What Should Catholics Think About Globalization?

I recently came across a flier that said: “The majority of the earth's inhabitants and the earth herself are not doing very well at all as globalization moves forward.” A pamphlet handed out by magenta-haired, nose-ringed adolescents at the Seattle or Washington, D.C., anti-world-trade protests? No — this was an insert in a Sunday parish bulletin.

So there is a contingent of Catholics who think globalization is intrinsically harmful. Is it?

I just returned from a conference in South Korea on “The Effects of Globalization on Politics, Society and the Family,” attended by scholars from more than 70 countries. In my presentation, I explained John Paul II's account of the moral impact of globalization. Of course, the Pope notices elements for moral concern, but also much that is positive in the growing integration of markets. He has been forceful in his rejection of a moral vision found in one aspect of globalization, but he shows signs of hope in other aspects of the new global economy.

The Pope has been quite critical of the worldwide spread of lifestyles aimed at acquisition. A form of materialism pervades certain advertisements, movies and electronic media. Some people use the term “globalization” to mean the worldwide expansion of this materialist moral vision predicated on secular consumer culture. This includes a monolithic culture of Hollywood movies, MTV and fast food. It is a vision of moral libertinism and material consumption. The cultural message of this way of imagining the good life is global in a peculiar sense. It is a message of radical, universal individualism. Morally, each individual is conceived of as autonomous, accountable to no one, free from the strictures of societal norms, tradition, religion, class and familial obligations. In other words, the moral vision of secular consumerism emphasizes individual differences, making the individual the ultimate authority in moral matters. Each consumer is told, “You are free to choose whatever you want.”

At first, this emphasis on individualism might appear to result in widely different individual desires. However, it actually ends up producing a rather monolithic consumer culture. Teen-agers in Chicago hear the same music and wear the same style clothes as those in Warsaw. Cut free from traditional mores, the atomized self looks for a moral vision, often turning to the modern globalizers rather than traditional social institutions such as the family and religion. The market is quick with advertisements to tell the atomized self what should be desired. This includes an entire moral vision of how to live and what to buy. What looks like freedom to the individual becomes instead the slavish pursuit of consumer desires perpetuated by clever marketing.

At the same time that John Paul II has been critical of the consumerist moral vision (which is widely associated with globalization), the Pope has advanced a positive assessment of some aspects of our new global situation and the increasingly integrated world economy. Globalization is an opportunity for deeper awareness of the interdependence of human beings across the globe — an awareness that can enrich our sense of the universal dignity of human persons and our responsibilities to the various levels of social associations in which we participate, including the solidarity of all humankind.

In an address to the International Catholic Union of Business Directors in October 1999, Pope John Paul II said: “We must promote solidarity in all economic endeavors. Globalization must allow for greater participation by people, not their exclusions or isolation; it must apply a greater capacity to share, not to impoverish a large part of the population for the benefit of a few. Nobody must be excluded from economic circles; on the contrary, each and every one should benefit from technological and social progress, as well as from the fruits of creation.”

In an address last September, the Holy Father clarified his understanding of the moral vision that can accompany globalization. “Globalization will have many positive effects if it can be sustained by a strong sense of the absoluteness and dignity of all human persons and the principle that earthly goods are meant for everyone,” he said. “There is room in this direction to operate in a fair and constructive way, even within a sector that is much subject to speculation.

For it is not enough to respect local laws or national regulations; what is necessary is a sense of global justice, equal to the responsibilities that are at stake, while acknowledging the structural interdependence of the regulations between human beings over and above national boundaries. … As a result of the Jubilee, there may be a new culture of international solidarity and cooperation where all — particularly the wealthy nations and private sector — accept responsibility for an economic model which serves everyone.”

The moral vision presented by John Paul II emphasizes the fundamental dignity of every human person. It envisions a society of free work, where businesses are understood as communities of persons who voluntarily join together to provide goods and services for the common good of society. This is a moral vision which recognizes that human beings aspire for quality: in the goods we produce and consume, in the services we enjoy, and in the environment in which we dwell. But this pursuit of quality is a pursuit of human flourishing; it is a pursuit of an authentic life in accord with our humanity rather than one that is damaging to physical and spiritual health.

As the Pope puts it, “It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed toward ‘having’ rather than ‘being,’ which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments” (Centesimus Annus, 36).

Contemporary globalization offers a positive opportunity for a more global awareness of this moral vision. With John Paul II, Catholics should be critical of the consumerism that narrows us while seeing signs of hope in the positive effects of globalization, including the deepened sense of interconnectedness that is alive in our time.

Gregory Beabout teaches philosophy at St. Louis University.