Yes, I know; we middle-class Americans have got to restrain our habitual levels of consumerism—for the sake of the planet, for the sake of the poor, for the sake of the Gospel. Unfortunately, the social and psychological obstacles to reform are formidable.
Suburban families can’t just quit buying and provisioning their households. We can’t run away to some monastery or imitate St. Francis by stripping naked in the mall. Moving into the nearest Catholic Worker shelter for the poor also won’t work. Dorothy Day is one of my greatest spiritual inspirations but her ideal and vocation of radical poverty and total reliance on providence has to be adapted for mainline lay life. This task of creating a faithful economic life requires hard thinking, since individuals differ in so many ways over a lifetime.
My husband Dan and I started out as poor graduate students whose decisions were governed by basic survival needs and the G.I. bill. We then had seven babes within 10 years so it took a while to get beyond the poverty level or pay taxes. But half a century later, far down profitable professional roads we too can find ourselves drifting into a “fog of affluence.”
Since the 1980s creeping affluenza has been diagnosed by critics. Aspirations for luxury consumption are seen to be increasing among the general population—with damaging results. If the high-end ads in The New York Times and the low-end spreads in supermarket magazines are any measure, then excess is approved as admirable. Comfort, ease, security, stimulating experiences, luxury goods and pleasures are selling well.
In his new book, The Vice of Luxury: Economic Excess in a Consumer Age, the moral theologian David Cloutier analyzes these problems. He gives the long history of ancient and Christian thinking on the spiritual dangers of wealth—damage to individual character and damage to societies who lose their “ethical brake.” Vatican-II teachings on social justice, with Pope Francis and his predecessors, have reiterated the Gospel command to share resources with the needy and live in “frugal comfort” for the sake of the poor. As St. John Paul II put it, the “goods life” and “the good life” are not the same. The “neglected” vice of luxury engenders selfish indifference to every Lazarus lying at the rich man’s gate. A throwaway culture of conspicuous consumption and waste ends up throwing away people.
In my own examinations of needless buying I can see that I succumb when I am feeling inwardly depleted or mildly down. Or I’m just bored and buying something new provides novel distraction. It is a challenge to make a purchase and actually bring change to the living room, kitchen, wardrobe, yard, etc. Social pressure can play a part, too. We want and buy what others want or buy. Then there’s that powerful lure of making everything more perfect: more beautifully appointed, more aesthetically pleasing, more efficient, more comfortable. One therapy that helps here is the “good enough” mantra: “I have enough, I am enough, I do enough.” Instead of “more, more, excelsior” I can embrace the present moment and “enoughness.” I read, talk with others, write, play, pray and gather by the river.
David Cloutier clearly conveys each Christian’s moral responsibility to make decisions to give and share their resources. What is necessity and what is surplus? How much is too much? To make it all the more complex, Christians are enjoined to live joyfully, gratefully and freely in God’s good creation. Jesus warned of the dangers of selfish riches but he also feasted and rejoiced in the abundant life he could give his disciples. Christians celebrate the good news. Spending on festival goods and shared goods give a foretaste of paradise. Enrichment goods and vocational goods are important. Pleasure, play and beauty restore minds and bodies.
But making the decisions to spend money on what, when, is arduous. Moreover, according to Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats, our daily decisions are noted and have consequences. As always Christians are living in the Not Yet of the Kingdom to come and the Already of Christ’s Victory.