Orthodox believers in the West are faced with a choice, in how we deal with the broader society. Ultimately, that choice boils down to the one explicated in the debates between Dr. Vigen Guroian and Fr. Stanley Harakas. In cases where the secular authority of the state does not sympathise with or behave in a brotherly and harmonious way toward the Orthodox Church, the question becomes: do we withdraw, or do we tactically engage? Dr. Guroian and Fr. Stanley do each give compelling reasons why his strategy should be preferred over the other – it appears safe to say, however, that both understand that Orthodox truth in its fullness must be preserved against an assault by the narrowly-secular logic of the politics of the modern state, and by the ideologies which associate themselves with this logic. After all, ideologies do not save, and they can become idolatrous.
This is one reason why the sudden interest of the nominally Roman Catholic, economically liberal Acton Institute in all things Orthodox is so troubling to me, as an Orthodox believer. They have launched a book series in ‘Orthodox Christian Social Thought’, with the first entry being Fr. Michael Butler and Andrew Morriss’s Creation and the Heart
of Man, which purported to address environmental issues with both Church teaching and ‘sound economic analysis’. The book review by Alfred Kentigern Siewers on the excellent webzine Ethika Politika praises its ‘strong explication of man’s biblical role as not only steward… but also as transfigurational priest’, but also offers some criticisms which any faithful Orthodox ought to find disturbing. It ‘does not fully define nature as a key term in relation to other key terms such as environment, cosmos, and creation, a needed feat in translating and applying Orthodox texts and traditions to the modern West’. It ‘doesn’t fully explore the patristic sense of nature as a gift-relationship’. It does not ‘fully explore what C.S. Lewis described as the Christian sense of nature being in some sense symbolic of the divine’. For a text which purports to mount a decent explication of Orthodox Christian social thought on the topic of environmental concerns, these are glaring omissions indeed. Though Siewers never says so much himself, one gets the sense from his review that the authors are actually more concerned with making Orthodox-sounding excuses for a neo-Madisonian approach politics, and a neoliberal approach to property rights.
In 2013, the Acton Institute also co-hosted a conference on poverty with S. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, under the tagline ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for life’ – not, as they were implying, an Orthodox proverb, a Patristic one or even a Scriptural one, but a highly secular platitude originating with English novelist Lady Anne Ritchie. This conference claimed to offer ‘fresh ideas and long-term solutions’ to the problem of poverty, focussing on entrepreneurship but it is unclear from this description where the connexion was made (if one was made at all!) with actual Orthodox thinking about poverty.
Unfortunately, Acton’s bloggers do give us some idea of where these ideas are coming from and ultimately leading. This attempt by Rev. Gregory Jensen, firstly to shoehorn and twist the Patristic witness of S. John Chrysostom into a moral support of a modernist fee-simple understanding of property rights, and secondly to shoehorn and twist the writings of lay philosopher Vladimir Solovyov into the same, is a good example. The first and most glaring mistake that Rev. Gregory makes is to conflate ‘property rights’ with an obligation to participate in the life of the Church. These are two distinct issues, and at any rate the Acton Institute does not take the latter moral obligation at all seriously when it comes to wealthy church-goers, since when wealthy Christians are faced with that obligation the Acton acolytes are then merely content to say that the Church Fathers never condoned ‘coercion’. But from the Orthodox view it is an utterly bizarre argument all the same that Rev. Gregory is making here, that the material wealth wealthy men have and the spiritual wealth that beggars do are somehow interchangeable or equivalent in the way Rev. Gregory wants to make them. Certainly our great spiritual Father did not think this way!
‘The love for wealth is an unnatural passion,’ S. John Chrysostom preached. ‘The desire for wealth is neither natural nor necessary… wealth is harmful for you not because it arms thieves against you, nor because it completely darkens your mind but because it makes you the captives of soulless possessions and distracts you from the service of God.’
Rev. Gregory places the participation of the wealthy and the poor in almsgiving in equivalent and interchangeable positions; here again, though, the written witness of our Father amongst the Saints begs to differ. S. John Chrysostom very clearly laid out the differentiated nature of that participation when he said: ‘The rich exist for the sake of the poor. The poor exist for the salvation of the rich.’ It is erroneous to suggest that the participation of each person in the Church’s work of salvation is totally fungible and exchangeable. In a tradition such as ours which embraces vocations as various as hesychasm, monasticism and married life, but which for the sanity of the people who undertake them keeps their spiritual disciplines meticulously distinct, even the hint of such a fungibility borders on absurd. And to attempt to understand the beggar’s work in the Church life within the ideological framework of property rights is an error at best and a wicked and self-willed distraction at worst.
Likewise when it comes to Vladimir Solovyov – this essay presents what seems to be almost a caricature of his thought. Yes, Solovyov did indeed defend property rights, but being Orthodox he recognised that property rights have ontological limits. In the introduction to his chapter on property in The Justification of the Good, he is careful to note that ‘even in the inner psychical sphere that which belongs to the self is not always the absolute property of the person and is not always connected with him to the same extent’. He is careful to note each of the ways in which even one’s ‘property rights’ in one’s own body and mind are subject, often with good reason, to internal and external limitations: ‘Even in the sphere of the inner psychical life we find that property is but relative and different in degree. Similar relativity obtains with regard to external property.’
Solovyov is very clearly no more a socialist than Thomas Aquinas is, but that is quite the point. The good Italian Doctor did not prescribe any absolute right to property either. And with regard to the external limitations on property rights – including those that can and ought to be imposed by public authorities! – Solovyov is indeed quite explicit. ‘The conception of property involves the conception of freely disposing of the object of property. Ought this freedom to be absolute and include both the use and the abuse of property? Since the realisation of any right at all is possible only if society guarantees it, there is no reason why society should guarantee personal misuse of a right that conflicts with the common good… if it is both permissible and obligatory to prevent a person from misusing his hands (for instance, from committing a murder), it is also permissible and obligatory to prevent him from misusing his property to the detriment of the common good or social justice.’
The priests and economists who cooperate with the Acton Institute are, of course, free to believe whatever they wish. And they are, in this society, free to assert them as they wish. Insofar as what they say corresponds with the Apostolic deposit of the faith they claim, indeed I am happy for them to do so. But the problem is that they seem to keep trying to bring ‘sound economic principles’ into the picture, and one is left to ask: ‘sound’, by what standard? The unspoken assertion, both with regard to Catholic social teaching and Orthodox social teaching, is that what exists within it is ‘unsound’ and needs to be updated or appended or replaced with a system which is, first and foremost, metaphysically at odds with the Church’s oikonomia of salvation, as well as strategically at odds with the Church’s desired relation to secular authority, not to mention with the Church’s view of the proper duties of that authority.