Hart Contra Acton

I couldn’t say for sure, but were I a betting man I’d put my chips behind the possibility that David Bentley Hart doesn’t look kindly on the Acton Institute and its ongoing attempt to fuse social, political, and economic liberalism with Christianity. In a new article for Commonweal, Hart briefly reviews the fallout from his First Thing piece on Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ before going into detail why he believes capitalism and the Gospel are at odds. Here’s an excerpt:

The final stage of my work on [translating the New Testament] coincided with my involvement in a series of public debates that I initiated by writing a short column for First Things praising Pope Francis and his recent encyclical Laudato si’, and that I prolonged when I contributed another article to the same journal arguing for the essential incompatibility of Christianity and capitalist culture. My basic argument was that a capitalist culture is, of necessity, a secularist culture, no matter how long the quaint customs and intuitions of folk piety may persist among some of its citizens; that secularism simply is capitalism in its full cultural manifestation; that late capitalist “consumerism”—with its attendant ethos of voluntarism, exuberant and interminable acquisitiveness, self-absorption, “lust of the eyes,” and moral relativism—is not an accidental accretion upon an essentially benign economic system, but the inevitable result of the most fundamental capitalist values. Not everyone concurred. The most representative statements of the contrary position were two earnest articles in the Public Interest by Samuel Gregg, neither of which addressed my actual arguments, but both of which correctly identified my hostility to libertarian apologetics. And on at least one point Gregg did have me dead to rights: I did indeed say that the New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns great personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil. No, he rejoined with calm certainty, it is not wealth as such that the New Testament condemns, but only a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with it (the idolatry of riches, wealth misused, wealth immorally gained); riches in and of themselves, he insisted, are neither good not bad. This seems an eminently reasonable argument, I suppose. Certainly we have all heard it before, almost as a truism.

The Gregg pieces in question are typical Actonite rehashes of trick-down economic ideology; the glories of capitalism (and the woes of “crony capitalism”); and the compatibility of economic liberalism and Christianity. Hart — being Eastern Orthodox — is not bound to the social magisterium of the Catholic Church, though he arguably comes closer to following it than a professed Catholic like Gregg or Acton’s head-honcho, Fr. Robert Sirico. Where Hart is likely to raise some eyebrows is in his implicit suggestion that Christ’s teaching — and the witness of the Apostles — points to a form of Christian communism with wealth being condemned absolutely. Hart doesn’t have much interest in tethering himself to the development of Christian social doctrine nor, for that matter, engaging in that time-honored Orthodox practice of “appealing to the Fathers.” (He does, after all, have some brief but pointed words for St. Clement of Alexandria, who attempted to make the Gospel mesh with the conventions of his time.) Regardless, Hart’s retelling of the early Church’s admonishment of wealth is worth reflecting on, if only because it stands in such sharp contrast to the manner in which most Christians live their lives. Catholics like to speak a great deal about “avoiding the occasion of sin” but have almost nothing meaningful to say about doing so regarding riches. Instead, what we normally receive are finger-wagging reminders from men who make six figures a year about how even the poor today have it “better off” than the poor a century ago and even a man struggling to keep his family together working two jobs can also make an idol out of his earnings.

Robinson on Staying Orthodox

Steve Robinson, the great wit and honest soul behind the sadly defunct Pithless Thoughts web-log, returned to his Ancient Faith Radio podcast earlier this year. Robinson’s “re-debut” came accompanied with a moving, albeit general, account of where he had been spiritually for the past few years. His latest installment, “Staying Orthodox,” provides one of the best accounts I have ever encountered about why people convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church and how to stay there. Robinson’s reflection on these sensitive matters is open and non-polemical, which is as refreshing as it is rare. Many of Robinson’s thoughts can be applied to the experience of converts to Catholicism, particularly those who entered the Catholic Church during the comparatively steady reign of Pope Benedict XVI and now find themselves being thrown about in the sea of chaos which is the Pontificate of Francis. Some, however, are fairly limited to the unique challenges which attend to trying to be a first-best Orthodox Christian amidst a second-best reality.

Personally speaking, I cannot identify directly with Robinson’s book-based or intellectual conversion experience because for me, becoming Orthodox was more like switching teams between divisions after a prolonged period on the Disabled List rather than going from the American League to the National League (or even to another sport altogether). With that said, I quickly shared Robinson’s affinity for attempting to grasp the ways and means of Orthodoxy through thick theological tomes, collections of spiritual writings from ages past, and a scrupulous understanding of canons, customs, and cockamamie spiritual advice. Robinson, having seen much more of “on-the-ground” Orthodoxy than I ever did, fought the good fight to stay faithful to his conversion as long as he could before realizing that retreating away from the beauty and banality, greatness and grotesqueness, and surety and senselessness of the Orthodox Church was the only option he had left.

I’ll stop there. I don’t want to spoil Robinson’s account any further, and there is no way I can recreate the power of words which so clearly emanated from his heart. Although I share a different confessional commitment than Robinson, I can sympathize with what he has gone through and the great trials any man must undergo to follow their conscience amidst the confusion of the present age.

Thy Precepts Are a Light Upon the Earth

I don’t always listen to Fr. Patrick Reardon’s podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, All Saints Homilies, but I probably should. If you, dear readers, have never given Fr. Patrick’s sermons a listen, then let me suggest you go out of your way to sample one in particular, “And Leave the Rest to God.” Billed at the beginning as a reflection on the eighth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Fr. Patrick’s homily is a bit more than that. It is, as the official summary has it, a “look[ ] at God’s providence with respect to three things: our sin, the moral order, and our conduct.”

There is much to be said about this homily, though I fear I can neither its profundity nor seriousness the justice they deserve. What became clear to me in listening to it is how far down the consequentialist path we have tread, and by “we” I don’t mean “the world” (as if we are not in it) but rather ourselves as Christians. Bombarded regularly as I am with elaborate (and many not-so-elaborate) justifications for participating in a socio-political order that is as false as it is evil from fellow Catholics, many of whom are very well-meaning, it is remarkable to hear an Orthodox cleric get right what we so painfully get wrong on a daily basis.

Review: Old Orthodox Prayer Book (3rd ed.)

Several months ago I made mention of the third edition of the Church Slavonic/English Old Orthodox Prayer Book published by the Old-Rite Church of the Nativity in Erie, PA. Having used the second edition of this excellent prayer book for the last decade, I was eager to see what, if anything, would be done differently with a new edition. Truth be told, with the exception of some minor corrections, nothing has changed regarding the text. The book still contains a full set of Morning and Evening prayers; all of the texts for the minor hours plus substantial portions of Vespers and Matins; a large sampling of troparia and kontakia; the usual run of canons and an akathist; and the longest pre-Communion prayer rule you will ever see. What has changed is the actual construction of the book. Gone is the thin, newsprint-like paper with small type; here to stay is much sturdier white paper with a noticeably enhanced font size and style for both the Slavonic and English text. The black cover of the last edition is out; a firmer red cover, with more substantial binding, is in. Like the second edition, this version only boasts a single marker ribbon, though that probably won’t be a bother to people unless they are using the book to recite a service with several moving parts, such as Vespers.

Now, there are some drawbacks to this edition. First, the third edition is noticeably thicker and heavier than the second edition, which makes it a bit less comfortable to hold and carry around. Second, while the larger font will no doubt be welcomed by more elderly users of the book, it comes at the cost of having less content on single page, which my annoy some people. Finally, an opportunity was missed to make some minor additions to the texts, such as including the rubrics and prayers for praying the small hours during Great Lent or including the daily prokeimena at Vespers (strangely the only “fixed” text from this service that is missing).

These are minor quibbles, however. Improving the quality of the paper and binding is a definite improvement, particularly since I have burned through three copies of this prayerbook over the past 10 years due to wear-and-tear. That shouldn’t be a problem with this edition.

I remain firm in my conviction that this is hands-down the best Orthodox prayerbook available in English, one that can be used profitably by Greek Catholics as well. Most of the translations are less clunky than those found in, say, the Jordanville Prayer Book and the structure of the morning and evening prayer rules is more sensible as well. Those disinclined to adopt some of the particular aspects of the Russian Old Rite, such as the double (rather than triple) Alleluia or minor variants in the Creed, can easily bypass them. While used copies of the second edition are still fairly easy to come by, those looking for a prayerbook that will hold up over the long haul would do well to invest in this new third edition.

Raskol

Just over 450 years ago, in the faraway land of Russia, a synod was held which, inter alia, upheld a series of far-reaching liturgical reforms which noticeably altered the articulation and practice of liturgical piety in the Russian Orthodox Church. More than a few marginal adjustments, the liturgical reforms instituted by Patriarch Nikon (who, ironically enough, was deposed at the 1666 synod in question) was immediately noticeable to clerics and laity alike, particularly during the penitential season of Great Lent which, arguably, the reforms hit the hardest. The synod also took the disconcerting step of flagrantly nullifying the decrees of an earlier gathering—the 1551 Stoglavy Synod—which had upheld the integrity and orthodoxy of Russia’s liturgical rite—a rite which differed in noticeable ways from Greek usage as it had solidified by the 17th Century. The rest, as they say, is history.

Within a decade or two, the Russian Orthodox Church was fractured into officially approved believers under the Moscow Patriarchate and so-called Old Believers (or Old Ritualists) who refused to acquiesce to the Patriarchate’s liturgical reforms, even though it meant losing the priesthood. The heavy hand of the Russian secular authorities ensured that no bishops joined the “Raskol” or schism, and many of the priests who held to the Russian Old Rite were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. While relations between Old Believers and the mainline Russian Church have improved over the past century to the point where both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia count Old Believers among their membership, the dark legacy of the Russian Church schism still hangs in the air, centuries later.

At the time of the schism, many Old Believers held to an apocalyptic view of the liturgical reform, arguing without irony that altering Slavonic grammar and the number of prostrations performed during the Prayer of St. Ephraim at Lent amounted to losing the Orthodox Faith. Even today, there are Old Believers who maintain that we are still living in the time of antichrist where God has deprived his followers of all of the sacraments save Baptism. Of course, the end of history has yet to come; Christ has not returned in glory; and life continues on. But still, the Old Believer air is thick with eschatological expectation or, at the very least, a powerful sense that God is not done exacting revenge on those who have apparently betrayed Him.

Maybe there is no perfect parallel in the Roman Catholic Church to this phenomenon, though that could change in a hurry. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Apparitions at Fatima and it is not an exaggeration to say that there are more than a few Catholics who believe that a moment of great reckoning is coming. Some, in fact, are longing for it, fed up as they have become with the authorities in Rome and the laxity rampant throughout the Universal Church. Others are holding to a more positive outlook. Instead of expecting impending destruction they hope that the Blessed Virgin’s promise, namely that her Immaculate Heart will triumph, shall be fulfilled. At that point a period of renewal will occur in the Church, with the troubling developments of the past 50 years being swept away so that the Church can once again fulfill her divine mission in the world.

It is easy to draw superficial comparisons between the upsetting developments which occurred in the Russian Orthodox Church during the 17th century and what the Catholic Church has had to endure during the 20th (and well on into the 21st). In fact, that’s what I just did above, albeit with a wee bit of discretion. What is more fascinating to consider is how different “these days” are from “those days.” Traditional Catholics, understandably upset by the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms and doctrinal confusion, have opted to stand up against the prevailing chaos, though only to limited degrees. Getting some shade thrown at you for Tweeting against Mother Theresa’s canonization is a far cry from getting torched at the stake for refusing to change how you make the Sign of the Cross. While traditional Catholics are eager to speak of “persecution,” “injustice,” and “struggle,” very little of that is found during the present situation because even those who wish to eradicate tradition do so not with an axe, but a limp wrist. And for that, traditionalists should probably be grateful.

No Triumphalism, Only Persecution

I refrained from commenting on Msgr. Charles Pope’s much-discussed article from the National Catholic Register, “Comfort Catholicism Has To Go; It Is Time to Prepare for Persecution,” mainly because I didn’t think there was much I could constructively add to it. As most of you who have read me for some time know by now, I am fully convinced that, barring a miracle, my children will be compelled to choose between apostasy or persecution—up to and including martyrdom—in their respective lifetimes. I don’t say that flippantly; the very thought fills me with horror. It is one thing to expect and prepare for that great choice in one’s own life. It is something else altogether to contemplate those we love the most having to experience it. Should I be “off” in my timeline and the harsh persecution Msgr. Pope and many others see on the horizon arrives during my days on this earth, I pray that my fellow faithful and myself will have the fortitude to choose Christ above all of the temptations of this world, but that is not something anybody can predict. If the last 2,000 years provides any basis for predicting the future, the chances are painfully high that a great many Christians—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—will depart from their Father’s house at the cost of their very souls.

Disappointing, then, that I should come across a statement on the Ad Orientem web-log where a commenter, an Orthodox Christian named Gregory Manning, could write the following:

Continue reading