‘Materialism’ isn’t our real problem: covetousness is

At the age of ten – around 1953 – I threw an especially nasty tantrum. Already an avid reader, I had conceived the notion even then of becoming a writer of some kind. I had also decided that the first successful step of my ascent to literary grandeur must be the ownership of a very particular and sleek fountain pen, heavily advertised at that time. When my parents told me they couldn’t afford this I sulked odiously for a week over my blighted career.

I remember this now because my complaint had absolutely nothing to do with any ‘ism’ that I was aware of – least of all ‘materialism’. The plastic, rubber, metal and other constituent materials of that gleaming object were not of the slightest interest to me. I had instead, and not for the last time, fallen victim to magical thinking – the attribution to a cloned advertised object of the power to enhance my own personal ‘nobody’ status. That particular pen alone, I had convinced myself, would surely make me a famous writer. The very inferior pen I already owned, although made of the same materials, was surely the reason I hadn’t yet written a novel and wasn’t already a celebrity.

Reflection on this, on other similar episodes in later life – and on the way that advertising works generally – has convinced me that the church’s standard diagnosis of the global plague of material accumulation is hopelessly off centre and misdirected. The word ‘Materialism’ implies to me that the feverish purchasing of inessential objects is believed by those who use the term to be driven by a deep interest in matter per se, or maybe even by a belief that nothing but matter exists. Nothing could be further from the reality that I have observed. The diagnosis ‘materialism’ is totally ineffectual because none of us can see that we are actually guilty of it.

What is fundamentally wrong with us has nothing to do with any materialist philosophy, or with entirely innocent matter. Our basic acquisitive complaint – and it seems to be almost congenital – is deep and recurrent doubt as to our own personal value. Reinforced by media, and too often by other aspects of our surrounding culture, it is this complaint above all that makes us vulnerable to ‘iconic’ advertised objects designed to ‘change your life’.

Ireland’s Breda O’Brien once told the story of a friend exasperated by a teenage son. This boy had rebelled when his mother had tried to persuade him that it would be foolish for her to spend an extra €50 simply to enable him to wear the logo of a more expensive branded jacket. When she asked him why on earth she should do that he said, instantly: “Because I’m worth it!” A clever slogan designed to enhance the pulling power of an entirely different class of branded goods had lodged fast in this boy’s consciousness – to be deployed later to bully his own poor mother!

Here again, obviously, this boy was totally uninterested in the constituent material of the jacket. The brand logo – a simple memorable image – had become ‘iconic’ for him, a mysterious guarantee of the personal value and status that an unbranded item of exactly the same material could not give its owner.

This is not simply undifferentiated ‘wanting’ or ‘desiring’ either. Simple lack of food causes an entirely specific kind of wanting and desire, for which we have the precise name ‘physical hunger’. The wanting that fixates upon a particular ‘iconic’ object also surely deserves a specific and descriptive name, a name that isn’t ‘materialism’ either. (Isn’t food, even the Eucharist, material, after all, and clothing also – and don’t we need both?)

Mysteriously we don’t have in common use today a precise name for this particular desire for ‘iconic’ objects.

Thankfully, however, this kind of wanting now has a fully descriptive name, learned gratefully by me from the work of the French Catholic intellectual René Girard. He uses the pinpoint term ‘mimetic desire’ for that specific kind of desire that unconsciously mimics the observed desire of someone else – someone we mistakenly believe to be more highly valuable than ourselves. The power of most of the world’s multinationals is based on a deep understanding of how our mimetic desire can be manipulated to buy ‘designer’ objects of every kind – from clothing to cars, from lipsticks to the very latest smartphone or tablet computer.

Despite our obvious need to understand and resist this phenomenon, I have yet to hear a Mass homily on this problem of truly contagious mimetic desire. How has it come about that so many of our clergy cannot apparently notice and speak insightfully about a pervasive problem of modern culture – a problem that is obviously also moral and spiritual?

This question becomes even more interesting in light of René Girard’s compelling argument that mimetic desire is the very problem denoted by the biblical word ‘covetousness’. How come that no homilist in my experience has ever noted that in the decalogue the triple warning against coveting links this sin in every case to something possessed by a neighbour, i.e. by someone we know? Surely that ox of the decalogue was the sleekest and strongest one, the one that belonged to the richest farmer in the community. Proud possession by someone else is crucial to the transmission of mimetic desire. It is usually the higher perceived status of the owner that transfers addictive desirability to the desired object. This is why celebrities are paid millions to use and to be photographed in association with big brand logos.

There is a further reason our homilists need to notice this. Girard shows convincingly that in certain circumstances mimetic desire can lead us into the most brutal violence – and that the Bible is probably the world’s greatest literary source of illustrations of this. Cain killed Abel because for some mysterious reason he concluded that Abel’s animal sacrifice had won more favour with God than Cain’s own sacrifice of grain. Desiring the intangible divine preference that Abel apparently now possessed, and the apparently unattainable status that went with it, Cain went mad with jealousy and killed his brother.

And Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery out of mimetic desire for the ‘coat of many colours’ – the garment that marked him as his father Jacob’s favourite. And Absalom rose in rebellion against his father David out of mimetic desire for the kingdom of Israel. And the land of Israel’s ‘milk and honey’ – the produce of its richest soil – made it mimetically desirable to its neighbours, such as the Babylonians and later the Romans. There was even a near outbreak of violence among the apostles themselves, when they visualised one of their number being granted the highest status in heaven, next to Jesus himself. This is a clear echo of the story of original violence between brothers.

The Bible even tells us that the desire of the people of Israel to have a king was a contagious borrowing of an institution that ‘all the other nations have’. (1 Sam 8: 4,5) Could the reason for that particular mimetic desire be that surrounding kings were apparently better at the high-prestige art of warfare?

As for violence and mimetic desire in Irish history, what about the extraordinary tale of the Cathach, the copy of the Psalter that reputedly caused the war that led to Comcille’s exile on Iona?

Today’s mass production of desirable objects has allowed the many rather than the few to possess apparently identical objects, hiding from us the full violent potential of mimetic desire. However, teenagers have been murdered in the US for possession of top brand sneakers. And the sweat-house production of branded clothing in the developing world – an almost inevitable product of globalisation – has caused inexcusable violence to exploited workers, for example in the building of criminally unstable factories. Chinese factory workers have sometimes been driven to suicide by the terms of employment in factories that produce our highest status electronic goods.

René Girard has been writing about mimetic desire, and its connection with all kinds of violence, since the early 1970s. Unless we take deliberate steps to arm ourselves, the very same phenomenon dangerously envelops every one of us in the developed world – through the media and our ludicrous celebrity culture. Why is it still so widely unnoticed (and why is the precise meaning of covetousness still unreclaimed) – by so many of our homilists? Why so seldom a critique of ‘celebrity’ itself – the source of so much youthful ‘wannabe’ depression? Especially at a time when so many priests visibly lack real enthusiasm, edge and topicality with the young – and seemingly can’t talk comfortably about sex any more either? And why are so many of our greatest Catholic intellectuals still maundering on ineffectually about ‘materialism’ as a diagnosis of over-acquisition?

Lastly, if biblical covetousness is indeed what Girard calls mimetic desire, why does our magisterium apparently not know that?

I believe the answers to all of these questions lie in Christianity’s own historical acquisition of the very highest social status. This caused clergy themselves to acquire that status and to become blind at the teaching summit to the fashion-setting power of high-status congregants. What bishop or parish priest could critique the pursuit of more expensive clothing, horses and carriages when the owner of the most expensive of these was likely to be sitting in the front pew, and maybe contributing most to the collection for an even bigger chapel or cathedral? This blindness persists in an over-complex philosophy and psychology, and in a moralism that became fixated upon sexuality. (Did the latter become a safer target than covetousness because the upper classes could always more easily conceal their sexual misbehaviour.)

I don’t now have the time to prove or disprove this primitive thesis with another lifetime of reading. Aged 70 now I can only invite others to refute it if they can, and to deny that ‘mimetic desire’ precisely describes a moral problem that threatens us all, both as individuals and as a species. And to agree or disagree that ‘materialism’ is a far less precise and helpful diagnosis of our acquisitive malaise.

I am furthermore convinced that our simple central weakness – recurrent doubt of our own value – is the true origin of all status-seeking in all periods of history, and therefore of all social pyramids. (How else are we to explain the emergence of a fully-blown US aristocracy in the space of less than three centuries. Or why status pyramids so quickly develop in all Christian religious institutions.)

And then, completing the circle, it is those status pyramids that constantly tell us that we are deficient in value to begin with. This is ‘the world’ that Jesus of Nazareth overcame – challenging all of us to do the same. A church that is status-blind cannot do that. An institution run by blind careerists is itself very much part of ‘the world’ and cannot effectively critique it.

I am convinced that there can be no effective Catholic ‘new evangelisation’ until the church more widely understands this and incorporates this understanding at a deep level into its culture, its structure and its formation system. The forecast pending attempt in Ireland to replace all perceived dangerous ‘isms’ – materialism, secularism, relativism – with an elaborate beneficent ‘ism’ – the Catechism – will also surely disappoint in the absence of a change of church structure and culture. It is a mistake to attribute spiritual power and permanence to a complex body of knowledge, when our younger generations and our own experience have already proven that complex bodies of knowledge flow in and out of our heads almost as freely as water flows through our bodies.

Properly understood and interpreted the simplest formulations of our faith – the Creeds – convey to us the simplest truth: Our Father understands completely our inability to believe in our complete equality of value, a value given by him at conception. ‘The world’ denies and conceals it. He gave us the Son to prove our value to us, by descending to the very base of the social pyramid. The Son’s wisest followers have always understood this, and by their lifestyle as well as their words critiqued all social pyramids, even the ecclesiastical and intellectual ones. We don’t need to acquire any iconic object, or any ‘rank’ in any institution, to achieve a greater value. Even the desiring of a bigger cathedral, a cappa magna, or a papal coronet – or a theological doctorate from a more prestigious Catholic university – can be examples of covetousness – mimetic desire – and proof of our deepest spiritual need and weakness.

Our magisterium needs to realise also that its adherence to a status pyramid within the church – especially one that defies easy communication between base and summit – actually subverts the meaning of the Creeds – to the extent that this meaning is now totally invisible to many who recite them. For far too many Christians all hope has been transferred into the next life, in defiance of the obvious truth that the kingdom of God – the full consciousness of God’s love and respect – existed for Jesus in this earthly life also.

‘Materialism’ therefore surely totally misses the mark, misdirecting us from the real problem. The fundamental human need that drives surplus material acquisition is a need for something entirely non-material. It is a need for reassurance as to our own inherent value and importance, the very desire that drives clericalism also. At its very best, Christian love has always met that need, but the ecclesiastical summits very seldom have done so.

Are there any homilists, theologians or church historians out there willing to take this on board? Who will explain to us in detail how the multinational L’Oréal came to a sharper understanding of what really motivates our unnecessary spending than those who claim to be our only magisterium?

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  1. I don’t know if it was your ‘pen’ or not, but you are a gifted writer, as evidenced in this entry…….Would that every genuine follower of Christ be able to say with St. Paul….”I have accepted the loss of everything for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ”. Would that everyone believe the Word of God, that says, you are “wonderfully made”.

  2. Mary O Vallely says:

    Powerful writing from Sean O Conaill and something that affects us all. L’Oreal, of course, have brilliant psychologists working for them who know just how to tap into our insecurities.
    I was just thinking, as I read, of the names of our side aisles in the cathedral here. We had the Penny aisle and the Poor aisle where those who couldn’t afford the penny sat. The more affluent sat in the centre aisles. Thank God those days are no more but Sean is right about the bad example given by those on the hierarchical ladder. Even the fact that there is a ladder at all is inherently against what Christ planned. I have noticed a tendency to wear more lavish vestments in the younger priests and the older I get the more I think of it as the utmost silliness, all this lace and embroidery and the white gloves that Cardinal Dolan insists his altar servers wear etc;
    Yes, Darlene, if we did but realise how precious each of us is in the sight of God, if parents were able to convey this to their children, if priest homilists had the courage and the confidence to tackle these issues from the ambo, wouldn’t there be less need for mimetic desire.
    Unfortunately we don’t all have the intellectual gifts or the gift of discernment to ponder on these things and we are weak and easily convinced that momentary happiness can, to a certain extent, be bought.(remember a cigar called Hamlet?!)
    As a doting grandmother I automatically lifted the latest Peppa Pig outfit in Sainsbury’s yesterday to buy for my granddaughter and had to fight really hard with my better instincts to put it back on the shelf.
    Excellent, stirring and challenging words, Sean. Would that lay people were allowed to give the odd homily. Why shouldn’t they, by the way???

  3. Chris (England) says:

    Thank you Sean for your thought-provoding article. Although the following piece that I wrote sometime ago does not address the various issues you raise, it be be of some value to a wider discussion.
    “Perhaps you have watched documentaries about cargo cult or read about them. Modern day versions of the cults, largely confined to Melanesia, have their origins in the aftermath of World War 2. Local people noticed that newcomers to their lands, soldiers, explorers and missionaries, had considerably greater wealth than they had. Furthermore, when their possessions were damaged, rather than repair them, the newcomers simply waited until further supplies dropped from the skies – delivered by aeroplanes.
    Their traditional belief made no distinction between the spiritual and physical world. All wealth was regarded as coming from the ancestral spirits or the gods, the result of the individual having followed all the correct rituals. It was reasonable for them to assume that the newcomers had discovered the secrets of ritual, while they themselves kept getting them wrong. Cargo Cults were genuine but misguided attempts to find the secret, following the prayers and rituals and waiting for the desired wealth to materialise. Failures were seen as the result of mistakes to be corrected. In many respects, all this is not so different from the way in which world trade and commerce actually operate i.e. a few people knowing the secret of controlling resources while the majority remain poor and ignorant.
    However, that is not the main reason for referring to cargo cult here. Rather it is to ask whether there are elements of cargo cult mentality in Western society and even in popular Catholicism. In researching this subject I found an internet site commenting on “Principles of American Cargo Cult”. It described what are common but fallacious attitudes and behaviours typical of cargo cult mentality prevalent in American society today..
    These attitudes are not confined to America and include the following:
    Certainty is strength, doubt is weakness and to admit alternatives is to undermine one’s own belief.
    A successful person’s explanation of the means of his/her success is highly credible because of that success.
    You can succeed by copying the supposed behaviour and rituals of the successful; and if this does not work, you can always blame the idol or the process for your failure.
    If something is good for you, it is good: society is everyone else.
    You are never the problem: an ugly image is a bad mirror.
    Other “bad” persons get punished: you however will be forgiven. This is justice.
    I suggest that such attitudes are also present in certain misinterpretations of Catholicism. Examples include
    – people placing themselves or the Institutional Church in the role of prime movers, seeking a response from an otherwise remote and impassive God.
    – a moralistic attitude that identifies behaviour, to do with ethics or worship, as actions instigated by the individual rather than other than as response to God’s unconditional love.
    – when the details of how people worship and pray become more important than their attitude towards the God they are worshipping, towards other people and the rest of creation.
    – when they treat those, outside their circle of community/Church, with impunity, predicting that they will be punished, if not in this life then in the hereafter, while they themselves will be forgiven.
    Such value systems run counter to the spirit of the Gospels and the challenge of the Beatitudes. Father Richard Rohr writes: “God does not need worthiness ahead of time; God creates worthiness by the choice itself. God does not love you because you are good; you are good because God loves you.”

  4. Well worth meditating on this one. It raises so many questions and I must say my head is a maelstrom of thoughts and emotions after reading it.
    It poses the critical question of what exactly a person considers validates them as a person. And in the background, there is, on the one hand the world of advertising offering to fulfill our mimetic desires, and on the other, at least certainly in my day, a social and religious environment based on negativity and guilt.
    Both of these aspects are mutually reinforcing and both need fixing.
    I am not averse to material possessions, particulary the computer and connectivity, a little like Seán’s pen. But beyond that I convince myself that I live in my head. But again that brings me round to the question, for what purpose?
    Not being a believer, I don’t have a readymade answer to that one but I can certainly see where Seán is coming from.
    The idea of a church pyramid or hierarchy being analogous to what I would be familiar with as “regulatory capture” is certainly a new way of looking at the church and its “mission”. My own version of this has been that I would take the Papacy seriously when we have a mendicant Pope. But clearly the problem is more deep seated and organic than this belweather expression.
    Perhaps a start could be made by having Seán’s contribution above, or a version of it, adopted as a homily throughout the land on “Mimetic Sunday”, a date yet to be determined.

  5. Mary O Vallely says:

    There is a link between what Sean was saying about our need/desire for consumerism and this talk given by Professor Eamon Conway at the Spiritfest in Dundalk last Saturday, 11 May.

    He talks about the commodity or consumer approach to religion, about the development of an “off-piste” religiosity and of the danger of de-traditionalisation; that our culture is schooling us into a consumer approach and these personal spiritualities are devoid of community.

    It is a spirituality “that soothes rather than subverts my well-heeled complacency.”

    He advises us that there is a need for aggressive discernment.

    Plenty of food for thought in this short talk.


  6. Thank you Seán. I keep coming back to this article. It is groundbreaking. “Why so seldom a critique of ‘celebrity’ itself – the source of so much youthful ‘wannabe’ depression?” Why, indeed? Only today again, I read of a businesswoman described as being ‘worth €25 million.’ The very words we use devalue who we are at the core of our being and applaud financial success above all else. Many people – not all of them young – assess their worth on the basis of how many followers they have on Twitter or how many friends they have on Facebook. The kind of pressure this form of social networking generates has yet to be researched, as far as I know but I imagine it causes some depression. Depression is an inherently spiritual condition because it’s about the meaning of life and one’s inability to feel engaged with it.(Swinton & Mowat 2006). There is huge scope for the discipline of Pastoral Care to address the issue of self-worth and one’s place in the grand scheme of things. Psychology alone is not enough as it tends to be wary of the spiritual. It seems to me that re-evangelisation is about finding ways to package and communicate the Good News so that it engages peoples’ hearts. There’s so much more to be discussed in your article, Seán, but that’s the train of thought it elicited from me. I realise it sounds somewhat disjointed!

  7. Covetousness : A few thoughts come to mind. Psychologists have known about this for a long time. And it’s listed as one of the 7 deadly sins. If this is a new discovery by “the church”, ie. the professional clergy and the church leaders, then that only shows how out of touch they have been.
    As regards the source of the ills in society, the professional clergy have a vested interest in discovering a cause that lets them off the hook : they live life on a low income (mainly) and are not covetous; it’s the great hordes who are covetous. And the discoverer of this one principal cause will get honour and fame. In reality, the clergy, of course have their obsessions, just as the rest of us have ours.
    Society of course has many ills, with many causes. The 7 deadly sins if you like.
    Two words stand out from this piece : Homily (and homilists) and Magisterium. They seem intended to suggest solid teaching. I would suggest that the word “Homily” has become synonomous with ten minutes of vacuous ramblings, based upon the supposedly weighty experience of the priest. The word “Magisterium” has become synonomous with the self-importance of people in high positions. It is mirrored by the abjectness and deference of those beneath them who wait upon their word so that they can know what to think and to say. The opposite to this deference is real conviction. This used to be synonomous with the word “preaching”.
    You may ask yourself why the clergy cannot impart insight and conviction. After all, if they could, there would not be such a great problem. They have a monopoly on preaching. Lay people are not allowed to preach. Why then, when the majority of Catholic children are put through the process of First Holy Communion and Confirmation so many are vulnerable to harmful influences before they have advanced far into their teens. Can it be because those who direct church affairs cannot conceive of a way of directing and guiding that will see these young people into adulthood.
    I would submit another word that describes the problem that really infects the church : Infantalism. Infantalism is psychological failure to grow. Those who have not grown do not have the ability to enable others to grow. The infantile person may be greedy, and power seeking and obsessed with symbols and fine clothes and perhaps vestments and the structures of power. Why, one may ask does the word “magisterium” come up so often. It seems to mean a claim by a small number of people at the centre to have sole access to the truth, a somewhat infantile idea. Infantile ideas and rituals can inform a whole organisation. Other infantile ideas: Fads and beliefs that if you follow such and such simple formula or ritual you will be all right.
    May I quote Boris Pasternak: “To live your life is not as simple as to cross the road”

  8. Tom Saltsman says:

    I find great personal joy in rejecting the foolish worldly values attacked by this great article. Regarding Cain and Abel’s sacrifice, years ago I heard one Protestant pastor explain quite rationally that Cain’s sacrifice wasn’t acceptable because it contained not a droplet of blood, something later declared in Hebrews 9: 22 and elsewhere to be essential for the forgiveness of sins and acceptable sacrifice. Being a mere “tiller of the soil,” Cain still could have grabbed a bird for sacrifice as did Mary and Joseph (Luke 2:24). “If you do well, will you not also be accepted?” That is a profound question of serious self-examination for all of us, especially those of us who measure our worth by silly and casual association. For example, “Am I a saint simply because I belong to the Church that makes saints?”

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