Lecturer bridges the gap between economics and theology

Mary Hirschfeld, an Associate Professor of Economics and Theology at Villanova University, spoke about her vision for a bridge between her two disciplines founded upon Thomistic grammar. The lecture, entitled, “To Serve God or Mammon? The Challenges of Dialogue Between Economics and Theology,” began with a discussion of the differing foundations of the two fields.

For Hirschfield, the primary challenge in the dialogue between economics and theology is that these two widely disparate fields lack a common grammar. “What is the world like? What is human nature like? What is good to pursue? … they have very different answers to those questions,” she said. She argued that the field of economics rests on a grammar that is non-neutral and “amounts to a faith claim.” This secular grammar presupposes that there is no God or that He is completely irrelevant. Because the created world is separated from God in this secular grammar, the material world becomes devoid of meaning. “Happiness is thought of primarily as an exercise in fulfilling subjective desires,” she said.

Supposing that the secular grammar is indeed non-neutral, its dominance should be challenged. Hirschfield argued that the Catholic grammar is important for secular people as well, because different questions get asked when economic issues are discussed using a Catholic grammar.

After a common grammar has been established, the primary concern of the dialogue between economics and theology should be a definition of happiness. Luckily, both economists and theologians care about defining happiness, and both “share an assumption that happiness is connected to the infinite,” she explained. For Aquinas, happiness is two pronged. Ultimate happiness is communion with God in the beatific vision, and in the interim happiness rests on the relationship between God and the world He created. The correct view of the relationship between God and the world is a analogical one: the world is neither on par with God nor severed from him. Instead, it “reflects God in a way that is fitting for a finite creation,” Hirschfield argued.


In this analogical view of the relationship between God and creation, happiness takes on a new meaning. The qualitative differences between the goods that we find around us become apparent. If the world is a reflection of God, there is a hierarchy of goods“some goods reflect God better than others,” Hirshfield said. A happy life involves a balance of these goods and looks “a lot more like being an artist or a painter than being a utility-maximizing calculator person,” she continued.

With this Thomistic approach to happiness, material goods are appreciated as “instrumental goods” that are tools in the service of greater “human goods,” Hirshfield explained. “Our desires for material wealth should be limited, satiable, bounded,” she said. Hirshfield argued that instead of accumulating as much money as possible and building a lifestyle based on income, people should first decide on a lifestyle that best promotes their happiness and give any excess income away.

In this vision of the economy, private property would still be a “fitting institution,” but it should be held “more as a responsibility than a right” Hirshfield maintained. Firms should still pursue profits, but “profits would mainly be valuable for their informational role” about what goods people want, she continued.

Hirschfeld acknowledged that her vision for an economy rooted in Catholic grammar sounds unrealistic and utopian, but argued that whether we achieve it or not, we “need to have a normative account of what would be good.” An economy rooted in the secular grammar should be replaced by “one where the economy serves general human flourishing,” she said.

Joseph Kaboski, the David F. and Erin M. Seng Foundation Professor of Economics at Notre Dame, provided a brief response supporting Hirschfield. He shared Hirschfeld’s concern about the secular grammar that permeates the field of economics, saying that “if God exists, he has to be relevant.” He affirmed that the greatest sources of happiness come as gifts, not as the results of profit-maximization: “Being aware of your own dignity and your own agency is less important than being open to grace and, in fact, being aware of your own unworthiness with respect to the gifts you recieve.”

Natalie Casal is a freshman Program of Liberal Studies and Classics major who has much more of a handle on theology than economics. Please send any questions, comments, concerns, or sonnets to ncasal@nd.edu.