What's the Pope's problem with consumers?
BBC-TV broadcast the news a few days ago that Pope Benedict has condemned “popular culture and consumerism” during his trip to Australia. I am not sure why this is important to report. Would BBC-TV inform its viewers about the pronouncements of the Reverend Moon, the current leader of the Mormon Church or, indeed, of the leaders of the 4,000-plus different religions registered in the USA alone? What makes this particular church leader so special?
I ask this as a former Roman-Catholic, one who was raised in that religion as a kid in Communist Hungary and who is fully aware of the myriads of negative side effects this can produce for a person (namely, guilt, guilt and more guilt for just wanting to have a reasonably joyful life). Since that time I have come to be very suspicious of the claims of Roman-Catholics and, actually, members of most other churches to having a sound understanding of human affairs. And one area where I am especially weary of what men like the Pope say is concerning the mundane purposes people have, such as wishing to live prosperously, wanting to gain some pleasures and wealth in their lives, of hoping to enjoy themselves instead of suffering, which is what many religions teach is the noble way for us to live. No, that just won’t do for me and, I suspect, for increasingly many people.
It is, by the way, one thing for Jesus to have suffered since, after all, he was supposed to be both man and God and as such suffering couldn’t possibly amount for him to what it does for an ordinary mortal. So imitating Jesus in this and many other respects simply cannot be something humanly noble. Why should a mortal human being seek to suffer? There is simply no sense in that.
But even apart from the wrongheaded idea that we ought to reject what pleasures and enjoyments this world can offer us — i. e., condemn consumerism — there is the sheer audacity of the head the Vatican City chiding other people for their embrace of abundance and wealth.
Have you ever visited the Vatican? I have, and the measure of its ostentatious and very mundane wealth — no, opulence — is something to behold.
ndeed, the very first attraction on the way around the city is a gaudy shop with thousands of Catholic trinkets for sale. Talk about consumerism — few places match this blatant display of commercial savvy. (If you don’t know the place, just think of those shops you find at art museums, with all those reproductions of the works displayed and the books about them for sale! And then multiply these several hundredfold.)
All of this really comes down to the great likelihood of Papal hypocrisy. And this cannot be news to most Catholics, either, given their awareness of the display of splendor, glitter, and pomp at high mass. I don’t know where else we would find the likes of this other than at some of the palaces that remain as reminders of the obscene plunder of kings and other monarchs and the dictators such as “communist” Romania's last dictator.
Who, then, is the Pope to condemn consumerism which, by my study of history, is a feeble attempt of ordinary human beings, ever since the emergence of relatively free markets, to acquire, honestly, a tiny fraction of the world’s goodies compared to what the upper classes, including religious leaders, of the past got their hands on mostly illicitly.
Yes, just think of it: Consumerism amounts mainly to folks making a try at acquiring, fair and square, all sorts of useful and enjoyable goods and services now available to millions of us. In the past comparable stuff was only available to a select few, and they didn’t come by it honestly but mostly by plunder and conquest. We today go shopping, after we have earned some coins in the marketplace doing work that other people freely chose to purchase from us.
Honest trade is a central feature of consumerism, and this is what the Pope finds so abhorrent. Would he rather have us return to an era when only the leaders of church and assorted monarchs were in the position to obtain such merchandise, mostly by intimidation and extortion — such as selling forgiveness to gullible well-to-do folks who went along with the deal through ignorance and fear rather than free judgment and by threatening subjects within the realm, respectively?
Furthermore, is it not curious that the Pope’s pronouncements seem to escape the scrutiny of the chattering classes? Perhaps not, since the bulk of them also lament it endlessly that ordinary human beings would rather go shopping than sacrifice themselves for various more or less dubious objectives like taking precaution with the environment (whatever that grab bag idea really is supposed to mean). Although many of these intellectuals are doubtful about religion, they do share with the myriad of churches a disdain for the popular pursuit of earthly joys.
So no wonder that the Pope condemns popular culture and consumerism — they are in competition with him in the effort to gain people’s devotion and loyalty. Trouble is what the Pope claims to offer is something quite elusive and mysterious, whereas what we find in the marketplace, at a mall, for example, has the advantage of bringing us concrete, clearly understandable satisfaction. No wonder we are implored to feel guilt for wanting it in our lives!
Maybe I am just harboring resentments against the Catholics for having made my childhood and adolescence so full of misery — guilt, shame, self-denial, self-loathing and so forth. Probably I just wish to warn people off of falling for the ruse I went along with for a couple of decades of my early life.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Tibor Machan holds the R.C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics & Free Enterprise at Chapman University's Argyros School of B&E and is a research fellow at the Pacific Research Institute and Hoover Institution (Stanford). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. His most recent book is "Libertarianism Defended," (Ashgate, 2006). E-mail him at TMachan@link.freedom.com.