Two events captured the attention of a worldwide audience on July 7. One was the publication of Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI’s Augustinian encyclical on economics. The other was the memorial of Michael Jackson, marking a life that seemed to shriek the Augustinian lesson: “Our hearts are restless unless they rest in you.”
The two events have very little to do with each other.
Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) is Benedict’s 30,000-word, densely written, deeply thoughtful third encyclical. Its arrival has been long expected — and often delayed. It is regarded as a reaffirmation of what the Church has always taught about the social questions.
Jackson’s memorial was a strange, strained spectacle of the world’s fascination with spectacle. At its center was the slight, ethereal figure of a man known not for changing hearts, but for briefly capturing their attention, albeit on a worldwide scale.
If Benedict’s work is like a well dug deep in the earth, Jackson’s work is like the shimmering illusion of water you get from looking at heat from a distance.
Pope Benedict himself provided some basis for looking at these two July events together in remarks he made about the encyclical.
“As you know, for a long time we have been preparing an encyclical on these issues,” he said in February. “In the end, it is about human avarice as sin or, as the Letter to the Colossians says, of avarice as idolatry. We must denounce that idolatry that is opposed to the true God and that falsifies the image of God through another god, ‘mammon.’”
It’s easy to pick on Michael Jackson as a warning against avarice. He is celebrated not just for his talent, but also for his ability to capitalize on it. He is famous not just for his singing and dancing, but also for his palatial Neverland Ranch, where he used massive amounts of money to reshape reality into an escapist wonderland.
But perhaps he is such a fascination not because his lifestyle is atypical of our times, but because it’s such a quintessential example of our times.
He is being called an “icon” in the media. That may be more true than we’d like to admit. He may be an “icon” of the materialistic, technological, self-centered ideal too many of us share. At any rate, that kind of “icon” is what Pope Benedict takes aim at in his new encyclical.
As the Holy Father himself said, “Because egoism, the root of avarice, consists in loving myself more than anything else and of loving the world in reference to myself. It happens in all of us.”
Indeed, the avarice that looms large in America’s consumerist culture does happen to all of us.
Call it the “Thriller” culture. We want to remake our identities with fashion (or surgery); we want to titillate ourselves with entertainment. We want to live the thrill we see on television, either directly, vicariously, or both. America even exports the “Thriller” culture all over the world.
Pope John Paul II warned on World Peace Day 2001 about the “the slavish conformity of cultures, or at least of key aspects of them, to cultural models deriving from the Western world. … This is a phenomenon of vast proportions, sustained by powerful media campaigns.”
You can imagine the moonwalking millions across the globe when he writes, “Western cultural models are enticing and alluring because of their remarkable scientific and technical cast, but regrettably there is growing evidence of their deepening human, spiritual and moral impoverishment.”
Or, as Jackon’s song puts it: “No mere mortal can resist / The evil of the thriller.”
Pope Benedict explained the phenomenon in his February remarks about the encyclical.
”Without the light of faith which penetrates the darkness of original sin, reason cannot go forward,” he said. It “runs into the resistance of our will. It does not want to see the way, which would be a path of self-denial and of correction of one’s own will in favor of the other, not of oneself.”
He wants his encyclical to teach us how to “resist the evil of the thriller” — not just by voting the right way, but also by living the right way.
“Justice cannot be created in the world only with good economic models, even if these are necessary,” he says. “Justice is only brought about if there are just men. And there are no just men without the humble, daily endeavor of converting hearts and of creating justice in hearts.”
That’s why the encyclical begins not by drawing sharp attention to our mistakes about money, but by drawing sharp attention to our mistakes about love.
“Love — caritas — is an extraordinary force,” writes Benedict (No. 1), “which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace.” But without truth, “Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way,” he writes (No. 3).
To get our economics right, says Benedict, we need to get our hearts right.
“When he is far away from God, man is unsettled and ill at ease,” he writes (No. 76). “Social and psychological alienation and the many neuroses that afflict affluent societies are attributable in part to spiritual factors. … The new forms of slavery to drugs and the lack of hope into which so many people fall can be explained not only in sociological and psychological terms but also in essentially spiritual terms. The emptiness in which the soul feels abandoned, despite the availability of countless therapies for body and psyche, leads to suffering. There cannot be holistic development and universal common good unless people’s spiritual and moral welfare is taken into account, considered in their totality as body and soul.”
In other words, in a world where faith and the Church are separated from life, we really can’t expect Michael Jackson to have behaved any differently. In fact, the more someone loves and desires, the greater the chance he will go to extremes to attain the love he craves. That’s the tragic lesson of Augustine’s own life and writings. The real culprit in the “Thriller” culture isn’t Michael Jackson. It is Christians who want to keep God himself private — out of the bedroom and out of the boardroom.
Our power to resist is equal to our willingness to bring Christ into others’ lives — but first of all our own.