A man stands beside a sign indicating the Toronto Stock Exchange index in downtown Toronto in this CNS file photo. CNS photo/Mark Blinch, Reuters

King’s course shows economics should seek meaning

  • October 20, 2022

Pope Francis challenged young Catholics to “transform an economy that kills into an economy of life” at a three day “Economy of Francesco” meeting in Assisi Sept. 22-24.

“I’m counting on you,” the Pope told the young people gathered.

Pope Francis’ thoughts about the state of economics are just the kind of thing King’s University College economics professor Jafar El Armali wants his students to consider in their introductory economics classes.

“The Pope is saying really interesting stuff. It’s worth having a discussion about that,” El Armali told The Catholic Register.

El Armali seeks to teach economics in a way that the theories of markets, labour and price mechanisms are not divorced from reality.

“Economics is important,” he said on a Zoom call from the Catholic college at Western University in London, Ont. “The way we study economics and the way we run our economies, at the end of the day, will affect the way we live our daily lives. It’s pretty obvious that the way we do economics is at least in part responsible for some of the problems we are facing in terms of environmental damage or in terms of poverty.”

At Assisi, Pope Francis urged young people to reject a model of economics that evaluates human actions solely in terms of the desire for more and more material goods.

“Human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, are seekers of meaning before being seekers of material goods,” Francis said.

The Holy Father insisted that the first capital of any society is spiritual rather than material or financial — “invisible but more real than financial or technological capital.”

“Take that statement on the one hand and on the other hand a typical assumption that you would see in an introductory or even an intermediate economics course — that when we are trying to think and explain the economic decision-making of individuals it is assumed that individuals make these decisions because they seek to have as many material goods and as much leisure time as possible,” said El Armali. “Maybe a new generation of economists can show us models with assumptions changed.”

Changing and questioning assumptions is in fact what a truly Catholic education is all about, said Gerry Turcotte, St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College president and vice-chancellor, in an email.

“The university, as an institution of inquiry, was formed by the Church, and its mission was to question and challenge, not to blindly adulate,” Turcotte said. “Our goal is to celebrate the full humanity of our students, so that they may take that fullness into a troubled world and help to make it whole. It’s an ambitious hope, but one worth fighting for.”

When it comes to economics, that means a Catholic university wants students to ask what economics are for, said the Vancouver university president.

The Pope in Laudato Si’ is urging us to consider “not just the marketplace, or economics, but everything else besides — culture, nature, politics and more,” said Turcotte. “And he makes the point that ‘Education will be inadequate and ineffective unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking.’ ”

El Armali urges his King’s students to question one of the most basic assumptions in mainstream economics — that the success of our economics can be judged by the degree to which we achieve economic efficiency.

“As a society, if you want to evaluate what outcomes we desire, who gets to say that economic efficiency is what we desire? Sometimes I ask my students, ‘Did we have a vote on that?’ OK, the market system, where each individual acts in their own selfish interests, could eventually give us this economically efficient outcome.

The question is, do we only want economic efficiency, even if it sometimes is at odds with other objectives, other outcomes we may desire — maybe a more equal society?”

El Armali doesn’t question that he must teach the basics.

“I should teach what the current theories are. If you want to change something you should understand it first,” he said.

“What the Pope is trying to do, trying to create a new generation of young people who think differently — hopefully they pursue economics, they go to graduate studies and they come up with new ideas and new models.”

“Catholic universities and colleges care about the practicalities of preparing students for great jobs, for pragmatic skills, but recognize that these must be aspect of, not the goal of, an excellent education,” said Turcotte. “We must co-exist in an ecosystem of care for the common good — care for our brothers and sisters. This is why, in my view, so many students from Catholic universities and colleges participate in social justice initiatives in disproportionate numbers.”

In his address at the Economy of Francesco event, the Pope urged young people to put human beings, workers, at the centre of their thinking about economics.

“Do not forget about work. Do not forget about workers,” he said. “While you create goods and services, do not forget to create work, good work and work for everyone.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.