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Pope Benedict and the Logic of Gratuity

Pope Benedict and the Logic of Gratuity

By Rev. Robert Barron

One of the most intriguing—and original—ideas in Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical on the social order is that the ethics of obligation and mutuality have to be supplemented by an ethic of gratuity.  By an ethic of mutuality he means the moral logic that obtains in the marketplace, whereby people, according to the terms of a contract, give in order to receive something in return.  So you pay me a certain amount, and I provide certain goods and services to you.  This is the essence of what the Catholic tradition calls commutative justice, the fair play among the various members of a society or economic community.  By an ethic of obligation, he means the moral logic that obtains within the political arena, whereby people are compelled by law to give to others in order to realize distributive justice, or a fairer allotting of the total goods of a society.  For example, through taxation, one is obliged to transfer some of one’s wealth to the government for the sake of the common good.  Now the Pope insists that these two types of giving are essential to the right ordering of any human community; we should never, he thinks, fall short of them, preferring injustice to justice.  Nevertheless, they must be complemented, leavened if you will, by a more radical type of giving, what he terms the ethic of gratuity.  According to this mode, one gives, not because he is contractually obligated or legally compelled to give, but simply because it is good so to do.  This is the kind of giving that mimics most fully the divine manner of giving.  The God who made the universe ex nihilo could never, even in principle, have done so out of contractual or legal obligation.  He received nothing in return for creation, and nothing outside of his own will could ever have compelled him to create.  He gave of himself and let the world be simply because it was good to do so. 

Without the presence of sheerly graceful or gratuitous giving, the Pope contends, even a just society will become, in time, cold and less than fully human.  There is an interesting parallel here with the moral life.  In traditional Catholic  theology, justice is recognized as a natural virtue, that is to say, a form of excellence that can exist apart from divine grace and that can be appreciated even by unelevated human reason.  But love is a theological or properly supernatural virtue, which can come only through a participation in the divine life.  The just person is morally praiseworthy, admirable, a gentleman; but the person of love is a saint.  And without love, even natural justice can devolve into calculation and gamesmanship, a play of tit for tat. 

So far, you might say, so abstract.  But I think we can show that the Pope’s principle plays out very concretely in history.  In 1945, Germany lay in ruins, devastated by the wicked behavior of its leaders.  Many in the west felt that, in justice, a harsh peace should be imposed on the defeated nation, but Secretary of State George Marshall and President Harry Truman decided that a merciful response was called for.  They implemented what came to be known as the Marshall Plan, a comprehensive effort to rebuild German society and restore the German people to dignity.  Though one might cynically suggest pragmatic motives for this policy, I think Winston Churchill had it right when he called the Marshall Plan “the most unsordid act in history.”  A logic of strict justice would have dictated a punitive response to the nation that had caused so much misery; Truman and Marshall intuited that in the wake of the calamity of the world war, a logic of gratuity was more appropriate. 

African Americans had, by the 1950’s, endured two hundred years of slavery, oppression, discrimination, and segregation.  In strict justice, they could claim a right to defend themselves, even through violence, and to demand various forms of compensation for years of abuse.  Figures such as Malcolm X and James Baldwin militated for this kind of justice.  But Martin Luther King, who fully acknowledged the deep injustice that blacks had suffered, nevertheless advocated the path of non-violence and reconciliation, exercising toward mainstream America thereby a logic of gratuity.  And it was precisely this approach that proved so practically transformative. 

In ancient Israel, there was the custom of celebrating, every fifty years, a year of Jubilee, during which all debts were cancelled.  The Jubilee gave hope to those who had labored under the weight of debilitating financial obligations.  This wiping clean of the economic slate was, in the strict sense, a violation of justice, but it was a prime example of the logic of gratuity and a conscious imitation of the generosity of God.  Just a few years ago, Pope John Paul II called for a revival of the Biblical Jubilee in regard to third world countries who were saddled with enormous debt toward the nations of the developed world.  Under the weight of this obligation, these economies, the Pope saw, couldn’t develop and expand.  And so he urged the wealthier societies to wipe away the debt and give the poorer peoples a clean slate.  Bankers and investors in the first world balked, of course, at this violation of justice, but the Pope insisted that, given the gravity of the situation, only the logic of gratuity would conduce toward an economic renewal in underdeveloped nations. 

And so, Pope Benedict teaches, we must never fail to meet the demands of justice, but at the same time, we must never remain the prisoners of mere justice.  According to the Christian vision, justice must be leavened by love, and equity complemented by gratuity.