Freedom to Consume versus the Common Good?

The Washington Post included this report today, emphasizing the new Pope’s focus on the poor and the personal nature of (and responsibility for) the common good:

“VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Wednesday (June 5) denounced consumerism and what he called the “culture of waste” of modern economies, especially when it comes to food.

“ ‘Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry,’ he said during his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square.”

The report continues: “…the pope also warned that a “culture of waste” and consumerism have dulled the moral sense of humanity to the point that when ‘some homeless people die of cold on the streets, it is not news. In contrast, a 10-point drop on the stock markets of some cities, is a tragedy.’ ”

In a column on Pope Francis–also in today’s Washington Post–Michael Gerson writes:

“Both American liberalism and conservatism put a priority on negative rights — the freedom from external restraint. For some, this means unrestricted social autonomy and choice; for others, unrestricted economic liberty. Catholic social doctrine asserts that human beings have moral and social natures, and that true freedom is found in their fulfillment. Men and women are liberated by ethical behavior; their happiness is completed in family and community; and all who share a community are diminished when any are destitute and hopeless. This perspective is fundamentally at odds with moral relativism and economic libertarianism. It transcends our ideological debates and challenges all sides of them.

“Pope Francis, however, is adding something to this teaching — without which, it means little. ‘This guy,’ says Stephen Schneck of Catholic University, ‘seems to be trying to be like Jesus, the image of Jesus in the Gospels.’ The one who brought good tidings to the poor, bound up the brokenhearted and proclaimed liberty to the captives.

“Whatever your view of Christianity, the example of Jesus remains one of history’s most surprising constants. A man who never wrote a word, who spent three years teaching in an obscure corner of a vanished empire, still stirs the deepest longings of the human heart. When we see his image even partially reflected in another human being, it appeals beyond every political division. When we see his image even partially reflected in the church he founded, true authority returns.”

Gerson’s assessment reminds us that moral obligation is not the enemy of freedom, but rather its ally.


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