Yesterday, Prof. Mary Hirschfield of Villanova University received the prestigious “Economy and Society International Prize”, a €30,000 biennial award given by the Vatican’s Centesimus Annus Foundation. The dual doctoral degree holder in economics and theology was granted the prize money for her groundbreaking book Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy (Havard University Press, 2018).
The foundation’s fourth edition of the prize was attended by over one-hundred dignitaries, including fellow economists and theologians who had previously gathered for its 25th-anniversary conference “New Policies and Lifestyles in the Digital Age” held inside the Vatican last May 24-26.
The Centesimus Annus Foundation is a Vatican-chartered academic institution that exists to promote the legacy of the St. John Paul II’s social encyclical by the same name through its conferences, courses, and research. Published in 1991 one-hundred years after Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, which robustly defended private property and condemned communism, the Polish pope’s Centesimus Annus is considered the Church’s most “pro-free market” social teaching, released to an increasingly freer world in the final days of the Cold War.
Prior to Hirschfeld receiving the Economy and Society International Prize, the foundation’s spokesman Costantino Coros wrote in a press release that Aquinas and the Market “offers a fascinating dialogue between the world of economics and the world of faith. Without contesting the value of some intuitions of contemporary economists, she incorporates them into a larger vision of human life drawing in particular from the anthropology of Thomas Aquinas.”
“Economics,” the statement continued, “should not govern our society but pursue man’s happiness. Material well-being is, in fact, an instrumental good that acquires meaning through its potential of contributing to the flowering of [the] human spirit.”
In the official summary made by Havard University Press, it is said that Hirschfeld’s Aquinas and the Market is a unique academic publication, for reasons which the Acton Institute knows all too well, taking into account that “economists and theologians usually inhabit different intellectual worlds.”
Economists investigate the workings of markets and tend to set ethical questions aside. Theologians, anxious to take up concerns raised by market outcomes, often dismiss economics and lose insights into the influence of market incentives on individual behavior. Mary L. Hirschfeld, who was a professor of economics for fifteen years before training as a theologian, seeks to bridge these two fields in this innovative work about economics and the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.
In a Thomistic approach, [as] she writes, ethics and economics cannot be reconciled if we begin with narrow questions about fair wages or the acceptability of usury. Rather, [she argues] we must begin with an understanding of how economic life serves human happiness. The key point is that material wealth is an instrumental good, valuable only to the extent that it allows people to flourish. Hirschfeld uses that insight to develop an account of a genuinely humane economy in which pragmatic and material concerns matter but the pursuit of wealth for its own sake is not the ultimate goal.
In a Vatican News radio interview with American journalist Christopher Wells, Hirschfeld explained her rationale for writing the book in the Thomistic tradition. “Basically what I ask is, ‘If I start with Aquinas’ principles about who the human person is, and what sort of world we live in, namely one that is created by God, how would I want to think about economics in light of those assumptions?’ And I work it out,” she said.
Hirschfeld admitted that using Aquinas’s medieval philosophy and theology, largely inspired by Aristotle and the early Church Fathers, is usually compatible with modern capitalism since he allows us “to keep a fair amount of what economists have taught us about how the markets work… His framework permits us to make sense of those insights and to use them.”
“So [Aquinas] can affirm private property is a good thing, although he lived before the discovery, the realization that markets could coordinate our individual decisions and produce good social outcomes.”
However, she concluded, Aquinas begins with “a view of the human person that’s different from the one that [most] economists use.” She said that according to Aquinas the human person’s “ultimate” and final happiness is found in God, not in material things or money which exist to serve as means to help achieve or bring about the common good and justice, and thus should not be used as ends in themselves for human flourishing.
“Happiness in this life is ordered around the higher goods that make life worth living.” Those higher goods, she said, “allow us to reflect God’s goodness in this life. Then that’s the core of happiness in this life for Aquinas… And if that’s what happiness in this life is about, then material wealth is to serve those goods”, instrumentally speaking.
The director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office, Kishore Jayabalan, published one of the best-written reviews of Aquinas and the Market last January 24 for the Religion & Liberty Transatlantic journal. Confirming her unique theological and economic cross-training, Jayabalan believes that Hirschfeld’s book is a valid attempt to bring traditional sparring partners more in harmony with one another:
Most theologians and philosophers tend to look down upon economics, but not Hirschfeld. She attempts to create a dialogue between theology and economics; something many religious leaders say is necessary but are themselves incapable of doing. How many of them would be able to see the economic downsides of rent control and the minimum wage as Hirschfeld does? The trick is in taking into account the objective reality of God and the subjective preferences of human beings expressed in the everyday operations of the marketplace.
While praising her work, Jayabalan said Hirschfeld’s Aquinas and the Market did have one defect. He said the “shortcoming of this work…is a neglect of the mediating ground between theology and economics, i.e. politics. Neither religion nor business is a completely private or individual affair; each takes place within a social context that at least implicitly aims towards some sort of common good.”
“Hirschfeld is well aware of the need for a hierarchical ordering of goods in any kind of Thomistic economics. It seems unlikely that such an ordering can take place without some kind of authority behind it. Who this authority would be and how it would govern are matters of politics rather than economics.”
All said, Aquinas and the Market is certain to have a long shelf-life in Rome and beyond, becoming a standard text for both today’s theologically-minded economists and economically-minded theologians. Hirschfeld’s book serves as a model negotiator between the two specialists.