Did Vatican II make Americans stupid?

A lot of economists have spent a lot of time debating whether and why Catholic schools lead to better student outcomes in the US. Selective students or better schools?

I’m can’t quite remember why we care, but even I can appreciate a clever identification strategy: Nuns and Vatican II! The paper:

…we show that the positive correlation between Catholic schooling and student outcomes is explained by selection bias.

Spearheaded by the universal call to holiness and the opening to lay leadership, the reforms that occurred at the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) in the early 1960s produced a dramatic exogenous change in the cost/benefit ratio of religious life in the Catholic Church. The decline in vocations that followed contributed to a significant increase in costs and, in many cases, to the closure of Catholic schools.

We document that this decline was heterogeneous across US dioceses, and that it was more marked in those dioceses governed by a liberal bishop. Merging diocesan data drawn from the Official Catholic Directory (1960-1980) and the US Census, we show that that the variation in the supply of female religious teachers across US dioceses is strongly related to Catholic schooling.

Using the abrupt decline in female vocations as an instrument for Catholic schooling, we find no evidence of positive effects on student outcomes.

And you thought Scrabble points were a cute instrument.

Seriously, though, more and more I wonder whether the causal fetish club in labor and development economics (of which I am a card-carrying member) is asking too many old and tired questions with clever causation rather than new and important questions. I think the young economic historians, political economy people, and comparative politics crowd are way out in front on this.

P.S. I like my title better than “Nuns and the Effects of Catholic Schools: Evidence from Vatican II”, and I heartily encourage the authors to adopt it.

7 thoughts on “Did Vatican II make Americans stupid?

  1. What do you mean by the new and important questions that rely less on estimating causal effects? Can you give an example from the fields you mention?

  2. You wrote: “Seriously, though, more and more I wonder whether the causal fetish club in labor and development economics (of which I am a card-carrying member) is asking too many old and tired questions with clever causation rather than new and important questions. I think the young economic historians, political economy people, and comparative politics crowd are way out in front on this.”

    As a current student studying development and economics, I couldn’t agree more. The narrow methods and designs prescribed in certain academic programs focus more on establishing a casual element to a relationships, whether or not knowing it is by any means useful or helpful. Would you agree that other methods and research designs are perhaps also useful to answering more important questions, even if causal effects between variables can be established. Outside of economics, there lie many other and more diverse approaches to research.

  3. Don’t get me started on your fetish. And asking new and fresh questions with the same fetish is almost as bad.

  4. I think there is interest in knowing whether the observed better outcomes for Catholic schools are due to selection of students or to “something else” because, if it is “something else”, then if that “something else” could be pinned down it might be able to be introduced/transferred/adopted to public schools to improve their outcomes.