This paper will argue that spirituality which incorporates economics brings integrity to Christian relationships and identity. It will also show that while Catholic scholar Tom Beaudoin, in his book Consuming Faith, challengingly advances the arguments for this “economic spirituality,” he ultimately betrays that integrity. First, Beaudoin’s arguments about the identity-shaping power of the brand will be compared to and shown valid in the context of Catholic Sacraments. Second, the paper will reconstruct Beaudoin’s economic spirituality arguments in a way that challenges Christian consumers to dignify, rather than dishonor the poor. The arguments of Beaudoin and John Paul II, in his encyclical Centesimus annus,will demonstrate this human dignity and demand for a spirituality which integrates traditional spirituality with economics. This spirituality must advocate justice through changes in individual as well as corporate practices, such as spending habits and wage schedules. Finally, through analysis of the Gospels and Centesimus annus, this paper will show how Beaudoin misrepresents the Christian faith as an entirely economic one.
Introduction: The Deep South
The region of the U.S. called “the Bible Belt,” also simmers with the intensity of a centuries-old racism. This hypocrisy bothers all who encounter it because this hypocrisy reflects a lack of integrity, or wholeness. The faith of many southerners, while it may have affected how they spent their Sundays, who they prayed to, or how they viewed the afterlife, did not effect their treatment towards black people. Christians today suffer from a similar problem: their faith does not effect how they spend their money. What Christians must come to realize is that their money not only affects the lives of others, but the formation of their very identity.
A Branded Identity
The brand, the unquestionable symbol of the corporation, has a strong influence over young minds, as its ubiquity has substantially increased over recent years. Branding, scholar Tom Beaudoin believes, is used by these young people to form and express their identities (Beaudoin 3). For Beaudoin, self-expression and formation by brands is inevitable because “understanding ourselves as humans seems unavoidably direct” (Beaudoin 7). People must always express themselves using some medium—even language is a medium—for expression.
The brand is the symbol, the name and the logo of a specific corporation. Good brands, however, are much more than this—they transcend the product. Many corporations now consider the brand their most important asset, even more than product quality (Beaudoin 4). When a Nike running shoe is purchased, athleticism, cool, suave, and a polished sophistication are purchased right along with the shoe. Corporations believe that “brands should…‘emote a distinctive persona,’” and are thus key in the formation of the personality of the person purchasing them (Beaudoin 4). What people wear, eat, watch—purchase, greatly influences human identity.
Sacraments as Catholic Brands
The transcendent power of symbols and names is not a corporate invention, for it is also an important part of Roman Catholic spirituality. A visit to any Catholic church is an immersion in symbolic power: crucifixes, baptismal fonts, statues and much more decorate the churches while, saint medals and scapulars are often included in the Catholic individual’s wardrobe. These are more than just symbols and this is especially true of the sacraments. For Catholics, the sacrament effects what it symbolizes, meaning the symbol does what it stands for. The water used in the Baptism Rite is not only a symbol of purification, but the water (through the rite) actually purifies the individual becoming baptized. This is similar to the Nike brand which not only symbolizes athleticism, power, and sophistication, but seems to mysteriously convey it as well.
Sacraments, like brands, help individuals answer the fundamental identity question: “Who am I?” The sacrament of Reconciliation answers this question, “you are forgiven,” and the sacrament of anointing answers “you are healed.” Essentially, the sacraments respond with “you are graced.” This is absolutely fundamental in identity formation and expression. A person who truly believes that s/he is graced will behave differently than someone who does not.
Symbols do indeed form and express identity. How are corporate logos aiding in that expression in undetected ways?
Spirituality and Economics—Closing the Gap
If people form and express their identity through what they buy, then people ought to take special care in what they choose to construct this identity with. In the past decade, it has become popular knowledge that Nike shoes are produced under inhuman working conditions (Connor paragraph 43). Unwittingly, the person who purchases Nike shoes is not only constructing the intended image discussed above (pg. 2) but an image that includes such traits as “oppressive,” “unjust,” and “tyrannical.” These are traits which are unacceptable for the faithful Christian to have, for human beings are “the visible image of the invisible God” (John Paul paragraph no. 44), and thus have an unquestionable dignity (Beaudoin 66).
It is from this concept of human dignity that Beaudoin derives his “economic spirituality” discussed in his book. This is a spirituality which recognizes that all resources belong to God and these resources must be distributed in a way which renders true dignity to all involved with this distribution (Beaudoin 22). No longer can financial matters and spiritual matters be separated—as is the habit in Christianity, because by spending resources in one way instead of the other, indeed “in every economic activity, we are stating who or what we stand for” (Beaudoin 21).
A reading of traditional Church social doctrine helps to determine where Beaudoin’s economic spirituality plays into that social doctrine.
Centesimus annus—An Updated Social Theology
One hundred years after Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum, Pope John Paul II promulgated Centesimus annus, an extended commentary and reflection on Leo’s encyclical. Rerum novarum is considered to be one of the seminal church documents on social justice, which has inspired “many millions” to devote their lives to the pursuit of justice (John Paul paragraph 3). John Paul opens with a reflection of Rerum novarum which establishes the dignity of individual humanity (paragraphs 4-11). He then analyzes the present global economic condition in the light of the failure of communism and the rise of Western capitalism (paragraph No 22-34). The pope laments the commodification of labor and the subsequent damage it has had on all areas of human existence, and calls for a more active role by the state and individual (paragraphs 34-52).
Beaudoin and John Paul: A Consuming Faith
The condition of many laborers is an inexcusable one for Christians. Labor can no longer be a “commodity…freely bought and sold on the market, its price determined by the law of supply and demand” (John Paul paragraph 4) but must be given a “living wage” (Beaudoin 67) which is “adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings…there exists something that is due to man because he is man” (John Paul paragraph 15).
The documents also echo one another regarding the divorce of spirituality and economics. John Paul laments that before Rerum novarum the division between this existence and another world which “is directed towards a purely other-worldly salvation, which neither enlightens nor directs existence on earth” (John Paul paragraph 5). By dividing spirituality this way, Christians refuse to incorporate their character into their citizenship. John Paul believes Leo published Rerum novarum with the intent of giving the church that “citizenship status” (paragraph 5).
Christians are called to live out this spirituality in a way that is frighteningly personal. Like the poor man Lazarus from Jesus’ parable, the church is called to show fidelity to those who are marginalized, which must be shown in material assistance “that neither humiliate nor reduce [the poor] to mere objects of assistance” (John Paul paragraph 49). Also, Christian business leaders must challenge the contemporary corporate economy which is ruled by the rising importance of the brand. Since corporations realize its formative and expressive power, the brand “‘is clearly recognized as a company’s most valuable asset’—leaving one to wonder what the company thinks of its employees” (Beaudoin 76). This perception is, of course, fueled by bottom-line motivations. While profit is recognized as a legitimate indicator of business performance, “profitability is not the only indicator of a firm’s condition. It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people—who make up the firm’s most valuable asset—to be humiliated and their dignity offended” (John Paul paragraph 35). Firms must make a thorough examination of their consumption of labor and realize that that consumption affects human beings.
Economic spirituality re-presents a Christian, and, in the light of Centesimus annus, a specifically Catholic faith which is consuming. This is a “consuming faith” not only because it has to do with the effects of consumption on faith, but because it is a faith which is all-consuming. True Christian faith does not respect boundaries between the economic and the spiritual, this world and that. Christians, therefore construct part of their identity by their distribution of resources. With each purchase or investment, Christians make a choice either to tear down or uphold human dignity, including their own. For true faith consumes the whole person, the whole life, and the whole of society, transforming it with Christ’s radical vision of love.
Beaudoin: An Underdeveloped Spirituality
Beaudoin’s presentation of economic spirituality, however, lacks integrity. For Beaudoin, economics is not merely peripheral to spirituality, but “the ultimate expression of faithfulness to God…this [economic spirituality] is so central to the meaning of faith that…we can question our faith…and doubt God’s existence, and still if we give ourselves in maturity to the responsibilities of our economic relationships, we can do what we may and ask God to bless the difference” (Beaudoin 23, 34, emphasis mine). Yes, it is true that the proof of faith is in faith in action and that many “believers” live their lives as if there were no God. However, this is no excuse to commit the reciprocal error. Our actions flow from our beliefs, which is why it is unacceptable for humanity to exist in ignorance of the truth of a creating, loving, saving God. Beaudoin falsely argues that Jesus Christ “is rightly called ‘savior’…not because he fulfilled prophecy X, Y, or Z, not because of his miracles, not because he ‘descended’ from heaven, but because he is God’s economist” (Beaudoin 22). What about Christ’s teachings on forgiveness, or love, or mercy, or morality? Having the material means to support life is a basic, fundamental human right—not the very calling and destiny of humanity.
While his analysis of specific passages in scripture is potentially valid, Beaudoin uses these passages to misrepresent the message of the Gospel. While Beaudoin believes that ultimate expression of faith in God is in economic relationships (Beaudoin 23) Christ issued many commands concerning morality which were not solely focused on economics. These include teachings on adultery (Matt 5:43), anger (Matt 5:28), love of enemies (Matt 5:43), and forgiveness (Matt 18:22)—especially forgiveness. Beaudoin has overlooked perhaps the most famous Christian parable, the “Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32). This parable seems to suggest that repentance and forgiveness are actually more important than economic spirituality, for the son exhibited no responsibility or care for his resources yet was still accepted. Clearly there is more to Christianity than stewardship of money.
However—one might say—those scripture passages actually defend Beaudoin’s thesis, not weaken it. The passages advocate for a spirituality that is here and now, that is fundamentally based on the proper and loving treatment of individuals and begins the construction of the Reign of God here on earth--rather than waiting for it to arrive after death. The subject of those passages is the reconciliation of humanity, and these inevitably seem to lead back to economic issues. This is true, as common experience demonstrates that some of the most vicious and divisive fights as well as most serious crimes are motivated by money. This is a valid point, but it once again raises the questions: is economic equality and justice really the depth of human happiness? If everybody is paid with his or her full dignity in mind, will he or she really be happy?
John Paul answers a definitive “no” to those questions in Centesimus annus. In his encyclical John Paul criticized the atheism that plagued communism which Beaudoin finds excusable in the context of economic responsibility (Beaudoin 34). Humanity does not find its dignity in economic equality. Instead, it is “by responding to the call of God contained in the being of things that man becomes aware of his transcendent dignity…The denial of God deprives the person of his foundation,” and robs humanity of its dignity (John Paul paragraph 13). Human beings are far more than economic entities, but rather, are defined by their perennial draw towards “the mystery of God” (John Paul paragraph 24). This mystery can not be fully understood as economic stewardship, as Beaudoin insists, for its mysterious nature precludes full understanding entirely.
Conclusion: True Integrity
Slowly, the South has begun to reconstruct its identity by allowing Christians to transform their whole lives, even their hatred. If Catholics wish to truly live the Catholic faith, then they must allow it to develop all dimensions of themselves: economic and otherwise, being careful not to place too much emphasis on one or the other. This faith is indeed a struggle for “Wholeiness.”
Beaudoin, Tom. Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are with What We Buy. Lanham: Sheed
& Ward, 2003.
Connor, Tim. “Still Waiting for Nike to Do It.” Global Exchange. (May 2001). 20 Oct. 2005
John Paul II. Encyclical letter, Centesimus annus. (5 May 2005). Accessed 9 Sep 2005.