The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy has unleashed for me a flood of memories and triggered a number of rueful meditations. I come from a family of intense Kennedyphiles. Both of my parents—Irish and Catholic to the bone—deeply admired the Kennedy family. My mother was especially fond of Rose, the pious and energetic matriarch of the clan. Magazines and newspapers reporting the assassination and funeral of President Kennedy were cherished keepsakes in our home when I was growing up; and the murder of Sen. Robert Kennedy (when I was eight) is one of the most vivid and poignant memories of my childhood. For my father, the Kennedys represented the continuation of the great Democratic tradition stretching back through Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Harry Truman, FDR, all the way to Al Smith. One of my earliest political memories was joining in with my father in lustily booing Richard Nixon as he appeared on the TV screen accepting the nomination of the Republican party at their 1972 convention in Miami. My father just didn’t care for Republicans, seeing them as the representatives of the interests of the rich. Democrats, he often told me, stick up for the little guy, the oppressed, those who fall through the cracks of the society. And they were, he argued, the politicians most in line with the instincts of the Catholic social teaching tradition. My uncle Tommy, another died-in-the-wool Democrat, often worried that, as my father moved into the upper middle class, he might commit the unforgiveable sin of voting Republican!
Just last week I was in Toulouse France, filming for my ten part documentary on Catholicism. I will admit that I was in Toulouse for fairly personal reasons. In the Dominican church of the Jacobins, in a golden casket situated under a side altar, are the remains of my hero, St. Thomas Aquinas. I spent a good amount of time in silent prayer in front of Thomas’s coffin, thanking him for giving direction to my life. When I was a fourteen year old freshman at Fenwick High School, I was privileged to hear from a young Dominican priest the arguments for God’s existence that Thomas Aquinas formulated in the thirteenth century. I don’t entirely know why, but hearing those rational demonstrations lit a fire in me that has yet to go out. They gave me a sense of the reality of God and thereby awakened in me a desire to serve God, to order my life radically toward him. I’m a priest because of God’s grace, but that grace came to me through the mediation of Thomas Aquinas.
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.