Among the greatest gifts the Church has to offer the secular world is a profound understanding of happiness, which does not rely on wealth, said a Villanova University economist in a recent speech.

"We cannot think well about economic life, or the challenges to economic justice and the environment that we confront, if we do not first think hard about the shape of human happiness and the proper role of wealth," said Mary Hirschfeld.

She said that the Church's teaching is an invitation to radically reconsider how we view the economy and the purpose of wealth, but that teaching is often misunderstood by society.

"The Church's vision of the relationship between wealth and happiness, and what that means for creation and the economy is not easily understood by those who were formed with the secular understanding of the world."

The economics and theology professor received the 4th International "Economy and Society" Award in the category of "Social Doctrine Publications" at a ceremony on May 29. The award is granted by the Centesimus Annus – Pro Pontifice Foundation. It was presented by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising.

The award was given in recognition of Hirschfeld's recent book, "Aquinas and the Market. Toward a humane Economy" (Harvard University Press, 2018).

In her speech at the award ceremony, Hirschfeld said that although she had a Ph.D. in economics, her entire view of social and economic development was transformed after she converted to the Catholic faith as an adult.

After years of being successful by worldly standards, she found something missing in her life. It wasn't until she found the Catholic Church that she discovered the "banquet" that would satisfy her hungry soul.

In encountering and embracing the Catholic faith, Hirschfeld said, she found that true happiness lies in an infinite good that could not be found in an accumulation of finite goods.

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"No amount of money or prestige was going to alleviate that hunger," she said. "Instead, I found that my true hunger was for God."

But the Church also gave her a new lens to see the finite things of the world around her – the goodness of the people in her life, the gift of community, and the importance of virtue.

When Hirschfeld returned to school to study theology, she found herself struggling to reconcile her background in economics with her newfound Catholic faith. Upon reading St. Thomas Aquinas' teachings on private property, she found what seemed at first to be a contradiction.

On one hand, Aquinas seemed to say that "private property is fitting because it channels our propensity to work for ourselves in socially useful ways," Hirschfeld said. This aligned perfectly with what she believed as an economist.

"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."

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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."