Consumer Families, Virtue and the Common Good

[1]The debate over what constitutes and how to live “family values” continues and revolves primarily around the meanings and practices of marriage. Receiving less attention is how Christian families, in whatever form, strive to live with justice and compassion in a culture that is increasingly characterized by individualism, unsustainable patterns of consumption, and competition.1 Rather than look at family life through the lens of sexual ethics, I propose to use the concept of the common good from the social teachings of the church and the language of virtue because they can spark the moral imagination of families and guide families in practices that both resist and transform the culture according to gospel values.

Consumer Families, Virtue and the Common Good by Mary M. Doyle Roche

The Signs of the Times
[2] As I write this piece, Christians have entered the season of Advent, though anticipation of Christmas in the shopping malls has been in evidence since before Columbus Day. The impact of our consumer culture is felt most intensely at this time of year as we are inundated with catalogues by mail and television advertisements. The advertising industry ramps up the pressure, especially for children who see commercial after commercial for toys and television programs with numerous product tie-ins.2 Moreover, families receive the message that the best way to serve their communities and the economy, especially in a time of financial crisis, is to spend.

[3] By the time this piece reaches the on-line community, Christmas trees will have come down, post-holiday sales will have passed, and families will continue consuming. Christians may complain about consumption at Christmas, and bemoan the fact that the patient yet eager waiting of Advent which leans toward Bethlehem and the joy of the Incarnation has been replaced with shopping that brings only emptiness in the end. Christians may raise a prophetic voice about keeping Christ in Christmas, but the sound seems to be muted until Advent (or Columbus Day) rolls around again. Consumerism is with us all year long, has global impact, and we are already fatigued when holiday preparations begin.

[4] Human beings are consumers. We are not like other organisms that can produce their own energy. We consume to survive: by breathing, eating, drinking, clothing ourselves, building appropriate shelter, and so on. We also consume to feed our intellect, emotions, and souls by listening to music, admiring works of art, and reading everything from the daily newspaper (on-line) to great literature. Consuming itself is not morally problematic. Consumerism marked by competition and conducted at unsustainable levels is. “Consumer” as the primary descriptor for persons diminishes human dignity and limits the horizons for human flourishing in creation.3

[5] This culture is indeed overwhelming for individuals and families. Christians in the United States are also shaped by an individualistic culture that tends to focus on personal morality to the exclusion of recognizing the complex social factors that influence and often severely limit personal moral choices. It is up to individual persons and families to “just say no” to consumerism. However, resisting the culture requires a strong network of support and a transformative view of the role that families can play in the lives of their individual members, their most vulnerable members in particular, and in the church and society at large.

Families and the Common Good
[6] In the documentary heritage of the social teachings of the Catholic Church, the common good has been defined as the sum total of the conditions of social living whereby individuals and communities can achieve their perfection more readily.4 In other words, social conditions can either enhance human flourishing or undermine it. Human beings are by nature profoundly social and interdependent. That human beings require relationships to survive and to thrive is not an unfortunate necessity, but rather a profound human good. Among the moral implications of this relational nature is the call to pursue goods and goals that move persons beyond self interest, however “enlightened” that interest may be.5 There are goods of human living that require a widespread communal effort to realize: just economic conditions, a life-giving faith community, a sound healthcare infrastructure, a quality system of education, democratic forms of government, etc.

[7] The common good includes both distributive and participatory justice. That is to say that the goods achieved in and through our common enterprise ought to be distributed according to the norms of justice and no person or family can be denied ready access to their basic needs. Achieving the common good may tolerate some forms of inequality in the sense that not every person or family is treated in exactly the same way. However, the gross levels of economic inequality and forms of discriminations based on gender or race that we witness today are inconsistent with realizing the common good.

[8] The second key element is participation. All people are called to contribute to building the common good according to their particular abilities and resources. There are many ways in which people participate: through labor (both domestic labor and work that occurs outside the home), political participation through voting and service, paying taxes, volunteer work and other forms of civic involvement. Just as being denied basic goods leads to injustice, so too does being denied forms of participation lead to marginalization.

[9] What does this tradition have to say to Christian families today? First, while families are charged with maintaining a safe environment for their vulnerable members (especially children, elders, and members with disabling conditions) and being a community of life and love where members ought to experience unconditional love and habits of reconciliation, the image of the family as a haven in a heartless world is no longer adequate to describe the social role of the family. Such an image fosters a perception that families exist in isolation, apart from wider social conditions. Moreover, it has often meant that some members of families (primarily, but not exclusively, women and children) are denied full and meaningful participation in society under the guise of being protected from the arduous tasks of business and governance.

[10] The boundaries of family life are in practice considerably more porous. The gospels warn against absolutizing blood relations, in favor of communities founded on baptism. The moral implications for our time might expand beyond the baptized community to include practices of solidarity that move in ever-widening circles of inclusion. The challenge for families is to resist a posture of competitiveness that seeks to gain not only the best for family members, but seeks to gain advantage over other families, often at the expense of other people’s children.

[11] This move to a spirit of solidarity with other families highlights two other elements of the common good tradition that need to be highlighted in the context of family life. As the common good is shaped by a spirit of solidarity, of standing with others in a struggle for justice, it invites a move from thinking only in terms of charity to thinking about the structural changes that justice requires. It may be true that “charity begins at home” and that charitable giving is a central Christian practice. However, charity often fails to address the underlying root causes of injustice.

[12] Increasingly, the demands of the common good must be interpreted in light of the church’s option for the poor and vulnerable. The “common good” can easily be misinterpreted as utilitarian, a concept that seeks the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Even with this misinterpretation, many people fail to realize the extent to which the “greatest good for the greatest number” that is achieved is in actuality the good for the minority who have power and privilege. The common good includes all individuals and communities. To the extent that achieving the common good requires sacrifice, and it does, great care must be taken the burden of sacrifice does not fall repeatedly on the same individuals and groups (women, children, the poor, and persons of color).

[13] Acting on behalf of the poor and vulnerable in a consumer culture is often limited to charitable giving from one’s excess rather than one’s want. Christian families are right to pay special attention to charitable giving during the Christmas holiday in the knowledge that poor children are not immune to the culture of advertising and face the same disappointments as children of privilege. Giving trees and the like can also play an important pedagogical function about the meaning of Christmas and the gift of the Incarnation, so long as the lesson does not end there. Reflection on the season ought to prompt Christians to think about ongoing practices that might improve the situation of poor families and practices that might loosen the stranglehold that consumerism and advertising have on all families. This may spur changes in giving throughout the year (both in terms of frequency but also in terms of giving to organizations that work for institutional changes on behalf of the poor), in voting habits, in the use of time by adults and children in families alike, and in patterns of consumption (what is consumed and in what amounts).

Families and Virtue
[14] For families to draw on, contribute to, and participate in the common good they need practice and it is on this point that the language of virtue is extremely useful. The life of discipleship and virtue is an ongoing process. Just as one does not begin a habit of jogging at the Boston Marathon, resisting and transforming consumerism in family life does not happen overnight. Neither is it easy for families and children to begin a commitment when the most intense shopping season is upon us. Resisting and transforming consumerism is something that takes practice throughout the year and there is no time like the present. We build our stamina and endurance, our patience and temperance. Christian families who undertake a new attitude toward consumer culture and the treadmill of work and spending that it requires, can meet the test of Christmas if habits of sustainable consumption, and participation in the good of our communities with special emphasis on the well-being of the poorest among us, have become second nature.

[15] Virtue takes just this approach. In the classic Aristotelian sense, virtue observes a mean relative to the person. That is to say that what a virtue like courage requires will depend on the context and the person striving to be courageous. But it is a “moving mean.” With prudence and experience courage can demand more and more. In contemporary retrievals of the virtue tradition, virtue is about striving out of love to do the right, it is about growing in our relationships with others — those we know and love, those we may never meet but whose moral claim on us is nevertheless strong — and with ourselves in the most intimate place of our conscience. In the case of family life, it requires a vision of the kind of family we want to build: one that is faithful and just. It requires an honest account of where we are now and the habits, some of which are vices, that shape our actions. It requires a proactive plan in which families walk before they run. It requires a plan with both proximate and long-term goals that address how families consume as well as how they contribute to the life of the community. The formulation and execution of the plan, if it is to be successful, will require the participation of all of the family’s members according to their abilities.6

[16] Finally the life of virtue oriented toward the common good for all families often takes the support of a community to maintain. Virtue requires mentors, who are not necessarily to be imitated – there are many forms of resistance and transformation and one size does not fit all. Some families will eliminate or limit exposure to media and advertising. Others will focus on the content of what is consumed by using fair trade and organic goods when possible. Others will resist an economy in which things and people become disposable. Others will restructure their family time and the kinds of activities that consume time, energy, and money.

[17] However, the ultimate goal of family life is not isolation for the sake of moral purity. The virtue tradition maintains that we become what we do. When virtue is oriented toward the common good, new practices renew families and communities. New practices may have a positive impact on individual family members but perhaps as important, they impact the well-being of the family as a whole, whose flourishing is intimately bound up with the flourishing of the world’s poorest families and the environment which sustains the common good of all creation.

[18] The context for family life taken up here has been consumerism. An approach to family life oriented to the common good and guided by virtue has the potential to engage any number of other related moral questions and contexts, for example the technological age that has radically changed communication, the delivery of healthcare, and the goals of education. These form the social conditions that enhance or undermine the flourishing of families. Families must be able to draw on their fruits and envision for themselves a role in common life that can be realized with practice in relationships of solidarity.


1. A notable contribution to expanding our notion of family is Julie Hanlon Rubio, Family Ethics: Practices for Christians (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2010).

2. Susan Linn, Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood (New York: The New Press, 2004); and Juliet B. Schor, Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (New York: Scribner, 2004).

3. Kenneth Himes, “Consumerism and Christian Ethics.” Theological Studies 68(2007): 132–153.

4. Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), paragraph 26. Available at (accessed December 1, 2011).

5. Thomas Massaro, Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action, Second Classroom Edition (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011).

6. James F. Keenan, Moral Wisdom: Lessons and Texts from the Catholic Tradition, Second Edition (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).

Mary M. Doyle Roche

Mary M. Doyle Roche is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Edward Bennett Williams Fellow at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.