Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse looks at what was behind the criticism of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary’s partnership with the Acton Institute on a recent poverty conference. He points out that some who adhere to the “ancient faith” of Eastern Orthodoxy have very left-leaning ideas about economics and politics. The poverty conference, Fr. Hans writes, reveals to Orthodox Christians that their thinking on poverty issues is underdeveloped and that those who objected “relied solely on ideas drawn from Progressive ideology.” The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

The Progressive Captivity of Orthodox Churches in America

by Johannes Jacobse

Most Christians who are received into the Eastern Orthodox Church as adults do so for the same reasons that others embrace the Roman Catholic Church: They are tired of the moral relativism or the shallow theological traditions of their former communions. These great historical Churches offer an oasis of clarity where the first questions are settled and the foundations do not have to be laid again in every generation. At least that’s the idea.

Alas, it is not always so. Orthodoxy and Catholicism have their share of dissenters but this is nothing new to anyone who knows their history. Yet this realization often comes as a surprise – even a shock — to many Orthodox converts. They assume that the precepts of the moral tradition will be taught in our generation as well. Sometimes they aren’t.

Analyzing the present culture and discerning how the moral tradition speaks to it is always a complex business because people are dynamic beings. Truth is relational because Truth is a person – Jesus Christ. As such, any self-revelation of Christ whether it be Him directly or through the words and work of His followers requires much more than an outline of propositions. If it were that easy we would all be fundamentalists.

This relational dimension however, is where it gets dicey. Christianity’s secular counterpart – Progressive morality – has impressive fluency in the language of human compassion in which ideas that are inimical to the Christian moral tradition are hidden. It confuses believers and convinces secularists and lies at the root of much internal dissent in the historic Christian churches.

This problem exists in some quarters of the Orthodox Churches in the United States today. Take for example Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s statement on abortion (see: A Patriarch who ‘Generally Speaking Respects Human Rights’). He leads the largest, by far, Orthodox jurisdiction in America, the Greek Orthodox. Here the patriarch appeals to personal humility to avoid restating what the Fathers of the Church make clear: Aborting a child is a grave moral crime. Appeals to humility might be morally compelling, but in this case it is misplaced.

Consider instead the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church where the sanctity of all human life is unequivocally affirmed (see: The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church). Or read the statement on this same problem issued in Belgrade by the Serbian Orthodox bishops earlier this month. They spoke of “a deep moral degradation, a great crisis of family life and lack of true faith in God among many people, though many of our people declare themselves as faithful Orthodox Christians at least in the elementary sense of that word.”

When human dignity ceases to be the source and focus of thought on cultural issues the moral foundations of culture are undermined. One reason why the Church Fathers were clear on the moral status of the unborn child (today they would be branded as “haters”) is that they understood if the unborn child was seen as a commodity, any kind of cruelty could be justified in the end. They fought for the elevation of human morality. Today we fight against its devolution.

Sadly, this type of confusion often exists when American Orthodox Christians encounter other profoundly moral questions. Recently the Acton Institute co-sponsored a conference on poverty at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, the flagship of Orthodox seminaries in the United States. To its credit St. Vladimir’s, located in Yonkers, N.Y., resisted considerable behind the scenes pressure aimed at shutting it down. From whom did the pressure come? Orthodox Progressives.

Acton’s approach to poverty places the native creativity of the poor at the center of any program to alleviate poverty. People have natural dynamism because they are created in the image and likeness of God – an insight that can only be grasped and responsibly applied if one first believes that all people have inherent value and dignity. This moral vision is the legacy of the Christian moral traditioncomprehensively understood.

This understanding is a threat to the Progressive vision however, because it lays bare the materialist vision of man (man is a biological machine, a better society is achieved by manipulating the mechanisms of state) that lies at its center. The reason for the confusion between the materialist (Progressive) and Christian vision is that the materialist vision borrows the language of the Christian tradition thereby making it appear that the ideas it champions are indeed Christian and thus in accord with cultural history.

Ecumenical discourse between the churches (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) that hold fast to the moral tradition will be fruitful if it stimulates internal reflection and prompts necessary corrections in our respective communions. The Acton-St. Vladimir’s conference reveals to the Orthodox that 1) thinking on poverty issues is underdeveloped and 2) the objections to the conference relied solely on ideas drawn from Progressive ideology.

This fact is not lost on Orthodox moral conservatives and traditionalists. We call it the Progressive Captivity of the Orthodox Churches in America. There are historical reasons why we are late to the discussion (Turkish captivity, Communist tyranny, etc.).  It led to some missteps along the way such as joining the National Council of Churches (the NCC functions primarily as the amen corner of the secular left) but they are being corrected.

The hour has passed however, when we can excuse participation with those who misappropriate the Christian moral vocabulary in order to cloak ideas and policies inimical to the Christian moral tradition. The moral confusion in the larger culture should not become our own.

  • RogerMcKinney

    It’s good to see the Orthodox Church awakening to the “progressive” threat, although we should call them what they really are – socialists and regressive. In her defense, the Church struggled to survive from Muslim persecution over the centuries. It had little time for economics. Catholics still haven’t come around for the most part. The Popes seem to favor market socialism. While Catholic scholars at Salamanca codified the principles of free markets, no Catholic country followed. The first to implement their ideas was the Protestant Dutch Republic, followed by England and the US. The Orthodox didn’t have a reformation.

  • Curt Day

    Here’s the problem I see, the Left’s charge that the Church is just another institution of indoctrination for the maintenance of the status quo is confirmed more than answered here. With that comes a moral relevance of tribalism where what is absolute is one’s group’s superiority. Such is really an embracing of moral relevance because right and wrong is eventually determined by who does what to whom. Thus, when others point the finger of blame at one’s own group, complaints of moral equivalence ring from the rafters.

    And pointing to the Russian Orthodox Church as a positive example does not prove one’s case here. For it is the Russian Orthodox Church that has become primary supporters of Vladimir Putin. Under Putin’s gov’t, many reporters of the Russian paper Novaya Gazetta (hope the spelling is correct) were suspiciously killed including Anna Politkovshaya. And repression of people continues with the 2 year incarceration of a Russian Oppositional Arts group for their less than 1 minute performance protesting Putin in a Russian Orthodox Church. We should note the kind of governmental leader that the Russian Orthodox Church endorses when its leader supported Putin’s candidacy because Russia’s closed society is the direction in which we are heading.

    It isn’t that progressives and Leftists are without fault. But neither are those who claim to stand for “moral absolutes” but do so only when it is convenient or beneficial to their group.

    As for Acton’s approach to poverty, one must say that the problems are too multidimensional and pervasive to reduce the solution to the individual. Martin Luther King saw this when he said that it is not enough to throw a couple of coins to the beggar, one must examine the system which causes the poverty and work to change it. We live in an interdependent world where we cannot excuse ourselves from being partially connected to the problems suffered by those in need.