Thomas Storck’s excellent Ethika Politika (EP) article, “What Authority Does Catholic Social Teaching Have?,” became the occasion for an intervention in the comments section from Dylan Pahman who, like Storck, is an editor at EP. There are also some important differences between the two. Unlike Storck, who is a confessing Catholic, Pahman is an ex-Calvinist convert to Eastern Orthoodxy and thus is in no way bound by, nor necessarily invested in, Catholic Social Teaching (CST). (I have written on some of Pahman’s thinking here.) Another important divergence between them concerns their socio-economic orientation. Storck rests broadly within the Distributist tradition, though he has also drawn needful attention to the Solidarist economics of Fr. Heinrich Pesch. Pahman, on the other hand, works as an editor for the Acton Institute—a mostly Catholic-run think-tank which eschews the label “libertarian” while endorsing liberal economic policies. Though Acton may not be ideologically homogenous in the purest sense, it is far from clear that it accurately represents principles and positions which faithful Catholics can endorse. Indeed, Storck has written on this very topic for the Social Justice Review, concluding that “the Acton Institute’s promotion of liberalism is not something that can be embraced by an orthodox Catholic.”
My interest here is not to dwell on what the Acton Institute does or does not stand for, but to ask whether it is in any sense fruitful for faithful Catholics to engage with Eastern Orthodox on social-magisterial matters which the latter are in no sense invested in. The Orthodox, or at least American Orthodox living in the “Wild West” of their confession’s global reach, are without a stable social magisterium, though a number of individual Orthodox writers have taken it upon themselves to tease one out through a mixture of theological inquiry and historical research. Because Orthodoxy, at its core, remains attached to a dormant model of “Symphonia” between church and state which rarely functioned well during its heyday, there is still a lot of work to be done with clarifying how the Orthodox Church is to relate to the modern state and, moreover, what are the rights and duties of states with respect to both Orthodoxy in particular and socio-economic questions in general.
As I have noted before, the closest the Orthodox have to a social-magisterial declaration is the Moscow Patriarchate’s “Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church.” It is not—perhaps to Pahman’s chagrin—a libertarian manifesto, as chapters VI and VII of the document make clear. “Bases…” warrants a close reading by Catholics insofar as it reveals many important points of convergence between CST and Russian Orthodox social teaching. The problem with “Bases…,” which is a problem throughout Orthodoxy, is that its magisterial force is tightly circumscribed. In the United States, for instance, only a handful of Patriarchal parishes, along with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, are bound to pay it any mind. This has left a somewhat troubling amount of space open for Orthodox thinkers to speculate, based on their own ideological presuppositions, how a marriage between liberalism and Orthodoxy might be inaugurated. The Acton Institute, for instance, is in the midst of trying to consummate that unholy union through a partnership with St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, along with its own books and articles on “Orthodox Social Thought.”
Where I am uneasy with Catholic/Orthodox dialogue on socio-economic issues is when the Orthodox can plausibly come to the table with nothing but liberal ideology dressed up with a few Greek words and vague references to theological texts few people outside of Orthodox circles have read. Such engagements should be unmasked for what they really are: economic liberals challenging the right of the Catholic Church to teach firmly on matters of faith and morals. At that point it’s time to close the book on the discussion being about inter-ecclesial social teaching and open the much larger one on combatting liberal errors which are often given a false sheen of sophistication by way of references to “economic science.” Orthodox who are intoxicated with liberalism have no true interest in CST and how it is applied; they simply want to undercut its claims in the name of carrying forth their liberal project.
None of this is to say there can’t be an authentic Catholic/Orthodox dialogue on social teaching, but that dialogue has to be rooted—as best as it can be—in the concrete doctrine of both confessions. Where doctrine is unclear or contestable (as it often is in Orthodoxy with respect to social matters), then it seems that the best place to start is with thinkers in the Orthodox tradition who sit beyond the horizon of liberalism. One place to start may be the thought of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, whose intellectual alignment with Distributism has been discussed by Richard Aleman at The Distributist Review. Distributism isn’t the only socio-economic vision available to Catholics and Orthodox who are faithful to their respective communion’s magisterium, but with respect to dialoguing about shared affinities, it may be a good place to start.