Among secular scholars, there is some debate as to whether consumerism (defined as excessive desire for material consumption) is a real problem. James Twitchell, in his book Lead Us into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism, argues that consumerism is a beneficial phenomenon, because it provides a meaning for people to replace the meaning formerly provided them by religion.
The empirical evidence, however, indicates that consumerist attitudes are associated with reduced consumer well-being. People who are more consumerist tend to have lower satisfaction with their lives, a greater tendency to compulsive spending, higher incidences of depression, and also lower ethical standards. Tim Kasser, in his recent book summarizing research in this area, concludes that there are “clear and consistent findings” that people who are focused on consumerist values have “lower personal well-being and psychological health than those who believe that materialistic pursuits are relatively unimportant.”
These findings, significant in themselves, are also important because subjective well-being, or happiness, as measured in these studies, is in turn associated with several other important variables. Research has shown that happy people are less self-centered; less hostile or abusive; less vulnerable to disease; and more loving, forgiving, trusting, energetic, decisive, creative, sociable, and helpful.
Among Catholic scholars, there appears to be general consensus (consistent with the empirical research cited above) that consumerism is a negative thing: It is a “threat to the freedom of the human person to live according to the higher demands of love rather than to the lower pull of material desires.” Consumerism weakens human virtue; and without virtue, human beings become slaves to their emotions and lose the self-control that is needed to live responsibly in a free society.
Catholic teaching on consumerism is rooted deeply. General warnings against the dangers of obsession with material goods can be found from sacred Scripture onward (e.g., 1 Tim. 6:9– 19). Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that man’s apparently infinite desire for riches is disordered and wholly different from our infinite desire for God. The more we possess God, the more we know and love Him; while the more we possess riches, the more we despise what we have and seek other things – because when we possess them we realize their insufficiency.
Pope Pius XI – in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, written on the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum – asked rhetorically,“[W]hat will it profit to teach them sound principles of economic life if in unbridled and sordid greed they let themselves be swept away by their passion for property, so that hearing the commandments of the Lord they do all things contrary?” (Judg. 2:17)
Specific Catholic social teaching on consumerism is developed in the encyclical letters of Pope John Paul II, particularly in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and Centesimus Annus. In these encyclicals, he warns of “the treachery hidden within a development that is only quantitative, for the ‘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.’” Victims of consumerism are caught up in the pursuit of false or superficial gratifications at the expense of experiencing their personhood in an authentic way. As a result, they experience a radical dissatisfaction, where the more they possess, the more they want, while their deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled.
It is not the desire for material prosperity itself that is wrong but rather the desire for having more in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. As Pope Leo XIII taught in Rerum Novarum, material prosperity can be the result of Christian morality adequately and completely practiced, “which merits the blessings of God Who is the source of all blessings.”
This article is adapted from “The Price of Freedom: Consumerism and Liberty in Secular Research and Catholic Teaching,” which appeared in the Acton Institute’s Journal of Markets & Morality, Volume 10, Number 1.