Thirty-five years ago, a towering intellectual and moral figure drew worldwide attention by criticizing materialism and wealth-obsession in the Western world. The Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn was alternately applauded and condemned (though mostly the latter) for his 1978 Commencement Address at Harvard University, in which he bluntly expressed profound disapproval of the prevailing culture in the United States and Europe, noting that "a decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today."
More recently, another well-known figure of great moral stature, Pope Francis, sounded the very same message in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. While Francis also gained widespread attention, the vast majority of it seemed to be drawn by his brief (and also variously celebrated or scorned) comments on economics and wealth distribution, rather than his overarching message that so strikingly resembled that of Solzhenitsyn three decades ago. This is unfortunate, as the observations that the two men shared are profound and important beyond measure, addressing not merely the shallow political arguments of their respective moments, but the very nature and purpose of the free and virtuous life.
Their common message, in its most basic form, is that the prevailing culture of the modern world has become disconnected from its moral and spiritual heritage, becoming infatuated instead with the shallow and transitory satisfactions of material wealth and self-gratification. Many others, from Alexis de Tocqueville to Martin Luther King Jr., have articulated the same concern. But the words of Francis and Solzhenitsyn are notable for both their passionate eloquence and their striking similarity.
As Solzhenitsyn had it: "everything beyond physical well-being and the accumulation of material goods…were left outside the area of attention…as if human life did not have any higher meaning." Francis concurred: "in the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional. What is real gives way to appearances." Likewise, they agreed that such selfishness leaves humanity ultimately unfulfilled. Francis wrote that "the great danger in today's world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience." Solzhenitsyn had announced that "the constant desire to have still more things…and the struggle to this end imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression," and that "society has turned out to have scarce defense against the abyss of human decadence."
More than just a common recognition of this problem, the Russian dissident and the Argentine cleric shared the belief that it was rooted in a subjective view of truth and meaning. Where Solzhenitsyn noted the "calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness [that] has made man the measure of all things on earth — imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects," Francis called readers to "recognize how in a culture where each person wants to be bearer of his or her own subjective truth, it becomes difficult for citizens to devise a common plan which transcends individual gain and personal ambitions." Both, in turn, cited a specific loss of respect for Christianity and its traditions: "we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility" said Solzhenitsyn, adding that "a total emancipation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice." Francis agreed: "the process of secularization tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal. Furthermore, by completely rejecting the transcendent, it has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism. These have led to a general sense of disorientation."
Even where Francis famously called for a government role—he wrote of "states, charged with vigilance for the common good" and "the responsibility of the state to safeguard and promote the common good of society….a fundamental role… which cannot be delegated"—he did so with great qualification and caution. "Based on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity….[the government's] role, at present, calls for profound social humility." he wrote, going on to say that "[the Church] proposes in a clear way the fundamental values of human life and convictions which can then find expression in political activity" (italics added). Consistent with the rest of his message, then, the Pope's suggestion about the government's role is that it must, at all times, be informed by a genuine cultural shift in priorities (not, in fact, that it should be the agent of bringing about that shift).
While one may disagree with the shared religious convictions of Francis and Solzhenitsyn, their call for a renewed embrace of a common morality is inarguably appealing. Their life stories, moreover, lend weight to their words: Francis' fight against selfishness and indifference is rooted in a lifetime of service to the poor; Solzhenitsyn's views were forged in the prisons of an empire where caring and thinking actively was strictly forbidden, and confirmed in a free world where such caring struck many as just too inconvenient. The differences in those experiences are telling as well: where a coercive state—one seeking to exercise complete control over every aspect of life—had brutally punished the writer, a permissive culture that expected no communal action or sacrifice had left so many of the priest's flock forgotten. That these similar worldviews were drawn from such different experiences is instructive for all of us today; indeed, that fact points us to the unavoidable truth that our answers are to be found neither through the state nor through the simple pursuit of our own self-satisfactions. We are left with the inevitable conclusion that it is only through the moral behavior of free people that we can truly experience individual and collective fulfillment and progress.
For Pope Francis, this leads to a call for action: "I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets;" "we need to be realistic and not assume that our audience… is capable of relating what we say to the very heart of the Gospel which gives it meaning, beauty and attractiveness." Indeed, if the Apostle Thomas would not believe the risen Christ Himself without the evidence of His wounds, how then can contemporary Christians expect to be understood or listened to by others, without showing any evidence of their own sacrifices? While Francis thus contemplated a life of struggle, Solzhenitsyn contemplated each life's inevitable end: "If…man were born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to death, his task on earth evidently must be more spiritual… not the search for the best ways to obtain material goods….[but] the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty…to leave life a better human being than one started it." The eloquence of both men is compelling, and all the more so for this fact: amidst pain, suffering, and despair, whether in the slums of Buenos Aires or the gulags of the Soviet Union, there have always been those who find meaning and strength, those who emerge to remind us not only of the blessings, but also the obligations, of our freedom and privilege.
Kevin Duffy is a member of the Parish Council at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington D.C.