Reflections on Catholicism and Consumerism

In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis by John Paul II, published in 1987, he makes note of what he calls ”super-development.”  He posits, super-development ”consists in an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily mak[ing] 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.”  He believes, and rightly so, this process of production, consumption, and waste is guided by a moral and economic orientation repugnant to the true good of the human race.  Our orientation is molded by the myriad fabrications exalted by advertisements, media, politicians, and education.

The individual who lives an unexamined life is more susceptible to outside influences then the individual who examines the intricacies of their own actions.  Advertisements’ effectiveness is shown by the sheer amount of advertisements.  Everyday we come across dozens of advertisements, even if we don’t watch tv.  We find them on the highway, in the bus, on telephone poles, on the internet, in the grocery store, ad nausuem.  The media flexes its muscles by providing space to individuals who critique business practices, altering whom we buy from.  The media also provides space to individuals who advocate spending as a method of improving the economy.  Politicians play a significant role in promoting a spending model.  The more you buy, the better economic actor you are; therefore, you are supporting the public good.  Politicians talking points aren’t focused on curbing consumption patterns.  On the contrary, politicians constantly influence and advocate an unsustainable capitalist system.   The education system largely supports this economic system based in consumption and consumerism by reproducing the discourses of economic development.  Pope John Paul critiques this system and highlights the difference between ”being” and ”having.”

The difference between ”having” and ”being” reveals a significant dichotomy inherent in human existence.  Pope John Paul II stated, ”[t]o ”have” objects and goods does not in itself perfect the human subject, unless it contributes to the maturing and enrichment of that subject’s ”being,” that is to say unless it contributes to the realization of the human vocation as such.”  Simply put, what does a Ferrari have anything to do with enriching someone’s ”being?”  ”Being” as used here, is the living embodiment of virtues that orient an individual towards the ”true good of the human race.”  So, the superfluous nature of Armani, Dior, Channel, etc, reveal the significant attachment of ”having” over ”being.”  Wearing name brands is compounded by the comparison game whereby the ”owner” is advantaged in ”having” in comparison to one who doesn’t ”have.”  So, the Chanel wearer is advantaged over the Calvin Klein wearer in a fashion show in NYC.  Of course, this is common sense in fashion, but what about the wearer of Chanel in comparison to Sudanese refugees?  The disparity is disgusting.

Pope John Paul II explains, ”there are some people—the few who possess much—who do not really succeed in ”being” because, through a reversal of the hierarchy of values, they are hindered by the cult of ”having”; and there are others—the many who have little or nothing—who do not succeed in realizing their basic human vocation because they are deprived of essential goods.”  Throughout the day steering media strives to get us to buy something; all the while obfuscating the tremendous disparity.  The spectacle of steering media and its success in framing the majority’s existence is remarkable.  It’s effectiveness means it’s a great tool, but in the wrong hands.  We need advertisements, media, politicians, and the educational discourses that reframe our orientation to the ”true good of the human race.”