Religion & Liberty Online

Interview: Margarita Mooney on communism, freedom, and the ‘irreducible person’

The Acton Institute alumni network is now over 8,000 people strong. This group spans many disciplines and contains many of the most influential leaders from those disciplines. Margarita Mooney is one of those influential people. Margarita completed her undergraduate studies at Yale University and her doctorate at Princeton University. She is currently an Associate Professor of Practical Theological at Princeton Theological Seminary, and is an education entrepreneur. As the founder of Scala Foundation, she has built programming designed to strengthen classical liberal arts education and promote authentic human well being. Through this effort, Margarita works tirelessly to promote intellectual virtues such as thoroughness, intellectual courage, and creative thinking.

This past fall, Margarita opened Acton’s annual dinner with a moving invocation. You can watch and listen to a portion of her stirring speech below.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Margarita about her upbringing, work at Scala Foundation, and her academic aspirations. (Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Oetting: What was the first Acton Institute event that you attended?

Mooney: I went to Acton University when I was still a graduate student in sociology at Princeton University. Having studied psychology at Yale and then sociology at Princeton, I sensed that the underlying view of the human person was flawed in both fields. My mother fled Cuba when she was 20 years old and I was always bothered by the excuses made by many academics about how communism destroyed people’s freedom — economic freedom, political freedom, and most importantly religious freedom. After my first of seven trips to Cuba in 1994, when I was 20 years old, I was persuaded that communism could not be the solution to poverty in Latin America.

At Acton University, I learned a vocabulary to express what I was convinced of from my own experiences: we can’t look at human freedom as a trade-off for health care or education — certain goods really are intrinsic and non-exchangeable.

What advanced degrees do you hold? How did you become interested in these academic disciplines?

I grew up in Frederick, Maryland, the youngest of four children and the only girl in my family. The people I grew up around had many problems, but they also had a deep faith in God — in the midst of suffering, injustice, and even the death of loved ones, there was a conviction that we are not alone in this world and that what we see here and now is not all there is. When I went to Yale as an undergraduate, I studied psychology, hoping to find a way to ameliorate some of the suffering I had seen growing up.

After graduating from Yale, I worked for Oscar Arias, a former president of Costa Rica and Nobel Peace Laureate. I traveled all around Central America working on projects that helped ex-combatants in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala reintegrate into civilian life.

I went on to study sociology at Princeton University for my PhD. Sociology seemed to provide the best toolkit for understanding the interwoven forces of large-scale cultural change, economic change, and political change. But I also questioned some gaps in my training. For example, most social theory seemed to imply that all evil in the world was due to a bad environment but never intentional acts of evil. Utopian ideals abounded about the human person’s potential once freed from environmental constraints. Beyond my intellectual questions, it seemed that little about sociology could speak to me about my faith, hope, love, forgiveness, mercy — those deep experiences we all have in some ways that, when the going gets rough, pulls us up out of our darkness and despair.

Where do you teach and what is your current position? Where else have you taught?

I am currently an associate professor of Practical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. The seminary only has graduate students, but I also occasionally teach undergraduates at Princeton University. I have also been a faculty member in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2007-2013) and Yale University (2013-2016).

What is Scala Foundation and what was the impetus behind starting Scala Foundation? Why do you think it’s important for students to engage with hard questions or ideas that they may disagree with their peers on?

When I moved to Princeton Theological Seminary — finally a tenured position! — I decided to dedicate more of my time to integral student formation by founding Scala. Scala means ladder in Latin. I got the idea for the name Scala from the rule of St. Benedict. I love the image of a ladder! The two sides of a ladder symbolize the need for balance between body and soul. The steps of the ladder represent that we ascend to excellence while also descending in humility. A ladder also symbolizes that being well-rooted in community life holds us steady as we climb to contemplate eternal truths.

Through Scala, I lead reading groups for Princeton University and Seminary students in my living room or dining room. I also invite faculty and successful professionals to lead dinner seminars at my home to speak about their research or careers.

For the past two summers, I’ve taken small groups of students from universities all across the U.S.-public and private, Christian and secular — to Oxford University and Ampleforth Abbey. For two weeks, we read 26 authors and learn philosophical anthropology, the purpose of education, the crisis of modernity, and monastic approaches to learning. To balance out our intensive schedule of readings and seminars, I also arrange activities that try to bring students to shared experiences of contemplation of beauty — going to art museums, going for walks in nature, and sharing experiences of faith in liturgy of the hours or attending religious services together. In 2019, I’ll be hosting the seminar at Porstmouth Abbey and School in Rhode Island, which will allow me to invite members of Scala’s growing alumni and faculty network to share how they live out a liberal arts approach to education in a variety of contexts.

Where are past Scala Foundation students now?

Most of the students who have participated in Scala events are still finishing degrees in law, English, economics, political theory, sociology, theology or another field at schools like Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Baylor, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One Scala alum recently accepted a tenure-track position teaching political theory at a liberal arts college, and I expect many other Scala alumni will become professors in higher education. Others aspire to become teachers in classical liberal arts high schools, including a few whose calling is to bring classical liberal arts education to students in areas one may not traditionally associate with liberal arts education, like low-income urban areas. Others will become professionals. All have a vocation to family and community, which are also places of education!

How has Acton Institute impacted your work at Princeton Theological Seminary and Scala Foundation?

Acton is valuable because it provides ongoing access to resources — articles, people, events — that help me build a better world based on a theistic, personalist view of the human person and the human good.

Finally, what projects are you currently working on and how can those in the Acton network interested in your work collaborate with you?

I’m increasingly asked to write and speak about my educational approach, so that aspect of my work is growing. Many of my recent articles and talks are on my website:  I post often on Twitter (@margaritamooney) about my teaching, guest lectures, and quotes from what I’m reading or teaching.

Acton alumni can collaborate with me by helping me built a network of students and faculty who embrace the transformational approach to education that Scala embodies.

Editor’s Note: In addition to her work at Scala Foundation and teaching load at Princeton Theological Seminary, Margarita’s current research on resilience and suffering has led her to write frequently. Please check out her blog for more of her thoughts on this important topic, and be sure to follow her on social media so you don’t miss future talks and publications.

You can view Margarita’s full Annual Dinner invocation below.


Are you interested in listening to Margarita live? Join us at Acton University this summer!

Acton University 2019 Register Now