Catholic Economists in Universities: Part 1

Part I of this post looks at the background to this subject. It is the first 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.

Economics is but one of the disciplines to which students in universities are exposed during their studies, but it is an important discipline for Catholic social thought. In a message for the virtual World Meeting of Popular Movements in October 2021, Pope Francis reminded us that “Principles such as the preferential option for the poor, the universal destination of goods, solidarity, subsidiarity, participation and the common good” are essential to ensure that “the good news of the Gospel takes concrete form on a social and cultural level.” Economic analysis often informs debates on these questions.

How do Catholic economists teaching in universities reflect on their faith? And how does this relate to the vision suggested by Pope Francis towards a Global Compact on Education? To celebrate World Catholic Education Day, this two-part post explores these questions through interviews with 15 Catholic economists from North America. The first part briefly explains why economics matters for the Pope’s vision towards a Global Compact on Education. The second part provides excerpts from 15 interviews conducted with Catholic economists. But first, let me provide some background on World Catholic Education Day and resources available for the Day, since this is the occasion for publishing this post.

How do Catholic economists teaching in universities reflect on their faith? And how does this relate to the vision suggested by Pope Francis towards a Global Compact on Education?

World Catholic Education Day

In 2002, the International Office of Catholic Education (OIEC in French) adopted at its World Congress the idea of celebrating World Catholic Education Day on Ascension Day, i.e. 40 days after Easter. This year, the Day is to be celebrated on May 26. In 2021, for the 20th anniversary of the Day, OIEC and the Global Catholic Education project made some resources available, including a compilation of 25 interviews celebrating educators. This year again, resources have been made available on the Global Catholic Education website, including a one page flier in English, French, and Spanish, an 8-page brochure also in three languages, and a report based on interviews (the report is in English, but some of the interviews are in French and Spanish).

The report explores how educators all over the world are already putting in practice the vision of Pope Francis towards a Global Compact on Education. The first part of the report consists of a text forthcoming in the Journal of Global Catholicism that builds on stories and insights from about 130 interviews conducted for the Global Catholic Education project, including interviews with Catholic economists. Fifteen of those interviews are available in a compilation for North America. A separate compilation is being prepared with Catholic economists from other parts of the world. These compilations are co-sponsored by CREDO, the association of Catholic economists.

Pope Francis’ Global Compact

Any celebration of World Catholic Education Day today should probably refer to Pope’s Francis vision for education. For readers not familiar with the Global Compact on Education, Pope Francis suggested in September 2019 the need for such a compact to renew our passion for a more open and inclusive education. He called for a broad alliance “to form mature individuals capable of overcoming division and antagonism, and to restore the fabric of relationships for the sake of a more fraternal humanity.” A year later, in a video message for a meeting on the Global Compact, the Pope called for seven commitments in education: (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.

Economic analysis matters for most of these seven commitments, including safeguarding our common home, advancing women, and ensuring that education institutions welcome all. But it is noteworthy that the Pope included the need to find new ways of understanding (the) economy and politics as a specific commitment. As explained in the Vademecum published by the Congregation for Catholic Education for the Global Compact, this particular commitment relates to “finding new ways of understanding the economy, politics, growth, and progress that can truly stand at the service of the human person and the entire human family, within the context of an integral ecology.”

The Vademecum calls for a social covenant for the common good. This is a tall order, but as a start, educational institutions should integrate values such as participation, democracy, justice, equality, fraternity, and peace in their curriculum. This should be the case in all educational institutions, but it applies especially to Catholic schools and universities which globally serve 62 million students at the pre-primary, primary, and secondary levels, and close to seven million students at the university level.

Catholic Economists in North America

In North America, Catholic economists teaching at universities have a special responsibility to engage with Catholic social thought and reflect on Pope’s Francis vision for a Global Compact on Education. Research and teaching in economics globally are influenced by what happens in the United States. Just consider one statistic: almost two-thirds of Nobel Laureates in economics are American or Canadian.

While most Catholic economists in North America teach at universities that are not Catholic, a substantial number do. These universities also have a responsibility to reflect on Pope Francis’s vision for a Global Compact on Education. Many are influential and have resources that other universities may not have. In the United States alone, there are more than 240 Catholic colleges and universities in operation (see this Directory). Their potential influence on policy is real. You probably know that President Joe Biden is a Catholic. But you may not know that alumni of the 28 Jesuit universities in the United States account for more than 10 per cent of members of Congress. The 117th United States Congress comprises of 535 members, of whom 55 graduated from Jesuit institutions (13 in the Senate and 42 in the House of Representatives). This is a much larger share than the share of Jesuit universities, or even the share of Catholic universities, in the education system. With influence comes responsibility.

So, when economists self-identify as Catholic, whether they teach in a Catholic or other university, does this affect their research and teaching? And what advice do interviewees have for their fellow Catholic economists and graduate students? To explore these question, 15 interviews were conducted with Catholic economists teaching in North America (one interviewee was initially based in a university and now works at the World Bank).  The interviews were structured around the following questions:

  1. You are a Professor of Economics. Could you tell us a bit about your university?
  2. What is your main area of research and what do you teach? Why did you choose these fields within economics?
  3. Are you able to share your values in your teaching? What seems to work and what does not?
  4. Do your values affect your research? In what way? And what are some challenges you face?
  5. Is being a Catholic economist easy or hard, and why is that?
  6. What is your advice for graduates who may be Catholic or have an affinity with Catholic values and are contemplating doing a PhD?
  7. Could you share how you ended up in your current position, what was your personal journey?
  8. Finally, could you share a personal anecdote about yourself, what you are passionate about?

In the second part of this post, excerpts from their responses will be provided.

Catholic Economists in Universities Part 2 has now been published and can be found here


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Author: Quentin Wodon

Published: 21st May 2022

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020