"But then [Aquinas] said we are also to hold private property as if it is in common, that is ready to share with others the fruits of our labors. That read to me, as an economist, as a pure contradiction. On the one hand, private property is good because it gives us an incentive to work hard. On the other hand, we are supposed to turn around and give it all away. What sort of incentive is that?"
Ultimately, she realized that the two different understandings of incentives and private property are due to radically different understandings of human happiness. Economists, she said, see happiness as acquiring wealth and goods, while Aquinas sees happiness as "something that is found in the higher goods of God, family, community, and virtue."
"The crucial difference lies in how we understand the role of material wealth in a good human life," she emphasized. "For Aquinas, the 'incentive' is that we want to provide ourselves with what is reasonably necessary. But once our needs are secured, we would naturally wish to look to help others. Anything above what is necessary to us is, for Aquinas, superfluous."
For economists, however, Hirschfeld said, the incentive to work hard is the desire to accumulate more wealth and possessions. "However much we have, we think a bit more would be helpful and so we work hard."
"But that same logic means we would not experience our wealth as abundance, and so we would find it hard to give to others," she said.
This distinction is important to recognize, the economist said, because when we discuss the economy with people who have fundamentally different assumptions about wealth and human happiness, misunderstandings are likely to arise.
Hirschfeld suggested that much of the Church's rich body of social thought has not had the impact on the world that it could have, in large part because people do not fully understand it.
Her new book aims to help bridge the gap between the Church and the secular world, laying out a Catholic understanding of wealth and happiness in order to foster a dialogue that has significant implications in thinking about the economy.
"Perhaps this is the gift of the convert," she said, "to see what cradle Catholics may take for granted, and to build a bridge to bring the gifts of the Church to a world that desperately needs them."