Carolyn Woo, most recently served as dean of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business prior to her current position as CEO and President of Catholic Relief Services. At Lumen Christi Institute’s downtown Chicago conference, “Toward a Moral Economy: Globalization and the Developing World,” she presented in the session on “Economic and Human Development: A View from the Field.”
Given all the exposure you now have to unpredictable real-life situations, what are the common misconceptions that academics have about developmental and economic problems on the ground?
The most common misperception is the impression by certain academics that development work is mostly practice without theory and data verification. While there is much room for improvement, large-scale development work often has to present its theory of change and provide assessment of its work. The information collected covers many projects over decades of work by different agencies affecting hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries. I have seen a number of academic presentations based on work with only one or two communities and from which conclusions were drawn.
Very briefly, what were your impressions of the Moral Economy conference? Were you introduced to any new ideas? Did you meet people who inspired you to think about a problem in a different way?
I thought the best paper was presented by Cardinal George: it inspired me to think about the transcendent nature of humans created by God and how our human activities (including economic transactions) must not lose this transcendence.
You have said that you have three older sisters who didn’t go to college and that the Chinese way was to marry well. Given that in your background, opportunities for women were limited, what does it mean for you to be so involved in public life? What does it mean especially since many of the countries in which CRS functions, women have a limited societal voice or role?
The opportunities and success that I have enjoyed make me realize how important it is that EVERYONE has opportunities to flourish and to come into his or her full potential. There are all sorts of barriers and not just against women. While much progress has been made with respect to the progress of and equal treatment for women, girls and women are still not valued, not respected, not empowered in certain countries and cultures. But there are other obstacles that hold back the education and development of individuals: extreme poverty, stunting that diminishes intellectual development, conflicts that disrupt education, violence that compromises healthy brain development and cognitive functioning, under-estimation of people with mental disabilities or writing off of youths in gangs. I have now met many people, for different reasons, who are sidelined from reaching their potential. Education provides the key and access to knowledge, to opportunities, to livelihoods, to certain social standing in society, to the levers of change, and ultimately to a voice and a place in formal structures.
What are your thoughts about the role of laity in the Church given that you were one of the first lay members of the CRS Board prior to your assuming your current role as president and CEO?
I think all would agree that the invitation to lay members to the CRS board significantly expanded the breadth of professional experiences. These have included expertise in governance, audit, financial administration, investments, communication, law, administration of highly complex organizations such as universities and hospitals and approaches to problem-solving. The lay members also opened our eyes, minds and hearts to the immense needs of the world and the inspiring commitment of the Church to step up to these problems through aid, advocacy and solidarity. Laity and the clergy together comprise the Body of Christ who calls us to be His eyes, hands, and feet on earth, to bring His love and His bounty to everyone, to take care of each other and to remember that He is with us and in us. We all have our unique gifts to bring and our part to do. This is a big task and we need all hands on deck working shoulder to shoulder for the kingdom of God.
Lumen Christi brings the light of faith to young intellectuals and aspiring and current academics. What do you see as the relationship between intellectual formation and living the faith? Does it help to have an informed faith? How has your knowledge of the faith inspired you to help others? How does it sustain you?
Wow, that is a big question! In second grade, I learned my catechism and there was a set of answers I memorized about God from the abridged Chinese version of the Baltimore Catechism on mimeographed sheets. The answers have not changed, but what they mean to me, what they call me to do and why I believe have continuously deepened due to life experiences, interactions with people of faith and the intellectual tradition of the Church. Faith calls us to seek the truth in all its realms: physical, intellectual, relational, and spiritual. For me, the gift of the Church’s intellectual tradition is to put into words and therefore greater clarity of the transcendence, which I and perhaps everyone experiences but cannot name. I think as much as possible, our faith needs to grow with our level of intellectual maturation. Otherwise we would deploy a second grade or eighth grade level of understanding to the decisions and experiences of our lives in a highly complex world.