The Universal Notebook: A holiday exhortation

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The ethical and moral dilemmas of being part of a materialistic, consumer society surely occur to all of us to some degree, especially during the holiday season. As affluent Americans we are all complicit in an economy that has unintended consequences for those less fortunate and those left out.

Some of us at least feel guilty about our unsustainable lifestyles. Some seem to believe that prosperity is based on merit, that they deserve to have more than others. And most just struggle along trying to make ends meet. Yet we all have way more than we need.

So it was with great interest and enthusiasm that I read Pope Francis’ remarkable apostolic exhortation in which the Holy Father preaches “No to an economy of exclusion,” “No to the idolatry of money,” “No to a financial system that rules rather than serves,” and “No to the inequality that spawns violence.”

The Pope observed that “some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Naturally, Pope Francis was immediately branded a Marxist by capitalist conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, who believe in nothing except making money and trying not to share it.

The Pope’s Evangelii Gaudium, however, answered such critics by encouraging “financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: ‘Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.’

“To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed,” the Pope wrote, concluding that a “culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase.”

Pow! Bam! Bop! Take that, Rushbo!

And the Pope had this to say to the wolves of Wall Street:

“The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”

Smash! Crash! Wham! Take that, Corporate America!

Feeling all smug and self-righteous as I read the Pope’s exhortation, I started inveighing on my own.

We are caught in the thrall of a heartless economy, one that has lost sight of the fact that the function of business is to create jobs and provide necessary goods and services, not to exploit workers to make business owners rich. Market speculation is an unethical and unproductive pursuit. When we get to such a low point in our society that learned men actually believe that corporations are people and money is speech, we have indeed lost our way in a wilderness of consumer trash.

But then, if I am honest with myself and serious about my faith, I am forced to consider how my own privileged lifestyle may be part of the problem. And, of course, it is.

“The dignity of the human person and the common good rank higher than the comfort of those who refuse to renounce their privileges,” the Pope tells us. “When these values are threatened, a prophetic voice must be raised.”

I am not Catholic, but I do believe I just heard that prophetic voice. Now I have to figure out what to do about it.

May you have a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.