This year it could be easier to avoid consumerism, with the economic recession in many places putting a damper on purchases. The events of Sept. 11 have also prompted many people to rethink their priorities. More firms and families are planning to donate to charities this year, according to a Dec. 11 report in the Christian Science Monitor.
"There is a lot of evidence that after Sept. 11, people have refocused on core values, and they are asking themselves the question, ´How can I get back to the things in life that really matter to me?´" says Juliet Schor, a Boston College sociology professor. "It´s been a wake-up call for many who find themselves operating in a world of excess."
Retailers acknowledge that this holiday season is different. Ostentatious gifts are out, says the National Retail Federation, which adds that people are looking for gifts with more meaning.
The social doctrine of the Church has many references to the theme of material goods. Pius XI´s 1931 encyclical "Quadragesimo Anno" (No. 136) noted how social experts look for a way to lead economic life to a sound order. This order will only be obtained when "all things be directed to God as the first and supreme end of all created activity," and when created goods "be considered as mere instruments," affirmed Pius XI.
This does not mean, explains the encyclical, that material goods should be despised: "Those who are engaged in producing goods, therefore, are not forbidden to increase their fortune in a just and lawful manner." The Pope explained that worldly goods are licit, provided they are sought with respect for the law of God and for the rights of others. Pius XI also recommended "the gentle yet effective law of Christian moderation."
In "Populorum Progressio," Pope Paul VI warned against regarding "the possession of more and more goods as the ultimate objective" (No 19). In our growth as persons, having more material goods is "necessary," the Pope acknowledged, but they are not to be considered as the supreme good.
Paul VI explained that "the exclusive pursuit of material possessions prevents man´s growth as a human being and stands in opposition to his true grandeur. Avarice, in individuals and in nations, is the most obvious form of stultified moral development."
Economic progress has helped the human family, observed the Second Vatican Council pastoral constitution "Gaudium et Spes," No. 63. But the danger exists of adopting a way of life that is imbued with an exclusively economic mentality, it warned.
The council fathers called upon Christians to let their lives "be permeated with the spirit of the beatitudes, notably with a spirit of poverty" (No. 72).
"Gaudium et Spes" also noted: "It is what a man is, rather than what he has, that counts" (No. 35). John Paul II took up this theme in his first encyclical, "Redemptor Hominis," with the well-known exhortation to seek to be more, not just to have more (No. 16).
A civilization that is purely materialistic will only lead to our enslavement, warned the Pope. The encyclical reminded Christians that the essential meaning of our dominion over the world "consists in the priority of ethics over technology, in the primacy of the person over things, and in the superiority of spirit over matter."
In 1987 John Paul II took up the theme of economic development in his encyclical "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis." He alerted the faithful of the danger of an excess of material goods that "easily makes people slaves of ´possession´ and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better" (No. 28).
This type of consumerism, noted the Pope, leads to "in the first place a crass materialism and, at the same time, a radical dissatisfaction, because one quickly learns -- unless one is shielded from the flood of publicity and the ceaseless and tempting offers of products -- that the more one possesses the more one wants, while deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled."
In his 1991 encyclical "Centesimus Annus," John Paul II considered at length the nature of the free market economy and the pursuit of economic progress.
Once more the Pope asked Christians to avoid falling into the error of consumerism, where "people are ensnared in a web of false and superficial gratifications rather than being helped to experience their personhood in an authentic and concrete way" (No. 41).
How can we ensure an authentic way of living? "Centesimus Annus" explains that this is done by "obedience to the truth about God and man." In this way a person will "order his needs and desires" and "choose the means of satisfying them according to a correct scale of values, so that the ownership of things may become an occasion of growth for him."
John Paul II also recommended "a concrete commitment to solidarity and charity" (No. 49). By fomenting constructive relationships with others, and committing ourselves to building up the community, we can avoid the error of reducing ourselves to the level of "a producer and consumer of goods."
A simpler lifestyle is another recommendation. In his message for the World Day of Peace in 1993, the Pope called for more attention to the needs of the poor. The consumer society, commented John Paul II, makes more evident the gap separating rich from poor and can lead us to overlook the needs of others (No. 5).
Echoing Pius XI, the message exhorts Christians: "Moderation and simplicity ought to become the criteria of our daily lives." This voluntary renunciation of material wealth is very different from other types of poverty. "Evangelical poverty is chosen freely by the person who intends in this way to respond to Christ´s admonition: ´Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple´ (Luke 14:33)."
This evangelical poverty is a source of peace, affirmed the Pope, "since through it the individual can establish a proper relationship with God, with others and with creation."
Lest the Church be accused of not recognizing the value of economic progress, it´s worth noting that John Paul II has stated clearly: "It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed toward ´having´ rather than ´being,´ and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself" (Centesimus Annus, No. 36).
The Pope called for the creation of "lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments." Developing this way of life is by no means easy -- applying the principles of Church social doctrine to particular circumstances is a delicate exercise. But ´tis the season to try.