Combatting the Idols of Comfort, Consumption, and Consumerism April 6, 2024

Printed in The Catholic Citizen

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A number of years ago when I was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis, the parish hosted a talk on Pope Francis’s encyclical on environmental stewardship, Laudato Si. The text is a sprawling document rich in theological reflection and practical wisdom. The timing of its promulgation was meant to galvanize global support regarding the immanent threat of climate change and its pernicious effects. Laudato Si was inspired by the timeless wisdom of the universally beloved St. Francis of Assisi who Pope Francis chose as the name from which he would serve as successor of St. Peter. St. Francis has been described by theologians and biographers as manifesting a preternatural relationship with the created order. What struck me about the talk, given by a professor in the Catholic Studies Department at the University of St. Thomas, was its synthetic understanding of the Catholic tradition and its wise analysis of the underlying causes of environmental degradation. The Church and her saints are a wise teacher of the essence of faith and humanity.

The Harvard Business School noted years ago, culture will beat strategy every day of the week. This is certainly true with regard to the grave harm to the environment—it beckons an invitation to delve deeply into our current American culture to discover a pathway back to personal and collective flourishing, including in the area of environmental stewardship and sustainability. Ultimately, Laudato Si is a call to conversion—not only ecological conversion, but personal, spiritual, and cultural conversion—inviting us to examine the root causes of our current crisis.

In the summer of 2017, I had the privilege to teach in an international law program that was hosted by a Catholic law school in Budapest. Most of the law students were Catholic and my task was to offer a primer on Catholic Social Teaching and the Church’s teaching on environmental stewardship. There are a number of takeaways from that experience. In my limited space here, I will share just a few. First, I was struck by the fact that most of the non-American law students were much more knowledgeable about the essence and vision of Catholic social teaching. Some international students were from countries that were taking important steps with regard to combatting climate change and others honestly conveyed that their countries of origin were too mired in corruption to leave time to focus on environmental stewardship and sustainability. I remember distinctly that most of the law students were alive to how American culture disproportionately contributes to a global culture of consumption and consumerism, onto environ-mental degradation.

The main text for my section of the course was Laudato Si. The research and writing of biographers of Pope Francis detail his own conversion which led him to understand more fully the multivalent harm of climate change, including its disproportionate effect on the poor. It was the testimony of Jorge Bergoglio’s fellow South American bishops that fostered in the Archbishop of Buenos Aires a greater appreciation of the gravity of the harm of environmental degradation and the underlying cultural and spiritual roots of this harm. Laudato Si is known for its novel presentation of an integral ecology, but I was as impressed with the documents’ marshaling of wisdom from several episcopal conferences throughout the world and the employment of the wisdom of Francis’s predecessor popes, including Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. For example, if you are not up for reading a sprawling papal encyclical on this topic, I would suggest reading a crisp section of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas In Veritate (CIV 48-52). This section is a master class on the Church’s teaching on environmental stewardship and presents multiple themes which Pope Francis more fully develops in Laudato Si, including the call to intergenerational solidarity and justice.

Earlier this year, I was invited to a national ecclesial gathering on Laudato Si. The convening included bishops, scholars, advocates, religious, and priests. The presentations and dialogue were informative and inspired me as a pastor and professor to focus more on the issue of environmental stewardship at The Basilica of Saint Mary, and in my writing and teaching. One area that could have been explored with greater depth is the spiritual roots of our present ecological crisis. At its core, our present crisis is a spiritual crisis. St. Augustine, with great clarity, teaches that we are made for God and that our hearts are meant to rest in God. When this does not occur in our lives, many idols invade, resulting in a harmful amnesia of our divine origin and horizon. This happens personally and also manifests socially. A privation of God in our lives and culture results inevitably in the unquenched desire for comfort and consumption—anything to fill the void when we are not living in communion with God. This is the dynamic that the professor touched on years ago—that privation of God leads to the lust for comfort and consumption and pairs menacingly with a consumerist culture, which in turn devours everything in its wake, including a habitable environment.

The way back to right relationship with God, our neighbor, and the created order must be traversed from a spiritual foundation—there is no other sure path to human and collective flourishing. The wisdom of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, among other sources, has inspired this nascent Center for Catholic Social Thought and this publication. Day and Maurin’s wisdom, borne of the Catholic spiritual and social tradition, also provides the seeds for healing and restoration of our present consumerist and individualist culture. In their quest for safeguarding the dignity of the human person and workers, in their daily acts of spiritual devotion and faith, in their intentional communitarian ethic, and in their simplicity of life, a terra firma emerges should we have the wisdom to follow their path. This is ultimately the path back to God and to a culture which is more just, sustainable, and befriending to humanity and the planet which shares our divine origin.

Fr. Daniel Griffith is Pastor of The Basilica of Saint Mary and Director of the Initiative on Restorative Justice and Healing at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.