In paragraph forty-one of Centesimus Annus, John Paul II identifies an “anthropological error” that has beset contemporary society. Human beings have been reduced to consumers whose value arises from what they are able to purchase and what they own while their labor has been reduced to a tool for profit rather than an opportunity for human flourishing.
In the contemporary economic system, the human person is treated as little more than a means to an end: profit. No consideration is given to the emotional or spiritual welfare of the worker. The pontiff criticizes work environments that diminish the person “through increased isolation in a maze of relationships marked by destructive competitiveness and estrangement, in which he is considered only a means and not an end.” The pope proposes a more humane work environment in which the human person grows “through increased sharing in a genuinely supportive community.”
As John Paul II observes, our society is plagued by a consumerism in which “people are ensared in a web of false and superficial gratifications.” Consumerism can lead to a kind of slavery, which can be undone by recognizing the proper scale of values:
A person who is concerned solely or primarily with possessing and enjoying, who is no longer able to control his instincts and passions, or to subordinate them by obedience to the truth, cannot be free: obedience to the truth about God and man is the first condition of freedom, making it possible for a person to order his needs and desires and to choose the means of satisfying them according to a correct scale of values, so that the ownership of things may become an occasion of growth for him. [Emphasis in original.]
Contrary to the logic of our contemporary society, the endless pursuit of profit through work and through consumerism leads to deprivation rather than fulfillment.
When man does not recognize in himself and in others the value and grandeur of the human person, he effectively deprives himself of the possibility of benefitting from his humanity and of entering into that relationship of solidarity and communion with others for which God created him. Indeed, it is through the free gift of self that man truly finds himself.
A more authentic experience of personhood emerges more from self-gift than selfish grasping for more stuff.
Submitted by: N. Rademacher, Assistant Professor, Religious Studies