ROME, MAY 18, 2010 ( Experts call the Western world of the 21st century a "consumer society," and scholars from a variety of disciplines have studied the phenomenon and its consequences.

Dario Viganò, president of the Pontifical Lateran University's Redemptor Hominis Pastoral Institute, introduced with this reflection a May 5 study day on "I Consume, Therefore I Exist? An Educational, Theological and Social Perspective."

The theme was taken from a 2008 book by Zygmunt Bauman, adding a question mark and the focus of reflecting further on the topic of consumption and, ultimately, the existential reality of the man of today.

Massimiliano Padula, professor of institutional communication at the Lateran University, spoke of consumerism and the media in a digital world. He said that "limits are no longer clear between consumption and consumerism." The scholar cautioned that "individuality and sociability lose their distinctive force to be mixed in a socio-cultural homogeneity increasingly evident in the West, which has been able to impose itself and to impose its own model worldwide and in different aspects of life."

Chiara Palazzini, also of the Lateran University, said that in this consumer reality, we end up by "living a sort of false dilemma: on one hand, affections are cultivated intensely, but no one wants to hear talk of ties; on the other, ties are established every day that leave affections far away."

She noted how man finds meaning in that which is similar to him. Putting confidence in objects to be consumed is a failure, the professor affirmed, resulting in man himself becoming that object.

Sergio Belardinelli, the coordinator of the Italian bishops' "Cultural Project," called for educating consumers, but acknowledged there is no magic recipe.

He recommended creating as much as possible an awareness that "good and pleasure, as Plato maintains, are not the same."

Belardinelli advocated teaching people to attribute a value to everything, which is beyond its market price.

From use to waste

Francis Vincent Anthony, professor of theology at the Pontifical Salesian University, explained that to consume, "that is, to exhaust material resources, stems from a vision of reality, that is, of a way of understanding the human person and God."

He said that "behind our present habit of 'using and discarding,' there is a mechanistic and utilitarian view of nature, which is reduced to indiscreet use and consumption by the person."
"To overcome this excessively anthropocentric vision and re-establish an ideal relationship between the cosmos, the person and God, is the first step that must be taken to address the problem of consumerism," Anthony said.
"Consumption is not bad;" he affirmed, "what is bad, instead, is to exhaust resources without any concern for the moral conscience and common coexistence."
To the question "I consume, therefore I exist?" Anthony answered with certainty: "Yes, to consume is indispensable for living, but a life worthy of the person oriented to full joy imposes the need to regulate ethically the satisfaction of one's needs, sacrificing also one's life for the common good.

Drawing on the etymology of "consume" -- from the Latin "cum" (with) and "sumere" (to take, to use entirely), he said that the widest meaning of the term is "'a taking with' others."

In this connection, Anthony proposed, to consume is to sacrifice (sacrum facere), that is, a sacred action. "From the Christian perspective," he concluded, "the Eucharist represents in an eloquent way consumption together with sacrifice, which must be witnessed in life."