Chapter 12: Case Study: Consumerism

12.4: A Catholic Perspective: The Good Life from a Catholic Perspective: The Problem of Consumption, by Msgr. Charles Murphy

Murphy notes that American culture is particularly wasteful, and that generally, “the industrialized countries, with only a fifth of the world’s population, consume two-thirds of the world’s resources and generate 75 percent of all the pollution and waste products.” The differences between the haves and the have nots help us to see this as a social justice issue, but also, Murphy says, as an ecological tragedy as we consume at a rate that exceeds the limitations of the planet. But most of all, he says, “excessive consumption is driven by a misperception of what the good life really is all about and this makes it a religious question. What and how much we consume manifests our conception of who we are and what our lives are for” (29)[1]. Murphy says the materialistic notions we hold of well-being reveal the spiritual and cultural impoverishment that consumerism has wrought, and he suggests three ways that Catholic faith can help us find a more satisfying life that is also more socially responsible.

Image obtained through the public domain.

Temperance as a Virtue for Living – Murphy commends the cultivation of temperance among other virtues to provide “the inner strength needed to live happily and successfully” (30). Without habits of virtue, “we are at the mercy of any kind of external stimuli and victims of our own disordered needs and passions.” By contrast, the virtues provide a structure to allow us to use our gifts in a sustained way as creative and contributing members of society. Murphy notes that among the four “cardinal” virtues, temperance (alongside prudence, justice, and fortitude) “has been regarded as one of the hinges on which depends the gate to a happy life” (30). Temperance is more than just moderation, says Murphy, rather it is what gives order and balance to our lives, and arises from a serenity of spirit within ourselves, which allows us to walk gently upon the Earth. Temperance helps us respect natural limits, and “heightens the pleasure we take in living by freeing us from a joyless compulsiveness and dependence. In contrast to the “never enough” trap of consumerism, temperance means knowing when “enough is enough.”

The Gospel and Wealth – Murphy quotes Pope John Paul II’s homily in Yankee Stadium in 1979: “Christians will want to be in the vanguard in favoring ways of life that decisively break with the frenzy of consumerism, exhausting and joyless. It is not a question of slowing down progress, for there is no human progress when everything conspires to give full reign to the instincts of self-interest, sex and power. We must find a simple way of living….It is in the joyful simplicity of a life inspired by the Gospel and the Gospel’s spirit of fraternal sharing that you will find the best remedy for sour criticism, paralysing doubt and the temptation to make money the principal means and indeed the very measure of human advancement” (31). Murphy also notes the preference for the poor, and gospel warnings about the dangers of wealth. Why are the poor blessed? “It is because in the Bible the poor ones have only Yahweh to look to for their help; thus they are able to recognize the radical human dependency which is the condition of every creature before God. Wealth on the other hand creates the illusion of independence and self-sufficiency, a dangerous posture” (31).

Murphy notes that the Gospel goes beyond virtues like temperance and “demands a ‘higher righteousness.’ In what may be the most poignant Christian scripture for American consumerism, “Jesus tells the rich young man who says he has observed all the commandments since childhood, ‘There is still one thing that you lack. Sell everything that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; then, come, follow me (Lk 18:21-23). Jesus demands detachment from wealth and social justice in its use. As later Church teaching will highlight, he asks that our preferential love go particularly to the poor” (31). As St. Ambrose said, “the world is given to all, and not only to the rich” (32). “Included today with the poor and the exploited must be the whole natural world” (31).

Consumption in Light of Church Social Teaching – Murphy notes Pope Paul IV’s call for a fundamental human right to development after visiting India and witnessing extreme poverty there. Pope Paul saw the flourishing of the poor as impeded by overdevelopment in some parts of the world. The right to development, he said, is “the right not to ‘have’ more but to ‘be’ more” (32). He quotes John Paul II’s concern that “consumer attitudes and lifestyles [can] be improper and also damaging both physically and spiritually”….”Is life all about working and spending and working more to have more to spend? Couldn’t it rather all be about contemplation, what the pope calls ‘a disinterested, unselfish and aesthetic attitude that is born of wonder in the presence of being and of the beauty which enables us to see in visible things the message of the visible God who created them?’” (32).

Murphy concludes with some reflections about the good life, noting the insidious American cycle of “work and spend, where “households go into debt to buy products they do not need and then work longer than they want in order to keep up with the payments” (33). The good life, rather, should allow people to work at things which are personally satisfying and expressive of themselves….There should be opportunities to contribute to the common good as well as pursuing personal happiness. There should be time for family and friends, for worship and prayer.” (33) Murphy concludes with an appeal to the benefits of fasting, cautions against today’s conquistadors of ‘development’ and advertising, the media, and tourism, and suggests that we can discover “‘ancient futures’ in the abundant resources of Catholic social teaching and make our own choices about living based upon it” (33).

  1. All page numbers in this chapter refer to the NRPE Consumption Project essays.


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Religion and Environmental Values in America Copyright © 2019 by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.