Multifaith Symposium Discusses Neoclassical Economics and "Cathonomics"

Author: Rebekah Go

Dr. Anthony Annett delivers his keynote.

The Ansari Institute’s Nasr Book Prize highlights the work of scholars who reimagine the connection of religion and global affairs. In addition to recognizing the author of the chosen book and inviting them to provide a keynote talk, the Ansari Institute also then invites scholars from different faith traditions to respond to the provocations in the chosen work through the lens of their own scholarly interests and faith traditions. Their responses are part of a symposium and are then published in an edited volume. The most recent Nasr Book Prize winner was Cathonomics: How Catholic Tradition Can Create a More Just Economy by Anthony Annett.

The Prize was announced in the summer of 2023 and officially awarded at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. At the Parliament, renowned Hindu scholar and religious leader Anantanand Rambachan reflected on the book's importance. Rambachan said,

“[W]hile the discipline of economics may not put the discernment of fundamental ethical values as a primary concern, it would be misleading to think that the discipline is value-free. Economic decisions assume certain goods that are worthwhile that may include wealth, freedom, and happiness. Fundamental values determine how individuals or communities calculate cost-benefit outcomes. A cost for one may be a benefit for another depending on her or his values. The question then is not whether values are involved in economic decisions, but what values are involved and what are the sources of these values? It is the answer to these questions that brings religion and economics into dialogue. If we understand our religious tradition to offer comprehensive accounts of the meaning of our lives, not only in the hereafter, but also here and now, our teachings must be sources of meaning for economic decision making. It is my fervent hope that Annett’s work would serve as an inspiration for continuing these interreligious dialogues, motivating scholars, and practitioners of other traditions to think systematically about the ethical resources of their traditions that commit us to work for the flourishing of all.”

Dr. Joy Brennan makes a comment as Drs. Sam Brody and Thomas Legrand look on.

In his book Cathonomics, Anthony Annett argues that economics should not operate in a silo. It should be informed by consistent reference to and indeed deference to the common good. As Rambachan states, “sustainable and integral development are not just technical, but also moral, and require commitment to the common good, human dignity, and the good life for all.” Cathonomics was also the starting point for a robust series of conversations marking the second multifaith symposium held at the University of Notre Dame in February 2024. During an unseasonably warm day (which means above freezing for that time of year), scholars from a variety of faith traditions responded to Annett’s thesis across a series of panels.

To begin the symposium, the Ansari Institute’s Executive Director Mahan Mirza challenged each of the participants with his opening remarks. “Industrial capitalism - the driver of the global economy - is the world's operating system,” he said. Yet, while the “intended outcomes are the miracles we see all around us in information and biotechnology, the unintended outcomes are wreaking havoc in our inner and outer worlds. We need to change course.” Religion can offer “profound insights” into the state of the world and a great deal of instruction on both why and how we should move forward within ethical and moral frameworks. What do the Bahá’ís say about economics? And the Sikhs? And what do Jewish teachings say? Thus began a dynamic series of conversations.

Dr. Waleed El-Ansary and Dr. Nirvikar Singh engage in conversation.

The first panel focused on Hindu, Indigenous, and Chinese Traditions, moderated by Anantanand Rambachan. He was joined by Joy Brennan, a Buddhist Scholar and Zen priest from Kenyon College, Rahul Oka a Hindu anthropologist from the University of Notre Dame, and Stephanie Wong a Religious Studies professor from Villanova University who spoke primarily from the Mohist perspective within the many Chinese traditions.

While there are certainly differences between these three faith traditions, one theme was that they each promoted an interdependence of peoples that recognizes the “lived, relational webs” - as Wong described it - that humans occupy. Each of these traditions also center care for the other - such that they teach about acts of self restraint that enable the impartial distribution of goods for all. Buddhists in particular offer a personal psychology for inner work that can lead to a shared world with less suffering, whereas the Mohist and Hindu traditions have more developed political philosophies that can challenge current economic structures. All three traditions ultimately endorse internal and external work that could contribute to the common good.

Dr. Annett responds to a question as Anantanand Rambachan looks at him.

The second panel was a conversation between two Christian perspectives, moderated by a Religious Studies professor at St. Mary’s College and Ansari Institute affiliate faculty member, Margaret Gower. The two panelists were Steven McMullen, an economist from Hope College speaking from a Reformed Christian perspective, and Kate Ward, an economic ethicist from Marquette University speaking from a Catholic perspective.

McMullen gave a brief history lesson on the field and noted that while it was founded in moral and political philosophy and eventually developed into political economics, there was an intentional turn towards the social sciences to adopt a “neutrality and cultural authority.” The field thus attempted to extricate itself from any moral debate via development of shared methodology, theory, and “minimalist” rationality. However, McMullen notes, what economists can “end up accidentally doing is building a body of theory that reinforces the distribution of power and wealth that already existed.”

Ward noted that the neoliberalism of the 1970s that Annett describes led to the US and UK abandoning post-war democratic consensus in favor of libertarian ideals, whereas Catholic Social Teaching would favor both higher participatory democracy and an increased role of government. McMullen also noted that one of the early founders of the Reformed Christian Tradition would have favored an architectonic critique of issues such as poverty which would include looking at the structural, cultural, and spiritual dimensions that allow for and perpetuate the issues.

Dr. Stephanie Wong looks at Dr. Augusto Lopez-Claros as she offers a few comments.

The third panel was moderated by Ansari Institute adjunct faculty member Charles Powell. He led a conversation between Samuel Brody, a Religious Studies professor from the University of Kansas whose scholarship focuses on Jewish thought, and Waleed El-Ansary, an Islamic Studies professor at Xavier University. Brody discussed Cathonomics as a “satisfying polemic against sodomy” where the city of Sodom was most known for its unparalleled wealth and arrogance with its unwillingness to allocate some for the benefit of others. He also spoke of a particular tension between the Jewish and Catholic traditions wherein he states: “when the Church wants Christians to change their behavior, one way they can do that is by depicting it as not Christian and [the Church] can also make an additional move, which is to say it is not Christian in a particular way, which is to say that it is Jewish.” He warns that this is not harmless rhetoric and recommends positively confronting it.

El-Ansari discussed the desire for a holistic versus deformed society wherein a holistic society is spiritually, psychologically, and materially efficacious but a deformed one is only materially so. El-Ansary also notes that envisioning holistic society requires going beyond Islamic law to the Islamic wisdom tradition, which can speak to the qualitative difference between a world that is simply materially focused versus the embodiment of spiritual, psychological, and material well-being. He noted this particularly resonated with the seventh chapter of Cathonomics on care for our common home.

All of the symposium panelists joined Nasr Book Prize winner Anthony Annett for an animated conversation after his brief keynote.

Finally the fourth panel focused on the Bahá’í, Sikh, and Secular traditions, moderated by Ansari Institute Affiliate faculty member, Robert Stockman. This panel included Nirvikar Singh, an economics professor and practicing member of the Sikh faith from UC Santa Cruz. It also included Augusto Lopez-Claros, an economist and executive director of the Global Governance Forum and a practicing Bahá’í. The final member was Thomas Legrand, an economist and wisdom seeker who represented scientific perspectives that cohere with the shared wisdom of the many inherited faith traditions of the world, including Indigenous wisdom.

The panelists began by stating that they were pleased to find a great deal of common ground between Cathonomics and their approaches to economics. Legrand highlighted, in particular, both Integral Human Development and the idea of humans as relational beings as areas of potential consensus and emphasis moving forward. Moreover, Legrand said, science has begun to prove that this relational dependency demonstrates at a deeper level “why integral human development is good for the person and is good at the same time for society.” Lopez-Claros agreed and said that all of the practical suggestions within Cathonomics were spot on, and yet, if he were to make one strategy central to the debate on reducing income inequality, it would be the political and economic empowerment of women, which, Lopez-Claros stated, “is vital to human prosperity.” Singh added that Sikh philosophy believes that all creation is important as it is all a manifestation of the divine, and that for this reason, they have no teachings that allow for the exploitation of the environment.

At the end of each panel, Anthony Annett was invited to give his feedback, which helped to enrich the conversation, as did intentionally long breaks and a leisurely lunch. At the end of the fourth panel, Annett offered a few closing remarks before a longer break prior to his evening keynote. Annett said that he had written the book in the basement of his home in the darkest days of the pandemic, and that he has been buoyed by the spirit in which it has been received - not only by Catholics but also by others. Overall, his intention was to begin by writing generally and growing more specific as the book went further. He started with Catholic doctrine, then moved to Catholic Social Teaching, and then to practical recommendations regarding specific economic policies and practices that could improve the lives of those who are marginalized.

Annett said he felt that outlining the ten principles of Catholic Social Teaching created an opportunity for other wisdom traditions to enter the conversation because, he believes, “other traditions can arrive at similar principles from their own overlapping consensus.” Ultimately Annett said, he had two audiences in mind: Catholics interested in Catholic Social Teaching and non-Catholics “interested in redesigning economics who might be interested to know there is a tradition out there that, as a secular economist you more than likely have never heard of, but there’s a lot of wisdom.”

The day was capped off by Anthony Annett's keynote which was intentionally brief, so that the day's panelists could join him on stage for additional discussion. Annett’s talk: “Cathonomics and the future of Democracy” as well as the conversation that followed can be viewed below.