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Economists and Theologians Tackle Poverty

The Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC College hosts international conference exploring the moral conditions for the generation of wealth.

By Pamela J. Johnson
July 1, 2008

Economists and Theologians Tackle Poverty

In a major shift in Catholic social thought, Pope John Paul II argued that the creation of wealth in a market-driven economy — or capitalism — could under certain conditions promote the common good for all of humanity.

Building on the late Pope John Paul’s belief, the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies (IACS) at USC College has launched a multiyear, international research project exploring the strengths and weaknesses of Catholic social teaching as it relates to the complex issues of capitalism.

The cross-disciplinary project will bring together social ethicists and economists, and political philosophers of many religions from around the world. It involves conferences in which scholarly papers are debated, and will publish books to help in the fight against poverty.

“Distributing wealth; giving to the poor. Most people hear those exhortations regularly when they go to synagogues or mosques or churches,” said Father James Heft, Alton M. Brooks Professor of Religion in the College, and president and founding director of the IACS.

“But what’s happened in the last 300 years with the development of capitalism is that we have a new phenomenon. Now there’s not just the exhortation to be generous with what you have. There’s the need to generate wealth.”

So the questions become: Is capitalism just a ticket to greed? Does capitalism simply exploit the poor?

“Or would it be possible for a person with talent and resources who generates wealth to escape the clutches of greed and truly benefit the larger community?” Heft asked. “What we’re doing with this project is exploring the moral conditions of the generation of wealth.”

The first phase of the True Wealth of Nations project was launched June 18 with a four-day conference held at the Davidson Executive Conference Center, where theologians, economists, sociologists and businesspeople met to debate scholarly papers on topics from “What Africa Can Learn From Catholic Social Teaching About Sustainable Economic Prosperity” to “An Ecofeminist Approach to the True Wealth Project.”

USC Provost C.L. Max Nikias welcomed the international guests during a speech at the University Club. In his speech Nikias said that the True Wealth of Nations project holds immense promise for both public policy and private enterprise and “can make the kind of impact that is central to USC’s mission to build up our society.”

The IACS is a fitting setting for such a conference, Nikias said, noting that some 6,000 Catholic students attend USC. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, encompassing Ventura and Santa Barbara and including about 5 million members, is the largest diocese in the United States, he added, and is a “global crossroads for Catholicism.”

“I salute the IACS for having brought together so many leaders from so many disciplines who think in so many different ways in order that we might benefit from a perspective that is new and surprising yet also ancient and steadfast, a perspective that is grounded in the deepest parts of the human experiment — and a perspective that transcends today’s conventional wisdom.”

USC College Dean Howard Gillman also praised the IACS and its efforts.

“This conference is an exciting and important example of how the core academic mission of a great College is enhanced by taking seriously the contributions, experiences and traditions of faith communities,” Gillman said.

The project was named after the famous magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations, written in 1776 by the father of economics, Adam Smith. “True” was added because exactly what “wealth” means is hotly debated.

“We hope to make a contribution to Catholic social teaching and social ethics,” Heft said. “What you would say in a poorer developing nation about what needs to be done and what you would say in the United States are not the same thing. So [Catholic social thought] has the benefit in one sense of having universal principles, but it lacks the attention to local situations that differ greatly, necessary for application.

“So we want to bring into sustained conversation first-rate economists who have more insight into local differences with ethicists and theologians who often articulate the general principles.”

The True Wealth research project directors include Heft; Paul Caron, retired head of JP Morgan banks in Belgium and Switzerland; and Daniel Finn, professor of economics and theology at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. All are IACS Board of Trustee members.

The directors also served as conference steering committee members along with Clifford Longley, an author, broadcaster and journalist in Britain.

After the papers debated at the conference are revised, they will be included in a book to be published in early 2009, said Longley, who will act as co-editor.

“Everywhere in the world, economists are under challenge for ignoring the human dimension of economic growth,” Longley said. “And all over the world, people are asking questions about what ought to be the principles that regulate economic growth to make more humane the way it treats people — not just rich people, but poor people.

“We’re going to produce a book we hope will end up in the hands of those who need that kind of knowledge. Not only Catholics. Not only other Christian denominations, but people with similar concerns about how to make economics human.”

Kevin Starr, University Professor, professor of history and policy, planning, and development, and IACS Board of Trustee member, said the topic of global wealth creation from a Roman Catholic perspective is virtually unexplored territory for the academy.

Since its creation in 2002, the IACS has hosted three additional international conferences addressing Catholicism and science, violence in the name of religion and religious identity in the next generation. The last two conferences brought together Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars and resulted in two widely read books.

“The Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC is once again demonstrating the contribution that university-based research can make to a broad variety of social, cultural and economic issues,” said Starr, who is writing a book about the American Catholic experience.

“In the years to come, the institute, in fostering this line of inquiry, will help apply the Catholic tradition to a wide variety of topics that require not only science, not only social science and the humanities, but also the great traditions of faith — and especially that of Catholicism.”