The recent publication of Pope Francis’ papal exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” and his being named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” should have us all thinking about the global economy and its function in Catholic life. We must ask, in light of the economic systems that exist and the varying degrees of equality and wealth distribution that they create, is there a particular system that properly satisfies the requirements of Catholic teaching?
In the world we see extreme and rampant poverty suffered by millions of individuals, secondary to economies that allow basic necessities like food, clean water, clothing, medicine and shelter to remain scarce or unattainable.
Of the varying systems, I remain a believer in the potential of capitalism. Capitalism, or more specifically, a free market of trade that permits the exchange of goods and services, can be a winning system. But somewhere along the evolution of agrarian societies through industrialization, modernization and globalization, we have lost primary focus on the proper ends of a fair and functioning economy.
As Catholics, we observe a Tradition that values the protection of private property (see generally, CCC 2401, et. seq.) and yet paradoxically we are called to care for the “least of these”. At the heart of capitalism is the right to private property, which is implicit in the Seventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” Without private ownership, there cannot be theft against an individual.
The problem with today’s capitalism and its embrace by global economies is that it is hyper-focused on trade (and the accumulation of goods and wealth) as an end in itself, rather than as a vehicle for eradicating things like hunger, poverty, and disease. Pope Francis is reminding us “First-World Catholics” not to misuse the Church’s teachings on private ownership as justification for owning just about anything we want, or can afford. He says, there are things that matter a great deal more than the latest fashions, newest cars, or new chew toys for FiFi.
The free market offers the first-world consumer a panoply of options for how to spend. Economic propagandists remind consumers that spending is their civic duty. Holiday spending, particularly Christmas, becomes not a matter of charity or good will toward men but rather an obligation, a violation of which constitutes a cardinal sin — if you do not spend, we will all see red, the party line goes.
We are told that spending will give others jobs. We are made to believe that spending (never mind what we buy) is in some way a form of charitable giving — we are gratified by whatever object we purchase and the system is gratified by our contribution, which we are told, really really helps.
A few years ago, my wife received a Christmas gift from a professional acquaintance. It was some kind of thing from one of the large and very fancy department stores found in a few large fancy urban centers. What she received was not the type of thing that we saw ourselves ever using, so we returned it and received store credit, in the form of a gift card, for $230.
We thought, wow, $230! We can get something great with that much money! But, since we do not live close to this particular department store, the gift card remained in my wife’s wallet until a few months ago, when we happened to be in San Francisco and decided to finally redeem the gift card.
San Francisco takes some navigating, especially with kids and a big car that’s hard to park. We agreed to take turns in the store while one of us stayed outside with the kids and car. I imagined shopping for housewares – knives, pots, pans, small kitchen appliances – something we could actually use that we wouldn’t normally buy for ourselves. Perhaps my wife imagined a couple outfits, or some shoes, or something from the cosmetics counter — again, something useful, but not something she’d ordinarily buy herself.
After quite a wait, my wife emerged from the store empty-handed. All she said was, you’ve got to see it for yourself.
In this store, $230 bought almost nothing! Handbags and luggage costing thousands! Apparel – shirts for $450, coats for $1,800, shoes for $900. The floor that should have contained housewares looked more like some kind of art gallery. Picking up an item to see the price tag caused a panic because the price of everything was so astronomical that you realized you needed to put it back down immediately, for fear that you’d be sent to debtors’ prison over accidental breakage.
I was amazed by the spectacle, and couldn’t believe that people actually shop there, with their own money! Why? What possible reason could anyone have for spending thousands on things that were no more objectively useful (or even appealing) than something costing a fraction of the price?
There was a tremendous oppression inside that store, like the people shopping there were under some kind of influence that altered their perception and permitted them to justify a desire never satisfied.
The experience also added to my dismay for our economic system. I did not see beauty or art so much as money and brands. Where were the artisans to be found here, presenting their wares with pride? There was little connecting the human dignity of work with the stuff being offered. This monolithic store was just another house devoted to idolatry of the thing — anonymized, packaged and presented so that brand and price became the sole source of worth.
“First-World Catholics” are being challenged by the Holy Father: can capitalism be better than what it currently is, and can we really say that our spending culture is justifiable? Can we really defend spending in such reckless ways when millions starve or lack shelter? Are we buying anything of value in our temples of commerce, if we remove the image, prestige, or illusory value carried by a particular brand name?
Incidentally, we finally settled on two water pitchers, which after tax involved us paying about $20 out of pocket, which is about all (in my estimation) that they were worth in the first place. They have a brand name that I have forgotten. Once the kids break them (and they will), you can be assured that we’ll not be replacing them with anything quite so expensive. And, I’ll avoid ever intentionally stepping foot in that department store ever again. I get all the oppression I can handle at Target.