Illusions and Realities: The Pope Dissents Too

That Americans should beware of materialism, consumerism, and excessive individualism was one of Pope John Paul II’s major themes on his second visit to America.

The pope lives in Europe, and Europeans have long held that Americans are peculiarly materialistic. The great and wise Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, ambassador of France to the Holy See, thirty years ago called this “The Grand Slander.” “The American people,” Maritain wrote, “are the least materialist among the modern peoples.” And he added: “Few things, to my mind, are so sickening as the stock remarks with which so many persons in Europe, who are themselves far from despising the earthly goods of this world, reproach this country with its so-called materialism.”

Maritain recalled two American women in New York who repeated this fable to him: “We are a materialist people, aren’t we?” To which Maritain replied: “All this talk about American materialism is no more than silly gossip and slander.”

Against it, Maritain asked Europeans to state their criterion for calling Americans materialistic? Is it openness to others, or daily friendliness and kindness? Is it a capacity for forming committees and associations to help others in need? Is it private contributions to helping others (charity, Maritain noted, is American’s second or third largest industry)? Is it a concern for intellect and a thirst for education? Is it concern for transcending mere affluence, for openness to religious life, and even for meditation and contemplation?

If so, Maritain asks, which people in the world meets these criteria better: One must always ask: compared to whom?

Still, it is easy to see where the pope and other Europeans get their view: from American television and the movies, hours and hours of which occupy European television daily. At a recent dinner in France, an American friend of mine listened with amazement as her French hostess and other guests avidly discussed “Dynasty” and “Dallas,” whereas my American friend had never seen even an episode of either. It sickened her to think that her French friends gained from such shows a strong impression of American “values.” Popular culture is our number one export. And our television, our movies, and our commercial advertising do make fools of us overseas. Perhaps no other factor is so responsible for the low moral esteem in which Americans are held.

How does one tell one’s European friends about the values of one’s own family and friends in America, in the small cities and towns, in the cities and suburbs?

George Gallup’s international polling shows that the people of the United States, in belief and practice, are among the three most religious peoples in the world. Our religiousness is what we have most in common with the Third World. One could hardly guess this from “Dynasty” or “Dallas.” On his visit, Pope John Paul II has shown a profound understanding of the moral traditions of the U.S. framers, the Constitution of 1787, and our people. He has clearly done some studying since his last visit. He praises us for the unprecedented liberty and creativity constituted among us. Still, precisely in the light of these, he asks: What use are you Americans making of your great achievement of liberty? This is a question our moralists have always set before us. Our standards, under God, are set so high that we always fail. But particularly since the 1960s, since the age of affluence, our public sense of moral values has visibly become more permissive, in an internationally ugly way.

Homosexuals protest against Catholic moral teaching. But seeing the ravages of AIDS, would the pope be inclined to relax Catholic moral teaching (even if he could) concerning homosexual activity? “Pro-Choice” persons protest against Catholic moral teaching. But seeing the devastation of the American family, its divorces, separations, and children born out of wedlock — and weeping for the millions of infants not permitted to live — will the pope find here arguments in favor of abortion?

Even the arguments in favor of contraception within marriage must seem, in the pope’s eyes, weakened by the visible decline of old American ideals of self-control, moral character, and self-discipline —  ideals that once made American families unusually strong among the families of the world (as Tocqueville noted long ago).

The moral picture of itself that America offers to the world is not a highly admirable one.

Curiously, Pope John Paul II seems to ally himself with the social and political views of “progressives,” and the views on family and personal moral questions dear to the “conservatives.” Day by day, as his pilgrimage proceeded, he said something to discomfort almost everybody. The reason is that Americans do care about the moral life. Americans do not want to be merely materialistic. They want to be a good people. They want approval for their goodness. The pope’s moral approval, therefore, has been important to almost everyone. No wonder he is so controversial. He afflicts practically everyone, demands better performance in every way from all.

What the pope has shown, against so many dissenters, is that he may be the biggest dissenter of all. He was free to speak here. But he did not flatter us. On numerous matters, he dissented from our way of life. The most traditional American response — moral to the end — would be: “Thanks, Pope John Paul II. We needed that.” Even while we kick against the goad.

Michael Novak

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Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.

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