Summary: Whether in a family or in society, there must be room for gracious gift, not just equal value exchange, even for the sake of justice.

January 10, 2010

Caritas in Veritate

We can only imagine the look that poor Hannah gave Elkanah after he said “why are you crying. Am I not worth more to you than ten sons?” In Israel, as in many cultures today, having a son is economic security in old age. The sons had responsibility for caring for their aged parents, especially widows. Part of human development in a truly humane culture is transcending mere economic and contractual exchange into a recognition of the essential character of gift in all personal relationships. The parents give life to the child, and give care for many years. The child then cares for the parents in their declining years, by actions of support and affection. That is way more than an even exchange.

Our Holy Father tells us that economic activity cannot be thought to be separated from gratuitousness. That sense of gift “fosters and disseminates solidarity and responsibility for justice and the common good among different economic players” and is “clearly a specific and profound form of economic democracy.” He gives us a useful definition of that much-abused word: solidarity. He says “Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone[93], and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State.” In today’s economy, he says, “without gratuitousness, there can be no justice in the first place. What is needed, therefore, is a market that permits the free operation, in conditions of equal opportunity, of enterprises in pursuit of different institutional ends.” Yes, there will be profit-oriented private enterprise, public enterprise, but also “commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursuing social ends to take root and express themselves.” The most well-known of these may be our church-related credit unions and coops. Benedict quotes favorably Pope Paul VI, who “called for the creation of a model of market economy capable of including within its range all peoples and not just the better off. He called for efforts to build a more human world for all, a world in which “all will be able to give and receive, without one group making progress at the expense of the other.”

In paragraph 39 we can read Benedict’s prophetic critique of the administration’s current health care proposal even before it was proposed, because what he criticized is operating large in that legislation: “When both the logic of the market and the logic of the State come to an agreement that each will continue to exercise a monopoly over its respective area of influence, in the long term much is lost: solidarity in relations between citizens, participation and adherence, actions of gratuitousness, all of which stand in contrast with giving in order to acquire (the logic of exchange) and giving through duty (the logic of public obligation, imposed by State law). In order to defeat underdevelopment, action is required not only on improving exchange-based transactions and implanting public welfare structures, but above all on gradually increasing openness, in a world context, to forms of economic activity marked by quotas of gratuitousness and communion. The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society. The 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.”

When we see how the health care proposal mandates the purchase of health insurance, or restricts purchases from medical savings accounts to prescription drugs rather than less expensive OTC medicines, we see exactly that kind of mutually monopolistic dealing between government and industry. When we see politicians ignoring the moral guidance of the bishops and other religious leaders, we see the common good of society being shouldered aside by raw political power. And when we see the bill riding roughshod over the rights of conscience, we actually experience law making attitudes of gratuitousness illegal. If you want to know why the bishops are opposing the health bill, you need read no further in the document than paragraph 40. If, however, politicians and captains of industry have the wisdom to read the whole document, we might start making the changes needed to create a more humane society where there is ample room for gift.

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