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Pope blasts consumerism as human rights threat

By Arthur Jones
NCR Staff

In his most pointed attack yet on “materialist consumerism,” Pope John Paul II has equated it as an evil to rank with Marxism, Nazism and fascism.

Within his annual Jan. 1 World Peace Day message, in which the pontiff also sharply criticizes the inadequacies of the free market system, the pope curtly denounces “materialist consumerism” as an ideology in which the “exaltation of the individual and the selfish satisfaction of personal aspirations become the ultimate goal of life” creating a world-view in which “the negative aspects on others are considered completely irrelevant.”

These condemnations of threats to human dignity are key elements in John Paul’s 10-page letter, “Respect for Human Rights: the Secret of True Peace,” which focuses primarily on the need to build the common good through observing rights as diverse as the right to life, to religious and political freedoms, to participate in the life of the community and to self-fulfillment.

This century’s history, the pope states, has shown the tragic danger that results from forgetting the truth about the human person. “Before our eyes we have the results of ideologies such as Marxism, Nazism and fascism, and also of myths like racial superiority and ethnic exclusivism.

“No less pernicious, though not always as obvious,” he emphasizes, “are the effects of materialist consumerism.” Also focusing on the rapid globalization of the economy and the diminution of national sovereignty, the pope emphasized that “nations and people have the right to share in the decisions which often profoundly modify their way of life.”

“Who is responsible,” he asks, “for guaranteeing the global common good and the exercise of economic and social rights? The free market by itself cannot do this because in fact there are many human needs which have no place in the market.”

“The technical details of certain economic problems give rise to the tendency to restrict discussions about them to limited circles, with the consequent danger that political and financial power is concentrated in a small number of governments and special interest groups,” he said. Individuals have the right to “a decent level of living” and the availability of work to make that life possible, he says. He balances relief from the “the devastating reality of unemployment” between the necessity of “emergency interventions” by governments and the need for the poor themselves to “take responsibility for their own livelihood.”

John Paul sees some urgency in the need for a world body that has at its center the international economic and social common good and frequently finds ways to congratulate the work of the United Nations. He praises both the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights and the recent establishment of the International Criminal Court.

He might also be envisioning the United Nations as the people’s economic forum of last resort when he states: “The effects of recent economic and financial crises have had heavy consequences for countless people, reduced to conditions of extreme poverty. Many of them had only just reached a position that allowed them to look forward to the future with optimism.

“Through no faults of their own,” the pope continues, “they have seen these hopes cruelly dashed, with tragic results for themselves and their children. And how can we ignore the effects of fluctuations in the financial markets? We urgently need a new vision of global progress in solidarity, which will include an overall and sustainable development of society.”

As he lists the personal human rights, the pope follows the “right to participate” in the life of the community with “a particularly serious form of discrimination” -- threats to the right to exist -- visited on “ethnic groups and national minorities.”

“All human beings, without exception, are equal in dignity,” stresses the pope, “consequently no one can legitimately deprive another person, no matter who they may be, of these rights.”

“All citizens have the right to participate in the life of their community,” says the pope, “but this right means nothing when the democratic process breaks down because of corruption and favoritism. Even elections can be manipulated.”

Environmental rights and responsibilities and the right to peace are included. He particularly praises peace-seeking when “courageous political leaders resolve to continue negotiations even when the situation seems impossible.”

“The path of dialogue,” he writes, “is the path worthy of the human person.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 1999