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Christian Asceticism: Breaking Consumerism’s Destructive Hold

It has been my experience through fifteen years of priestly service that the personal and familial problems facing Christians are greatly intensified by the consumerism that characterizes much of contemporary American life. As I have come to appreciate the psychological and religious aspects of this influence I have also become increasingly convinced of the social and economic instability which consumerism is fostering. Although I am not an academic theologian or social theorist, my training in theology and pastoral experience suggest to me that it is becoming imperative for the Church to develop a concrete response to the spiritual and temporal danger that is spreading. In the present article I propose to examine the structure of consumerism’s destructive hold and to indicate some particular strategies from the Christian ascetical tradition which can help to break that hold.

Consumerism’s Instability: Loss of time, Satisfaction, and Security

Given the limitations of my training, I cannot provide an economic analysis of consumerism, but must approach it existentially, examining its effects from a philosophical and theological perspective. By “consumerism,” I do not mean a “free-market” or “capitalist” economy (although these might take a consumeristic form). I mean rather a social and economic order based on the systematic creation and fostering of the desire to possess material goods and personal success in ever greater amounts. Consumerism promises “a better life” to all who work hard enough, but I believe that it actually leads to a social and economic instability which tends to destroy the consumerist system and its adherents.

One of the dominant complaints expressed by my parishioners–a complaint which spiritual counseling has generally confirmed to be real–is their lack of time. Married couples and families find there is little time to be together interacting with one another because they are so busy pursuing the hectic schedules of their lives. They rush from bed to work or school then to evening activities then to bed again. They work overtime, participate in numerous extra-curricular activities at school, and attend as many other social events as they can manage to squeeze into their calendars. The result is that they often rob themselves of an hour or more of sleep each night. They are chronically tired and when, on rare occasions, they find free time they are likely to “veg out” in front of the TV, VCR, or PC. This lifestyle is instantly recognizable to almost all of us. It is a lifestyle inhospitable to the type of time and personal interaction that is truly restful and restorative. It is a world in which prayer, the spiritual life, the Church, and God are often numbered among the myriad of events that must be fit into daily life instead of taking their rightful place as the hinges upon which daily life turns. Many parishioners sense that there is something amiss in their lives, but they seem unable to fix the problem. Why?

A significant part of the answer, I believe, lies in the way consumerist society plays upon the inherent weaknesses of fallen human nature. Consumerism creates and nourishes human desire for temporal goods and for the sense of well-being that the acquisition and possession of those goods can provide. We are conditioned never to be satisfied with a sufficiency, but to “be all that you can be” through the endless development of talent and productivity. Of course, this conditioning tends to feed the selfish desires of the body and the soul. We like the feel of “the good life” and the satisfaction that comes from being the center of the world we have created. Our selfishness and love of comfort make it all too easy for us to accept the dictum that “more is better.” Our disordered wills are readily trained to internalize the principle of “planned obsolescence” by which we learn to be dissatisfied with what we already have and to want more. Thus we cannot rest with the good, but find ourselves always striving for more. We tend to view “settling for less” as lazy, defeatist, irresponsible behavior and to equate it with personal failure. Spouses or parents who settle for less are considered to be guilty of failing to love as they should because they are not providing as “best as possible” for the family. “Good enough” is by definition never enough.

The consumerist lust for a better life is inherently destabilizing of our personal and economic lives. Since we are not satisfied with the good we possess and since our self-worth is connected to never settling for less, we must always be earning and acquiring more. Hence we work longer hours, fill our days with more self-actualizing activities, and increase spending so that we can have the better life now. In this way we become slaves to dissatisfaction, time, and money–harsh task masters who allow no rest. This consumerist imperative to acquire, I believe, explains another disturbing characteristic of contemporary American life: decreased savings and increased debt. In a consumerist economy disposable income is expended to satisfy desire and self-image by artificially inflating one’s lifestyle, worth, and status when it is properly meant to provide for the future needs of the family and for the poor. For the consumerist household the budgetary question is no longer how much one can afford to pay for a car, house, vacation, or clothes, but how much of a monthly installment payment one can afford to make toward their purchase. In this process privately owned property shifts from being a repository of accumulated wealth providing a modest degree of economic security to being collateral for loans used to sustain a lifestyle that exceeds the limits of one’s actual level of productivity. Thus, in addition to being a slave to dissatisfaction, time, and money one becomes a slave to their offspring: credit and the financial system built upon it. In a tragic paradox the more consumeristic a person becomes the more he has, but the less he owns and the less satisfied he is. This is radically destabilizing to personal and communal life.

Consumerism’s inhumanity: alienation and fear

Consumerism gives rise to truly fiendish lifestyle. Labor and the use of capital are supposed to yield personal and familial financial stability through ownership. The consumerist system drives its participants through labor and financial speculation (credit or investment) to sustain artificial lifestyles they “have” but do not “own,” thus preventing on principle the minimal stability accorded by private property. They cannot rest or be secure in the fruit of their labor because they do not yet own that fruit. Today’s consumerist is like yesterday’s coal miner who could not answer “St. Peter’s call” because he owed his soul to the company store. Many modern Americans owe almost their entire lifestyles to the workplace and the marketplace: their salaries and health care come from their employer, their money and property are tied up in debts, and their retirements are invested in mutual funds or other portfolios. Financial security arises from having something to fall back on during a bad economy, yet much of what they hope to posses depends on at least a modestly improving economy. If the economy collapses they have nothing left–nothing but debts they cannot service. How can such people hope to experience financial security or stability? Add to this the nomadic wanderings of businesses and employees across the nation that have left many neighborhoods without longtime residents and few family members living in proximity to each other and one can readily understand the growing fear of an old age spent alone or as a financial and personal burden to family and community.

Those who have given over to a consumeristic lifestyle cannot give proper priority to rest, recreation, joy, or prayer. They simply do not have the time, energy, or security to do so. They live with an inner fear that compels them forward in an endless effort to secure what is not securable: their unrealistic lifestyles. Even if they manage to place God somewhere into the scheme of things they are still trapped because God is not to be treated as one good among many: He is the one God, the transcendent source of all good. We simply cannot serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob unless we love Him with our whole heart–not merely place Him first on a list. Neither can we properly love ourselves or our neighbors if we do not love God. The consumerist therefore is unable to adequately love and serve God, himself, his family, his Church, or his community because he is enslaved to the acquisition of a better life. The pitiable religious consumerist thinks if he just works harder he will be able “to make time” for God and others, but he is afraid that any “slacking off” his hectic schedule is a failure to use God’s gifts in providing for the self-fulfillment of his family. By some demonic alchemy, love of God has come to mean giving thanks for His gifts by maximizing productive “self-actualization” while love of neighbor has come to mean providing them with consumer goods. One need only examine the finances of a typical Christian family in America during the aftermath of Christmas to see how pervasive this mentality has become.

Far from attaining a better life, consumerists experience alienation and fear. Always wanting more, their sense of accomplishment is ephemeral and they are strangers to contentment. Always in danger of losing what they have but do not own, a sense of urgency and futility are their constant companions. In their minds, the peace of “accepting one’s lot” is purchased only at the price of a humiliating surrender to limitation and failure. It would be more accurate to call this a “grudging resignation” rather than an act of acceptance. It is a profoundly alienating experience, not at all life-giving.

The reader should note that in offering this critique of consumerism I imply no nostalgia for a “golden age” of agricultural or industrial society in which the ownership of land or a share in the means of production could be a hedge against “hard times.” I am simply stating that as a matter of fact the unique structure of consumeristic desire for a better life creates particular types of alienation and instability. These characteristic desires and fears conspire very effectively to enslave many modern Americans to time, money, and the consumerist system. The result is destructive of human contentment and of religious sensibilities.

Virtue: the cure for consumerism

What is the Church to do in such a situation? Well meaning people, baptized into the death and resurrection of the Lord, are becoming ensnared by the “elemental powers of the world” when they should be enjoying the freedom of the children of God (see Gal. 4:1-9). If they could see and understand their plight, they might follow the path of grace out of the trap, but their consumerist lifestyles keep them in such a heightened state of activity and anxiety that it is all but impossible for them “to be still and know that I am God.” Advocating that people spend more time with God in prayer is unlikely to have any significant impact since adding God and prayer into the consumerist pantheon of activities is not enough to restore genuine piety. Personal communion with God must be acknowledged as the source and summit of life, not reduced to the first on a list of “things to do.” To be of any measurable assistance, the Church needs an effective way to confront consumeristic behavior so the daily life of her members may become once again centered on God.

To find a way out we must confront the moral roots of consumeristic behavior. Consumerism functions by arousing desires and encouraging them not to be satisfied, which in turn leads to alienation from personal accomplishments and to fear of loss. According to a classical Catholic anthropology (such as found in Augustine and Aquinas) there are two basic types of appetites: the spiritual appetite expressed in the will and the bodily appetites expressed in instincts/responses associated with comfort (concupiscibility) and struggle (irascibility). Consumerism trains a person to unjustly will to have more than he has earned or achieved, to intemperately indulge in creaturely comforts, to blindly fight against contentment in the status quo, and to unreasonably fear the loss of that status. Therefore, if we would free people from consumerism, we must first help them discipline their appetites so they can be satisfied with a sufficiency in spirit and body. In terms of Catholic anthropology, this means inculcating the virtues, especially those of justice (by which one wills toward himself and others that which is due) and temperance (by which one takes appropriate comfort/pleasure in material goods). A just and temperate person is not mastered by consumeristic manipulations of his will and concupiscible appetites.

However, more is needed than these two cardinal virtues. Catholic theology teaches that as an existential fact no man succeeds fully in living virtuously by his own power. He is in need of grace. Moreover, the consumerist is in need of an antidote to his alienation and fear since he cannot rest until he can experience proper satisfaction and security in the true goods of human life. He is in desperate need of the virtues of love and hope by which he finds authentic human fulfillment in relations with others and has appropriate confidence in the future. In the person of Christ we encounter just such a source of grace, of Love, and of Hope. Significantly, Christ reveals the truth that love is a total commitment of oneself to God and others realized in a radical self-emptying (or kenosis). Rather than preach fulfillment through “self-actualization” or the “good life,” Jesus pours Himself out for us on the Cross. Only through communion with Christ’s loving death and resurrection does man receive the Holy Spirit and the grace to live a just and temperate life animated by the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love.

Christian Asceticism: The Path to Freedom

To confront consumeristic behavior effectively, then, the Church must inculcate virtuous behavior lived in the power of Christ’s Spirit. The difficulty with formation of the virtues is that they cannot simply be taught by prescriptions. Different personality types and different circumstances of daily life make it impossible to provide a detailed list of “how to” live the virtues. Of course one can describe the virtues and show how they differ from their contrary vices, but one needs models of virtue and time to practice them in order to become virtuous. Ultimately, one needs God’s grace to advance in virtue. Here is where the Church can play a pivotal role: by providing instruction, modeling, ongoing formation, and the grace of Christ. Experience teaches that a community can be a very effective means of mediating virtue and in fact Christ established the Church precisely for this purpose: to make disciples.

The Christian Tradition provides us with specific behaviors which foster the temperance and justice needed to overcome the false desires aroused by consumerism and which simultaneously nourish the Love and Hope required to heal the wounds of consumerism. These behaviors are the spiritual disciplines which comprise Christian asceticism and include a great variety of concrete means by which Christians throughout the centuries have put into practice their new life in Christ. I would like to suggest three practices as particularly effective in confronting the vices of consumerism: the penitential life, the honoring of the Sabbath, and the offering of the tithe.

Consider penance. It is a powerful means of transformation because it is an exercise of the divine love which has been bestowed on every Christian reborn into the death and resurrection of Jesus. United to Christ by this love and filled with the Holy Spirit, the Christian is able to follow in the path of Christ’s self-emptying love whereby He laid down his life as a sacrificial gift to God for the sake of His fellow man. Traditionally, this personal kenosis of the Christian has been understood as an ongoing conversion (or metanoia) encompassing three types of actions: fasting (or self-denial), prayer, and almsgiving (or works of mercy). In this penitential life the Christian seeks to respond to God’s love by enacting the self-emptying love of Christ in daily life. Through self-denial the Christian turns away from the inessential desires of his will and his flesh, being content with God’s will for his life. Through prayer he seeks an ever deeper communion with God and the grace to persevere in the narrow path of love. Through works of mercy the Christian not only shares material goods with others, he pours himself out on their behalf.

The Church forms disciples, in large measure, through preaching, exemplifying, nurturing, and coordinating this communal life of penance. By its very nature such a life turns the Christian away from the selfish pursuit of an ever-increasing standard of living and toward a selfless loving of God and neighbor. By establishing specific practices in which the entire community undertakes self-denial, prayer, and good works, the Church would be able to foster an authentic holiness which frees its members from consumeristic bondage. Christians in turn would humanize the society in which they live, especially by bringing Love and Hope to a fallen world. Such a Christianity is neither an opiate nor a revolution; it is a prophetic witness radiating from the Church which transforms her members and the whole world.

Consider the Sabbath. In a consumeristic and activist culture, the Sabbath carves out space for God and others, a time for resting from labor, acquisition, and consumption to enjoy personal relationships and the fruits of the earth. The hectic scheduling of events, which makes time “fly,” is broken by a savoring of time with others in God’s creation. The Sabbath rest can be an enlivening experience of “kairos” (the “fullness of time”, perhaps akin to the consumerist’s illusory “quality time”) rather than a wearying experience of “chronos” (time measured, spent, or “killed”). Sabbath time comes only at a price–one “saves” or “redeems” this time by not using it for material gain, servile labor, or other consumeristic pursuits. In our current situation, this means that the entire week would need to be rescheduled around the Sabbath. As people adjusted each day’s activities in order to be able to honor the Sabbath, the Lord’s day would become again the center from which all time is measured and allotted. Even in cases that require a Christian to work on Sunday, it is possible to acknowledge Sunday with some special form of worship and to set aside another day for Sabbath rest. By keeping the Sabbath an effective limit would be placed on productivity and the opportunity would be created for fostering relationships with God and others.

Offering the tithe has an effect similar to honoring the Sabbath. In order to give 10% to God’s work people cannot be spending everything on themselves. To find 10% in an overextended consumeristic budget likely means that a person’s entire lifestyle would have to change. The monthly budget would need to revolve to a certain extent around the tithe. Thus, a limit on spending would be established by rendering first to God what is His. This would create a situation in which one is invited to learn that income is not meant to be expended solely to expand one’s lifestyle and that an accounting must be given for every penny before God.

Families in my parish who have taken the two concrete steps of honoring the Sabbath and offering the tithe report that the net effect is to transform their family life and their understanding of time and money. Giving one day of their week and one tenth of their income teaches them that all their time and money belong to God. In order to honor the Sabbath and the tithe they must continually remind themselves that all activities and expenses must be related to what God intends for them in a given week. They learn that some things just will not get done and some purchases will not be made, but that that is all right because the limited resources of time and money must be used according to God’s will. In short, they begin to develop a sense of Providence. They experience that their lives are in God’s hands, not in the hands of circumstance, and that they do not need to be “all they can be” but only what God wills them to be. This is an experience of Love and of Hope. They learn to be satisfied with the good they possess through seeking to do God’s will as they acquire and expend the goods He has entrusted to them. They are able to face the future with less fear because they have begun to live in trust of His Providence. This creates not only a type of personal contentment unknown to consumerism, but also makes possible a modest level of economic security which consumerism cannot provide. Being content with less means having the possibility of saving part of one’s income for the future in the form of possessions that are truly one’s own.


I have witnessed the genuine spiritual and material well-being of families who have followed this ascetical path to freedom from consumerism. It is a path not easily traversed and one which in my experience has only been followed successfully by those who undertook to honor the Sabbath, to offer the tithe, and to live a penitential life. The lesson they have taught me is that by creating an environment that encourages asceticism the Church can provide much needed support and vision to those who have become trapped by consumerism. Many of our people want out; they simply are not able to understand the problem or to envision a solution on their own. The wonderful thing about these ascetical practices is that even without fully understanding them a person can act upon them and be aided by them. Like the good habits our parents tried to instill, these behaviors aid us long before we can fully appreciate them. They combat consumerism at its roots of desire and fear; they force a reassessment of our purpose in life, of our use of time, and of our use of money. When undertaken with even a modicum of good will in response to God’s grace, asceticism yields a rich harvest. Like the self-emptying of Christ on the Cross in which it participates, asceticism is a scandal and a folly to the world. But to those who believe, it is the power and wisdom of God transforming the world.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. 21, No. 1, January 2001.