Well, the latest of St.Margaret’s Slater-Maguire lectures has come and gone and I am left to ponder what exactly it has to say to the current Canadian/Christian intellectual scene.
The speaker was one Father Raymond de Souza, a Catholic priest, economist and columnist for the National Post. He offered an overview of the latest of the papal encyclicals bearing upon the question of faith in the public sphere, namely John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus and Benedict’s Caritas et Veritate. De Souza, whose talk was entitled “What’s Love Got to do with It: Charity and Economics” focused primarily on the latter document.
  I must admit that the title, as well as some of the phrases that were thrown around, logic of the gift for example, sounded exciting. However the thrust of the lecture seemed to be that “people should be good and moral and that religion is important to economics” without any substantive content being given to morality or religion. Moreover although de Souza recommended, following Benedict, that charity  be considered the prime virtue to govern the market he did not give body to the notion of charity. He repeatedly stressed that economics does not know what to do with gifts since they do not follow the logic of exchanges upon which economics trades.
  I questioned De Souza on this last point, since to my understanding a gift is a type of exchange, although certainly not a fixed exchange in the sense understood in a capitalist schematic. A gift is an exchange between friends – an exchange of love, whose return is non-identical and offered in full freedom of spirit. What is given in a true gift is, indeed, the giver herself, and in giving she does not decrease but becomes more fully human, particularly as the gift itself serves to open up a space of friendship and trust. That is the space that is Charity.
  De Souza, however, stressed that a gift is not an exchange because it must be completely gratuitous. By extension this seems to mean that the gift is something which cannot enrich the giver and must, by definition, deplete and diminish her. Moreover she cannot even feel a satisfaction of having done a noble sacrifice, since such satisfaction could be classified as a return, thereby sullying the gift with an aura of exchange. A gift in short is an absolute sacrifice towards which the sacrificer is utterly indifferent. This is unreasonable. It also sounds evil.
  By the end of the talk it seemed that religion and economics had been kept comfortably apart. The good was knowable and doable apart from religion. However religion was still very important because it proclaimed some kind of truth. Perhaps the truth was that Charity is important, that part was unclear, particularly since the gift never did make it into the economy and charity seemed to mean pretty much what it has come to mean in our age the handouts of the wealthy to the poor. While mention was made that every human person has some intrinsic dignity, nothing was offered as to how this could be shored up in practice.
  My main disappoint was actually not that no critique of capitalism or even any of the practices pursued was offered so much as that all the concepts etched out were essentially reduced to sentiment and intuition. Morality and religion were invoked as good and true, but we did not learn what they meant or how they were connected. The only time an explicit example of amorality was offered was an offhand reference to pornography. The gist was that pornography is intuitively wrong. No theological explanation was proffered.
  Throughout the lecture, in fact, it seemed that the only real theological reference made was to the fall of man and original sin. This was used as a gloss to explain away systemic evils and failures – they are simply an unavoidable result of original sin.
    To argue that our faith actually makes a difference I believe that we need to start taking ourselves much more seriously. And we should not be afraid when Love turns out to be hard and not at all in line with our current practices and systems.