Sermon at Matins on Sunday 16 August: Caritas in Veritate 3

16 August 2009 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence

Jesus was not a philosopher who lays down principles for the good life, but a prophet who cuts to the heart of things.  The Church has had to take his teaching and see how it relates to our everyday social and political life.  This is exactly what Pope Benedict does in Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth).  He surveys the world we live in, asking to what extent our dealings with one another really do reflect the love and truth to which the life and death of Jesus bears witness.

A central theme for Benedict is that of ‘gift’.   I guess this emphasis is something quite new in Catholic social teaching.  Not only does Benedict weave the themes of ‘love’ and ‘truth’ through his Encyclical, but he returns several times to the theme of ‘gift’, which brings together both love and truth.  ‘Truth, and the love which it reveals’, he says, ‘cannot be produced: they can only be received as a gift’ (51).  We say we ‘make love’ but that’s nonsense.  If anything, love ‘makes’ us.  When we realise we are loved, and were loved before we could possibly return love, we can only see this as a gift beyond words.  From our earliest years, we are, most of us, held within a circle of love and we learn to become carriers of love, so that the love we receive from others may in due to time be returned to them and to many others as well.  In our short lives, we learn something about being loved and about loving, but love outlasts us all.  We are enfolded in love as pure gift.

So too with truth.  We do not ultimately make truth.  We play a part in fashioning truth, in communicating truth, in showing truth, in learning, and often in hiding truth, but truth was there before were born and will be there after we die.  I know that post-modern thinkers would deny this, but in denying it they are of course trying to say something that is true – you don’t get away from truth as easily as all that!  I want next week to say more about ‘truth’, so for now I will only emphasise that real truth always comes to us as gift.  When we realise something to be true, when we really know it for ourselves, it is precious – even when the truth is painful and hard to bear.  The truth about myself may be hard, but the pain of facing who and what I am is completely transformed if there can also be the liberating discovery that, despite everything, I am loved. Really to know that I, with all my turbulent and conflicting sense of who I am, and what I am, with all my hopes and disappointments, am loved and held in love is the most extraordinary gift.

Benedict opens his discussion of market economics by talking about the sense of gift, of gratuitousness.  ‘The human being is made for gift’, he says, and gift ‘expresses our transcendent dimension’.  In contrast to this, ‘sometimes modern man is wrongly convinced that he is the author of himself, his life and society.’ (Perhaps in this context it is appropriate to talk of ‘modern man’ as I guess this may be a particular preoccupation of males!)  Benedict is making a sharp distinction between what he calls a ‘purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life’ and a view of life which begins from the sense of gift, of personal conscience, in traditional terms, of ‘grace’.  One of the areas where it is easiest to see how this would make a difference is in our care for the earth.  ‘On the earth’, says Benedict, ‘there is room for everyone: here the entire human family must find the resources to live with dignity, through the help of nature itself – God’s gift to his children – and through hard work and creativity.’   Here is a vision of nature shot through with grace.  This is what the Encyclical is all about.

Benedict wants to talk about the world we live in.  He calls for an economic system that is open to the sense of gift.  ‘The market of gratuitousness’, he says, ‘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).  The second point is exactly right.  The market, politics and banking all need individuals who live their lives with this sense of gift, which must mean with humility, responsibility and care for the needs of others, including generations yet to come.  And of course Benedict is right to say that attitudes of gratuitousness cannot be established by law.  But I also think we have never entirely lost the sense of gratuitiousness in public life, and there is a market of gratuitousness which needs our support.  Many years ago, the sociologist Richard Titmuss wrote a famous book called, The gift relationship, in which he reflected on the fact that we do not in the UK sell our blood (and, let me add, hopefully never will).  We give blood and when we give blood, we give something of the life we have received, expecting nothing in return.  The same of course is true of human organs.  There is in this country, thank God, no legal market in blood or body parts.  The vision of a National Health Service, free to all at the point of need and for as long as there is need, seems to me to reflect that same sense of gift.  I regret the fact that the NHS business model is that of the market, but if it is to be a market it can only ever be, to take Benedict’s phrase, a ‘market of gratuitousness’.  Perhaps a clearer example of a ‘market of gratuitousness’ is the Fair Trade Movement, which seeks to establish a market of justice.  Another would be the activities of so-called social entrepreneurs – people who use market models for public good. The market of gratuitousness does exist, and we have to work to support it.

At a deeper level, though, in a market-oriented society we ourselves need support to remain open to this sense of gift.  So much around us reinforces the lie that we are self-sufficient, autonomous beings, and when things go wrong there must be someone to blame or to sue.  When life doesn’t go our way, we want compensation.  For the Christian, the sense of gift can never be absent, and it is reinforced every time we meet for worship, especially at the table where the Lord gives us of his own body and blood – in the original ‘gift relationship’.  Paul puts his finger on it when he says, ‘What do you have that you did not receive?  And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift? (1 Cor 4:7), or when talking about God’s generosity to us in Jesus Christ: ‘Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift’ (2 Cor 9:15).

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