In an Easter letter to NGOs, Pope Francis emphasized the need to slow down and rethink consumption and production patterns during the pandemic—something other popes have consistently talked about, said Catholic theologians.
“Pope Francis is right that this is definitely a time for rethinking consumption,” said David Cloutier, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
The pope’s comments on the need to rethink lifestyles and consumption are in line with those of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope St. John Paul II before him, said William Patenaude, an environmental engineer and theologian who writes for the site CatholicEcology.net.
The mass closures of businesses and economic slowdown caused by the pandemic have brought economic hardship to millions, it has also forced us “to examine our lives and examine our consumption, and really see ourselves as part of a community,” Patenaude said.
Pope Francis has spoken several times recently of the need to reevaluate current production and consumption mentalities in the modern global economy.
In his March 27 extraordinary moment of prayer from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the pope said that the new coronavirus (COVID-19) had exposed flaws in current economic and social structures.
“It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities,” Pope Francis said.
In an Easter letter to members of worldwide popular movements and organizations, in which he urged renewed consideration of a “universal basic wage,” Pope Francis said that the economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could be an opportunity for “ecological conversion.”
“Our civilization — so competitive, so individualistic, with its frenetic rhythms of production and consumption, its extravagant luxuries, its disproportionate profits for just a few — needs to downshift, take stock, and renew itself,” the pope said.
In calling for an “ecological conversion,” the pope is addressing several themes, Patenaude and Cloutier said. These include the need for people to practice frugality and invest in goods that build up their communities, to rediscover the importance of human relationships, and to see how everything is “interconnected.”
Questions remain about how and when the economy will fully reopen— in weeks, months, or a year from now— and how and where will Americans choose to spend their money. Will things ever go back to “normal”?
Many Americans have already had to change their spending habits, Clautier said, as the mass closures of business by the pandemic has eliminated “nonessential” expenditures.
“It’s going to happen on its own,” Patenaude said of consumption changes. “People are going to learn that they can live without things.”
Yet the pope isn’t necessarily talking about spending less, so much as on what people are spending their money, Cloutier said. Instead of spending as much on short-term luxuries like annual iPhone upgrades, people could consider investing in goods that benefit their community. This is part of the Church’s teaching on the “universal destination of goods” where once a family’s necessities have been met, extra resources should go towards “building up social solidarity,” he noted.
“When we reopen —in so many places from libraries to children’s sports activities and playgrounds, to churches - there will be a need for new equipment or extra sanitation, various kinds of goods that will make it possible for us to use a playground or go to church, under the new circumstances,” Cloutier said
“What we can think about in this downshift is how to direct our resources towards building up social solidarity, rather than pursuing certain kinds of status competitions, extravagant luxuries,” he said.
The professor said Pope Francis is also drawing attention to the rights and dignity of workers, particularly lower-wage workers who play a critical role in maintaining supply chains and help produce and deliver goods at a rapid-fire pace to meet consumer demand.
“Free delivery is a tragedy,” Cloutier said of marketing efforts to have goods delivered during the pandemic at no extra cost to the consumer.
Often, he said, this “illusion” involves a tradeoff where delivery workers bear the cost through overwork.
“We should think about how we should pay for delivery. That is, if we really benefit from delivery,” he said, “then we should expect to pay the people who make that delivery possible a reasonable amount.”
Grocery stores empty of essentials such as toilet paper have also made Americans aware of global supply chains—and their vulnerability, said Patenaude.
For instance, a pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota had to close because more than 200 workers contracted COVID-19. Other food processing plants around the country have had to close as workers were testing positive for the virus.
People are discovering how everything is “interconnected”—another theme Pope Francis has repeatedly addressed. The current crisis is a time to see workers in supply chains as people, and not simply as someone who gets them what they want when they want it.
“We are dependent upon other human beings,” Patenaude said. “We have a moral responsibility to make sure that those other human beings are treated fairly and well.”
“Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties toward the human person, and this is an opportunity for us to really see what that means,” he said.
In the global supply chain, for instance, farmers in Africa produce cocoa that is used to make chocolate in Europe—yet they wouldn’t be able to afford the final product, Patenaude said. Ores are mined in Africa for manufacturing solar panels in Europe, yet those manufacturing jobs are not available in Africa.
People are also learning lessons of “frugality” and “allowing the reprioritization of our relationships over what we have”—lessons that previous generations learned from catastrophes such as the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the Great Depression and World War II—Patenaude said.
“This is providing an opportunity for us to do that, and we’d be foolish not to take advantage of that.”
Pope Francis’ Easter letter was addressed to various NGOs, many of them from the Global South, Patenaude said. It is a regular theme of his pontificate, of bringing out voices who are not widely heard yet have a wisdom to share with the rest of the world in their ministry to the poor.
“They provide a certain wisdom about life, and a certain example about adapting to hardships. So really, in a way, he’s holding them up for us all to learn from, as well as to hear their voices,” he said.