It almost sounds like a challenge, or the beginning of a not-terribly-promising joke: What happens when you put 12 scholars – theologians, economists, philosophers and social scientists – in a room together for four days and ask them to consider a subject as broad and complex as the “common good,” – how to achieve it, how to define it and how to articulate it to the broader community?
Over three days at the end of June, the Institute for Advanced Catholic studies learned the answer when it hosted the fourth conference in the True Wealth of Nations series, which has evolved to be one of the organization’s most successful and relevant research initiatives. Some of the most respected scholars in their fields (and some of the best minds of our time) came together to present and discuss their commissioned original research that explored what the common good might mean – from within their own disciplines.
The goal wasn’t to come up with a definitive “solution,” explains conference leader and principle organizer Dan Finn, professor of Theology and the Clemens Professor of Economics and the Liberal Arts at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. Instead, he says, it’s about “bringing the Academy and the Church together to find better ways of thinking about our collective moral and cultural responsibilities.”
This idea – that a conversation between the Church and the Academy is of significant benefit to both as well as to the public – isn’t a new notion, Finn continues. In fact, the concept rests at the core of the Catholic intellectual tradition and inspired Pope John Paul II to invite 20 economists to the Vatican to engage in rigorous examination of the economic aspects of social justice, as well as the to create the Pontifical Academy of Social Science in 1994.
“The concept of the common good is one of the central notions of Catholic social thought,” explains Fr. James Heft, S.M, who founded the Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies to engage in exactly this kind of research and exploration. “This conference is designed to bring this concept, which has often remained active only at the philosophical and theological levels, into engagement with recent developments in social sciences. It promotes an interdisciplinary dialogue that will enrich Catholic thinking at a time when a voice for responsible economics is deeply needed.”
“Our purpose in bringing these scholars together is to explore what Christianity has to say about economic life, to find better ways to think about how Catholic social teaching might improve the well being of societies,” Finn adds.
Douglas Prepora, professor of sociology in the Department of Culture and Communication at Drexel University and a highly acclaimed author who has published widely on social theory, believes participation in the TWN conferences is critical to his work – both as a scholar and academician and as a teacher.
“I write about big-scale moral questions from a sociological perspective, and it’s important for me as a sociologist and a thinking Catholic to be able to participate in a community of like-minded people,” he explains.
For Mary Hirschfeld, professor of theology and economics at Villanova, the True Wealth of Nations symposia offer an opportunity to deeply explore key concepts relevant to her own research in a challenging and intellectually enriching environment. “Some of my more important work comes as a result of these kinds of events,” she says.
Once inside the room where the intellectual sausage is made, so to speak, it’s easy to understand why the meetings are so valuable to these scholars.
Papers are written by participants and circulated in the weeks before the meeting to make the best use of the time these scholars have together. For an an hour and a half , the author of each paper is pressed to define and defend his or her argument and method. Intense and focused discussion ensues, with scholars from various disciplines exchanging — sometimes vigorously — challenges and perspectives. What results is a cross-pollination of ideas and concepts that a scholar in one discipline alone would be hard-pressed to produce.
Previous iterations of the True Wealth of Nations conferences have spawned highly acclaimed and widely circulated volumes, all published by Oxford University Press, including one conference held at the invitation of the Vatican, The Moral Dynamics of Economic Life: An Extension and Critique of Caritas in Veritate, Catholic Social Thought and Economic Life and most recently, Distant Markets, Distant Harms: Economic Complicity and Christian Ethics. which explores a Christian response to global inequality in a free market system.
In addition to professors Hirschfeld and Prepora, participants in June’s TWN event included academic and intellectual luminaries Mary Jo Bane, Thornton Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Management at the Harvard Kennedy School, Gerardo Sanchis Muñoz, noted author and professor of economics, at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, anthropologist Michael Blim, who teaches at City University in New York, Fr. David Hollenbach, S. J., professor of theology at Boston College, Charles Wilber, Emeritus Professor, Department of Economics at the University of Notre Dame and Fellow, at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, Andrew Yuengert, professor of economics at Seaver College, Pepperdine University and Fr. Matthew Carnes, S. J., professor of political science, Georgetown University.
Each scholar’s final paper will appear in a collection of essays around the conference theme. That volume, it’s hoped, will serve as a touchstone for both researchers and policy makers, in the Academy, the Church and the public sphere, and to explore practical ways to bring Catholic social teaching to bear on how we think about our world and the people in it.