Catholic Economists in Universities. Part 2: Excerpts from Interviews with Catholic Economists from North America

This is the second of two posts on how Catholic economists see their work. The posts are published in celebration of World Catholic Education Day on May 26, 2022, and within the context of the Global Compact on Education called for by Pope Francis. Quentin Wodon is a Lead Economist at the World Bank and a Distinguished Research Affiliate with the College of Business at Loyola University New Orleans.

In the first part of this post, resources were shared for celebrating World Catholic Education Day, including a one page flier, an 8-page brochure, and a report based on interviews for the Global Catholic Education project. Background was also provided in the first part of this blogpost on Pope’s Francis call for a Global Catholic Education, and its seven commitments: (1) to make human persons the center; (2) to listen to the voices of children and young people; (3) to advance the women; (4) to empower the family; (5) to welcome; (6) to find new ways of understanding (the) economy and politics; and (7) to safeguard our common home. These seven commitments are explained further in a Vademecum published by the Congregation for Catholic Education. Economic thought has a bearing on most of the commitments, but it matters especially for the sixth – finding new ways to understand the economy.

How do Catholic economists reflect on their faith and engage with Catholic social thought to find new ways to understand the economy? To find out, 15 interviews were conducted with Catholic economists teaching at universities in North America (one used to teach and is now at the World Bank). Does their faith affect their research and teaching? And what advice do they have for fellow Catholic economists and graduate students?  There is quite some diversity in the responses from interviewees, but there are also commonalities, one of which is the importance of the preferential option for the poor.

How do Catholic economists reflect on their faith and engage with Catholic social thought to find new ways to understand the economy? To find out, 15 interviews were conducted with Catholic economists teaching at universities in North America

Rather than attempting to summarise these interviews, it seems best in the second part of this post to share a few quotes directly from the interviewees. Two excerpts from each of the 15 interviews are provided below, with the interviews listed by last name alphabetical order. The hope is that this will pique your interest in reading the interviews, so that they may perhaps inspire you in your own work

Peter Arcidiacono, Professor of Economics at Duke University

“Knowing that there are others out there who share your values makes a big difference when operating in highly secular environments. Second, it serves a bridge between theology and economics, working towards a fuller understanding of each.”

“At least once a year, when self-absorption rears its ugly head, I read The Hiding Place. It brings me to tears every time. It models for me how to live the Christian life and the accompanying unconditional love.”

Alessandro Barattieri, Associate Professor of International Economics at UQAM

“According to an author I deeply esteem, Fr. Luigi Giussani, educating is introducing to the totality of reality, and the experience of education is in essence a “communication of ourselves, of our way to relate and look at reality.” Sharing my values, therefore, simply means incarnate them as I live and work.”

“One way in which this shapes my research is that my papers often start with questions that are from the “real” world and relevant for policy…One challenge I face sometimes is when I see the economics profession discounting too much the relevance of the research questions, to put nearly all the emphasis on the innovations in the execution of the papers.”

Ademar Bechtold, Professor of Economics at Notre Dame of Maryland University

“Yes, my values affected my research in very important ways. I made an implicit commitment to focus my life on teaching, selfishly expecting to make my contribution to humanity through the work of my students, as they make decisions to transform the world into a better place for everyone in the future.”

“I am passionate about education as a tool to grow economies and improve the standard of living around the world. Millions of good ideas that could solve major problems and challenges facing the world today may be lost forever when children cannot go to school.”

Carola Binder, Assistant Professor of Economics at Haverford College

“I feel incredibly blessed to be an economist at a liberal arts college where I have a huge amount of independence and flexibility. Being an economist and being Catholic go well together! Catholics have a long intellectual tradition of thinking about things like truth, beauty, goodness, and justice.”

“I talked with my students about the criticism that I have received on my own work, and how I deal with criticism and rejections in a healthy way, trying to learn from them but not feeling diminished.”

Charles Clark, Professor of Economics at St. John’s University

“At one time I told Sr. Margaret John Kelly that I was thinking of doing a MA in Theology. She said we have plenty of theologians, but we do not have enough people who do what you do. St. Paul wrote about many gifts and one spirit. Concentrate first on developing the gifts that are unique to you. Then say yes when you are asked to share those gifts.”

“[For an intervention of] the Holy See Permanent Mission to the United Nations…I was nervous. I heard the Chair announce “We will now hear from the representative of the Holy Spirit” (instead of Holy See, which is what the Vatican is called at the United Nations). Not surprisingly the mistake drew a lot of laughter. When it died down, I thanked the chair for the promotion, and proceeded to read.”

Maria Marta Ferreyra, Senior Economist at the World Bank

“Education is the only hope that most people in the world have for social mobility. The day laborer in rural Mexico, the street vendor in Colombia, and the maid in Chile all have one thing in common – they desperately want something better for their children and firmly believe that education is the only way out of poverty.”

“Being a Catholic economist is hard because we have a high calling and strive to do things for Jesus. But it is also easy because obeying one Master relieves us from the anxiety of having to obey many other masters.”

Bernhard Gunter, Assistant Professor of Economics at American University

“Overall, I don’t think that being a Catholic economist is easier or harder than being a Protestant economist, a Muslim economist, or even an atheist economist. On the other hand, being a good, honest, fair person is more difficult than being a person who does not care.”

“I have always been passionate about fairness and justice. When I was about six years old, I went to my aunt asking her for a kitchen knife and a cutting board. Obviously, she asked me for what. My explanation was that one of their two cats had caught a mouse. I needed the knife to cut the already dead mouse in two to make sure that both cats got their fair share of the “jointly owned” mouse!”

Clara Jace, Lecturer in Economics at the Catholic University of America

“The ‘facts’ of economics don’t speak for themselves any more than the data ‘speaks for itself.’ We use our values to identify and adjudicate between costs and benefits. Toward this end, I ask students to write reflection papers each week where they work through their own analysis of the trade-offs.”

“More than often, the good that we value can have many different, even unpredictable forms. One of the best things about research has been such surprises, learning about interesting and new ways to manifest the values that many of us hold in common.”

Joseph Kaboski, Professor of Economics at the University of Notre Dame

“We need to foster the dissemination of non-ideological and legitimate economic knowledge within Church conversations of the economy. At the same time, we need to help baptise the secular discipline of economics with Catholic values. Most economists, even practicing Catholics, don’t have an appreciation of Catholic social doctrine.”

“The Catholic faith is both difficult and “a light yolk” at the same time. I think living a faithful life as an economist is probably no more or less difficult than any other profession.”

Malcolm Kass, Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Dallas

“As to “why” I chose public and labor economics; it starts with a desire to help local communities and students make better decisions or at least have a better understanding of the economic environment around them.”

“Economics teaching is about…breaking a problem down into its smaller, inter-related parts, and then rebuilding it again to understand the issue in a more comprehensive manner. And this isn’t to lead to a particular stance …, but to help people attain a certain level of mental robustness, so they are not victimised by slant or groupthink.”

Camila Morales, Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Texas at Dallas

“My research is largely motivated by my own lived experience. I moved to the US with my family when I was a teenager. I spoke little to no English and attended school in one of the poorest counties in the Metro Atlanta area. So, I enjoy working on topics that can help divulge a better understanding of the experiences of immigrant children and young adults.”

“Being a light in the classroom works. Students notice your joy, they notice your kind disposition towards them, they notice when professors care and when they do not, and they respond to that.”

Doug Norton, Assistant Teaching Professor at Florida State University

“In the classroom, I can share my values in teaching. For example, in health economics we talk about “quality adjusted life years” or “value of a statistical life”. How those quality adjustments are done, or the value of a life is determined, often leads to moral conversations.”

“For new graduates my suggestion is twofold: sample and backward induct. Most people don’t know what they want to do. The best way to figure that out is to sample different paths through coursework, undergraduate research, jobs, internships, volunteering, etc. Once you think you know, talk to someone who works in that area to help backward induct. Where you want to be in the future should help determine the kinds of investments you need to make now.”

Eric Scorsone, Associate Professor of Economics at Michigan State University

“I think, especially in working for a public university, one must be careful and balanced in presenting or teaching about one’s values. I have never felt pressure not to teach my own values, but rather I hold myself accountable to teach a fair and balance view of public policy issues from a plurality of views.”

“My values impact the type of research I work on and how I teach. I am interested in doing work on issues that impact local communities and in particular marginalised communities. I am very drawn to the teaching of Pope Francis and wish to emulate the kinds of issues he emphasizes…I reach out and work with local public officials in communities where economic and social distress is widespread.”

Leonard Wantchekon, Professor of Economics at Princeton University

“The area I grew up in had three main characteristics that have helped shape my future career and research agenda. First, my community had a Catholic school built in it in 1895, and so education has always been highly valued. Second, my community was a multicultural place made up of migrants…,which made it a relatively open-minded village. Third, I was lucky to derive high aspirations and ambitions from my uncle and from my parents that drove me … to engage in political activism.”

“I have always been passionate about history and its role in our current lives… Benin has an incredibly fascinating history of the ‘Amazons’ – also called the ‘female warriors’… They comprised of around one-third of the whole army…We are in the process of…creat[ing] a museum dedicated to them.”

Robert Whaples, Professor of Economics at Wake Forest University

“I believe that all scholars’ values affect their research. How could they not? They guide every decision we make. Economics is all about weighing costs and benefits in making decisions. Moral values are about what we consider to be costs and what we consider to be benefits.”

“Unfortunately, the Western World – and especially academia in these countries – has become increasingly hostile toward religion in all its forms. Fortunately, the economics profession doesn’t seem to share this hostility. Do good work and you will succeed. So, the welcome mat is out and there are innumerable research topics where you can do good and do well at the same time.”

Thank you for reading these excerpts! The hope is that they may entice you to look at the full interviews available in this compilation and perhaps also the report for World Catholic Education Day based on these and other interviews in the context of Pope’s Francis call for a Global Compact on Education.

Never miss a post - subscribe to updates to the blog (English language only) here

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing.
Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.

Author: Quentin Wodon

Published: 7th June 2022

Posted in:

© Catholic Social Thought 2020