"Throwaway Culture Pope Francis uses “throwaway culture” to name the opposite of what the CLE [consistent ethic of life] seeks to affirm. This culture fosters “a mentality in which everything has a price, everything can be bought, everything is negotiable. This way of thinking has room only for a select few, while it discards all those who are unproductive.”
It reduces everything—including people—into mere things whose worth consists only in being bought, sold, or used, and which are then discarded when their market value has been exhausted. Human beings have inherent, irreducible value, but when a throwaway culture finds them inconvenient it deems them “inefficient” or “burdensome” and they are ignored, rejected, or even disposed of.
The pope responds to such a culture by defending the universal dignity of every person without exception. By upholding the “internal consistency” of such dignity across a host of different issues, Francis undermines the throwaway culture. In reducing the person to a mere product in a marketplace—one that can be used and then thrown away—our culture makes what philosophers call a category mistake. Persons are ends in themselves, with inherent and irreducible value, and must never be put into the category of things that can be merely discarded as so much trash. The most serious and obvious example of reducing a person’s inherent value to that of a mere thing is their being violently discarded and killed. Christians especially are called to resist this violence because Jesus commanded them to do so. Throughout his life he took pains to call out deadly violence and instructed his followers to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
Pope Francis resists a throwaway culture that employs violent and (often) state-sponsored practices like war, genocide, terrorism, and the death penalty. But he also argues that this same violent culture includes practices like abortion (which discards a child as inconvenient and euthanasia (which treats the elderly like “baggage” to be discarded. Francis also has concern for what violence does to the perpetrator. In his address to Congress, for instance, he said that when we are repeatedly violent we become a “prisoner” who is “trapped” by our own violent habits. We ourselves become murderers and tyrants, Francis warns, when we imitate their violent practices
But the CLE is concerned not only with explicit violence such as killing, but also violence within the structure of our societies. In Amoris laetitia Francis echoes John Paul II in saying that the dignity of the person “has an inherent social dimension.” That is, respecting life cannot be about simply resisting the aggressive violence of throwaway culture, but also the violence within its social structures. Francis insists that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” applies clearly to our culture’s “economy of exclusion.” In the pope’s view, “Such an economy kills. The exclusion with which Francis is concerned need not be conscious exploitation and oppression. It can be unconscious practices that lead to certain people becoming “outcasts” or “leftovers.” The pope uses particularly harsh language in condemning theories of economic growth that ignore or discard human beings if they are deemed a net drag on such growth. The homeless person who dies of exposure; the child without adequate health care who dies of an easily-treatable disease; island-dwelling peoples threatened by climate change.
What Francis calls “a globalization of indifference” considers such people as mere afterthoughts. The dignity of these vulnerable people is inconvenient for those who benefit from a global consumerist culture, so we ignore the poor and marginalized, gradually becoming “deadened” to their cries. The love of money (something Francis calls “the dung of the devil”) supplants the primacy of the human person, and the logic of consumerism exercises dominion over us and our culture.
Those thrown away in the process do not matter. A primary value in throwaway culture is maintaining a consumerist lifestyle, but to cease caring about who is being discarded, most of us must find a way to no longer acknowledge their inherent dignity. Instead of language that affirms and highlights the value of every human being, throwaway culture requires language that deadens our capacity for moral concern toward those who most need it. Rehumanize International, a CLE activist group, has researched how this works (both historically and today) with different populations including racial minorities, the elderly and disabled, prenatal children, immigrants and refugees, enemy combatants, and incarcerated inmates. Patterns develop whereby these populations have been or are named as non-persons, sub-humans, defective humans, parasites, and objects, things, or products."
Camosy, Charles Christopher. Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People (pp. 31-32). New City Press. Kindle Edition.
Fortunately, in 2015, Pope Francis offered the world in “Laudato Si” a holistic and unified way ahead. He called it “integral ecology.” It recognizes that all parts of the system of life are interdependent with one another and with the inanimate world. Also, humans are an important part of this integrated system. We humans have been disrupting the whole process, but we still have the ability to adopt a constructive role.
“Laudato Si” deals at once with the problems of the ocean, the land, and the atmosphere, and, also, of human society. Francis’ encyclical is at once Roman Catholic teaching, general Christian teaching, and universal human teaching. If humanity would orient its education and research, its economics and its politics, its agriculture, and its human culture, by the wisdom of this encyclical, hope for the future could be greatly expanded.
I have been struck not only by the remarkable connection between this pope and Francis of Assissi, but also by the parallels with Jesus of Nazareth. It is widely recognized that Jesus’ message was the coming of the Basileia Theou, which for reasons explained in this text, I translate as “divine Commonwealth”. I believe that Jesus saw what he was proposing, in all its radicality, as the best hope for the salvation of Israel. He believed the Jewish people could avoid destruction by Rome and expulsion from their land, precisely by being deeply faithful to their prophetic heritage. He was not successful. Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Jews were expelled from their country.
The pope today is proposing a radically different world from the one we now have. He gives us an account of what would be possible instead of the destruction toward which we are otherwise headed. In short, what he calls “integral ecology” is today’s “divine Commonwealth.”