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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XVIII: No. 2 - Pentecost 2003

Faith, Fashion, and the Vocation of the Laity
in a Secular, Postmodern World

by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

That was the true Light, which lighteth
every man that cometh into the world.

He was in the world, and the world was
made by Him, and the world knew Him not.

He came unto His own, and His own
received Him not.
-- John 1:9-11

Faith and fashion stand in direct opposition to one another. For the main attribute of faith is constancy, which fashion rejects. Fashion reigns over the kingdom of the marketplace, which it simultaneously obeys and enlivens. The kingdom of faith lies in the human soul, heart, and mind -- a kingdom quintessentially "not of this world".

Since the days of Jesus, Christians have recognized the struggle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Mammon. Recall the rich young man, a faithful observer of all the religious laws and practices, who asked Jesus what more he must do to be saved. When Jesus replied that he need only sell all of his goods and give the proceeds to the poor, the young man withdrew in silent dejection. The Gospels abound with reminders of the severe tension between wealth and salvation. They also preach the necessity of rendering unto Caesar his due. The tension between living in this world and preparing for the next challenges all serious Christians, and each Christian's vocation represents an individual balance between the conflicting pulls of the here-and-now and the hereafter.

At least since Pope Leo XIII promulgated the encyclical letter, Rerum Novarum in 1891, the Church has focused its efforts to engage secular society on insistent reminders of the responsibility of the affluent to the poor and, especially, of capitalists to laboring people. In Centisimus Annus, Pope John Paul II revisits Rerum Novarum, building upon his own previous interventions, Laborem Exercens and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, calling special attention to the growing tendency of the capitalist market to devalue, alienate, and objectify the human person. Like his predecessors, he especially emphasizes the ways in which the expansion of the capitalist market has uprooted and exploited working people in both the advanced and the developing nations. Alienation, he argues, characterizes work:

when it is organized so as to ensure maximum returns and profits with no concern whether the worker, through his own labor, grows or diminishes as a person, either through increased sharing in a genuinely supportive community or 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 (CA 58).

In the same spirit, the Holy Father deplores the rampant consumerism "through which people are ensnared in a web of false and superficial gratifications rather than being helped to experience their personhood in an authentic and concrete way" (CA 58). This attack on consumerism implicitly prepares the way for his recent assertion that the Church is necessarily concerned with the wealthy as well as the poor. Many people understandably saw this attention to the privileged -- in this instance, entrepreneurs -- as a dramatic departure in the social teaching of the Church, as, in many ways, it is. Yet, implicitly since Rerum Novarum and more openly in the encyclicals and apostolic letters of Pope John Paul II, Catholic social thought has been developing a critique of capitalism that moves beyond an automatic condemnation of the affluent and toward a recognition of their capacity to play a positive social role. What was lacking in the earlier teachings, with their direct focus upon the dehumanizing conditions of industrial labor, was the explicit recognition that, as a comprehensive system of social relations, capitalism would, sooner or later, exercise an equally corrosive effect upon all of those it ensnared in its tentacles.

Many elements collaborated to produce the understanding that the excesses of capitalism would extract a toll from the wealthy as well as the poor. The collapse of the Soviet Union assuredly eased the pope's urgency in combating communism, if only because it decisively reduced the threat of communist expansion, and thereby permitted a more comprehensive critique of capitalism as a system. The consequences of the globalization of capitalism, notably the harsh blows of downsizing upon the managerial class, revealed multinational capitalism's frightening propensity to devour its own. Since Vatican II, moreover, the Church has paid growing intention to the role and vocation of the laity. No less significant than these secular trends has been the impact of this pope's understanding of and preoccupation with the vocation of the person in a postmodern and aggressively secular world.

Pope John Paul II has long insisted that authentic personhood depends upon the acknowledgment of the worth and integrity of the other. Our mutual recognition of one another begins and ends with our personal recognition of our dependence upon God. But the way in which we live in the world as responsible and faithful people depends upon our continuing efforts to recognize God in others. In this respect, our very being depends upon our being truly "our brother's keeper". Beyond the moral obligation our mutual dependence invites us to understand the ways in which the quality of each of our various lives affects the quality of the life of every other. We would, in other words, be rash and blind to expect that we can live untouched by a system that is wantonly destroying the personhood of others by reducing them to objects -- to commodities. We cannot construct and flourish within gated moral communities.

The flaw in socialism, according to Pope John Paul II, "is anthropological" and lies in its propensity to "consider the human person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the social-economic mechanism" (CA 20). And the danger in contemporary capitalism is that it does much the same. The danger for the privileged laity is twofold. First, we may implicitly or explicitly consent to the tyranny of the bottom line, especially by viewing others as reified factors of production. If a merger requires that many of a company's employees be fired, we see a balance sheet rather than human lives. Second, our participation in the practice and culture of consumption, which drives the market, threatens to alienate us from our own personhood, as "when people are ensnared in a web of false and superficial gratifications rather than being helped to experience their personhood in an authentic and concrete way" (CA 20).

Contemporary culture has become ever more hostage to the market, with disastrous consequences for both the privileged and the dispossessed. Throughout the Third World, capitalism is seducing people with a consumerism from which their poverty excludes them. "Allured by the dazzle of an opulence which is beyond their reach, and at the same time driven by necessity, these people crowd the cities of the Third World where they are often without cultural roots, and where they are exposed to situations of violent uncertainty, without the possibility of becoming integrated" (CA 47). Throughout the upscale venues of the developed world, consumerism is wreaking comparable havoc, albeit with greater material comfort. Those who succumb to the hegemony of consumerism are substituting what I have for what I am -- possessions for being. The transaction strips them of their freedom, leaving them enslaved to the vagaries of their instincts and passions.

Only the supremely arrogant -- and perhaps the genuinely holy -- among us could claim immunity from the contagion that permeates all our lives. For even those who can resist the lure of materialism and consumerism -- and there is every evidence that among both rich and poor the genuine resisters are fewer than we might hope -- find the snares of cultural, intellectual, and moral fashion more compelling. The secular, postmodern culture of capitalism permeates our lives with a fog of common sense, which is often at odds with good sense and which too often means expediency and instrumentalism. Postmodern academic jargon is coming in for a good deal of well-merited ridicule, but no amount of spoofing of the impenetrable discourse can disguise the links that bind academic pretension to entrepreneurial "realism". For if we strip both of their superficial attributes, we find that the postmodernists' mantra of "situational truth" rests upon the same assumptions as the capitalists' mantra of economic necessity.

Truth, understood as an absolute, impedes the unhampered circulation of both commodities and desires. Truth sets limits to gratifications and profits, notably those whose realization depends upon the reduction of other people to objects or things. This is not an attitude that makes room for "I am the way, the truth, and the life". According to contemporary moral fashion, any such claim must be repudiated as inherently oppressive. Postmodernists frankly profess their disdain for the very notion of truth, which, in their view, simply testifies to logocentrism and authoritarianism. If theirs were an isolated, academic posture, it might be dismissed as of little consequence. Unfortunately, their attitude toward the truth has gained a broad following, even among people who deplore the excesses and pretension of the current academic scene. For how else are we to understand those well-meaning people who express personal distaste for abortion but refuse to criticize a woman's decision to have an abortion on the grounds that they cannot judge her situation?

The extraordinary -- and unprecedented -- rate of social and economic change during the twentieth century has encouraged the view that the past can have no bearing upon our lives. Living in the brave new world of unimaginable material prosperity and technological prowess, we too readily believe that our new situation requires new rules. And many among us increasingly believe that our world's mobility and plasticity require that we jettison rules entirely. The obsession with liberation and self-creation that permeates our culture is carrying individualism toward the ultimate anomie of atomization. More dangerous, it is challenging all forms of authority -- notably God and nature -- that might help to structure the relations among us and contain the nihilistic overreaching of individuals.

The signs are all about us and are all the more dangerous for being so difficult to recognize. Focusing upon the needs of the economy, we inadvertently fall into a dangerous functionalism. Profits dictate the laying off of workers. Competition necessitates besting our rivals, even at the price of adopting questionable methods. Respect for women imposes support for abortion. Alleviation of the tax bill requires the dismantling of welfare. And the beat goes on. Everywhere we turn, we confront exigencies that demand the sacrifice of inherited ideals of truth and decency. In the words of the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats,

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Only the self-deluded will deny the power of these intellectual fashions upon our lives and beliefs. Only the foolhardy will deny the courage required to combat them -- in ourselves, not to mention our neighbors. The courage that our times require of Christians is preeminently moral courage. As a rule, educated Americans confront few situations that require physical courage, and few of us risk genuine destitution. What we do risk is exclusion from the comfortable flow of prevailing trends and, perhaps, a reduction in our standard of living. Our contemporaries rarely welcome challenges to their complacency or criticism of their pleasures. Our employers abhor moral challenges to their leadership. More often than not, management's first and last objective is to ensure consensus and teamwork. And it is sobering to reflect upon the state of mind of a talented and energetic leader who knowingly marginalizes people of vision in the interests of perpetuating the smooth operation of a business or institution.

Our world does not welcome a high sense of vocation, which, more often than not, it will conspire to extinguish. In a climate in which "go along to get along" ranks as the preeminent code of conduct, dedication to the truth, much less to the truth of Christ Jesus, figures as a liability of the first order. According to prevailing moral and intellectual fashion, such dedication is dismissed either as disruptive or as judgmental. Some deplore its proclivity to interfere with business as usual; others deplore its proclivity to undermine the self-esteem of one or another social group. But beneath the superficial differences, they agree that dedication to the truth impedes the optimal functioning of the economic and social mechanism. Thus does the pursuit of ever expanding prosperity trump concern with the dignity of the human person.

In a post-synodal apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici, of December 30, 1988, Pope John Paul II took up the vocation and the mission of the lay faithful in the Church and the world. "To rediscover and make others rediscover the inviolable dignity of every human person", he wrote, "makes up an essential task, in a certain sense, the central and unifying task of the service which the Church, and the lay faithful in her, are called to render to the human family" (CL 35). For each of us, as individuals, the dignity of the person "is the most precious possession" (CL 35). For among the beings of the earth, "only a man or a woman is a 'person', a conscious and free being and, precisely for this reason, the 'center and summit' of all that exists on the earth" (CL 35). Changing times bring changing conditions and challenges, but the value of the human person does not change. Like Jesus, who is "the same yesterday, and today, and forever" (Heb 13:8), the dignity of the person persists, independent of all specific attributes.

Respect for the dignity of the human person necessarily constitutes the cornerstone of any vocation and cannot be violated without severe jeopardy to our own personhood. In this respect, we might agree that respect for the dignity of each human person provides the abiding principle of a Christian vocation. The ways in which we enact that principle may nonetheless vary with historical and social circumstances. In Centisimus Annus, the Holy Father insists that the Church does not offer a model for the laity's action in the world, precisely because changing historical conditions impose new challenges. In Christifideles Laici, he further emphasizes the rich variety of vocations to which the laity are called. The variety of circumstance and vocation results in our enjoying considerable freedom in fashioning and living our specific vocation, provided we never abuse the freedom in such a way as to destroy its very foundation, which lies in the equal dignity of each person.

In the measure that our living of our vocation remains faithful to that informing principle, we will necessarily respect and support the essential values and institutions that foster human dignity, notably the family and respect for human life in all its forms. Even fulfillment of these apparently simple requirements will frequently put us at odds with the reigning "values" of our society. Many people, especially those who work at the various levels of education, have found that to express a preference for heterosexual marriage, much less to defend it as natural or sacramental, is to invite charges of bigotry and prejudice. Open opposition to abortion, euthanasia, or assisted suicide frequently produces the same results. And anger or ridicule often greet the claims that children need and deserve the presence of a father and a mother in their lives or that divorce harms children or that very young children benefit from the close attention of their mother. Here, my point is simply that even the basic foundations of a faithful vocation are hotly contested, and, in many situations, such purportedly private convictions may decisively affect a person's exercise of a public vocation.

In reality, the boundaries between public and private have become so permeable as virtually to dissolve, and the Church, every bit as much as the postmodernists, insists upon the intimate relations between the two. Many Christians nonetheless apparently find it tempting to believe that it is possible to fulfill one's religious obligations privately without compromising one's standing in society and the economy. And some of us may succeed in doing so. Leaving our faith at the door of the workplace, as it were, we accede to the necessities of earning a living so as to provide for our family. Sadly, it is all too easy to compartmentalize: Business decisions concern profits and losses; intellectual arguments affect only other intellectuals; legal decisions pertain only to the winning or losing of a case. We may take comfort in this division of spheres, but our comfort rests upon a massive self-deception. When I was young, I used to delight in one of my father's stories, which, here, may illustrate the point.

The story concerned a peasant woman who lived in the hills above Grasse, on the French Riviera. This woman supported herself by collecting mushrooms, which she sold to a grocer who then sold them to the wealthy summer residents and tourists who abounded on the Riviera. Over the years, the demand for mushrooms steadily increased, and, in response, the woman widened the area from which she collected. One summer, however, she reached the limits of the uncultivated land, so she began to collect mushrooms that she had previously passed over. That same summer, a mysterious disease attacked a number of the summer residents, and eventually one of them died. The doctor blamed food poisoning and instigated an investigation into its possible source. The next time the woman brought a basket of mushrooms down to the grocer, who had already been intensively questioned by the police, he asked her whether there was reason to suspect her mushrooms. Initially resistant, she dismissed his questions. Slowly, however, her brow began to furrow, and, finally, she began to understand that the problem might lie with the new varieties of mushroom she had been bringing. Looking at him with a combination of horror and peasant defiance, she said, "those mushrooms weren't to eat, they were to sell".

Now, perhaps more than ever, we must understand that, in an increasingly interconnected world, there are always people who are eating what we sell. Our business transaction or lecture or legal defense becomes their nourishment, whether or not they know what they are buying. Under these conditions, the consequences of our decisions and actions extend further than we know, and our sense of responsibility for those consequences must increase proportionately. The Church warmly encourages our participation in the world, but the condition of that participation must always be its sanctification. Perhaps above all, we must learn to view whatever power, influence, wealth, or prestige we enjoy as a stewardship. Neither an absolute possession nor a proof of our worth, the goods and possessions of the world are given to us in trust -- to be used for the benefit of all rather than for private gain.

The notion of stewardship goes against the grain of the contemporary emphasis upon the absolute rights of the individual, and each of us must struggle vigilantly to honor it. Even more difficult than the notion of stewardship is its practice. Each day, we confront decisions, acquire information, or are enmeshed in actions that directly contravene the standards of faithful stewardship. And the risks of challenging ungodly attitudes and practices are high, up to and including our own employment. We all wrestle with the formidable difficulties. Some argue that if we turn each moral lapse into a test, we will sacrifice our ability to influence the situation for the better and even deprive the business or institution of a Catholic presence. Others argue that every compromise with business as usual corrodes our own soul until we eventually become an integral part of what we once opposed. The analogy here would be the undercover cop who ends by killing someone or selling drugs in his campaign to combat crime.

Day after day, the faithful laity wrestle with the agonizing question of when, if ever, a small evil may be perpetrated in the service of a larger good? Far be it from me to pretend that the answer is ever easy. In politics, should we work with those who favor limiting abortion to the first trimester rather than insisting upon a total ban? Does not political realism dictate that we settle for the possible rather than end up with nothing at all? But if we settle for the possible, do we end by believing that it is good enough? And what other possibles will we be led to embrace? How do we live with the banality of evil -- with its unobjectionable everydayness? Of one thing, we may be sure: The danger does not inevitably lie with power or wealth or influence per se. The danger lies in what we do with them and how we view our own relation to them. So, we end where we began. Our touchstone and mooring must ever be respect for the dignity of the human person. And our exercise of our vocation must hew as closely to that ideal as possible. Above all, we must continually stretch ourselves to see the human person where we are accustomed only to seeing dollars and cents.

I was blessed to hear the late Cardinal John O'Connor deliver a homily on the occasion of a pro-life convocation of the Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Gospel reading for the day, from Luke 16, concerned "a certain rich man" and "a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate full of sores" (Lk 16:19-20). As you all know, both men die, and the rich man goes to hell from where he looks up at Lazarus in Abraham's bosom. The tormented rich man begs Abraham first for Lazarus to moisten his tongue with a drop of water and ultimately that Abraham send Lazarus to warn the rich man's five brothers. Abraham refuses, telling the rich man that if his brothers "hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead" (Lk 16:31).

The text is a familiar one during Lent, and homilies usually focus upon the final message that those who ignore Moses and the prophets will remain insensible to the Resurrection. Cardinal O'Connor focused on another aspect of the reading, which speaks directly to my concern here. The condemnation of the rich man, Cardinal O'Connor suggested, did not result from his being rich or from his being insufficiently generous to Lazarus. His condemnation resulted from his failure to see Lazarus at all. He saw poverty, he saw a bundle of rags and sores, he may even have seen a beggar. What he did not see was a human person, created, like himself, in God's image. The Cardinal's homily has remained with me, a constant reminder to stretch myself always to see -- to try to see -- the human person. For only if we force ourselves to see can we begin to think faithfully about what respect for the dignity of the human person requires of us in our specific vocation.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a member of the Voices editorial board, is Eléonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities in the history department at Emory University in Atlanta, where she founded the Institute for Women's Studies, which she directed until 1991. She continues to teach, publish and speak on history and literature and writes widely on public policy, education, religion, culture, and women's issues in scholarly journals and in the popular press. She is married to Eugene Genovese, a retired history professor.

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