Pope Benedict: A Call to a Higher Moral/Economic Plane
The most intriguing and exciting part of the new encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI for me is the brief section of Chapter 3 where he reflects on the “astonishing experience of gift.” As I read this I went back to a sermon of Professor Paul Ricoeur at the University of Chicago, entitled “the Logic of Jesus, the Logic of God.” Ricoeur challenges us to move beyond the logic of equality or equivalence to the logic of God, the logic of Jesus, and the logic of St. Paul--to a logic of excess and superabundance--to a logic of grace. He shows how Jesus moved beyond revenge, and beyond the Old Testament logic of equivalence (eye for an eye) to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile as in the Sermon on the Mount. So too Paul describes this divine logic as the way of God: “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” Ricoeur continues that this “logic of generosity clashes head on with the logic of equivalence which orders our everyday exchanges, our commerce and our penal law…”
Ricoeur explains that our market economy is founded on the law of equivalence or exchange, but this system is not eternal. In fact, “Ethnology tells us of an economy of the gift more ancient than that of exchange.” Then he challenges his listeners: “Is not our task at the national level, and even more at the international level, to bring about the economy of the gift within a modern context. Is not our task to rectify by some positive interventions, the inequality which results precisely from our application to all our economic and commercial relations of the logic of equivalence?”
Whether he is relying upon Ricoeur or not, or aware of this sermon of Ricoeur, this is precisely what Pope Benedict is challenging us to bring about. In accord with the social teaching of the Church, the Pope clearly sees the need for justice, but that is not sufficient in our complex world of inequalities. “The logic of gift does not exclude justice, nor does it merely sit alongside it as a second element added from without; on the other hand, economic, social and political development, if it is to be authentically human, needs to make room for the principle of gratuitousness as an expression of fraternity” (34). Again, “the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity” This is a human demand at the present time, but it is also demanded by economic logic. It is a demand both of charity and of truth” (36), and is strongly opposed to the purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life (34)
Pope Benedict desires that this logic of the gift enter at three levels, the market, the State and civil society. He notes that “in the past it was possible to argue that justice had to come first and gratuitousness could follow afterwards, as a complement, today it is clear that without gratuitousness, there can be no justice in the first place” (38). This is the only way to defeat underdevelopment and create community. He notes that this “market of gratuitousness does not exist, and attitudes of gratuitousness cannot be established by law. Yet both the market and politics need individuals who are open to reciprocal gift” (39).
Going back to the essay of Ricoeur, the Pope is calling us to reach higher and even in the realm of economics to live on the level of grace/gratuity - to follow the way and teaching of Jesus Christ which is the way of generous, unconditional love, the way of the Sermon on the Mount. Without using the word grace, this is his challenge, to move to the “rule of superabundance”, and put into practice “principles other than those of pure profit” (37). Will economists and world leaders hear this challenge and move to, or begin to include this higher “logic of the unconditional gift”(37)? Will they outrightly reject it, or will it become part of their ongoing discussion, for example on the reduction or elimination of the unpayable debts that bind so many poorer nations? That remains to be seen.
Peter Schineller, S.J.