David Cloutier teaches Catholic ethics at Mt. St. Mary’s University in Maryland. The students give a skeptical “oh hum” to the unit about Catholicism’s sexuality teaching. However, the unit on property and consumption is met with shock, outrage and even offense. “They seem to believe that so long as [something] is gained through work, any property is theirs to enjoy as they please,” Cloutier writes in The Vice of Luxury (Georgetown University Press, 2015).
All private property, as Cloutier corrects his students, comes with a social mortgage. Wholesome and fulfilling economics is not about the art of the deal, but at a profound level it is about making a gift. Genuine economic freedom, Cloutier asserts, “means a commitment to reciprocity.”
Cloutier makes his argument through the old categories of virtue and vice. He has a tough job, your Working Catholic blogger suspects, because college students no longer frame their thinking in such categories.
Luxury, Cloutier forcefully persists, is “vicious and sinful.” It not only degrades the individual but, contrary to opinion, it is not good for the economy. Cloutier’s message is not restricted to the pretentious Trump family. The vice exists in nearly all income groups. “The lure of luxury permeates the ordinary spending and experiences of middle-class [North] American life,” he explains. Luxury is not this or that object. Nor is it “an occasional slippage.” It “is a disposition.” It is a spell that comes over society as a whole.
Christian ethics struggles to assert its alternative to the vocabulary of our dominant individualistic or utilitarian ethic. In our culture, for example, the phrase hard-earned money automatically justifies buying lotto tickets, joining a handbag-of-the-month club, judging some people to be the undeserving poor, thinking that tips to a waitress are optional and more.
Drawing upon Catholic sacramental theology and Catholic social doctrine, Cloutier attempts an alternative language about consumption. Though ascetics can be admired, he does not call the majority of Christians to “radical renunciation.” At the other extreme, he does not favor a materialistic majority that washes things over with a little Sunday piety. He suggests “a genuinely sacramental worldview in which the spiritual is participated in via the material.” That is, nearly all objects are holy, though not in themselves, but as analogues of God’s creation and redemption—presuming a disposition toward grace not a disposition for luxury.
Cloutier uses a Catholic principle called universal destination of goods. He also recommends Pope Benedict XVI’s talks and writing on “the culture of gratitude.” Both of these intriguing themes need popular rendering.
Earned through hard work for my free use is another disposition. But no job, no country club membership, no private jet and no object can fulfill this disposition’s expectations. Objects that have only material significance automatically rust and disappoint. This hard work disposition eventually becomes resentment. Evidence? Donald Trump.
Objects can give life if they signify a relationship. With gratitude they automatically become little sacraments.
Cloutier’s book with its 20-page bibliography and 15-page index is not for a popular audience. It assumes some familiarity with Catholic philosophy and theology. It contains too much jargon and engages in a tad too much moralizing. But the book’s message is quite important and the message deserves a respectful hearing among a wide audience. Is Cloutier perhaps preparing a booklet edition?
Droel edits a print newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).