Imagine my surprise when I found out that Orthodoxy is under progressive captivity in America, or so says Fr. Johannes Jacobse. Writing partially in response to Orthodox dissent over the 2013 Acton Institute/St. Vladimir’s Seminary conference on poverty, Fr. Jacbse attributes any and all Orthodox dissatisfaction with Acton’s pro-market agenda to “Orthodox Progressives,” an undefined cabal of Christians whose vision is “materialist,” that is one which holds that “man is a biological machine” and “a better society is achieved by manipulating the mechanisms of state.” While these elements may be part of the progressive vision writ large, it still doesn’t mean they are part of a peculiarly “Orthodox Progressive” vision, assuming such a vision exists in the first place. By refusing to identify a single soul who may be fairly called an “Orthodox Progressive,” Fr. Jacobse sets up a convenient hobgoblin that no right-thinking man would want anything to do with. The problem is that he may not exist. But if he does exist, rest assured that any of his ideas which may not coalesce with Acton’s preferred economic ideology are wrong a priori.
The type of ideological bullying Fr. Jacobse seems (perhaps unwittingly) to engage in is unfortunate, but it’s nothing new. Anyone who has followed the course of Acton’s treatment of Roman Catholics faithful to their confession’s social magisterium knows by now that the institute promotes a culture of insularity among its adherents, and all others are left to the outer darkness to be mocked, derided, and misrepresented by Acton representatives. Two examples will help illustrate this point.
First, the official website for Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg’s recent book, Tea Party Catholic, features a “quiz” which openly mocks traditional Catholics as conspiracy theorists beholden to the outmoded, if not dead, doctrine of Christ’s social kingship. These same Catholics, the sort who reject Tea Party-style politics on the basis of principles drawn from both reason and revelation, are also castigated as heresy hunters who seek to violently coerce non-Catholics into their religion. Nowhere on the website or in the book does Gregg intelligently confront Catholics who—Heaven forbid—disagree with his viewpoints. Instead, they are vilified as “statists” enraptured by some sick social vision that throw us all back to the dark ages.
Second, at Acton’s annual “University,” an annual “course” is offered on Distributism, a largely Catholic socio-economic vision that has over a century of serious thinking sitting behind it. (Distributism is not exclusive to Catholics, however.) Rather than allow the course to be taught by actual card-carrying Distributists, Acton instead chooses to hand over the reins to Todd Flanders, an unabashed economic liberal who not only fails to take his subject matter seriously, but seems incapable of properly articulating what it is Distributsts actually believe. Because Distributism is not free-market in nature, the (false) conclusion reached is that its model is top-down and interventionist. No one who has read seriously Belloc, Chesterton, Storck, or Medaille could believe such a thing, but Acton has no interest in its followers knowing that.
While Acton’s attempts to make direct incursions into the American Orthodox intellectual world seems to have stalled (the 2013 Acton/St. Vladimir’s conference was the only one), the institute continues to recruit Orthodox voices to help bolster its overarching claim that Christianity and economic liberalism are not only compatible, but that the former ought to provide a fresh moral foundation for the latter. Since its inception, right-believing Catholics of various stripes have resisted Acton’s highly questionable economic and doctrinal claims. They have been able to do so on the basis of the Catholic Church’s rich social tradition, one which does not banish true justice from the marketplace in favor of pure economic efficiency.
For an Orthodox Christian to resist Acton does not entail adopting some dubious progressive ideology which, if it were real, would no doubt hold to ideas that are manifestly un-Christian in nature. All it means is looking at man through a Christocentric lens while paying heed to the great Fathers of the Church who taught continually on the duties of society to the poor, the just role of property in society, and the dangers of avarice. Such teachings may not be as centralized as those that are available to Catholics, but they do exist and they do provide the foundation for developing an authentically Orthodox social teaching.