Sending the Wrong Signal

How Luxury Compromises Christian Witness

In the early days of Francis’s papacy, few things have provoked as much comment—almost all of it positive—as the new pope’s efforts to eschew pomp and luxury. In his choices about where to live and what to wear, Francis has opted for simplicity. He urged rich Argentines not to travel to his installation as pope and to give the money they would have spent on airfare to the poor. He has urged priests and nuns to forsake fancy cars and smartphones, saying, “It hurts me when I see a priest or a nun with the latest model car. You can’t do this. A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but please, choose a humbler one.” He decried the “culture of waste,” saying, “We should all remember…that throwing food away is like stealing from the tables of the poor, the hungry!” Pope Francis’s example should give all Catholics pause: if even the pope can dispense with luxury, so can the rest of us. But it’s not only a question of what we can do without. Our attachments to worldly goods—and to the social status they’re supposed to signify—is a hindrance to Christian witness.

If it is unusual to see a pope give up his palace for humbler digs, there is nothing novel in the idea that the Christian life involves renunciation. Voluntary poverty has long been understood as an important Christian ideal, and many volumes of patristic writings are filled with stern admonishments to the wealthy. Take, for example, St. Ambrose addressing the rich Christians of Milan: “You give coverings to walls and bring men to nakedness. The naked cries out before your house unheeded; your fellow man is there, naked and crying, while you are perplexed by the choice of marble to clothe your floor.” Hundreds of other passages like this one could be cited. As the historian Helen Rhee notes, the writings of the church fathers assume that “Christian self-definition includes unequivocal denunciation of avarice and luxury as irrational desires and displays of wealth.”

Yet most lay Catholics in the United States have been reluctant to take up these challenges. We admire Dorothy Day, but from afar, forgetting that she and Peter Maurin hoped that every parish would one day have a house of hospitality and that ordinary American Catholics might set aside a hospitality room in their own homes. Many are quick to accuse the Catholic clergy of extravagance (often justifiably) while remaining silent about the wealth displayed in the parking lots of our churches. This inconsistency is partly the residual effect of the old “two-level ethic,” according to which voluntary poverty was only for a few exceptional Catholics with special vocations. Poverty, like celibacy, was for the rectory and the monastery. But Vatican II reminded us of “the universal call to holiness,” and Pope John Paul II explicitly rejected the two-level ethic in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor. The evangelical counsels are no longer to be understood as only for monks and nuns.

But if many Catholics are more willing to admire someone like Dorothy Day than to follow her example, that is also partly because many of us have adapted to our country’s consumer culture—a culture in which affluence is morally innocent or even commendable. “More” is taken to be a universal aspiration, perhaps one of the few we are all supposed to share in our multicultural society. Everyone wants “a better life” or “the American dream” for their children. In The Unintended Reformation, Brad Gregory suggests that “the goods life” is the social glue uniting an otherwise “hyperpluralistic” society. Whatever else we may disagree about, we agree that if you can have nicer things, you should have nicer things. In such a culture, it is easy for Catholic Americans to forget their church’s teaching that our excess wealth must be directed to the common good rather than to private indulgence. We cling tenaciously to the ideology of happiness as the pursuit of limitless wealth, buying into what Fr. John A. Ryan called the “higher-standard-of-living fallacy.” Ryan insists that social reform requires us to “put away that false conception of life and values which permeates all classes of contemporary society, and which holds that right life consists in the indefinite expansion of material wants.”

So why, despite the church’s longstanding message on this point, are some Catholics still surprised to see Francis questioning our consumer choices? One reason: popular misconceptions about economics. Wouldn’t less consumption wreck the economy? This objection goes back to eighteenth-century defenders of luxury like Bernard Mandeville and David Hume, who observed that the pursuit of new luxury goods seemed to lead to more production overall. Luxury equaled economic growth; growth equaled general prosperity. Why is this a misconception? It’s true that a healthy economy requires the circulation of wealth, but consider all the things we could be spending money on that have nothing to do with personal luxury. We could be giving our money to those who don’t have enough of what they actually need. We could be paying more for the things we do need so that the workers who provide them can make a proper living. The question is not whether to spend or to hoard. The question is how we spend and why. What do we value most? As Francis pointed out, “That homeless people die of cold on the streets is not news. In contrast, a ten-point drop on the stock markets of some cities is a tragedy. A person dying is not news, but if the stock markets drop ten points it is a tragedy! Thus people are disposed of, as if they were trash.” Getting beyond the sound bite that “spending is good for the economy” means asking what an economy is for. Economies don’t exist simply to perpetuate themselves; they exist for the purpose of human flourishing. Our focus on numbers like the GDP and the stock market—“scoreboard numbers,” up-or-down numbers—is a mistake. As the economist Amartya Sen puts it, “Why should we be concerned with [maximizing] opulence, rather than with what people succeed in doing or being?” The first question to ask is whether an economy is improving people’s lives. No purely quantitative measure will answer that question adequately.

But, someone might ask in response, doesn’t “the pursuit of happiness” mean encouraging everyone to buy what will satisfy them? Jefferson, whose ideal citizen was a yeoman farmer, did not have our modern consumer culture in mind when he wrote that famous phrase. More to the point, empirical research has shown again and again that the never-ending pursuit of nicer stuff is a great way to make yourself miserable. Past a certain point, more income and nicer possessions do not make us any happier. In part, these things disappoint because they involve what economists call opportunity costs: the time we spend on them could have been spent on nonmaterial goods. More important, in an affluent society, much of our spending does not satisfy real needs, but only desires for “positional” goods. Francis explains how money leads to “vanity that is useless, but makes you feel like an important person.” Some positional goods are inherently exclusive. The very rich want things that only a few can have (famous paintings, penthouses with a view of Central Park). To have such things is to prove oneself part of an elite, and so it is easy to see why they should be considered luxuries. Precisely because so many things the rest of us want are quite common—at least in our part of the world—it is easy to assume they aren’t really luxuries. But what makes something luxurious in the most basic sense is not that it is rare but that it is unnecessary. Whatever we spend just to “keep up”—whether it’s with the Joneses or the Vanderbilts—can be counted as luxury.

The pursuit of nicer but unnecessary stuff also places us on a “hedonic treadmill”: the more we get, the more we want. We adapt very quickly to a new normal and then need even nicer things to produce the same effect. Studies have shown that, while people have stable aspirations for things like getting married or having children (having three kids doesn’t necessarily make you yearn for a fourth), aspirations for material wealth and rewards constantly increase. Once you check one thing off your wish list, you add two more. Francis describes the danger in a homily, contrasting starkly “the road of covetousness, which ends in idolatry” with “God’s road of humility, of bending down to serve.” Each road is not a once-for-all grand choice, but rather a matter of what we choose to do with our resources each day.

The pursuit of happiness properly understood means that, once we have a sufficiency of material goods, we should devote our time and attention to other, higher things. Summarizing the recent research on the topic, Richard Easterlin writes, “The happiness of an individual can be increased by allocating his or her time to those domains…in which hedonic adaptation and social comparison are less important” (Economics and Happiness, 2008). Friendships, family, and personal health are especially important, but so is involvement in civic and charitable activity. People simply tend to be more satisfied with the persistent, intrinsic rewards of these activities than with an endless cycle of making and spending more money.

Of course, most of us say these things about relationships and community, but our lives appear to tell a different story. Middle-class Americans, including Catholics, have developed consumer habits that can be broken only by a deliberate effort of self-denial. Weaning ourselves off common luxuries will be hard. It will mean replacing one set of habits with a better set. Francis’s remarkable choices as pope are the result of his long habit of making do with less as bishop in Argentina. In Buenos Aires he dined with the poor or prepared his own meals, lived in a modest apartment, and used public transit. Luxury names the vice opposed to such practices. While some people go into debt in order to live above their means, Francis has for many years chosen to live below his. The choice was made day after day, year after year, quietly, unostentatiously, but not in secret. It was an important and visible part of his Christian witness, as it is now.

In thinking and writing about these questions as a theologian, I have frequently experienced some personal discomfort. I joke that, once people hear what I have to say about luxury, they’ll never invite me to their homes. But the greater discomfort has to do with my own home. Is my apartment too nice, or in too nice a neighborhood? Did I really need to buy all those books when there’s an academic library across the street? The truth is I am a bit cheap and use things till they wear out—or even after they wear out. Miserliness is also a vice. Still, I constantly run into temptations simply to buy the newest available thing, to upgrade, to make my already comfortable life even more comfortable. For example, there’s my car. I have a 2000 Honda Civic with nearly 150,000 miles on it—but when I bought the car, I could have paid about $5000 less to buy the very similar Chevy Prizm (which, according to the experts, is just as reliable as the Civic). But try as I might, I couldn’t picture myself driving a Chevy. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I was concerned with what my car would say about me…and, really, college professors drive Hondas, not Chevys.

In a highly mobile consumer society where we often interact with new people, we use our possessions to signal how we wish to be perceived. We might feel self-conscious about making consumer choices that conspicuously signal a disdain for extravagance, but in fact we already send very powerful messages about ourselves and our priorities with the choices we make as consumers. Take clothing. Our society pays lip service to the idea that what one wears shouldn’t matter much; the alternative—a society in which people are openly judged by their clothing—seems repugnant. And yet this, too, seems to be a case where our conventional wisdom is radically at odds with our conventions. If clothing matters so little, why do lots of us spend so much of our disposable income on it? The obvious truth is that in a consumer culture like ours—and especially one in which we are strangers to most of those we encounter in public—what we wear ends up mattering a lot. The same is true of our hairstyle, furniture, personal electronic devices. They all send a message about us—a message about how we fit in or stand out.

So does the message they send about us have anything to do with our vocation as Christians? Does it bear witness to what we say we value? Or does it signal our allegiance to rival values? When we lose sight of how our economic decisions relate to our vocation, calls for “simple living” can lead to trivial outcomes or even other forms of consumerism—to fastidious (and often expensive) minimalism or to rustic chic. For Christians, simplicity is primarily an ethic, not an aesthetic. Again, Francis is showing us the way. Take his choice to live in a common apartment residence and celebrate daily Mass with the other people who live there. Sure, this involves some discomfort and inconvenience, but that isn’t the point. The point is Francis’s deep sense that his housing should be well suited to the fulfillment of his vocation as pope. He clearly believes he is more available to others, less subject to isolation, if he shares a household. We are moved by this choice not only because it pleases us to consider a pope turning down a palace but also because the choice signifies such a compelling understanding of what the papacy is about.

How might our own consumer choices arise from and serve our vocation? It’s worth noting here that, in premodern theology, the choice to buy and use more than what was strictly necessary was often justified in terms of one’s “station.” Choices about what one wore or where one lived were not considered luxurious as long as they were necessary to signal one’s rank in a feudal society. As one might expect, St. Thomas Aquinas thought that one’s clothing could indicate virtue or vice: he quoted St. Ambrose, who warned against “costly and dazzling apparel” and favored “ordinary clothes” with “nothing added to increase [the body’s] beauty.” But Aquinas also argued that moderation should be governed by custom, so that one neither exceeds nor falls below what is expected. Certain apparel, he writes, is “an indication of man’s estate” and is judged according to “the virtue of truthfulness.” We may now scoff at this idea of “station,” but do we have a better excuse for expensive clothes? For Christians today, vocation should take the place of station as the governing concept. Germain Grisez’s detailed treatment of material goods makes this point well. Grisez writes that “Christians should subordinate possessions to the kingdom,” by which he means that “an individual’s personal vocation or a group’s proper mission provides the standard for judgments about acquiring, holding, and disposing of things.... Desiring or clinging to things which exceed this limit, whether by their quantity or their quality, is inconsistent with the total giving of self which Jesus requires of every one of his disciples.” (Would that Grisez’s many admirers took these lines as seriously as they take his stringent defense of the church’s sexual teachings.)

A vocation is more than a rank and more than a job. A vocation ties every part of one’s life together into a whole. That should include our practical decisions—not only about how we make money, but about how we spend it. Do we spend money to separate ourselves from the poor? The suburban neighborhood of single-family dwellings accessible only by car can isolate us the way Francis was worried the papal apartment might isolate him. Such neighborhoods are splendidly private and entirely under our control. In ancient Rome, the life of luxury was associated with the country villa—a private escape that, as Peter Brown notes, was “presented as a place of unproblematic abundance.” How can we say we have a vocation to serve the poor if we’ve arranged our lives so that we and our families rarely encounter them?

We’ve all met Catholics whose lives appear to be egregiously at odds with Francis’s example—Catholics who own the most expensive cars or spend thousands of dollars on the latest devices or keep up with the latest designer fashions. And, indeed, we can all probably remember instances in own lives when we fell prey to the lure of luxury. But beyond these obvious cases, it is often hard for us to recognize the higher-standard-of-living fallacy at work in our ordinary habits, hard to imagine giving up things that have come to seem basic even if, objectively, they aren’t. It can also be hard to see what real effect such renunciation would have. It might tickle our moral vanity, but would it really be useful? Would it attract anyone to the gospel? Answering that question truthfully requires discernment and humility, but we must not be too quick to accept answers that makes our lives easier. It may turn out that these questions need to be answered with the help of a community. A number of parishes (including my own) run Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl programs for Lent, inviting people to skip a meal and donate the money they would have spent on their own food to the hungry. What if parish communities also programmatically scrutinized their other purchases, and decided, together, to buy less and give more?

There is no sin in living in the richest country in the world, the richest ever known. But do we really imagine that we won’t be judged precisely on the question of how we dispose of our wealth, individually and collectively? I don’t mean to minimize the importance of other moral questions, but Catholics in twenty-first-century America should at least be able to agree that no other moral question is more important than this one. “For the church to heed the New Testament’s challenge on the question of possessions,” Richard Hays writes in Moral Vision of the New Testament, “would require nothing less than a new Reformation.” Pope Francis has certainly got Catholics thinking again about poverty. Perhaps his own example will startle us into thinking about it not only in terms of economic policy, but also in terms of personal vocation, so that our lives bear better witness to the gospel’s radical claims about wealth.

Published in the December 20, 2013 issue: 

David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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