Morality Play

As a Catholic, I don’t feel compelled (right now) to offer an intervention on what has turned out to be a fascinating exchange between Fr. Stephen Freeman (Orthodox Church in America) and several Orthodox critics on the topic of “moral Christianity.” Freeman’s posts are linked below. You can find links to his critics from there.

Addendum: Because I have already received one iMessage from a perplexed reader, let me be clear that I do not endorse a good deal of what Freeman says; though I believe his writing accurately reflects a certain type of thinking which is prevalent in contemporary Orthodoxy. Also, anytime “the West” is mentioned in a discussion among Orthodox, my eyes roll automatically.


  1. Reading that second article, the last line struck me as being utterly full of itself. “But if it troubles you, then please let it go. I would not trouble you further.” Oh Lord, spare us from the faux-depth of wannabe prophets! Especially when he *finally* clarified what his core point was: “How does the Christian keeping of the commandments differ from an atheist living by his own standards?”
    Which to my mind is a silly question. Does he think there were no virtuous pagans? That there is no morality for all men, no matter the time and place? It seems to me it’s just, as Br. Peter says above, the wreckage of moral discussion you get when you disregard the work done in moral science by the Schoolmen!

    1. Fr. Freeman has steadily drifted toward antinomianism for years; I just didn’t realize it had gotten this severe. He seems to buy into the Orthodox construct of “the West” as alien, and that Orthodoxy presents a standpoint from which he, and others, can critique “the West,” its religion, its morality, and so forth without being sullied by it. It doesn’t add up, and when I have seen him pressed, even in private forums, he defaults to arrogant dismissal.

  2. So, Father Kimel is still essentially a Protestant.

    I pray for Fr. Kimel’s return to Catholicism all the time. But sadly he seems to be embracing positions farther and farther away from Catholic Truth.

    I am no legalist.. Quite the contrary But you don’t have to be a legalist to have a problem with antinomianism.

    It was the Catholic West that founded the great charity hospitals and the countless religious orders devoted to the works of mercy. There is a reason for this. Beliefs, like ideas, have consequences. And “by their fruits shall ye know them.”

  3. I meant to clarify: the *corporal* works of mercy. Of course, all religious orders also practice the spiritual works of mercy (or should). But, from the High Middle Ages onward, the Catholic West has seen countless religious orders arise whose apostolates have focused on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, nursing the sick, and visiting the prisoners. Meanwhile, the East has sought the Uncreated Light. All very well and good, but an authentically Incarnational Christianity must embrace BOTH the spiritual and the corporal — and hence both faith and works (via Grace). It is the classic Catholic “both/and,” the rejection of which is quintessentially Protestant. You can dress it up with smells and bells and icons till the cows come home. It is still Protestant.

  4. Lord have mercy. I just skimmed the comments at Father Freeman’s first article — I mean the first one you linked to.

    And all I can say is: Thank God for the Magisterium.

    Yes, I was unpleasantly surprised by the anti-Westernism. And by the occasional snark. All that cr^p about how the East has an ontological understanding of salvation and the West supposedly doesn’t…Father Freeman’s dismissive response to Alice Linsley…his crack about “simple-minded” invocations of the Fathers…YIKES!

    But what disturbed me most was the confusion: the dueling patristic and scriptural arguments ad infinitum. It just seems so quintessentially Protestant. It reminds me of the endless debates — never resolvable because of the absence of a Magisterium — at some of the Protestant blogs I visit. Those nice evangelical ladies can argue for and against some contemporary Protestant issue (e.g., what constitutes “biblical divorce” :rolleyes) till their eyes bubble — throwing Scripture verses at each other, invoking various authors to make their respective cases — but it ultimately leads nowhere. Why? Because there is no final arbiter, no final court of appeal. Just opinions vs. opinions. And it’s the same here.

    I always thought Orthodoxy could avoid the confusion inherent in Protestantism because it has Sacred Tradition wherewith to interpret that not-so-perspicuous Scripture. But apparently even Tradition is not enough to forestall this stuff. As in Protestantism, anyone can set himself up as super-pope.

    Please do not misunderstand. I am not arguing against theological speculation. Theologians have been arguing with each other forever, and that’s as it should be. But once a core dogma of the Faith is formally settled and decreed, there is no longer infinite wiggle room. That’s where a Magisterium comes in handy.

  5. I am not sure I can say that anything in the first article is wrong, as such. It is true that a morality is something natural and accessible to natural human reason (though concupiscence often clouds our judgement). As such, there is nothing particularly Christian about a moral life. Communion with God through Christ is what makes the Christian. Of course, a life marked by continuing grave immorality is incompatible with communion with God through Christ and therefore must be avoided.

    On the other hand, Fr Freeman does seem to undervalue the importance of works of mercy to the work of sanctification.

    1. Precisement, as Poirot would say (except he would insert an accent, which I don’t know how to do in WordPress).

      In Dom Benedict’s FB combox, Father Kimel notes that this understanding comes from Saint Paul. That’s fine. But Jesus trumps Saint Paul. And there is no way one can read Matthew 25: 31-46 as anything but an exhortation to the practice of Christian morality. Nay, more than an exhortation…a warning. Woe unto us if we fail to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless.

      Again…beliefs have consequences. There is a reason why the Catholic Church is the single largest provider of charity and social services in the world.”The love of Christ impels us.”

      Yes, we can learn a lot from the oh-so-mystical apophatic East. But I hope we do not become so taken with this ontological gobbledygook that we forget the good old-fashioned corporal and spiritual works of mercy. And oh yeah: It would be nice if the East could occasionally a acknowledge that it could learn a thing or two from the West as well. Maybe it could use a few Vincent de Pauls and Mother Teresas. Just a thought.

      1. I doubt they could. But none of this makes Fr Freeman wrong. It is true that being a Christian is an ontological state, not something earned. And please don’t say that St Paul and our Lord can be opposed, the gospels and epistles are both inspired, inerrant scripture. Only Protestants (starting with Luther) pitch one scriptural authority against another. Both/and, never either/or.

        I just don’t understand what is wrong with this article. I would appreciate a comment from someone explaining to me exactly what Fr Freeman’s error is. I do not see one. He merely fails to mention the importance of works of mercy to sanctification.

        [Incidentally, Diane, you make an excellent point above about the problem of holding to Scripture and Tradition without the magesterium. It is, indeed, essentially still holding to the personal whim of the individual’s conscience like sola scriptura. Cardinal Manning became a Catholic over your exact point, see James Pereiro’s “Cardinal Manning: An Intellectual Biography.”]

        1. Whoa! I don’t disagree that being a Christian is an ontological state, not something earned. That’s what Grace is all about, right? I’m not sure Fr Freeman is saying *only* that, though, unless I’m misreading him profoundly, which is certainly possible.

          But if he was simply saying that we are “in Christ” a la Saint Paul, then why does he need to ‘splain it in so many words, with so much obfuscation that even sympathetic readers have trouble following him?

          More later. Duty and kids call.

          1. BTW, thanks for the kind words. I venture into these deep theological waters with great trepidation, because u am not a theologian by any remote stretch, nor do I play one on TV. It just seems to me common sense (with a pretty solid Scriptural foundation) that faith and works go together — but that both are enabled by Grace.

            As for counterposing St Paul to Jesus: Ironically enough, that’s what many Protestants seem to do, in my experience — especially those from a Calvinist tradition. Down here in the Bible Belt, I’ve heard radio Bible preachers assert that the Sermon on the Mount is not for the “Church Age.” Not making this up, believe me! I also saw one FB Calvinist argue that all he’d need on a desert island would be the Letter to the Romans — NOT the Gospels, because Paul says it all, supposedly! I can’t help wondering to what extent this POV has influenced Fr Freeman and his mentors. Not directly, of course, but obliquely and diffusely, as it were.

        2. Felix,

          I think if you read Freeman’s response to his critics, you will see where even other Orthodox believe that he has drifted off the rails a bit. I think there is a lot Catholics could say about Freeman’s outlook, but in the interest of not igniting a Catholic/Orthodox blog war (a hallmark of the former iteration of Opus Publicum), I am keeping quiet on the matter — at least for the time being. Right now I think it’s best to let this stuff shake out in Ortho-land before Catholics start chiming in too loudly.

          1. Point well taken! What strikes me, though, is how closely this brouhaha seems to track with the classic Catholic / Protestant debates over faith vs. works. Maybe I’m missing something — no doubt I’m missing quite a bit — but this all has a very familiar ring to it, and that ring echoes from the Protestant sites I’ve visited over the years. It may be dressed up with patristic citations and mystical whatnot, but it still sounds rather Protestant to these Catholic ears.

  6. What I don’t get is Fr. Freeman and Fr. Kimel’s elevation of St. Isaac the Syrian’s writings as the 5th Gospel.

    1. I think you are on to what I would call a “meta” problem which can be found not only within the “new theology” of the Catholic Church, but all over Orthodoxy. Basically, individual Fathers, or portions of individual Fathers, become privileged or absolutized simply because they happen to comport with some contemporary theologian’s particular religious outlook. Fr. Kimel, whose wanderings are a matter of record, has adopted a semi-universalist stance in the last few years, which explains to some degree why he latches onto St. Isaac. I don’t know Fr. Freeman’s opinion on universalism, though certainly there are elements of St. Isaac which support his antinomianism.

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