Capitalism and the Culture of Consumerism

creation, creator, creature, genesis


creation, creator, creature, genesis


This week we celebrate the feast day of Saint Matthew, patron saint of bankers. Reflecting upon my patron saint, I recall many times having been asked how capitalism can be compatible with Christian theology. As a banker and Catholic intellectual, I draw upon both faith and reason to explain this often misunderstood relationship.

What Capitalism Is and What it Is Not

Many people use the term capitalism to mean an entire philosophy of life where money and material acquisition is seen as the ultimate goal of existence. This understanding is not capitalism.

In contrast, Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith, recognized throughout the world as the Father of Capitalism and its chief apologist, writes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that “the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man.”

A capitalist society, Smith writes in Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, is one in which consumers are free to demand products to serve their needs, and firms must compete for the right to supply products (and earn profits). This is a system of economic organization (not a philosophy of life) where markets are created to serve the needs of man.

Pope Saint John Paul II explained in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis that “the economy, in fact, is only one aspect and one dimension of the whole of human activity. If economic life is absolutized, if the production and consumption of goods become the center of social life and society’s only value—not subject to any other value—the reason is to be found not so much in the economic system itself as in the fact that the entire socio-cultural system (emphasis added), by ignoring the ethical and religious dimension, has been weakened, and ends by limiting itself to the production of goods and services alone.”

What the Church criticizes is the spirit that capitalism has encouraged, utilizing capital to subject and oppress the man,” Pope Francis wrote in his little known 1998 book, titled Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro.

What we often come to think of as “capitalism” is really something else—the culture of consumerism.

The Scourge of Consumerism

The culture of consumerism is understood as a purely materialist answer to the meaning of life. Why do we live: to consume. How do we find happiness: we acquire “things.”  Economic theorists hold that there is a distinction between the economic sphere and the moral/cultural sphere.

In 1965, The Church Fathers in Gaudium et Spes made clear that “[I]t is what a man is, rather than what he has that counts.” The spiritual risk is that the human person is diminished by his own economic progress by becoming less an acting person, who reasons about his good and pursues it in the world, and more a person who is acted upon—ruled by passions and subject to outside manipulation of his desires. This dichotomy between “having” and “being” is the frame work for the Magisterial teaching on consumerism.

Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio laid the foundation for future teachings on putting economic development into a moral context. He explained that “[e]very kind of progress is a two-edged sword. It is necessary if man is to grow as a human being; yet it can also enslave him, if he comes to regard it as a supreme good and cannot look beyond it.”

In following, Pope Saint John Paul II’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, continues Paul VI’s teaching by addressing the scourge of consumerism– reminding us that the world economic situation is the embodiment of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. He calls on us to recall the rich man in the scriptures (caught up in his feasting) who does not see the important human good outside his door—a man in need of basic material goods. He warns that (1) an abundance of goods makes people vulnerable to consumerism (or slavery to possessions), (2) consumerism is essentially an inability to see beyond material goods, and (3) consumerism generates a restlessness that manifests in a constant search for new products and the creation of a “throw-away” culture.

In celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio, Pope Saint John Paul II, continued his teachings on the dangers of consumerism in Sollicitudo Re Socialis, reminding us that the economic growth does not necessarily lead to moral improvement: “In fact there is a better understanding today that the mere accumulation of goods and services, even for the benefit of the majority, is not enough for the realization of human happiness.”

In his book Following Christ in a Consumer Society, John Kavanaugh argues that consumerism is a “Commodity Form” of life. As such, he means that consumerism is “a system of reality and a religion.” He argues that consumerism is “a total world view” that “affects the way we think and feel, the way we love and pray, the way we evaluate our enemies, the way we related to our spouses and children.” Kavanaugh sees that the “Commodity Form” of life is a complete way of perceiving, valuing and behaving.

Why is Consumerism So Dangerous?

Consumerism is deficient as a moral and cultural attitude because it treats every person and relation as a commodity that can be had rather than recognizing the existence of goods that cannot be reduced to commodities.

Kavanaugh concludes that the “Commodity Form reveals our very being and purpose as calculable solely in terms of what we possess We are only insofar as we possess. We are what we possess. We are, consequently, possessed by our possession, produced by our products.” In the end, we are “remade in the image and likeness of our own handiwork, we are revealed as commodities… We are robbed of our very humanity.”

Pope Francis is Evangelii Gaudium explains the danger: “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘disposable’ culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’”

Consumerism as a Cultural Distortion of Human Freedom—Not the Result of a Free Market

The free market is an expression of the human capacity for free choices. Consumerism is not a necessary by-product of the market but a very common distortion of freedom. It is the result from poor choices made by free individuals.

Pope Saint John Paul II warns in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis:

  1. An abundance of goods makes people vulnerable to consumerism and a susceptible to becoming a slave to possessions.
  2. Consumerism is essentially an inability to see beyond material goods.
  3. There is a restlessness inherent in consumerism that creates a perpetual need to new products which facilitates a type of “throw-away” culture.

Pope Saint John Paul II reminds us that the dominion given to Adam and Eve was not absolute and that the original sin of Adam has distorted the relationship between man and the material world. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis underscores that consumerism is yet another chapter in the ongoing story of original sin and the promise of redemption.

Capitalism is merely an instrument for effectively utilizing resources and responding to needs. At its heart is work, initiative and entrepreneurial drive—operating in the economic sphere in such a way as to appeal to man’s inherent dignity.

In his book Doing Well and Doing Good: The Challenge to the Christian Capitalist, Father Richard John Neuhaus reminds us that [The pope] is not so much criticizing an economic system as he is warning against the excesses that the efficient working of that system makes possible.”

Is Capitalism Sufficient for Man?

In the end, capitalism is a mode of economic endeavor layered upon a fallen world. Some of the most disheartening abuses of our fellow man have been done in the pursuit of profit. However, does capitalism afford man the opportunity to exercise his freedoms? Yes. Is there evil in the world? Yes. But Adam Smith would posit that the chaotic interaction of self-interested consumers and of self-interested firms produces outcomes that benefit society. Our job as individuals is to call on our conscience as we participate in the market and call out those who disregard the dignity of our fellow man. Arguably this is a cultural endeavor and not a metaphysical one.

Saint Matthew, pray for us all.

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9 thoughts on “Capitalism and the Culture of Consumerism”

  1. Good article.

    But don’t leave out one other, critical piece of information: The MORAL value of “free markets & trade.”

    When two human beings interact, they can either treat each other as objects to be manipulated (either by force or fraud) or as persons made in the Image of God (with free will and, through free will, creativity and the capacity for love).

    Now, if a person points a gun at his brother, he is subjecting him to force or the threat thereof. He is treating him as an object…unless his brother was about to treat someone else as an object (e.g. by murdering or raping them), in which case the gun-pointing is justified by the intent of halting an evil use of force.

    If a person hires another person to point the gun, his moral responsibility is not reduced. Treating another man as an object by wielding unjustified force against him is wrong, whether you do it personally or through a proxy.

    If 350 million persons jointly hire a crowd of armed toughs to point the gun, their moral responsibility is not reduced. Treating another man as an object by wielding unjustified force against him is wrong, even if a lot of us agree to do it together.

    The United States government is an example of 350 million persons jointly hiring a crowd of armed toughs to use force on our behalf. That is what government, generally, is: The sole organization in society to which We The People delegate the normal and organized use of our God-given authority to defend the innocent by means of force.

    So we must always be careful, when passing laws, to remember that when we do that, we are pointing guns at our brothers. We must only raise the threat of fines/incarceration/slaying when the moral harm we are opposing is forcible or fraudulent, and only to a degree which is proportionate. Otherwise, our use of force becomes morally unjustifiable, just like an Unjust War.

    What’s the relevance to economics?

    Simple: When I give my neighbor five dollars in exchange for a chicken sandwich, I am respecting him as a brother, made in the Image of God.

    I am saying to him: “You have a chicken sandwich; I have five dollars. I will not club you over the head and take your chicken sandwich — that would be treating you like an object. Instead, I am asking you: Will you sell me your sandwich? You can say Yes, or No. But if you would like my five dollars more than you like keeping your sandwich, then I will happily trade with you, because (as it happens) I prefer having the chicken sandwich over keeping the five dollars. And when the trade is complete, we will both be wealthier…because each of us has exchanged something he valued less for something else he valued more. But it is your choice: I am valuing your free will and allowing you to make up your own mind.”

    That is what “free markets & trade” is all about, every day.

    We forget that, sometimes.

    Now, “free markets & trade” gets confused with “capitalism,” and this is understandable, because they go quite properly together. The former emerges from the Natural Right of exchange whereas the latter emerges from the Natural Right of just ownership of property. One cannot justly trade away what one does not own to begin with, so these Natural Rights must go together.

    But it is important to examine these moral foundations of “free markets & trade” and of “capitalism,” because when we try to correct the misuses of capitalism or free markets, we often mistakenly use force in morally unjustified or disproportionate ways.

    And that is often a worse evil than whatever we were trying to correct.

    Let us say that a Dunkin’ Donuts shop owner hires a teenager for what is likely that teenager’s first real job, and pays them $10 per hour…a tad more than such unskilled and unexperienced labor is worth to him, perhaps, but he’s a kindly owner and wants to give the kid a leg up. All to the good.

    Then, the voters notice that sometimes a single mom is trying to raise kids on a full-time $10 per hour paycheck, and that that’s really really hard to do. Aha! A problem to solve. But how to solve it?

    Often the answer is to pass a law saying, “Shop owners are no longer allowed to hire workers for $10 per hour. They are only permitted to hire workers for $15 dollars per hour or more. Or, to put it differently, shop owners are now required by law to reject less-skilled workers who aren’t worth $15 dollars per hour in favor of robots or reduced hours, so that only more-skilled workers are hired. Any shopowner who disobeys will have a gun pointed at him and his property confiscated in fines.”

    Now, a lot of people don’t care to see the full implications of such laws exposed, but there they are, spelled out: The road to hell, paved with good intentions, resulting in an unjust use-of-force, putting youngsters and perhaps single moms out of work.

    It does result in an increase of justice, of course, for a scarce few people: Namely, anyone who’s currently making less than $15 an hour, and whose labor is actually worth $15 to the shopowners (but the shopowners are hoping they won’t ask for more or go elsewhere looking for it), will now get a raise up to the wages they deserve.

    And that’s not nuthin’. That’s a good thing. It offsets the evil of the unintended consequences to the less-skilled, and the evil of unjustly using disporportionate force to correct a non-forcible wrong.

    But as a general rule, that’s a pretty narrow slice of the overall impact of such a law.

    And that’s exactly what they’re finding out in New York and a few other places this year, where a minimum wage hike has forced Dunkin’ Donuts to close more than a hundred stores and to find automation solutions for the ones they didn’t close.

    Irrational persons hear this news and protest, “They only care about profits!”

    No. That’s a lie and a slander. If it were true, business owners wouldn’t give out of their own paychecks for help to the Church and to the poor. But business owners do exactly that, far more often than not. Red-state conservatives, particularly, give about double what their left-leaning counterparts give (on average, with exceptions of course).

    But if one uses one’s business — and this is exactly how Christian business owners ought to treat their businesses, and often do — as a ministry for the hiring and grooming of the unskilled, and in order to provide for one’s family, and in order to obtain a little extra for one’s family nest egg and for giving to the Church and charity? If one uses one’s business that way? Then one must operate in a defensive way to keep one’s business afloat. Otherwise one goes out of business and leaves all the would-be employees without jobs.


    When we defend the morality of captialism as capitalism, we must not forget to defend the morality of free markets & trade. These things are morally right.

    They can, like all things, be abused. Pope Francis, poor fellow, has almost never encountered non-abused capitalism; in Argentina the norm is crony capitalism (and it has become very common here, as well). We need less of that.

    But in our zeal to correct the deformations of capitalism and free markets/trade, let’s not use morally unjustified force, or apply solutions which create greater evils. Our goal is to clean the barnacles off the hull, not to sink the ship.

  2. Just as often, we imagine that only two alternatives exist: Capitalism and Socialism or Communism. We make the mistake of identifying private property with Capitalism. Private property has existed from the beginning, but the essence of Capitalism is lending money at interest. Free markets are ancient. Capitalism is a modern development.

  3. Taking me to school! Love the article, the way you pulled the thread of the Encyclicals… great catechism lesson and tool for Compass Catholic and Crown Financial Ministry facilitators… Pretty good background for anyone in Holy Orders giving a homily on the story of those ‘talents’ too. Thanks so much!

  4. Capitalism is a word coined by Carl Marx and it does mean that the capital is above the human been. The term we should use is free marker. The word capitalism was forced in our vocabulary by the comunists exactly to create this confusion and put down our economic system.
    The comunist regimes killed more than 100 million innocent people. Read The Black Book of Communism.

    1. Socialism and Communism recognized the fundamental error of
      Capitalism, the creation of a proletariat by eliminating personal control over the means of one’s livelihood. Their solution was to change the names of those in power from titles of industrial management to titles of government bureaucracy. In the encyclical, “On Human Labor”, Pope St. John Paul II notes that the disenfranchisement, producing a proletariat, was not so much due to a philosophy or an economic principle, but due to practice in that historical time of rapid industrialization. Human dignity requires one “to know that in his work . . . he is working for himself.”

      The solution, I believe, will not derive from any theory of economics, but from a recognition of the human dignity of every person we meet, in spite of current social and economic relationships. Pope Frances recently noted that we ought to serve people, not ideas.

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