The Myth of Materialism

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

Ecclesiastics are never done complaining about ‘materialism’. A search in the Web archives of the right-wing Catholic news agency CWN – which meticulously reports the statements of the Vatican – turns up thirty-one high-level statements referring to it since 1996. It has become the cliché of choice in describing the errors of the age. Commenting upon the Pope’s Lenten Message this year, Archbishop Josef Cordes spoke of the ‘materialism in which we are immersed’ as the explanation for the loss of the sense of the spiritual dimension to life.

Presumably this cliché rests upon the assumption that since there is a philosophical phenomenon we can justly label ‘materialism’, the acquisitiveness of modern society derives from it, and from nothing else. This assumption doesn’t hold any water – humans have always been acquisitive, as all ancient literature, including the Bible attests. And modern acquisitiveness is essentially no different.

A single evening’s perusal of the products of the mass-market advertising industry reveals that matter per se is the last thing people are interested in. Where are the ads for ‘two tonnes of lead’ or ‘one ton of stainless steel’ or even ‘three ounces of gold’? Nowhere. When people have satisfied their basic material needs for food and shelter, and the basic comforts, they spend their surplus on something else entirely.

What that something else is can also easily be gleaned from mass-market advertising. A certain expensive shampoo will put women among the Jennifer Anistons, making them as ‘worth it’ as she is. If you can afford a Rolex watch – and many can these days on hire purchase – you join Andre Agassi on the lawns of Wimbledon. A powerful motor bike will put Northern Ireland’s young men on the Isle of Man circuit, in pursuit of the status of local hero and world legend the late Joey Dunlop. A powerful computer will give Internet access for your garden furniture business – and dreams of a global commercial empire – or allow you to invent another generic software application and follow Bill Gates to the top of the Fortune 500 rankings. Wealthy Londoners will gladly pay Harrods prices for white goods – for the mere possibility of rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi – or even the owner, for he too is media-beloved. And the public flaunting of mobile phones and off-road vehicles is largely down to yearning to be considered as important as the owners of penthouses and landed estates.

‘Rankings’ are what it’s all about. People measure their worth in terms of where they believe they are in what is now a global pyramid of worth or esteem, maintained lovingly by the media whose bread and butter it is. They keep us fixated on the daft notion that some of us are infinitely more important than most of us – and most people cannot live spiritually with this sense of their own insignificance. This is why we are endlessly acquisitive. We are addicted not to matter, but to its symbolic significance when shaped in a particular way, and then associated with celebrities – because where they are (or where we think they are) is where (we think) anyone of importance should be.

The Bible most clearly reveals that things have always been this way. In the Ancient world, top status went to military heroes like Alexander, and, in the Jewish tradition, David. The young women who swooned then over David’s ‘tens of thousands’ of victims do so now over Willy Wales’s inheritance of good looks, the throne of England and the media’s fascination. Saul’s sense of humiliation at being merely credited with ‘thousands’ is mimicked by the young men who set out to joyride and destroy the powerful cars they will never be able to earn lawfully – with similarly murderous and suicidal results.

To put it another way, ‘the world’ is as it has always been – a source of spiritual fascination and distraction from the ordinariness of our own lives, and the fact that, nevertheless, we are loved by God. It makes us endlessly dissatisfied to be who, and with whom, and where, we are. It even alienates us from the present moment, placing us spiritually in the future, towards which we then frenetically move seven days a week. Even the business courses that the already affluent purchase at exorbitant prices are called ‘In Pursuit of Excellence’ or some such, for we always must be in pursuit of something, in flight from ourselves and from the present. And from the fact that 200 million children – for example – are in severe physical distress around the globe, a distress that could be alleviated by turning just a proportion of the West’s surplus wealth to their extreme need.

All of this is so obvious that it is the inability of the intellectuals at the summit of the church to see it, and note its spiritual significance, that becomes the real mystery. Why are ecclesiastics always maundering on about ‘materialism’ when it comes nowhere near to naming the real source of acquisitiveness, this sense that people have of their own unimportance unless they acquire the symbols of celebrity, the sense of being ‘worth it’?

The answer is cruelly obvious. These ecclesiastics have generally no sense of their own unimportance. Quite the reverse. Although the verbal truth they utter is supposedly centred upon the life of a man whose life’s journey was downward to ultimate humiliation, they are themselves the winners of the race for eminence within their own institution.

The common effect of this upon their own spirituality needs no elaboration from me. In May 1999, Cardinal Gantin, who had for fifteen years been Prefect of the Vatican Office which assists the Pope with the nomination and transfer of bishops, complained trenchantly about the naked careerism of many bishops, which had, he said, “altered” the nature of episcopal service.

They sought promotion to get on to “a good thing”, he claimed, and to meet more influential people who could help their careers. “Even those making these requests – and sometimes they did so jokingly, and other times not, considered that they were expressing a legitimate desire”. “Other times I happened to hear at the end of an episcopal ordination some bishop shouting ‘ad altiora’ [to the highest posts]”. (Catholic Herald, May 21st, 1999)

The symbols of status that bishops pursue, are, of course, in some respects different from those sought by the business executive. There is no real equivalent of the bishop’s mitre or coat of arms in the business world, or of the prestigious diocese – but these had their equivalents in the heraldic devices, coronets and landed estates of the nobility of the ancien regime. The unique symbols of Episcopal importance are thus simply the shadows of those of yesterdays secular hoi polloi – and therefore intensely a reminder of the sheer snobbery of the past.

Until the church at its summit grasps the parallel here with the upwardly-directed yearning of the secular person, it will fail to measure the significance of this in impoverishing the church itself spiritually. Upwardly directed bishops cannot dignify their priests and people – i.e. assure them of the love of a God who really exists – if they believe that they themselves will only be really ‘worth it’ if they become Cardinals, or even Pope – for this too is dire spiritual poverty.

Indeed, if the gospels are studied carefully it could even be that they will not even understand ‘Sin’ either. Those who came to Jesus for forgiveness seem to have been distraught above all about their own lack of worth, their own inability, due to poverty, measured by their inability to afford the services of those who cluttered the path to temple sacrifice and cleansing. He never asked them to name their sins, but simply forgave them, assuring them of his Father’s love. The pyramid of esteem and power within the church is a scandalous betrayal of that life, and its ultimate sacrifice – and is itself a source of the distance that many, many people mistakenly believe lies between themselves and God.

The cult of the papacy, tended assiduously by the Curia (which would itself be just another bureaucracy without it), is thus itself a major source of spiritual poverty in the church, for the papacy is at the summit of the pyramid of esteem that the church became in the fourth century. When we watch now those 1979 videos of the papal visit to Ireland, by far the most embarrassing aspect is the sight of Irish bishops, including Eamonn Casey, preening themselves in the august presence – as though the summit of their lives had been this few days of closeness to a reigning monarch and Time’s Man of the Year. The parallel to those legendary millions in the UK who dream nightly of tea with the Queen is too close to be missed.

The recent visit to Belfast of the Dalai Lama presented an entirely different social role and style for the spiritual leader – one of unselfconscious informality and simplicity. Here was someone who did not need to stand upon his own dignity – respect was elicited by virtue of the respect with which he treated everyone he encountered. In stark contrast, probably the single greatest failure of the present papacy is its failure to attack the cult of celebrity which so disfigures this era, by insisting upon the equal dignity of all in the sight of God – indeed by deliberately repudiating the idea that Popes are more important than anyone else. Could it be that the superior spiritual presence of the Dalai Lama is related to the fact that, like Jesus, but wholly unlike the Pope, he has nowhere to lay his head? I believe so – and see an obvious solution.

The enormous and widening gulf that now separates hierarchy and people in Ireland has much to do with the contrary obsession with status and dignity. And when we remember that lack of self-esteem is a common feature of so many of today’s addictions, neuroses and psychoses, this upward obsession of clericalism becomes more tragic yet, for it is precisely what prevents the church living up to the standards of its founder, for whom a genuine compassion for the poor in spirit, i.e. the unesteemed, was central. By contrast, Irish people these days swap stories of the snobbery of bishops who seem to value lay people in terms of the marques of cars they drive.

Nothing essentially separates the mitre-bound cleric from the penthouse-bound yuppie – each is equally obsessed with symbols of status – with what ‘the world’ thinks of him. Status-seeking is the essence of worldliness – the fact that the ambitious cleric seeks status within an ecclesiastical institution makes no essential difference. It simply explains why Jesus resisted the second of his three temptations – to amaze the temple elite by throwing himself from its summit. Thank goodness we have many priests still who understand this passage more clearly than their bishops.

We are all equally sinful (i.e. ‘worldly’) and equally ‘worth it’ (i.e. the love of God). When all bishops realise this, and begin descending rather than climbing – the Pope too – then only will they get to grips with the ‘spiritual impoverishment’ of our times and show true leadership. Wittering on about ‘materialism’ – from the palaces inherited from the ancien regime – just doesn’t cut it anymore. Like the sin of the Pharisee who condemned the tax collector, it completely misses the mark.

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