic Social Teaching calls for a great deal of educational and cultural work, including
    • "the education of consumers in the responsible use of their power of choice, the formation of a strong sense of responsibility among producers and among people in the mass media in particular, as well as the necessary intervention by public authorities." (CA, 36)
  • What is the goal of Catholic Social Teaching with regards to Consumerism?
    • The goal of Catholic Social Teaching is 
    • "...to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments." (CA, 36)



Related Thoughts on Consumerism

Consumption_family
Consumerism arises from a misunderstanding about the meaning of life and the real source of human happiness: consumerism is the mistaken idea that the consumption of things and experiences leads to happiness. It is an addiction to buying things, to spending money, as a solution to the lack of happiness and peace in one’s life, in one’s family. Taken from "Consumption and Family Life"
Cmalogo
Catholic Social Teaching is a set of values for us to internalize, to evaluate the framework of modern society, and to provide criteria for prudential judgement and direction for current policy and action. Taken from "Precisely, What is Catholic Social Teaching? (Audio)"
Just_pricing
Marketers invest a good deal of research in setting the right price on new products....But the Catholic Church has a different idea about pricing. Blessed John Paul II, in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, advocates the setting of a “just” price, that is, the price that would be achieved after mutual free bargaining. Selling at above a just price and forcing a sale at below a just price are both morally unacceptable. Taken from "“Just Pricing” and the Apple iPhone"

Related Speakers / Panelists / Authors on: Consumerism

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We must go from here with a sense of urgency, in haste.  The going out: that is the greatest task of all.  This conference, much like the Church, is not a place that we “come to.”  It is a place we “go from.” Read more