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The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has released the Labor Day Statement by Bishop William F. Murphy, the Chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

No breaking news, just some well-meaning sentiments and reasonably sound observations. For example, Bishop Murphy points out the work is good for everyone, and unemployment isn’t just a matter of losing wages (which is certainly bad enough). It also involves losing one’s productive place in society, as well as one’s sense of independence and responsibility.

But I must admit that one phrase caused me to cringe: “economy of gift and gratuitousness.’ I know, I know, its a formulation that figures prominently in Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate . But I don’t have a religious obligation to relish every papal formulation.

The notion of an “economy of gift and gratuitousness” strikes me as rhetorical overreach. I think I see the point. A great deal of our social interactions are not in fact governed by markets. For example, when I get together with friends for a beer, we might argue about who pays, but our motive for being together is friendship. An economist might say that we find a utility value in conversation and bonhomie, but that’s just a fancy way of saying that we like each others’ company. The same holds for going to church or meeting with the local chapter of the 4-H club.

But why “gift” and “gratuitousness,” terms that seem to me to force the issue too quickly into a Christological direction? For the most part the non-economic parts of our lives involve a healthy give-and-take. We don’t monetize our friendships, and we often a generous to our friends, just as we don’t charge our neighborhood association a consulting fee, but instead volunteer. Yet, we do get something from our friendships and from many of the organizations we belong to: camaraderie, a sense of community, the satisfaction of contributing to the common good.

In other words, there is a natural reciprocity in civil society, one obscured rather than clarified by the notion of “gift.” I think we ought to acknowledge and encourage this reciprocity rather making it seem somehow substandard in comparison to “gratuitousness.” There really is something in civil society for you, and it doesn’t help to suggest otherwise.

Gift, it seems to me, should be reserved for the genuine selflessness that is often necessary to start, save, or renew the virtuous circle of reciprocity. Most of us have experienced the need for a gift of self in marriage. It’s not a perpetual motion machine. On the contrary, our most intimate loves are often thrown out of whack, requiring us to risk ourselves, saying “I’m sorry” or “I love you” when the reply is by no means certain.

The same holds for communities. The gift of self in defense of our country is an obvious example—a dead soldier isn’t around to be “repaid” by the reciprocity of respect and appreciation. At a less dramatic level, we also know folks who have devoted countless hours to getting an organization off the ground, or to save it from neglect or mismanagement, always with giving far more of themselves than they can ever receive in return.

There is, therefore, no “economy” of gift and gratuitousness. On the contrary, the gift and gratuitousness sparks, sustains, and saves an economy of reciprocity, an economy of shared fellowship. Moments of selflessness are like much needed oil in the machine of civil society that is too often slowed or made to seize because of human sinfulness. These moments cannot be theorized. They should be encouraged, but they cannot be made into an “economy.”

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