Consumers as guilty as capitalists

Published January 28, 2021, 11:45 PM

by Dr. Bernardo Villegas


Dr. Bernardo M. Villegas

(Part II)

An antidote (not the only one) to the rise of consumerism is Catholic Social Doctrine.  From the beginning of the modern Catholic social thought in the pathbreaking encyclical of Pope Leo XIII entitled Rerum Novarum (A New Order) in 1892, popes have cautioned that growing consumerism has been a threat to Human Dignity, Solidarity,  the Preferential Option for the Poor, the Common God, and, more recently, Care for Creation.  The emphasis on accumulating more and more wealth and consuming more and more goods goes against the  Catholic social tradition, bolstered by empirical research by social scientists, that human happiness and fulfilment is fostered more by human relationships, especially friendship, rather than material possessions.

Among the major reasons why there should be a limit to consumption-driven growth are three prominent principles in Catholic social doctrine, as enumerated in Religion & Life ATAR Unit of the MCC Library at Mandurah Catholic College:

First, excessive consumption by some individuals and nations, while other individuals and nations suffer from hunger and want, is morally reprehensible.  St. Paul VI articulated this point in his encyclical Populorum Progressio ( No. 49):  “The superfluous wealth of rich countries should be placed at the service of poor nations…. Otherwise their continued greed will certainly call down upon them the judgment of God and the wrath of the poor.”  This scenario has been clearly played out in the Philippines with the Hukbalahap movement against the Japanese occupation forces being transformed into the communist-inspired New People’s Army (NPA)  that rebelled against the many social injustices found in the highly unequal distribution of wealth (especially in the form of land holdings) that existed and still exists in the countryside.  Unfortunately, mass poverty continues to be a serious problem in the rural areas because of a failed agrarian reform program.  The alleviation of poverty among our rural masses must be on top of the priorities of Philippine governments for decades to come.

Second, excessive consumption threatens the earth’s environment, which is also morally unacceptable.  This point was thoroughly discussed by Pope Francis in his  Encyclical,  “Laudato Si” (On Care for our Common Home)  where His Holiness critiques consumerism and irresponsible economic growth, laments environmental degradation and global warming,  and calls all people of the world to take “swift and unified global action.”  Before him, St. John Paul II wrote:   “Equally worrying is the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it.  In his desire to have and  to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his life in an excessive and distorted way “ (Centessimus Annus, No. 37).

Third, considering the maximization of the consumption of material goods and services as the primary goal of life, that is, focusing on “having” instead of “being”—is seen as detrimental to human dignity.  It is a fundamental Christian belief that man is not pure matter but is a composition of body and soul, matter and spirit.  Once he has attained a minimum of material comfort,  a human being must assign higher importance to his spiritual aspirations.  As St. John Paul II wrote in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, (No.28):  “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… that the more one possesses, the more one wants, while deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled.”

Catholic social thinking calls for a great deal of educational and cultural work, especially among the younger generations, the millennials and centennials who predominate in Philippine society, thanks to our not having succumb to the contraceptive mentality that is widespread in most developed countries.  St. John Paul II in Centessimus Annus calls for 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.  Citizens, whether Christians or not, are invited to a make a “serious review of their lifestyle, which in many parts of the world is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences.” (Caritas in Veritate, 51).

There is no substitute for personal responsibility.  Christians can lead in learning to differentiate between wants and needs.  As St. John Paul II wrote in Soliticitudo Rei Socialis (28), “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.’ “ When Pope Francis visited Cuba, the United States, and the United Nations Headquarters in September,  2015, he could have not been clearer in exposing the extremes of consumerism:  “The result is a culture which discards everything that is no longer ‘useful’ or ‘satisfying’ for the tastes of the consumer.  We have turned our society into a huge multicultural showcase tied only to the tastes of certain ’consumers’, while so many others only ‘eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’  table’.  This causes great harm.  I would say that at the root of so many contemporary situations is a kind of impoverishment born of a widespread and radical sense of loneliness…Loneliness… with feat of commitment in limitless effort to feel recognized.”

The unlimited access to consumer goods and services actually leads to unhappiness.  It fosters insecurity, blinding people to their intrinsic worth and authentic identity, convincing them that they must buy particular consumer goods—whether a car, fancy clothes, cosmetics, or anything else—so that they can be cool or normal or even worthy of love.  It gives the deceptive message that the abundance of material goods can make a person happy.   Consumerism actually leads inevitably to unhappiness because it distorts the real source of human happiness and fulfilment:  relationships with other persons.  As Pope Francis said in an address to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, “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.”

To be continued.