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.
I’ve just finished reading a most extraordinary novel, one that sheds considerable light on the spiritual predicaments of our own time.
The odd thing is that it was written just over a hundred years ago.
It’s called The Lord of the World
, and it was authored by Robert Hugh Benson.
Benson was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to the shock and chagrin of much of British society, he left the Anglican church and became a Catholic priest.
Benson died young at 41, just after finishing this book.