What’s Love Got To Do With It? Charity & Economics

Tonight I went to see a lecture by Fr. Raymond J. deSouza, a Roman Catholic priest, commentator for the National Post, and economics professor at Queen’s University.  He was talking about Pope Benedict’s recent social encyclical which called for charity to become a part of our economic system in a foundational way – as in, all of our economic transactions should be in a spirit of charity.  Here’s my response, as formulated for Global Problems and Change class:

Raymond J. deSouza spoke about Pope Benedict’s recent social encyclical, in which the pope called for a new foundation or premise for our economic system: charity.  This is a revolutionary idea that defies our notion of economics, which is a system of human exchange (as opposed to gift-giving); to discuss it we must make some clarifications.

To make charity, in the sense of gift-giving, foundational to our economic system is nonsensical: a gift by definition cannot be demanded, yet in the distribution of goods the recipient or consumer of goods is the source of demand.  For such a system to work would require a central authority that is aware of the needs and desires of every human being and able to distribute goods accordingly – at which point these goods are no longer gifts, but allotments.  This is communism, and not at all what Pope Benedict is implying.  Instead, we should define charity as gratuitousness: to give (or pay) above and beyond what is required.  This is understood in the context of our current economic system which is based on efficiency, in which the goal of a producer is to lower their cost and maximize their profit, often by any means necessary.  The principle of charity applied to this situation would imply that a producer’s goal shifts away from maximizing personal profit and toward generosity, whether through paying ample wages to their workers or through charging fair prices for their products.  The model of success would no longer be infinite growth, but (ideally) greater “genuine wealth” for the entire community.

We must also be clear that charity must be defined in this sense rather strictly, because society’s frequent definition of charity as anything given that is not required of the giver actually demands less than the existing economic system.  deSouza noted that justice is necessary for the existing economic system, because a system of human exchange cannot profitably sustain itself without trust.  This is somewhat naïve, because it assumes that both parties in the exchange are equal; we know that most of the trade that occurs in the world is not on a level playing field, with consumers towering over workers in terms of wealth and social standing, and ourselves dwarfed by the corporations that perform the exchange; there is little trust involved, much less necessary.  Still, at least in theory, trade requires trust which in turn requires justice.  Surely the demands of justice, in any sense, outweigh the common definition of charity.  We must be clear, then, that charity is gratuitousness beyond the demands of justice: it’s justice, and then some.  Charity without justice may mean throwing a few coins at a beggar, while justice itself requires that I care for the disenfranchised in my society and change the system that contributed to their low social position; charity in its fullest sense, then, requires that I provide justice from a sense of gratuitous love.

Pope Benedict speaks about how reason has a limited horizon – limited to the natural world – while faith broadens that horizon: faith allows for the existence of God, to which reason can then be applied to gain even more knowledge and understanding.  deSouza applied this analogy to economics: charity broadens the horizon of a system that had previously been limited to demanding only justice by suggesting that we should give beyond what is demanded.  This is an apt metaphor, but we must remember that it describes only human action or response; the horizon is always wider than our reason can allow for or our justice can demand, for such is the generous nature of God.  For such a system to be implemented, then, it must be grounded in the understanding of charity as a part of God’s nature.  Just as faith allows our reason to perceive of God’s nature – not to create anything new, but to see reality as it really is – so too expanding the horizon of justice through charity is not giving a greater demand than that of justice, but recognizing that the true reality of God is not one of bare justice but of gratuitous generosity.  It is recognizing that, though demanding justice is good, it alone falls far short of God’s generosity.  This generosity can be seen in many places throughout creation, but is nowhere more visible than in its ritual enactment in the Church: the Eucharist.

In the Eucharist and the offering, at least as it is performed in liturgical settings, we celebrate the fact that everything that is comes from God, and that he gives it freely.  We receive the gift of Jesus Christ, his flesh and blood signifying not only God’s provision for our life (through the Bread of Life) but also his provision for our salvation (through the atoning blood).  These two tokens or emblems represent all of human experience, in life and death: everything that is, is from God and given freely in love.  We receive it freely and humbly, recognizing that these tokens transcend their physical form and represent our relationship with God, and God’s generous nature, in profound ways.  Then, in the offering, we too offer tokens – whether a tithe of 10% of our income, or choosing to give more generously, or whether a token in truth – recognizing that these “gifts” to God are a response to his abundant provision and a recognition of his true ownership of all we have.  The offering is thus another profound statement of our relationship to God, again revealing his gratuitous providence and generosity.  (In this paragraph I’m completely dependent on a reading from the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, though I read it last year and can’t remember the title).

A system of charity must be based on God’s generously loving nature, which allows us to give and receive with equal humility because it provides a class-free context in which we all recognize our position as no more than stewards, in which we are all completely dependant upon an Other and thus free to share with one another.  Outside of such a context there is much social stigma and shame involved in receiving undeservedly.  deSouza made the point that this shame often comes down to human pride, of which we are all guilty, and to an extent he is right, though I agree with the criticism of some that this comment came from, and was delivered to, people who are of incredible wealth and social position.  While it is true that the wealthy often have more pride to conquer, our world of inequality creates more reason for shame than simple pride: the poor, the disenfranchised, the destitute, often have many reasons for shame that charity can bring to the surface.  This underscores the point above, and shows the underlying weakness of this entire argument: such a system can only exist within the Church, within the recognition of God’s gratuitous grace and the classless social setting it provides.

Theoretically, Pope Benedict’s call for charity in addition to justice in the realm of human economics is inspired; indeed, the nature of God calls for it, even demands it, among those who represent that nature to the world.  But we are indeed in the world, and it is in the world that economics are a problem.  This call to charity in economics comes on the heels of a global financial crisis caused in large part by human greed – the opposite of charity – in a system that promotes injustice in large part as a result of the vast inequalities that exist within it.  This call for charity ups the ante, raises the standard for marketplace ethics and morality, because the basic demand of the economy (justice) is not being met.  But this requirement is not being met precisely because it is in the fallen world that economics is carried out; what good is it to pontificate on systems that only work in a perfect world?  What good is it to promote a system of economics that only works within the Church?  If economics fell into the context and under the presuppositions of the Church, then we would not need to urge charity in the hopes of at least getting justice.  Pope Benedict’s call for charity, then, is wonderful theology without practical application to the unbelieving world and its economic system.

We must not forget, however, that the Church is itself within the world.  While it is true that the economics of the Church are not the economics of the world, which is in a sense precisely the point: we enact an economy that is not of this world, within this world.  There is incredible power inherent in this.  deSouza made the point that the world tries to separate morality or ethics from business, as if business is outside of God’s sovereignty; we make the claim that nothing is outside of God’s sovereignty, and in living out this claim we call judgment on those who do not.  If a Christian business owner makes gratuitous generosity a part of his business practice, the world takes notice; if many do so, it provides a social standard – a standard that brings negative comparisons to those businesses that do not attempt to meet it.  When theology is performed by the Church – when Christ inhabits his Body – it brings judgment on the world and gratuitous love to the world.  So though this system has no application in global economics, its application within the Church is profound enough on its own.  To make this theology of abundance applicable, then, we must only live it out ourselves in obedience to the One we represent, and he can use it to change the world.


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