God in Things and People: Commodity Fetishism and the Eucharist

The Eucharist is many things, not least of which is a profound reflection on and practice of the relationship of humans and God to the material world. Catholics in recent decades have not been particularly good at spelling out those connections. There tends to be a divide in parishes between the devotees of Eucharistic adoration on the one hand, and the social justice committee on the other.

For a certain kind of Catholic, the point of the Eucharist is transcendence of the material world, an evacuation of the substance, the breadness of bread and the wineness of wine, and its replacement with Christ. The Eucharist is a miraculous portal for the individual soul to achieve spiritual oneness with God despite the person’s material circumstances. For another kind of Catholic, this sounds like escapism; Eucharistic piety, if it is to be relevant, must be translated into a symbol for more pressing ethical concerns. The first type of Catholic suspects the second of secularizing the Eucharist, reducing it to mere worldly concerns. The second type of Catholic suspects the first of collusion with injustice, fiddling while the world burns.

What I hope to do in what follows is to present a view of the Eucharist that is simultaneously transcendent and deeply implicated in the material world, that both worships the real presence of Christ in the elements and is directly relevant to the day-to-day realities of our economic system. I will do so by addressing the fetishism of commodities, that is, the investing of material things with transcendent powers.

Commodity fetishism is a critique of the deification of material things in our current economic system; it is famously associated with Karl Marx, but I will argue that it is a theme also found, at least implicitly, in Catholic Social Teaching. But the investment of divinity in the material is also precisely what is at stake in the Eucharist. So I want to explore the possibility that the Eucharist provides a better practice of God in things that can help heal the distortions produced by commodity fetishism.

I will begin by exploring the theme of commodity fetishism, both in Marx and in Catholic Social Teaching. I will then turn to sacramental theology and suggest that a worthy practice of the Eucharist can help restore the fractured relationships between and among people, the material world, and God.

I. The Fetishism of Commodities

We misunderstand Marx’s famous idea of commodity fetishism if we think of it as a manifestation of materialism, a consumer society’s obsession with things and the favoring of the material over the spiritual. According to Marx, commodity fetishism is the opposite of materialism. In a capitalist economy, he writes, things have double lives; a table can be used to write on or it can be exchanged in a market for money. As a commodity in the market, what matters is not what it can be used for, but its exchange value, how much money it can fetch. Its materiality is transcended: “as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness.”[1]

To grasp what Marx is saying here, think about when farmers dump milk or the government stores cheese in warehouses in order to support the price of dairy. What matters is not the material nourishment that these products could give to hungry people; what matters is their exchange value. A commodity, then, is dematerialized by the market; it is “a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”[2]

Besides a product’s use value, the other thing hidden by the market is the labor that went into its production. The social relationships among human beings that go into the production of things—who is laboring for whom, under what conditions, and for what pay—are all hidden. All we see are the products that enter into relationships of exchange with one another and with consumers.

It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor as soon as they are produced as commodities.[3]

By “fetishism” Marx does not simply mean the way people obsess about material things. He is using a term first pejoratively applied by Portuguese colonizers to describe the way small wooden figures or amulets were invested with divine powers by certain African peoples, as if the rosaries and scapulars carried by the Portuguese had nothing in common with such items. Marx uses the term to describe the way that capitalism invests powers in material items that appear to give them an agency beyond human control. The actual humans that make the items, at the same time, are subjected to market forces. “Commodities, in short, appear as the purchasers of persons. It is not the worker who buys the means of production and subsistence, but the means of production that buy the worker to incorporate him into the means of production.”[4] Marx calls this “the conversion of things into persons and the conversion of persons into things.”[5] It is what Alexandra Dobra calls the symmetrical deification of commodities and reification of human beings.[6] This exchange is central to Marx’s analysis of alienation.

Marx wrote before the full emergence of a consumer society, and well before the appearance of online shopping, but what he is writing about here can be illustrated by the dominance of Amazon. When one shops on Amazon, all one sees are pictures of products, with prices and reviews. Entirely absent are the human beings that make the products and any information about where they work, how the materials that went into the product are sourced, how much workers are paid, how they are treated, the environmental consequences of the process of production and distribution, and so on. Human beings have been eliminated from our view. All we see are products. With one click, they can be summoned to appear on our doorstep—abracadabra!—without having any contact, even virtually, with another human person. The Amazon packages mysteriously arrive at our doorsteps wearing a smile; on the Amazon commercials, they sing and dance. Things, as Marx says, have been converted into persons.

This process takes flight in the late nineteenth century. Until the Industrial Revolution, people made most of the things they owned or knew the person who made them. Even after the shift to a cash economy, stores sold generic goods, oats from a barrel, chairs and shirts without names. Only in the 1880s did branded and packaged items start to replace locally produced bulk items. The Quaker Oats man appears in 1888, and from then on products take on personality and life: Tony the Tiger, Kylie Jenner, the iconic Oscar Mayer ad (“My baloney has a first name”). There is an extensive scholarly literature exploring brand personality, animism, anthropomorphism, and fetishism in consumer products. But why is this the case? Why does my baloney have a first name? Anthropologists and economic historians think that once products were disembedded from social relationships—once we no longer knew the producer or the shopkeeper—advertising encouraged us to develop relationships with brands.[7] The human need for relationships would be transferred to things in order to better sell products. We are meant to relate to the commodities; this has the added advantage of dampening our curiosity about the people who make and deliver commodities to us.

If we peek behind the curtain of the consumer economy, however, we will see that the people are still there, despite all the efforts to make them disappear. Globalization has moved much manufacturing overseas, far from our view. Transnational corporations seek places where they can pay the least and be free from labor and environmental regulations. As of 2021, the minimum wage for garment workers in Sri Lanka was $54 per month, about an eighth of the estimated living wage in that country. Outsourcing means that even the corporations that brand and sell the products often do not have direct oversight or knowledge of the manufacturing process. This is a feature and not a bug in the system; many corporations have deliberately distanced themselves from responsibility for working conditions and environmental impacts. Rivers in Bangladesh and China have turned black, red, and blue from the garment industry’s waste, one environmental cost of our colorful wardrobes.[8] The environmental cost of growing and harvesting and mining the materials used in manufacturing are often even worse, but they too remain largely invisible to the consumer in the global North.

We need not go that far from home to understand the hidden nature of labor in our consumer economy. Here, even the minimal human contact involved in buying items at a store has been greatly diminished by the surge in online shopping. Thousands of stores and other small businesses have gone out of business or been forced to sell through Amazon Marketplace, thus surrendering a significant portion of their profits to a company that is not only a disproportionately large actor in the market, but actually owns the market. In an Amazon warehouse, unlike in a store, there is no downtime, no waiting for customers to come, no chitchat with co-workers or customers.

Amazon “fulfillment center” workers are monitored by handheld scanners: nineteen seconds to pick the next item four aisles over. Bathroom breaks and other drags on productivity are monitored and punished. Injury rates and turnover at Amazon warehouses are twice the industry average. A third of Amazon workers qualify for SNAP food assistance. In 2020—a year when Jeff Bezos’ net worth increased by $67 billion dollars, or $183 million dollars per day—Amazon reported its workers’ median annual salary was $28,848, meaning half its workers earned less. According to an extensive series of reports in the New York Times in 2021, human resources at Amazon are highly automated, with humans absent from most decisions to hire, manage, discipline, and fire workers.[9] People are both supervised by and treated like robots. According to James Bloodworth, who worked at an Amazon fulfillment center, “It was all obsessed with productivity. People were told off for taking five minutes to go to the bathroom. They started treating human beings as robots, essentially. If it proves cheaper to replace humans with machines, I assume they will do that.”[10]

All of this, I hope, will put flesh on the twin notion of the conversion of things into people and people into things. This is not only Marx’s concern but I think also captures a central dynamic in Catholic Social Teaching. Marx himself uses biblical language, identifying capital both with the Beast of the book of Revelation, and with Moloch, the Canaanite god associated in both the Old and New Testaments with child sacrifice. The idea in Marx that inanimate objects come alive by taking life from us is found first in the Bible’s critique of idolatry. In Isaiah 6, those who craft idols out of wood and stone become as deaf and dumb and mute as their creations, though they imagine that their creations take on life.

In Isaiah 44, a man uses half a block of wood to cook his dinner and the other half to make an idol, to which he bows down and pleads, “Save me, for you are my god!” Though he imagines that the idol lives, in fact it drains life from him. The narrator comments, “All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit.” Likewise, Psalm 135 says “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but they do not speak, they have eyes, but they do not see. . . . Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them.” The attribution of life to inanimate objects steals life from the humans who make them or trust in them.

Pope Benedict XVI refers to this exchange in his commentary on Psalm 135, adding, “This description of idolatry as false religion clearly conveys man's eternal temptation to seek salvation in the ‘work of his hands,’ placing hope in riches, power, in success and material things.”[11] In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II warns of the “‘idolatry’ of the market, an idolatry which ignores the existence of goods which by their nature are not and cannot be mere commodities.”[12] No pope has been more insistent than Pope Francis on critiquing the investment of divinity into material things. His first encyclical Lumen Fidei makes clear that abandoning belief in God does not mean abandoning belief, but rather the proliferation of gods, “an aimless passing from one lord to another . . . Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: ‘Put your trust in me!’”[13] Francis frequently uses language of idolatry when he talks about the current economic system, decrying the “idols of profit and consumption”[14] and “the road of covetousness, which ends in idolatry.”[15] We are subject to an “idol called money,” or to “this god-money.”[16] Our economic system, in Francis’s thought, is not secular; in Evangelii Gaudium, Francis refers to a “deified market”[17] and “the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”[18]

We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1–35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.[19]

The animation of material things and their elevation to the status of divinities is accompanied necessarily by the degradation of the human person to the status of a thing. The death of human beings is what gives life to these new gods. Francis denounces the “economic model which is idolatrous, which needs to sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit.”[20]

This language of idolatry and deification of material things is powerful for several interrelated reasons. First, it makes clear that the problem is not materialism as such, not the rejection of the spiritual for the material. A consumer culture instead transfers a kind of spirituality to the material; there is a migration of the holy in which people seek transcendence in material things. Second, the language of deification is also useful because it makes clear that the problem is not simply people having bad values or being selfish; the problem is rather more systemic. The entire system has been arranged so that relations of production are hidden, and consumption is centered. We spend our days immersed in marketing, building relationships with brands and products because labor has been disappeared (to use an expression coined in Latin America to describe human rights abuses under military regimes). We are subjected to this system as to a god to whose will we must submit.

In a world in which there are huge and growing inequalities between the owners of capital and the rest of humanity, however, the sense in which people are subject to this new god admits of wide variations. For consumers with money to spend, there is a sense of alienation. In Centesimus Annus, while rejecting Marxism, John Paul II acknowledged that Marx’s theme of alienation is indeed a reality in Western countries. “This happens in consumerism, when people are ensnared in a web of false and superficial gratifications rather than being helped to experience their personhood in an authentic and concrete way.”[21] Personhood is a central theme for John Paul II; a person has dignity not because they have autonomy (as in Kant) nor because they have money (which is the situation today de facto), but because they are capable of loving and being loved, by God and by other persons.

Before he became pope, Karol Wojtyla defined the norm of personalism in this way: “the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.”[22] A person who relates to things rather than to people has lost some of their humanity. Pope Francis referred to this depersonalization in a speech to economists and financiers, in which he compared being a cog in the economic system to being passed through an “organizational still” such as that for making grappa. Just as what results is no longer wine, the person “passes through this still and ends up . . . losing humanity and becoming an instrument of the system, the social system, economic system, a system where imbalance reigns . . . And when humanity is not at the center, another thing is at the center and [the human person] is at the service of this other thing.”[23]

However, Pope Francis’s main concern is not managers or consumers with money but the people who are excluded from sharing in economic abundance. The “throwaway culture” is a theme to which Francis often returns; it is a central metaphor that refers to trashing the earth’s resources but also and especially the discarding of people. The metaphor captures the treatment of persons as things, “to treat others as mere objects.” For Francis the throwaway of human beings can refer to the exploitation of labor for profit, but also refers to the premature death of millions of poor people,[24] to the status of migrants,[25] to forced labor,[26] to racism,[27] to abortion,[28] and a host of other economic and social problems. In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis writes, “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading.”[29] He continues on to say, “It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new.”

Francis has expanded the category beyond Marx; the excluded are not only the exploited, but the outcast. In other words, the only thing worse for many people than having a job in a sweatshop is not having a job in a sweatshop. Robotics and artificial intelligence are making increasing numbers of people redundant.[30] When the ideal is more consumption and less work, the reality is a small inner circle of consumers and their commodities, and a vast expanse of discarded humanity whose labor is not even necessary anymore.

II. The Eucharist

So far we have examined the interrelated deification of things and reification of people in the contemporary economy. Now I want to suggest that the Eucharist offers resources for countering both these dynamics. It should be said that Catholic Social Teaching has not been very good at making this connection explicit. Outside of Solicitudo Rei Socialis[31] and Laudato Si’, there is not a single reference to the Eucharist in any encyclical customarily considered a social encyclical.

A. Healing the Deification of Things

One possible response to the deification of things would be to separate God from things, the spiritual from the material, and opt for the former. If this is the goal, the Eucharist is counter-productive, because it makes a radical identification of materiality with God, the claim that this particular bread and wine actually become Christ, “body, blood, soul, and divinity.”[32] If fetishization is the investment of divinity into material form, the Eucharist would seem to qualify, which would explain the insistence in some Christian traditions that the Eucharist is only a symbol. Charles Taylor and others have traced the advent of secularization to certain attacks of the Reformers on the materialization of God as a kind of idolatry.[33] Catholics have insisted, on the other hand, that the Eucharist is not the degradation of God but the elevation of the material from mere matter to a sacramental portal to the divine. At the same time, a sacramental view prohibits treating things as divine, because a true sacrament is not an end in itself, but points beyond itself to God.

The Eucharist is a participation in the Incarnation and is therefore certainly an elevation of matter. As John Paul II writes, “The Word who became flesh imbues matter with a saving potential which is fully manifest in the sacraments.”[34] The elevation of matter is not for its own sake, however, but rather for the restoration of right relationships of people to God, to other people, and to the created order. John Paul II continues, “To those who seek a truly meaningful relationship with themselves and with the cosmos, so often disfigured by selfishness and greed, the liturgy reveals the way to the harmony of the new [person], and invites [them] to respect the Eucharistic potential of the created world. That world is destined to be assumed in the Eucharist of the Lord, in his Passover, present in the sacrifice of the altar.”[35] This phrase “the Eucharistic potential of the created world” indicates that not all material things are rightly ordered, but they have the potential of being brought into relationships that so order them.

Commodity fetishism, as we have seen, extracts commodities from their context in God’s created order and in the social relationships of production. The Eucharist, in contrast, is meant to offer both “the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands” as a sacrifice of praise to God. So, as Joseph Ratzinger has written, “The elements of the earth are transubstantiated, pulled, so to speak from their creaturely anchorage, grasped at the deepest ground of their being, and changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord. The New Heaven and the New Earth are anticipated.”[36] But it is not only the elements of the earth, what we call “nature,” but human work and human society that is elevated in the Eucharist. As Benedict XVI also writes,

To develop a profound eucharistic spirituality that is also capable of significantly affecting the fabric of society, the Christian people, in giving thanks to God through the Eucharist, should be conscious that they do so in the name of all creation, aspiring to the sanctification of the world and working intensely to that end. The Eucharist itself powerfully illuminates human history and the whole cosmos. In this sacramental perspective we learn, day by day, that every ecclesial event is a kind of sign by which God makes himself known and challenges us. The eucharistic form of life can thus help foster a real change in the way we approach history and the world.[37]

The popes have been critical of both the idolatry of material things—their investment with divinity—and the reduction of matter to “something indifferent, raw material to be utilized simply as we see fit.”[38] Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ seeks the antidote to both in a kind of prayerful contemplation in which, as the title of the encyclical indicates, God is praised in and through God’s creation. Material creation is neither an end in itself, nor dead matter to be used to feed the self’s desires; we are rather to see the beauty of the divine pulsing in the creation God has made.

As Francis writes in Laudato Si’, “The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things.”[39] Note the refusal here to separate nature from humanity, the leaf from the poor person. Francis further emphasizes that “it is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation.”[40] The Eucharist is an anticipation of the sanctification of all matter, a time when all of creation, both animate and inanimate things, are brought into harmony with one another and with God. Francis continues, “In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life.”[41]

The danger of this sacramental view of the world is that it can remain a mere aesthetics—look at all the pretty flowers!—a luxury that many people do not enjoy and a distraction from the ugliness of poverty, exploitation, and exclusion. This is why Francis refuses to separate human ecology from natural ecology.[42] In Laudato Si’, Francis uses the term “integral ecology” to show that care for the earth cannot be separated from care for the human person. The throwaway culture that is trashing the earth is the same culture that is discarding human persons, and the only way to restore the earth is also to heal the distorted human desires that lead to exploitation and exclusion. We must not pit a human-centered approach against an earth-centered approach; the only healing approach is a God-centered approach, one in which humans, animals, plants, and all material things find their meaning in the loving God who creates and sustains them in harmony.

Francis connects the Eucharist to this integral ecology explicitly in his discussion of the Sabbath, “a day which heals our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world.”[43] Sunday, the day of the Resurrection and the first fruits of a new creation, is a day of rest and celebration, one that steps back from the 24/7 cycle of work and consumption. Here we learn receptivity and gratuity. Sabbath is not just a waste of time or cessation of work, but that which gives work purpose. The Sabbath “protects human action from becoming empty activism; it also prevents that unfettered greed and sense of isolation which make us seek personal gain to the detriment of all else.”[44] Rest from work and consumption reinserts work and things into the context of relationships among people, God, and creation. Those who are hidden by commodity fetishism come to light. “Rest opens our eyes to the larger picture and gives us renewed sensitivity to the rights of others. And so the day of rest, centered on the Eucharist, sheds its light on the whole week, and motivates us to greater concern for nature and the poor.”[45]

B. Healing the Reification of Persons

If the Eucharist gives us resources for finding God in things while resisting making a god of things, it can also be a practice of resisting the conversion of persons into things. For Jesus, table fellowship was radically inclusive of outcasts, leading the Pharisees to complain that Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 5:30). In John’s version of the Last Supper, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and commands them to do the same to others, a sign of profound love, respect, and humble service toward persons in their individuality.

For Paul, the Eucharist offers resources for resisting the reification of persons by incorporating them into the body of Christ. In I Corinthians 8-10, the antidote to table fellowship with idols is table fellowship with one another in the body of Christ. In the Eucharist, the body of Christ is both what we eat and who we become. The act of consumption is curiously inverted. Augustine puts God’s word to us in this way: “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.”[46] The object of consumption here is a not a narcissistic mirror of our own desires; rather than isolating us into a relationship with things, we are pulled into a larger body, one in which, as Paul says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” There can be no throwaway people, because we are members of the same body. Indeed we are to consider the weakest members as indispensable, Paul says, and we are to give the greatest honor to the most inferior members (1 Cor 12:21-24).

For Paul, living Eucharistically means sharing food with the hungry. In 1 Corinthians 11 he chastises the community for coming together to eat the Lord’s supper, but neglecting to share their food. At the accompanying meal, some go hungry. The Eucharist is meant to generate an economy of gift, where we gratefully receive what we have from God and continue the circulation of gifts. Bringing up “the gifts” at the offertory is not simply our gift to God but our participation in the circulation of gifts that God inaugurates. Ignoring the hungry according to Paul is not just a lack of charity toward others but a failure to “discern the body” (11:29), a failure to see that we all participate in the same circulation of gifts in the body. Indeed, we share the same nervous system. Says Paul, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). Acts 2 describes this unity in economic terms: the early Christians not only broke bread together but shared all their possessions in common, distributing goods to all in need.

Those hidden by our system of production and consumption are not only to be included in this sacramental economy; they are themselves sacraments of God’s presence. The fetishism of commodities is countered by the sacramentalization of the exploited and hidden people who produce commodities for our consumption. The marginalized as sacrament of Christ is revealed in Jesus’s telling of the last judgment in Matthew 25:31–46. There the Son of Man identifies himself not with those who do good but with the “least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” those who were hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, or imprisoned. God comes to us in material form in people, especially the most vulnerable, who are living icons of Jesus Christ.

Both those who did not care for them and those who did were unaware that they were in fact the Lord. Jesus’s story of the last judgment is a challenge to see the people who have been marginalized and hidden. There is no indication that either the least or those who cared for them are limited to members of the church; “all the nations” are summoned to judgment before the Son of Man (Matt. 25:32). There is, nevertheless, a strong congruence between the sacrament of the Eucharist and the story Jesus tells here; those who would be assimilated to Christ’s body in the Eucharist must see the weakest as the most honored members of Christ’s body, and therefore as part of their very own body.

To recognize the presence of Christ in persons, especially the most vulnerable, is not to lose sight of the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements. Christ becomes vulnerable in both the bodies of the poor and in the humble form of bread and wine. In our polarized Church, Eucharistic adoration is often divorced from concern for the throwaway people. It need not be so. Joseph Ratzinger wrote a short piece on the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in which he acknowledges that the rise of Eucharistic adoration in the Middle Ages was accompanied by a loss in awareness of the communion the Eucharist is meant to effect among people. He writes, “The Eucharist is not aimed primarily at the individual. Eucharistic personalism is a drive toward union, the overcoming of the barriers between God and humanity, between ‘I’ and ‘thou’ in the new ‘we’ of the communion of saints.”[47]

But we should not contrast a supposedly “thing-like” presence of the reserved Eucharist with the action of eating and communion. The Eucharist is not a thing but the personal presence of Christ, a “person-to-person exchange.” “‘Eating’ it means worshipping it. Eating it means letting it come into me, so that my ‘I’ is transformed and opens up into the great ‘we,’ so that we become ‘one’ in him (cf. Gal 3:16).”[48] There should be no contrast between adoration and communion. Ratzinger points out, as well, that the reserved sacrament brings Christ’s presence equally to the humblest church and the greatest cathedral. Ratzinger thus implicitly recognizes the way the Eucharist bridges the spatial divide between the poor and the rich that our economy polices. Christ is present in the garbage dump parish of Payatas in Manila just as he is present in St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest.


Environmental destruction is often blamed on anthropocentrism, but in some ways our economy is commodity-centered, not human-centered. Commodities are personalized, while humans are depersonalized. The Eucharist is meant to be a practice of healing these broken relationships. The Eucharist is meant to de-center and un-deify commodities, restoring both material creation and human persons to sacraments of God’s presence.

The Eucharist does not do so automatically, of course. Without our cooperation, it does not bear fruit. Christians remain some of the worst idolaters. And yet the reality celebrated in the Eucharist that a renewed creation does not depend entirely on us, that God is at work in creation, can liberate us from despair. When we think that we are powerless, that “the economy” is an impersonal reality beyond anyone’s control, we can take hope in the myriad experiments in personalized economies all over the world; Pope Francis extols those “cooperatives of small producers [that] adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation, and community.”[49] The point of this type of economy is not a backward-looking nostalgia, but rather a forward-looking convergence of humans and all creation in the love of God, which is what the Eucharist anticipates. As Pope Francis writes, “all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things.”[50]

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay was first delivered as the final lecture of the "The Only Solution is Love: The Eucharist and Catholic Social Teaching" series hosted by Michael Baxter for the McGrath Institute for Church Life

[1] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Vintage, 1977), 163.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 165.

[4] Ibid., 1003-4.

[5] Ibid., 209: “die Personifizierung der Sachen und Versachlichung der Personen.”

[6] Alexandra Dobra, “What does Marx Mean by the ‘Fetishism of Commodities,’” E-Logos 7 (2010): 4.

[7] For example, “Familiar personalities such as Dr. Brown, Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, and Old Grand-Dad came to replace the shopkeeper, who was traditionally responsible for measuring bulk foods for the customers and acting as an advocate for products. . . . A nationwide vocabulary of brand names replaced the small local shopkeeper as the interface between customer and product.” Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, Design Writing Research: Writing on Graphic Design (New York: Kiosk, 1996), 177.

[8] Helen Regan, “Asian Rivers are Turning Black. And our Colorful Closets are to Blame,” CNN, September 28, 2020.

[9] Jodi Kantor, Karen Weise, and Grace Ashford, “The Amazon That Customers Don’t See,” New York Times, June 15, 2021.

[10] James Bloodworth, quoted in Aimee Picchi, “Inside an Amazon Warehouse: ‘Treating Human Beings as Robots,’” CBS News, April 19, 2018.

[11] Pope Benedict XVI, “General Audience,” October 5, 2005.

[12] Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, §40.

[13] Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, §13.

[14] Pope Francis, “General Audience,” St. Peter’s Square, June 5, 2013.

[15] Pope Francis, “Money Helps, Covetousness Kills,” Morning Meditation in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, October 21, 2013.

[16]Address of Holy Father Francis,” Pastoral Visit to Cagliari, Meeting with Workers, September 22, 2013.

[17] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, §56.

[18] Ibid., §54.

[19] Ibid., §55.

[20] Pope Francis, “Meeting with Representatives of Civil Society,” Asunción, Paraguay, July 11, 2015, no. 3.

[21] Centesimus Annus, §41. John Paul II goes on to talk about alienation of labor: “Alienation is found also in work, when it is organized so as to ensure maximum returns and profits with no concern whether the worker, through his own labour, grows or diminishes as a person, either through increased sharing in a genuinely supportive community or through increased isolation in a maze of relationships marked by destructive competitiveness and estrangement, in which he is considered only a means and not an end.”

[22] Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, trans. H.T. Willetts (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 41.

[24] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, §48.

[25] “A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization—all typical of a throwaway culture—towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world”; “Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2014.”

[26] “Peace is also violated by trafficking in human beings, the new slavery of our age, which turns persons into merchandise for trade and deprives its victims of all dignity”; “Address of Pope Francis to the Council of Europe,” November 25, 2014.

[27] Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, §20.

[28] Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, §18.

[29] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, §53.

[30] “This way of discarding others can take a variety of forms, such as an obsession with reducing labour costs with no concern for its grave consequences, since the unemployment that it directly generates leads to the expansion of poverty”; Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, §20.

[32] Council of Trent, Thirteenth Session, Canon 1: “If any one denieth, that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that He is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue; let him be anathema.”

[33] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 70-74.

[34] Pope John Paul II, Orientale Lumen, §11.

[35] Ibid. In Centesimus Annus 37, John Paul II writes on a sacramental view of material reality as antidote to consumerism: “In all this, one notes first the poverty or narrowness of man's outlook, motivated as he is by a desire to possess things rather than to relate them to the truth, and lacking that disinterested, unselfish and aesthetic attitude that is born of wonder in the presence of being and of the beauty which enables one to see in visible things the message of the invisible God who created them.”

[36] Joseph Ratzinger, “The Spirit of the Liturgy” in Theology of the Liturgy, vol. 11 of Joseph Ratzinger Collected Works, ed. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 107.

[37] Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, §92. Pope Benedict invoked the Eucharist as the remedy for idolatry in a homily in Paris on September 13, 2008.

[38] Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, §92.

[39] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, §233.

[40] Ibid., §236.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Lucas Briola argues that, at least in its reception by more conservative sectors of the Church, John Paul II and Benedict XVI did not fully overcome the split between natural ecology and human ecology. The latter term was often used by commentators to downplay responsibility for addressing the unfolding environmental crisis. Lucas Briola, The Eucharistic Vision of Laudato Si’ (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2023), 21-61.

[43] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, §237.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Augustine, Confessions, VII.16, 124.

[47] Ratzinger, “Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament” in Theology of the Liturgy, 53.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, §112.

[50] Ibid., §83.

Featured Image: Joseph Decker, Ripening Pears, 1885; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


William T. Cavanaugh

William T. Cavanaugh is Professor of Catholic Studies and Director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University. He is the author of many books, most notably, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict.

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