Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Gift and Gratuity: the heart of Caritas in veritate

My partner in blogging, the Humbly Presumptuous one, has observed that the idea of gift is at the center of Pope Benedict XVI's Encyclical Letter, Caritas in veritate.

Having been through the letter several times, I can say that my blogging partner, my friend and mentor philosophicus, is right on the money, notwithstanding George Weigel's dismissal of the language in which the Encyclical discusses of gift as:
[S]o clotted and muddled as to suggest the possibility that what may be intended as a new conceptual starting point for Catholic social doctrine is, in fact, a confused sentimentality of precisely the sort the encyclical deplores among those who detach charity from truth.
I admire George Weigel greatly, and I think he is right about there being a palpable difference between the Benedictine and the Curial sections. Nevertheless, I disagree very strongly with this dismissal, which is perplexing to me, given Weigel's renowned ability to parse the language of Romanitas.

The most sustained theoretical discussion of gift in the Encyclical is found in the opening section of the 34th paragraph - the opening paragraph of the third (and, it is beginning to appear to this commenator, central) chapter of the Letter:
Charity in truth places man before the astonishing experience of gift. Gratuitousness is present in our lives in many different forms, which often go unrecognized because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life. The human being is made for gift, which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension. Sometimes modern man is wrongly convinced that he is the sole author of himself, his life and society. This is a presumption that follows from being selfishly closed in upon himself, and it is a consequence — to express it in faith terms — of original sin. The Church's wisdom has always pointed to the presence of original sin in social conditions and in the structure of society: “Ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action and morals.” In the list of areas where the pernicious effects of sin are evident, the economy has been included for some time now. We have a clear proof of this at the present time. The conviction that man is self-sufficient and can successfully eliminate the evil present in history by his own action alone has led him to confuse happiness and salvation with immanent forms of material prosperity and social action. Then, the conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from “influences” of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way. In the long term, these convictions have led to economic, social and political systems that trample upon personal and social freedom, and are therefore unable to deliver the justice that they promise. As I said in my Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, history is thereby deprived of Christian hope, deprived of a powerful social resource at the service of integral human development, sought in freedom and in justice. Hope encourages reason and gives it the strength to direct the will. It is already present in faith, indeed it is called forth by faith. Charity in truth feeds on hope and, at the same time, manifests it. As the absolutely gratuitous gift of God, hope bursts into our lives as something not due to us, something that transcends every law of justice. Gift by its nature goes beyond merit, its rule is that of superabundance. It takes first place in our souls as a sign of God's presence in us, a sign of what he expects from us. Truth — which is itself gift, in the same way as charity — is greater than we are, as Saint Augustine teaches. Likewise the truth of ourselves, of our personal conscience, is first of all given to us. In every cognitive process, truth is not something that we produce, it is always found, or better, received. Truth, like love, “is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings.
In this section, the Holy Father accomplishes three things:
  • He uses the idea of gift to tie his present reflections to those he offered in Spe salvi;
  • He further ties his reflections on the virtue of Hope to his earlier reflections on Charity, making the notion of gift the thread that ties the thought of his three Encyclicals together;
  • He grounds his reflections in a densely expressed anthropological vision that has gift as its focal point, making the essential openness to gift the lynchpin that unites the human being in mundane existence to the divine transcendent source of all that is.
In the section immediately following the one quoted above, the Holy Father clarifies that the gift that is constitutive of the deep unity of the human race is the gift of charity in truth, which comes from God the Father. It is received by everyone - first, in our creation, our nature as creatures capable of community with the Divine and therefore with one another - and then, clearly enough for those who would understand (though he does not quite say it, not yet), in our ability to receive and respond with loving gratitude to the fullness of Divine Revelation in the true religion, founded by Christ.

"The logic of gift," writes Pope Benedict, "does not exclude justice, nor does it merely sit alongside it as a second element added from without." The Pope goes on to say that, in order to be authentically human, "[D]evelopment... needs to make room for the principle of gratuitousness as an expression of fraternity."

The principle of gratuitousness is not moon-struck sentimentalism, nor is it a foundation of the utopian dream of bohemian star children. It says that we are capable of giving, because and according to the measure which we have received.

A social order built on the idea that we are not capable of such giving, will always be one that constrains us to give what is due.

A social order built with every one of its parts explicitly justified in terms of more or less direct reference to this principle, however positiviely articulated, will likely be so cumbersome, so bulky and lumbering, as to stifle human invention.

A social order built by people who are aware of the operational presence of this principle in themselves, has some chance of reasonable success, so long as the people remember also the wounds in their nature.

By recalling us to the idea of gift, to the principle of gratuitousness, Pope Benedict XVI is helping us to find the right way of thinking about society. We do well to listen.


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