Wednesday, November 13, 2013

On Commercializing Christmas

Every year about the beginning of November, or in some cases even before Halloween, Christmas decorations, music, and other fare begin appearing in malls, stores, ads, and even the radio and television.  Ever year about this same time, these same appearances are decried as too early and manifestations of the sad and widespread commercialization of Christmas.  As that time of year comes upon us once more, I think it worth it to think critically about the entire phenomenon of commercializing Christmas.  What is it?  Where lies that line, the crossing of which constitutes a commercialization of Christmas?  How soon is too soon to bring out the holly and the jolly?

If we wish to consider things thoroughly, the first question we need to ask is whether or not its even acceptable for stores to have Christmas decorations at all.  Now there are at least 2 different perspectives from which to approach this question: the Christian, and the secular, each with its own criteria. As the Christian perspective is the one I am interested in, and because those unhappy with the commercialization of Christmas are most likely to approach things with a Christmas perspective as well, it is from this perspective which we will approach the question.  Moreover, it would not be incorrect to say that those coming from a secular perspective and unhappy with early or proliferous Christmastide fare are generally not so much concerned with the commercialization of Christmas as they are with being exposed to it more than they would prefer.

In any case, with a resounding no we can insist that there is nothing wrong with stores having Christmas decorations, music, and other tidings.  In fact from the Christian perspective it is a good thing that they do.  Christ ought to have a presence in every aspect of society, and so it is laudable that stores visibly celebrate Christmas during the Christmas season.  Indeed, when businesses do not display a certain Christmas spirit, for example by wishing people "Happy Holidays", they are rightly chided.  Christ’s reign ought extend over businesses as much as over the rest of the world.  This is the Christianization of commerce: businesses honoring Christ and His teachings, and celebrating Him.

Now, here we need to make an important distinction, for there are at two ways that a business can celebrate Christmas.  The first is in accordance with its authentic spirit.  That is, businesses can honor the season according to the bounds that are intrinsic to the season.  This involves many things, including making a renewed commitment to practicing justice in our lives, remembering the birth of the Lord, and celebrating that birth during the period of time assigned for it.  When a store or other business does these things, then it is participating in the Christianization of commerce, and that is a good thing.  Doing good for employees, offering customers discounts in the spirit of giving, and erecting visible symbols in honor of Christ’s Incarnation would mark such a Christianization of commerce.

On the other hand, a business may choose to celebrate the season in a way not in accord with its authentic spirit.  A business which uses the occasion of the Christmas season as an opportunity to participate in unjust practices, to exploit their customers, or which takes advantage of its employees would not be in accord with the authentic Christmas spirit.  Rather, businesses which, instead of honoring the Christmas season distort it to meet their own ends fall into that common moral foible of treating God’s creation as objects to be used rather than subjects to be honored. 

One common example of this would be putting up a Christmas tree in early November rather than respecting the timing defined by the season itself.  Rather than making way for Christ to bring His presence into commerce - that is, Christianizing commerce - this would an act  of distortion, an effort reshape Christ for the sake of commerce - that is, a commercializing of Christ (and so of course Christmas).  As a general rule, we are called to shape our lives and our actions around Christ and a love for His creatures, not to shape Christ and His creatures around us.  This is the essential difference between love and sin.

What then would it look like for a business to truly respect the spirit of Christmas?  Much of what already occurs, in fact.  Businesses could decorate and play Christmas music to honor the birth of Christ and to provide a festive and joyful atmosphere for those shoppers who were celebrating it. Prices could be cut and sales offered in the spirit of giving. Stores might stay open later to help shoppers who wished to buy gifts to give in this same spirit.  If businesses did indeed make extra money by virtue of these actions, no harm would be done.  Indeed, such businesses as may reap higher revenues by attracting those wishing to honor Christ would do so rightly.

In fact, I would argue that these things could even be done earlier than the Christmas season.  If someone wishes to decorate a home for the Christmas season, it may be helpful to be able to purchase decorations early. People may want to shop earlier rather than having to deal with all of the congested stores which would result from so many people shopping for gifts at once in December, and so offering sales for these earlier customers could even be an example of Christianizing commerce - of letting the generous and self-giving spirit of Christ influence how commerce is practiced. 

The problem is that these are, in most cases, not the intentions that businesses have.  They decorate early, offer sales, play music, and so forth simply to make more money.  Far from offering sales in November or erecting Christmas trees the moment the spider webs come down in an effort to aid people, they do so with the intentions of stretching Christmas as far as they possibly can, forming it into something which is beneficial for them. Thus, while there may be nothing materially wrong with businesses thinking of Christmas in some way at least somewhat early, there is something formally wrong with it, for their intentions are those of commercializing Christmas, rather than of allowing Christ to enter commerce. 

The ideal store, one seeking to participate in a Christianization of commerce, might offer sales in November, looking to help people as they prepare for Christmas, while holding off on the tinsel and holly until the middle of December.  The typical store puts up enormous trees and blasts jinglefied versions of classic hymns on All Saints day, while taking them down before offering sales the first week of January so as to clear their excess inventory and drain consumers of whatever gift cards and crisp bills they may have come into over the actual Christmas celebration.

All that having been said, I would like to add one small caveat in defense of businesses.  When it isn't music, or decorations, or anything else so formally a Christmas celebration as this, try not to be too hard on them.  There are some things that stores really just need to do early, like putting out stock.  Yes, as early as the first week of November.  There is only so much warehouse space in any store, with the sales floor serving as the primary location for merchandise.  There are also only so many deliveries possible.  These deliveries must carry not only the Christmas, or Easter, or Summer, or whatever other special items the store needs, but also all of the regular daily or weekly stuff - which can be an enormous load itself.  For certain seasons, the amount of stuff that needs to be sent along is so large that it may even take two months to ship it all, and from day one that all has to start making its way out to the floor because it simply won't fit elsewhere.  This is why you start to see back to school products out in the middle of June!  

In any case, let's all do the best that we can to bring Christ into at least our own commerce.  In doing so, perhaps we can do some small part in Christianizing the world.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Yes, Marriage is for You

If you happen to have any Catholic friends on social media, there’s a fairly good chance you’ve come across a piece titled “Marriage Isn’t for You.”  There’s a lesser but still reasonable chance you may have also have seen a seminarian’s reply, although reply may not be the best word given that he doesn’t actually disagree with the original author. 

Both pieces aim to remind us of some fairly essential truths about marriage. The former is primarily concerned with marriage as a gift for the other.  Noting his own pre-wedding doubts about whether or not his wife-to-be would make him happy, the author presents his father’s counsel (emphasis in original):

marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.

The second piece agrees, but looks to take it a step further.  Marriage, it asserts, is about God:

True love is focused on God, and that sometimes means making people unhappy in order to draw them closer to God. Marriage is not about making your spouse smile or laugh every day. Marriage is not about being nice, it’s about loving your spouse as God loves them.  Marriage is not only about making your spouse happy, it’s about making them holy.

What should we think of these points?

The overarching message in both of these pieces is certainly a good one so far as it goes.  Marriage is most definitively not a selfish endeavor.  In fact, those entering into marriage seeking primarily their own happiness will not find it.  It is clear from the teaching of the Church and indeed the most fundamental understanding of Christian principles that in marriage one must be concerned with his spouse’s happiness before his own and, moreover, her holiness before even that. 

Does this mean that it is correct to say that marriage is either for the spouse, or even more simply that it is not for the self?  Let us consider without delay the critical point made by our first author’s father: beyond only one’s spouse, marriage is concerned with the good of the children which will spring from it.  In fact, the Church teaches that marriage is concerned primarily with the procreation of children (Casti Connubii 17, 59; Wojtyla 66).  Taking this route we would then be forced to change our phrasing so as to declare not that marriage is for the spouse, but for the other. 

Yet this very deliberation reveals a key point which heretofore has remained absent from both the referenced articles and our discussion: according to the teaching of the Church marriage has multiple ends.  That is to say, it is for a variety of purposes.  These purposes are generally enumerated two, and sometimes three in number[i]: the procreation and education of children, the mutual help or good of the spouses, and the remedy of concupiscence (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1601; Wojtyla 66; see Casti Connubii 59).  The primary end is, of course, the procreation and education of children.  Secondarily, marriage is ordered toward the goods of the spouses, and in a variety of ways.  Husband and wife support one another psychologically and spiritually, they care for one another in times of sickness or frailty, they encourage one another to move generously towards Christ.  Finally, they provide a legitimate avenue for the expression of natural desires, though this must not be understood in a utilitarian sense. 

In his discussion of these ends and their relation, Wojtyla brings us to what seems to be the key point for the purposes of our discussion.  “These aims can,” he writes, “moreover, only be realized in practice as a single complex aim” (68).  Indeed, the Church tells us that identification of one end as primary does not diminish the other ends (Guadium et Spes 50).  As Wojtyla notes in the aforementioned place, it is when taken together that each of the ends of marriage make possible the achievement of one another.  He insists in a key passage that these aims of marriage flow together from love as a whole:

With this in mind, it seems equally clearly indicated that themutuum adiutorium mentioned in the teaching of the Church on the purposes of marriage as second in importance after procreation must not be interpreted – as it often is – to man ‘mutual love’.  Those who do this may mistakenly come to believe that procreation as the primary end is something distinct from ‘love’m as also is the teriary end, remedium concupiscentiae, whereas both procreation and remedium concupiscentiae as purposes of marriage must result from love as a virtue, and so fit in with the personalistic norm.   Mutuum adiutorium as a purpose of marriage is likewise only a result of love as a virtue.  There are no grounds for interpreting the phrase mutuum adiutorium  to mean ‘love’. For the Church, in arranging the objective purposes of love in a particular order, seeks to emphasize that procreation is objectively, ontologically, a more important purose than that man and woman should love together, complement each other and support each other (mutuum audiutorium), just as the second purpose is in turn more important than the appeasement of natural desire.  But there is no question of opposing love to procreation nor yet of suggesting that procreation takes precedence over love (68).

Marriage is, ultimately, “an institution which exists for the sake of love” (Wojtyla 233).  Ultimately, “authentic married love is caught up into Divine love” (Gaudium et Spes 48), and that is the point to all of this.  Marriage exists for love, and that love is ultimately the love of God.  When we look to the ends of marriage – to the, “what is it for?” – we must ultimately look to that love which God calls each of us to for our answer, for married love is no less  than a particular expression of that perfect, self-giving love.   Both of our authors rightly apply this principle in recognizing marriage as something which is for the other – one’s spouse and one’s children – and of course for God. 

Where I would suggest that they come short would be in falling into a sort of matrimonial reactionism which pushes back against the selfish spirit of the age at the expense of applying the full breadth of the Church’s teachings on marriage and the love of God.  While it is true that many today fall into the error of viewing marriage as something which primary end is their own happiness, it goes too far to say that the happiness or the good of the self is not an end of marriage.  All that God gives to us, and especially the spiritual goods of the Church such as the Sacraments, are intended for our good both collectively and individually.  Of course in marriage one seeks the salvation of his spouse, but he also seeks the salvation of himself.  Of course in marriage one seeks the glory of God, but that does not mean that he does not also seek the good for his spouse or for himself. 

The false dichotomy brings to mind Jesus’ admonition of the Pharisees when he said, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  Surely all things are for the glory of God, and yet God’s great will is for the good of all His creation.  John’s gospel even identifies Christ’s great moment of glory with His crucifixion, that great act of selflessness offered on behalf of his creation (see John 13:31, 17:1).  Jesus Himself had no difficulty in recognizing a multitude of ends or purposes to things, even where the Glory of God was concerned. 

Recall also Wojtyla’s view of the 3 ends of marriage.  While procreation is the primary aim, it does not diminish but works in concert and lifts up the others, which all together flow from and seek to perfect love.  The problem with statements like, “marriage is not for you but for your spouse” is that they diminish the interconnectedness of all of the aspects of matrimony and thereby render even the ones they seek to uphold powerless.  Consider another passage from Wojtyla (emphasis in original):

An inner need to determine the main direction of one’s development by love encounters an objective call from God.  This is the fundamental appeal of the New Testament, embodied in the commandment to love and in the saying ‘Be ye perfect’, a call to self perfection through love.  This summons is addressed to everyone.  It behooves every ‘man of good will’ to give it concrete meaning, in application to himself by deciding what is the main direction of his love.  ‘What is my vocation’ means ‘in what direction should my personality develop, considering what I have in me, what I have to offer, and what others – other people and God – expect of me?’ A believer who is unreservedly convinced of the truth and reality of the New Testament’s vision of human existence is also aware that his own spiritual reserves alone are inadequate to the development of his personality through love (257).
One’s vocation, if it is to marriage, is a fundamental calling to self-perfection by means of all that marriage is, offers, and asks for.  Recall that marriage is a Sacrament, and so by its very nature confers Sanctifying Grace, that unmerited infusion of Divine life without which one cannot know God (see Summa Theologica IV, 42, 3 for a discussion on this point).  Marriage is no less “for me” – should I be called to be married - than is baptism.  And, like baptism, marriage by its nature must, if lived authentically, work itself out in the very self-giving love for spouse, child, and God that the original articles were so rightly concerned with.

If one is going to be married, then one had better recognize all that marriage calls him to.  That includes selfless love of spouse.  It includes a selfless generosity and openness to children.  It includes responding joyfully to the graces conferred in the marital state so that he can become a better spouse and parent, and indeed a holy one.  Marriage is, as Wojtyla and the Church have said in too many places to cite, for the mutual love of the spouses.  It is not something which can be reduced to my attitude toward the other, but must encompass our love together as husband and wife, and our shared end, which is God.  Said Wojtyla, "The only escape from this otherwise inevitable egoism is by objective good... [which] is the foundation of love, and individual persons, who jointly choose a common good, in doing so subject themselves to it" (38).  To try to break this unifying love down to that of one individual goes against the very nature of marriage, even as first and most simply laid out as that by which a man and a woman become "one flesh" (Genessi 2:24; Mark 10:8).

This all having been said, a valid question may arise as to why this has been worth addressing.  It is true, after all, that the two articles with which we began this consideration show forth good, valid points which are in much need of a bit of attention in this present age.  Too often we do view marriage as not simply being for the self in some sense, but as being primarily for the self.  No doubt, these authors have helped many with their work.  At the same time, history demonstrates well that combating one error with a broad brush which may cover over a bit too much rarely benefits the cause in the end.  In this case in particular, a person who enters into marriage wholly concerned with the holiness and happiness of his spouse and children, but entirely negligent of the Sacrament's impact on his own, can easily be a detriment to both.  Because marriage is indeed so near a topic to so many people and one which will have an impact on the lives of many, and moreover because it is so important to get marriage right in an age where so many get it wrong, it seems important to try to shed some additional light on the subject and to refine a bit those broad strokes which our original authors used to such beneficial an effect.


Wojtyla, Karol. Love and Responsibility. 1981. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993. Print.

[i] The distinction between the two delineations would seem to lie in whether one regards that end of remedium concupiscentiae to be distinct from or subsumed within the mutuum adiutorium