“Ask a Priest: Is Materialism the Same as Idolatry?”

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Q: I am very confused with what is materialism. Is materialism just the same as idolatry? Is it the same as greed? I couldn’t find a clear answer to it. Earlier once, I asked about attachment to a material thing that one owns. Is that materialism? Is materialism sin only when it is too much or is it intrinsically a sin? How can I avoid it? Thanks in advance for an answer. — R.B.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The word materialism is used in different ways.

As a philosophical term, it means a worldview that believes only the material world exists. It excludes God or the possibility of God working in the world.

It can also be a synonym for consumerism. That is when a person is overly attached to money and goods, to the detriment of spiritual values and the attention due to God.

There are varying degrees of attachment to material goods. Not all are sinful.

Let’s remember that the proper use of goods is to help us reach our perfection. We eat because it helps us stay healthy and strong. By being healthy and strong we can work and support our families or develop our God-given talents. And all this is eventually, ideally, to help us lead fruitful lives and reach heaven with God’s grace.

If some material goods help us in this regard more than others, it’s OK to take care of them and guard them well. A carpenter is understandably attentive to his tools because they enable him to ply his trade and feed his family.

If you need to drive to work in order to support your family, you will naturally put more importance on your car than on an old wheelbarrow sitting in the back yard.

When does attachment to material goods become sinful? That isn’t always an easy question to answer.

One criterion that can help is this: Is this or that material good a means to a greater end, or is it becoming an end in itself? It’s one thing to take time for an oil change to keep the car running well. It’s another thing to spend three hours every Sunday afternoon washing and waxing the vehicle.

Another example: It’s one thing to want a better computer if it helps make you more efficient in your work. But if you want a better computer in order to indulge yourself (by wasting endless hours on YouTube) or to impress your friends (your hard drive has more memory than theirs), then that’s not good.

Suffice it to say that all of us can be prone to getting attached to material goods to an unhealthy extent.

Here you need to periodically review your priorities. How much are you sharing with the poor? How much time are your spending with loved ones? How much of your happiness is linked to a material good?

Too much attachment to money or material goods can be a form of idolatry. Jesus warned, “It will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:13). Idolatry is a general term that refers to worshipping idols, to treating as divine things that are not divine and thinking that something besides God can bring us the fulfillment we yearn for.

So how to avoid the dangers of materialism? I would say you want to cultivate a spirit of poverty, that is, remember to share your things with the needy.

Make a habit of tithing to your church. Look at your closet or attic or garage occasionally and ask what you can donate to a needy cause. Be generous when people need your time.

If you lean in that direction, you will go a long way to avoiding being attached to material things.

For more reading on poverty, check out http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/poverty/index.cfm. You also might find it useful to watch this Retreat Guide, The Widow’s Might, on generosity and the proper use of material goods. I hope some of this is enriching.

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