‘It Is a Wonderful Time to Be Christians in Hungary,’ Says Prominent Dominican Nun

Sister Laura Baritz, a leading Catholic figure in Hungary who left a successful career at Pepsi to embrace religious life, discusses the situation of Christians in her country and her mission of promoting more human-centered economic systems.

‘It is time to put the human person back at the center of all this economic and financial world,’ says Dominican Sister Laura Baritz, who is shown greeting Pope Francis.
‘It is time to put the human person back at the center of all this economic and financial world,’ says Dominican Sister Laura Baritz, who is shown greeting Pope Francis. (photo: Courtesy photos)

Sister Laura Baritz is one of the most well-known female figures on the Hungarian religious scene. She is often affectionately referred to as “Sister Pepsi” because of her atypical background. Indeed, before embracing the religious life, the Dominican nun used to have a leading position with the U.S. company PepsiCo in Hungary.

Her vocation flourished after a life-changing encounter with Christ at her mother’s death, as she recounts in this interview with the Register.

But Sister Laura is above all known for creating the post-graduate academic program KETEG (Christian Social Principles in Economics), which brings together economic sciences and theology and which is integrated into the curriculum of several universities and other prestigious education institutes in Hungary, including the Sapientia College of Theology, Corvinus University of Budapest, St. Ignatius Jesuit College, National Bank of Hungary and the National University of Public Service. The program earned her a first prize from the Ratzinger Foundation in 2017 as well as the European Citizens’ Prize, awarded by the European Parliament in 2021.

This advocate of people-centered economic systems regularly delivers her analyses in the Hungarian national media and has also established herself as a mediator between the political movements in her country, notably by participating in public debates bringing together various personalities. She spoke with the Register ahead of Pope Francis’ upcoming April 28-30 trip to Hungary.

We’re just a few days away from the Pope’s visit to Hungary. What are your personal expectations?

My wish is that the foreign media would look at Hungary in a different way. The general international opinion about us is bad, and it is most of the time based on false information and prejudices. I hope that with this papal visit, which will be longer than that of 2021 at the Eucharistic Congress, the media will take more time to really look into the realities of our country. And the Pope himself could spread a positive message about it.

Hungary is such a safe place for Christians right now. It is a wonderful time to be Christians in Hungary; the conditions are optimal for the Church to spread the Gospel’s message.

What makes you think that?

I think the Catholic Church in Hungary is solid and has many excellent bishops, priests defending the traditional Catholic views and striving to maintain an ecumenical bond with other churches.

Our prime minister speaks publicly about Christian values, even at the European Parliament, and our fundamental laws on family and marriage show that Christianity remains the compass of our society. Religion and ethics courses remain mandatory in schools, even in public schools.

And when I walk through the streets of Hungary in my Dominican habit, most people I meet greet me kindly, come up to me and ask me questions. In public transportation, many young people approach me or offer me their seats. I am invited to speak about my KETEG program to a wide variety of audiences.

In addition, our national “Hungary Helps” program, which aims to help Christians in need around the world, demonstrates our country’s special concern for the future of Christianity.

Do you think that the prejudices you mention about your country in the West are the consequence of a growing rejection of Christian culture and values?

I do. I see the media spread a lot of false information and defend instead the interests of small circles who tend to despise Christian values. It is a cultural and political war that is often not being fought in a fair way.

What prompted you to leave your successful career at Pepsi to embrace the Dominican life?

I worked for Pepsi Cola for five to six years, from 1988 to 1994. I lived alone with my mother, as my dad died when I was 22 years old. I was a businesswoman; I served as sales operation manager, and I traveled a lot. In 1992, my mother got ill, she was diagnosed with a bone cancer, and the doctor said she had one year left. I decided that I would dedicate all of my life to her, give her all the love that she had given me her whole life. I wanted to change [my] life. I took her with me to the U.S., in New York, when Pepsi sent me there for a training. During this period, my faith began to deepen. I felt closer and closer to Jesus. I prayed more, had a far more active life of faith.

The moment when my mom died was actually a life-changing experience. I was with her, I held her in my arms, and when the light left her eyes, I really felt that Jesus took her from my arms to his. She was with him.

After that, I was no longer the same. I didn’t look for the same things; wanted to avoid materialistic and ephemeral things. I wanted to follow Christ and his will. I had a very good Dominican friend who introduced me to the order. They became my spiritual leaders. I felt very close to this order. I went to visit a Dominican convent in Hungary, and I felt like I was at home there. It was a sign from Jesus that it was my place. I entered the convent just one year after my mother died. Jesus took my life in his hands.

When did you start using your business and economics skills in the service of your mission?

I particularly liked the Dominican Order for its intellectual dimension, which included a lot of study in theology and philosophy. I studied theology and ethics for years. In 2001, my superiors took me to Rome. There, I met Sister Helen Alford, an English Dominican and economist who was the dean of the social sciences faculty of the Pontifical University Angelicum at the time. During our meeting, I told her that I used to be an economist, too, but distanced myself from this discipline when I became a nun. She said that the best combination in life is actually economics and religion, economics and theology. She said she would prove it to me, and she took me to a conference in Bilbao, in which the lecturers were both economists and theologians. That was again a great life-changing experience.

Back in Hungary, I deepened my knowledge of the social teaching of the Church on economic matters and felt really drawn to it. Then I had the book Managing as if Faith Mattered by Sister Alford and Michael Naughton translated into Hungarian. And I continued the collaboration with them and a Hungarian group of experts, which developed the same approach to economic science based on the Church’s social teaching. I also took a Ph.D. that I finished in 2014. My thesis was published under the name “The Three-Dimensional Economy.”

Is that when you started KETEG?

I started it in 2010, in order to transmit a more encompassing approach to economics. I imagined a program based on the Angelicum program but adapted to a Hungarian public. For me, the best way to teach ethical economics is through three different “blocks” of subjects. We teach theology and philosophy in one block, social sciences in another block, and economics in a human-centered approach as the basic block.

The Sapientia College of Theology in Hungary made it an official course from 2010. In 2017, I won a first prize from the Ratzinger Foundation for it and from the University of Francesco de Vittoria in Madrid, together with Loyola University in Chicago. In 2021, I received the European Citizen Prize from the European Parliament. Since 2010, this teaching of KETEG has been spreading; we offer KETEG subjects in more universities and institutions in Hungary, and the KETEG Foundation organizes many public events supporting the teaching and is active on the internet, as well.

Our course is always packed. Our economical approach — what we teach — is very appealing to the people. It offers a rare perspective on life. Recently, a young man who took our course found Christ for the first time through our economic approach and then he received baptism. Another student quit his job after the class because he realized that his environment was corrupt, and he started his own business to better contribute to the common good.

How would you summarize your personal approach to economics?

My whole approach is based on the reciprocity principle. Adam Smith, the father of utilitarian economics, says that the motto of economic activity, its driving force, is self-interest. I’m more of a disciple of Italian economist Stefano Zamagni, former president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and economic adviser to Pope Francis. He doesn’t question the fact that the economic world is based on self-interest; he just develops theories based on the assumption that while pursuing one’s own interest, one can also include other people’s interests in the process. It is a key element for a better cooperation in societies. The reciprocity idea includes the possibility of a gift, through a reciprocal connection. It leads to a different paradigm than that of the mere exchange paradigm. A well-developed and understood reciprocity paradigm can change the world for the better.

I guess the current economic context offers you an avenue to touch more people with your special approach.

I’m being interviewed quite regularly even on secular TV shows to discuss the bank bankruptcies, inflation etc., and what could be a Christian response to that.

I think we went too far with the utilitarian approach, and it is time to put the human person back at the center of all this economic and financial world. The most important thing is to tell the truth without any fear and talk about ethics, about faith; to bring the mindset of people in order. My dream is to convert the 10% of those who possess 90% of the world’s material resources.

Are you advocating a mere conversion of hearts or also a more redistributive system?

It’s important to specify my thought on that. Private property is not a bad thing, according to Church teaching. Thomas Aquinas says that it is suitable to human nature to have private ownership. Because it is simpler to work on your own piece of land rather than that of others, you’ll take greater care of it. But if you get extra money from your possessions after covering all of your real needs, and making fair reserves, it is a moral duty to help support the community. That’s how the rich people should behave. A lot of entrepreneurs and businessmen already do that, but we should evangelize more of them in order to prompt them to contribute to the common good. The social teaching of the Church is very rich: We have more than 13 papal encyclicals whose content is so enlightening. As Christians, we should make sure that as many people as possible have access to and get inspired by them.

In my doctoral thesis, I did mathematical research to prove scientifically the theorems of St. Thomas Aquinas, some philosophical and theological truth. It is a good message sent to atheist people.