John Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America
Virtual Conferral of Degrees
May 16, 2020
Spending the last two months in lockdown has got me thinking about community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an evangelical pastor in Nazi Germany, wrote about it in a little treatise called Life Together. “It is by the grace of God,” he wrote, “that a congregation is permitted to gather . . . to share God’s word and sacrament.” He warns us against taking that grace for granted.
These days we can’t gather together; and the enforced absence has made our hearts grow fonder. We look for ways to reach out and help the needy. Confinement has, in some mysterious way, made us more generous. Nightly news shows now close their broadcasts with examples.
Here’s one. Covid-19 has put tens of millions of people out of work, and many are struggling to make ends meet. NBC Nightly News reported on April 9 that Tyler Perry picked up the tab for senior citizens at more than 70 grocery stores in Georgia and Louisiana.
Here’s another. CBS News reported in March that thousands of retired doctors and nurses were volunteering to go back to work in New York. The pandemic has strained our health care system. There are more patients; and the virus has made some younger health care professionals sick. These retired workers put aside their settled and comfortable lives and stepped in to help.
Generosity is a God-like quality, but we often mistake it for the more human virtue of justice. Commencement speakers exhort graduates to use their degrees to “give back.” The unstated premise is that society has given students a host of privileges -- time, money, education, connections -- and justice requires them to repay the favor by making a commensurate contribution.
It’s not a bad argument. Justice is a cardinal virtue, and philosophers from Plato to Rawls have made it the organizing principle of community. The exhortation to give back implies that we have a duty to even out the distribution of social goods. In the same way, we might talk about “returning a favor.” But generosity is a more sublime organizing principle. It’s not about balancing accounts. As Pope Francis has said, it “can transcend and overflow the demands of justice, ‘expecting nothing in return[.]’”
A few years ago there was a fad at Starbucks drive-thrus called “paying it forward,” probably inspired by the Helen Hunt/Kevin Spacey film. Unlike “giving back,” this seems to expect nothing in return.
It works like this: I pull up and pay for my medium latte, and tell the barista I’d like to pay for the guy in the car behind me. Nice. But then of course it becomes a thing, and the guy behind me feels like he has to pay for the next person in line. And so on. Starbucks employees got into the act and started asking people to pay it forward.
In 2014 a drive-thru in St. Petersburg, Florida had a pay-it-forward chain going for 457 customers when Peter Schorsch broke ranks. Not because he was a jerk but, he said, people were participating out of “guilt” and not “generosity.”
Paying it forward imposes a social obligation. There may be a kind of justice in this. (After all, you have benefited from it.) But it’s not generosity.
The beneficiaries of Tyler Perry’s generosity, shoppers at Winn-Dixie, got a piece of paper that read “random act of kindness.” That phrase is a little older than “pay it forward.” It comes from a 1993 book by Anne Herbert, Random Kindness & Senseless Acts of Beauty. It’s a little closer to the virtue I’m promoting, but still wide of the mark.
If our generosity really is random, it will miss the people who are the natural objects of our bounty. We’ll end up buying a caramel macchiato for a guy in a BMW, rather than helping the man selling pencils at a subway entrance. Tyler Perry’s generosity wasn’t random. He helped old people who needed groceries.
Mr. Schorsch, who broke the Starbucks pay-it-forward chain, was also intentional in his generosity. Instead of buying a latte for some well heeled stranger, he tipped the barista $100. “I’m not trying to be a Grinch,” he said. “I know things are hard for baristas and I am willing to help people.”
Graduating Class of 2020, I encourage you to be generous, and not simply just, with your families, your friends, and the larger community you are a part of. Don’t give because you are obligated, or because you’ll get something in return, or because it looks good on a resume. Do it because God has been generous to us and we are made in his image.
The philosophers appeal to the virtue of justice to build political communities, because love is too unrealistic a foundation. It is a utopian ideal, to suppose we can legislate such a standard of perfection. But I rejoice to see people responding to this pandemic by imitating divine generosity. It is the lesson we have tried to teach here at The Catholic University of America. I hope you have learned it well.
Congratulations, and God bless you.