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Cui bono? Bringing Thomistic thought to bear on modern economics

In her new book, economist and theologian Mary L. Hirschfeld makes a welcome contribution to a distinctive, Catholic way of looking at economics.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Last January, the Vatican issued a “Bolletino” titled Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones, subtitled “Considerations for an ethical discernment regarding some aspects of the present economic-financial system.” Like many such Vatican documents on complicated social questions, the Bolletino is a mixed bag. There are clear statements of longstanding Catholic principles, such as that “markets do not regulate themselves,” and a recognition that despite gains in wealth, inequality and poverty still remain, and in some places remain extreme. Further, the document notes that economics relies on a vision of the human person at odds with modern tendencies to define people as consumers or customers. So far so good. But the Bolletino also contains too-brief analyses of very abstruse financial instruments and a capsule summary of the “financial crisis” of a decade ago; it is likely that this is the first time the phrase “credit default swaps” has appeared in a Vatican document.

The Bolletino comes at an important time. Catholics, especially in America but throughout the West and the world, are rethinking once again the relationship between economics—particularly in its “global capital” or “neoliberal” varieties—and Catholic social thought. Until very recently, in the American or more generally Western context that debate was thought to have been settled. Communism was the enemy of the Church; it was also the enemy of capitalism. Some Catholic thinkers then thought that because communism opposed both, capitalism and Catholicism must be compatible with one another. Further, this “capitalism” was one of worldwide free markets with an emphasis on financial instruments and abstract forms of wealth, rather than industry or farming. The 1991 papal encyclical Centesimus Annus can be thought of as the high-water mark by proponents of this line of thought, since that document praised private property and seemed to condemn centralized planning and what it called “real socialism.”

But more recently a generation of Catholic critics has emphasized other parts of Catholic teaching, also evident in Centesimus and other papal writings. This teaching promotes ideas like the just wage, rights of workers against oppression, and a suspicion generally that economics is a standalone “science” separate form ethical concerns. More generally, this school of thought suggests that “capitalism” may itself inscribe patterns of behavior and injustice hostile to Catholicism.

Unfortunately, this important debate has been hindered by the fact that so few of the participants have the facility with both economics and theology to make sense of their commonalities and differences, or to think of the former in light of the latter. Theologians too often condemned the mere notion of business or profit-seeking as immoral; economists thought theology irrelevant to the hard facts of buying and selling. Now comes Mary Hirschfeld, who received her economics doctorate before her conversion, and her theology one afterwards. She knows economics as a discipline, and more importantly she knows how and where it diverted from Catholic thought and where it is the same. Her new book from Harvard University Press, Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy, is a welcome contribution to returning to a distinctive, Catholic way of looking at economics, but one that does not rest on unrealistic abstractions or misunderstandings.

Hirschfeld identifies one critical commonality between Catholic teaching on economics, seen through the lens of St. Thomas Aquinas, and that of academic economists: both seek to explain human choices. For the economist, the dominant model is what is called “rational” choice theory. Now—and this is the first of Hirschfeld’s helpful correctives—rational choice theory is not the same as the concept of homo economicus, a being with no end other than the material. The rational choice model “simply says that people efficiently calculate how best to achieve their desired ends but is silent about the nature of those ends. Rational agents can pursue a range of ends, ruthlessly furthering their narrow self-interest in making as much money as possible, say, even if they were running a slave market, but the rational choice model can also account for a Mother Teresa, so long as she efficiently deploys her resources to succor the poor as well as possible.” That model is often reduced to complicated mathematical formulas that tend to marginalize the most important question: does it matter what those ends are, which people are so efficiently pursuing? Without them, those models tend to treat all ends as equal, and material ends as the only ones that count. Enter Aquinas.

Aquinas, too, knows that people make choices, but for Aquinas people are oriented toward happiness, not maximizing utility. That is, Aquinas sees a substantive good against which people’s choice can be measured. This difference in what Hirschfeld calls “metaphysical assumptions” about human wants “has important ramifications for how we understand human rationality, the role of economic activity, and the relationships between ethics and economic issues.” Moving from this basic commonality of human choice and core disagreement about the ends of our choices, Hirschfeld draws out the implications of a Thomist economics. In the traditional Thomist view “the good of economic efficiency carries no weight in its own right.” Rather, “neither markets nor natural wealth have value independent of their role in servicing the higher goods they support,” such as happiness. And as Hirschfeld shows, the abstractions of rational choice are fading before new kinds of thinking about economics that share the empirical and non-material interests of Catholic economics. Indeed, contemporary economics has even begun to recognize the role of happiness in economic decision-making, and that efficiency tells only part of the story.

Because modern economic theory places such emphasis on efficiency, the use of money as a means of exchange can threaten to replace the substantive goods represented by that exchange. That was one problem with the financial crisis: the complexity of the instruments being used was one thing, but the greater problem was that the market for these instruments had lost connection to reality and the goods those instruments were intended to serve. For Hirschfeld, as for Aquinas, economics is a matter of justice as well as exchange: for persons to demand the “lowest” price as determined by a formula can deny the fact that those in the other side of the exchange have their just needs as well. The emphasis is wrongly placed on squeezing out the greatest advantage against another, rather than seeking out the most just arrangement. Hirschfeld skips the vexed question of usury, but notes that Thomas’ focus on justice and substantial goods could support certain interest-bearing transactions.

It is when she considers the consumer economy that Hirschfeld’s analysis becomes even more radical. An economy is not only efficient to the extent possible, but well-ordered; “rational choice, in contrast, invites us to make our choices in a piecemeal fashion without thinking carefully about how various goods and services fit into the overall pattern of our lives.” If we believe that some goods are not served by efficiency, then an economy which stresses them (through the price mechanism) may themselves be harmful for human flourishing. Hirschfeld takes the example of household chores such as dishwashing. Modern appliances make work easier and quicker; but because our demand for convenience can be boundless, we make repeated choices for more and more such devices, which may lead us to remodel our homes, which then may cause a family to have to work harder to afford such and to spend less time together. A series of choices seen only from the vantage point of efficient time-usage, without being ordered to the substantive good (here, of family life), may very well result in less well being, not more.

A Thomistic economics teaches us that economic goods are, and are always, simply instrumental goods to assist us in human flourishing and ultimately in getting to Heaven. His teaching on private property, charity, and economic justice can help erode the emphases modern economic life places on measuring income as happiness and efficiency as an end goal, even if that goal crushes workers and results in less happiness. Hirschfeld has provided a new starting point for a discussion of what economics should be for.

Aquinas and the Market: Toward a Humane Economy
by Mary L. Hirschfeld
Harvard University Press, 2018
Hardcover, 288 pages

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About Gerald J. Russello 4 Articles
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman ( and editor of two volumes of work by Christopher Dawson.


  1. Rusello mentions the Vatican document Considerations for an Ethical Discernment Regarding Some Aspects of the Present Economic-Financial System (Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones), May 2018.

    Hirschfeld’s book, which he then reviews, presents its case more at the level of microeconomics (consumer-level choices over ends as well as means, not limited to economic efficiency or utility alone), the Vatican document goes on to address the still-statistical level of macroeconomics and, now, new outside-the-box global implications involving long-term ends, side effects, and the common good.

    Some non-comprehensive observations:

    First, according to the Vatican, losers in the worldwide economy (imaged accurately as an “organism” or “entity”?) are no longer simply subject to possible exploitation as a “labor” input (a focus of Rerum Novarum, 1891). Now can they find themselves gang-planked as “outcasts” and “leftovers” (n. 15)? Might global market managers inadvertently TRIAGE some populations? e.g., who will finance water wells in expanding regions of desertification?

    Second, in view of intergenerational solidarity, Considerations also wonders if we too often are eating our seed corn for the future. British coal, American and rain forest timber, our global amniotic atmosphere (and even human ingenuity) are NOT INFINITE after all.

    Third, resonating with the Hirschfeld contribution, Considerations proposes that distribution of benefits AND the multiplication of benefits—-both together—-can proceed from a more person-oriented and relational economy (n. 20).

    (Considerations suggests, for example, a broad band of small-is-beautiful initiatives in the service of FAMILIES understood as more than economic units: “cooperative credit, microcredit, as well as the public credit, in the service of families, businesses, the local economies, as well as credit to assist developing countries.”)

    Fourth, on institutional architecture, what is the critical DIFFERENCE between a world authority or “government” and global “governance”? Pope Benedict XVI, in Caritas in Veritate (2009), and Considerations, both do a clearer job of integrating global solidarity with subsidiarity than does the (multi-author and hastily edited?) Laudato Si (2015).

    Benedict wrote: “…there is urgent need of a true world political authority, but also that,“…THE PRINCIPLE OF SUBSIDIARITY MUST REMAIN CLOSELY LINKED TO THE PRINCIPLE OF SOLIDARITY AND VICE VERSA (italics in the original), since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.” (n. 58).

    Yes, a “new starting point for discussion.” And a worthy and more integrated perspective for good work by Catholic higher education whenever it outgrows its 1968 Land o’ Lakes snit.

  2. Good topical commentary. But Beaulieu is too kind in referring to Laudato Si as merely multi-authored and hastily edited. It is a laughable dung heap of failed German nihilism and self-contradiction within its pages.

  3. It never ever ceases to amaze me how people confuse the science of economics with moral questions. All economics as a science does is explain that if people have a specified set of preferences and a specified set of rules in which they can satisfy those preferences, then actions will play out in certain very specific way. You might not like that way and indeed that way may be bad objectively speaking, but at least you can know that it will play out in a certain way. For instance, if you make alcohol illegal, you get gangs and bootlegging and terrible government crackdowns. But you blame the messenger (Economics) for the message. Markets are simply the name we give to the phenomena of preferences working themselves out under a given set of rules. If you don’t like the outcome, then you can always change the rules which almost always means police and guns and violence. Or better yet, how about if, as disciples of Christ, we work to change the preferences. I really do not get what is so hard here. Stop blaming economics or the market when it’s really our sin hardened preferences that deserve the blame.

  4. Good article and comments. Strange how people who would never think of trying to defy the law of gravity and jump from an airplane without a parachute think nothing of twisting the laws of economics, a la Marx and Bernie, to suite their own purposes and then everything turns to dross. Economics takes a bit longer to manifest at times than physics but eventually it will have its way.

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