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The Critique of Consumer Society Contained in the Social Encyclicals
The Popes’ interest for ‘consumerism’ is a mirror of their acknowledgement – held off for as long as possible, and manifested as unopenly as possible – that, for the first time ever, the industrial countries have achieved a condition of general prosperity. This essay draws a distinction between moderate or reformist anti-consumerism and radical or extreme anti-consumerism. Analysis of the Octagesima Adveniens (1971) shows that Paul VI puts forward two distinct arguments against ‘consumerism’, and both fit into the extreme category. The first is that consumption of the superfluous is the forced result of advertising and ultimately leads to pure waste. The second is that growing consumption is one of the achievements of a godless ideology of progress. In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), John Paul II reiterates the positions of his predecessor, but in Centesimus Annus (1991) his profound aversion to industrial society, hence to mass consumption, disappears. He reinterprets ‘consumerism’, less ideologically and more traditionally, as a lapse into vice and addiction, though neither originates from mass consumer society. In short, the Church may now be ready to take part in the consumer rights movement, which so far has received no mention in the Encyclicals.