Sunday, September 28, 2003

Orthopraxis [vs.] Orthodoxy?

"Orthopraxis" is a word that I've encountered a lot when reading texts on Catholic social thought. As to what the word really means, depends on who you ask. Many of those advocating what is called "liberation theology" conceive of orthopraxis in opposition to orthodoxy, prioritizing the former over the latter as the starting point of orthodoxy. In an article on "theocentric Christology", Paul Ritter explains his understanding of 'orthopraxis' from the perspective of liberation theology:

For liberation Christology, as for liberation theology in general, praxis is the foundation and touchstone of theory. This means, according to these theologians, that one can really know who Jesus is, one can know the meaning of his titles, only in the concrete following of Jesus, only in the practice of the Gospel. Furthermore, liberation theologians hold that it is not necessary to have crystal clarity and certainty in one's theory or doctrine about Jesus before one commits oneself to living his message. Orthodoxy, in other words, will flow from, and constantly have to be reexamined in, orthopraxis. 1

From Ritter's perspective, one could say that we arrive at orthodoxy ("right knowledge") by way of orthopraxis. Or as one Catholic blogger has put it:

"The position of the liberation theologians is that in order to encounter the God of the Bible, we cannot simply do theology in the academy. Rather, we must live the gospel in a rather literal and radical way with and for the poorest and the most marginalized in society. The emphasis is on orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy" 2

Granted that we are called to live the gospel, and not just merely study it in the context of the classroom or the pulpit, this understanding of "orthopraxis" begs the question: what would Jesus do? What does it mean, exactly, to live the gospel in various circumstances in everyday life? As Cardinal Ratzinger points out, it would be incorrect to prioritize right action over knowledge, as the former presupposes the latter. He raises this question in his address to the Latin American bishops in 1996:

Where do I find a just action if I cannot know what is just in an absolute way? The failure of the communist regimes is due precisely to the fact that they tried to change the world without knowing what is good and what is not good for the world, without knowing in what direction the world must be changed in order to make it better. Mere praxis is not light. 3

Later on in the address, Ratzinger notes that orthopraxis was identified as a key component in Indian religions, the character of which is not proclaim a system of knowledge but rather a precise system of salvific ritual acts embracing the whole of life. Modern understandings of orthopraxis, on the other hand, tend to exclude from their understanding the authentic Indian concept of religious ritual, reducing it to a matter of ethics or political criticism. According to Ratzinger the traditional conception of orthopraxis in Indian religions had something in common with the early Christian church:

In the suffix doxia, doxa was not understood in the sense of "opinion" (real opinion). From the Greek viewpoint, opinions are always relative; doxa was understood rather in its meaning of "glory, glorification." To be orthodox thus meant to know and practice the right way in which God wants to be glorified. It refers to the cult and, based on the cult, to life. In this sense here there would be a solid point for a fruitful dialogue between East and West.

In his address to the Eucharistic Congress of the Archdiocese of Benevento, Italy in June of last year, Ratzinger returned to the alleged opposition between orthopraxis and orthodoxy:

For the early Christians, there was no difference between what today is often distinguished as orthodoxy and orthopraxis, as right doctrine and right action. Indeed, when this distinction is made, there generally is a suggestion that the word orthodoxy is to be disdained: those who hold fast to right doctrine are seen as people of narrow sympathy, rigid, potentially intolerant. In the final analysis, for those holding this rather critical view of orthodoxy everything depends on "right action", with doctrine regarded as something always open to further discussion. For those holding this view, the chief thing is the fruit doctrine produces, while the way that leads to our just action is a matter of indifference. Such a comparison would have been incomprehensible and unacceptable for those in the ancient Church, for they rightly understood the word "orthodoxy" not to mean "right doctrine" but to mean the authentic adoration and glorification of God.

They were convinced that everything depended on being in the right relationship with God, on knowing what pleases him and what one can do to respond to him in the right way. For this reason, Israel loved the law: from it, they knew God's will, they knew how to live justly and how to honour God in the right way: by acting in accord with his will, bringing order into the world, opening it to the transcendent. 4

Not all of those occupied with Catholic social thought and justice embrace the prioritization of orthopraxy over orthodoxy criticized by Cardinal Ratzinger. Robert Waldrop, who maintains the Catholic social justice website JustPeace.Org, defines orthopraxis as: "rooted in the belief that Christian orthodoxy will yield, as its fruit, a Christian "orthopraxy", a way of being and living that is consistent with the social justice imperatives of the Catholic faith."

However, just because Mr. Waldrop and Mark & Louise Zwick of the Catholic Workers share the orthodox Catholic faith of Fr. Neuhaus and Michael Novak doesn't necessarily mean that they agree on how that faith is manifested in concrete practice in everyday life, especially in the world of business and economics.

  1. "Theocentric Christology" Theology Today July 1983 Vol. 40, No. 2.
  2. "Liberation Theology", posted by 'jcecil' on Thursday, May 22, 2003. Part of 'J. Cecil's Progressive Catholic Reflections', making unconventional use of the blogging medium to "advance progressive Catholic views."
  3. "Current Situation in Faith & Theology". Given during the meeting with the presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions of the Bishops' Conferences of Latin America, held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in May 1996.
  4. Eucharist, Communion & Solidarity. Lecture by H. Em. Card. Joseph Ratzinger at the Bishops Conference of the Region of Campania in Benevuto, Italy. June 2, 2002.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Michael Novak and the theology of Caritas

While not one of the original 'neoconservatives', Michael Novak follows in their footsteps, having experienced a transition from the radical left in early years to a gradual appreciation and support of capitalism and 'The American Experiment.' In the First Things article 'Controversial Engagements', he identifies several underlying elements of continuity in the stages of his thought -- probably the most important of which is his experience of caritas:

According to Novak, caritas is the metaphysical ground of reality, the dwelling place of God -- "a dark and terrible form of realism best symbolized by the Cross on which He willed his Son to die.":

The greatest continuity in my work is this affirmation that the basic energy, power, and force in creation is caritas. In this otherwise vast and possibly empty series of silent galaxies, the Creator made humans in order to have at least one creature able freely to respond to Him -- either with love or not. Caritas is the one energy that matters. In it, we are first related, before we are solitary. We first receive, before we act on our own. We are first empowered, before we take responsibility for our own acts. We are first endowed, before we have rights. In all these things, all humans are linked together. Creatures depend. That is the great "intuition of being" that Jacques Maritain talked about. 1

In a recent interview with, Novak elaborated on this concept: "Caritas is to will the good of the other . . . it is love aimed at the real, not the apparent, good of the other." It is also marked by a realistic understanding of human nature, of human sinfulness, calling for "realistic judgments rather than illusions, appearances and sentimentality." It should play an active role in shaping the institutions of society "to liberate the poor of the earth from the prison of poverty." This must be accomplished by an economic system which "rests upon, and nourish, voluntary cooperation", and is marked by a respect for "the human person as the originating source of human action -- the chief cause of the wealth of nations." Most importantly, it must:

"be based upon the presupposition that humans often fail in love, and only rare ones among them base all their actions thoroughly upon realistic love. Caritas must guide institutions in a realistic, not utopian, aim of establishing a free society." 2

It is this recognition of caritas which influenced his transition from a left-wing socialist to a Catholic seeking to integrate his faith with an appreciation for "democratic capitalism" and the American tradition. In 1979 Novak was asked to give a lecture at Notre Dame at a conference for Chicago Laypersons, on the topic of "the continuing neglect of the laity in the Church" in the years after Vatican II. He began by calling attention to this presence of caritas:

"Through the work of our minds and hands," I said, "the life of the triune God expresses its own love and truth and healing power, not all at once, imperfectly and in the darkness, but yet effectively. We build up the social institutions by which human history is slowly, very slowly, transformed into God's own image. As our God is triune -- a communal God -- so is our vocation communal."

Whereas many of Novak's contemporaries insisted that such a reconstruction of the social order in God's image would entail a rejection of capitalism, Novak devoted the final part of his address to the need to understand capitalism's religious possibilities: "The capitalist system, after all, was the system in which most Notre Dame graduates would work. There could not be a realistic theology of the laity, or theology of work, without a theology of capitalism." Novak recalls this occasion as his very first public defense of capitalism. Predictably, he did not find a very receptive audience ("No one would speak to me. I had violanted an important Catholic taboo . . . I had excommunicated myself from the Catholic left.") 3

Unfortunately, there were obstacles which prevented the development of such a "theology of capitalism." For Novak, the problem was twofold: On one hand, economic theorists had abandoned religious & philosophical considerations in their attempt to model their profession after the physical sciences. On the other, many theologians had aken an adverserial stance toward economic activity, as something "vulgar and crass, if not evil." Novak acknowledges that "whatever the present model of political economy, it will not measure up to the height and depth of the Kingdom of God. It will always be inadequate." Nevertheless, those commited to an incarnational witness must not refrain from "[going] out into this city, whatever its stage of moral and religious development, and try to incarnate the Gospels in it as Jesus incarnated God in history."

Novak spends the much of the article detailing this transition in his thought and those who have influenced him along the way, including the eschatological witness of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers, his years at Holy Cross Seminary (1949-56), the philosophy of Jacques Maritain, and the life and work of St. Thèrése of Lisieux:

St. Thèrése (1873 - 1897) is the teacher of the Church about the everyday exercise of caritas, in ways so humble that they mostly cannot be seen, even though their effects may be subjected to the tests of the gospel. She taught me the importance of thinking small and honoring the humble things that I at first tended to despise. For the theology of the laity and the theology of work and the theology of daily institutional life, her work has been described -- by no less an authority than Hans Urs von Balthasar -- as revolutionary.

Quoting from one of his early books (A New Generation: American and Catholic), Novak writes that "in solving the crucial problems of Americans and Catholics in America, one needs 'a consistent point of view, [one that is] empirical, pragmatic, realistic, and Christian.'" He believes he has been faithful to this vision. Whether he has accomplished this is part of the present discussion. For those who are just beginng to read his works, "Controversial Engagments" is a very helpful introduction and overview of the many tangents of his thought.

  1. "Controversial Engagements". First Things 92 (April 1999): 21-29.
  2. Michael Novak's Recipe for a Civilization of Love. Interview with Zenit.Org. July 17, 2003.
  3. Novak's 1979 lecture at Notre Dame would be better described as his "first public religious defense of capitalism." Novak ahad written a book in 1978 called The American Vision -- "my first neoconservative book" -- in which he introduced his conception of democratic capitalism and the aims and visions of the American tradition, laying the groundwork for his subsequent writings.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

A brief clarification of the term "neoconservative"

"Neoconservative" was originally a pejorative term applied to the original band of New York Jewish intellectuals, liberals critical of communism who believed themselves to be increasingly alienated from the anti-American counterculture of the 60's. As Michael Novak recalls:

Virtually all [of the "neoconservatives"] had a history as men and women of the left, indeed to the left of the Democratic party . . . Then at some point their more and more frequently expressed critique of left-wing excesses, especially in domestic policy, involved a direct rejection of socialist categories of thought. Since the left had few counterarguments to wheel into the battle, the Left turned to name-calling. It was the Socialist Michael Harrington, indeed, who coined the term "neoconservative" for this small band and their friends, intending it as an insult.

In those days (the mid-1970s), it was thought that there was really no genuinely conservative movement in the United States as there always had been in Europe. In America, it was said, there is only one variant or another of liberalism — the old fuddy-duddy liberalism of the 18th and 19th centuries, or some blend of European socialism/social democracy.

Thus, to call a foe who had long been identified with the Left a "conservative" was thought to be a lonely literary ostracism. To prefix that with "neo" was to suggest something like "pseudo" or "not even genuine." No historical tradition or cultural movement called by that name could be decried anywhere in sight. Just a tiny band, cast out into the darkness of intellectual isolation.

The neoconservatives rose to a position of influence during the Cold War and the Reagan Administration. Their role in determining policy diminished during the Bush (Sr.) and Clinton administrations and has been resurrected with the election of George Bush Jr. As Joe Hagan notes, "After the Cold War ended, neoconservatism came to be associated with an aggressive foreign policy. . . 'neoconservatism' has since become the fast-and-loose, catch-all term for hawks," defending the current Bush Administration's "war on terrorism" and campaign in Iraq.

The intent of this website is not to examine the meaning of neoconservatisim per se, but rather the question of the Church's reconciliation with classic notion of liberalism (democracy, human rights, and free markets). Those making the argument in support of this proposition are sometimes referred to as "neoconservatives." The Houston Catholic Worker, for example, commonly refers to Richard J. Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel as neoconservatives in their editorials -- and tend to group Avery Dulles under this category as well. I am not sure whether these authors would define themselves as such, but for those who are curious I am making use of the term simply for lack of a better one.

Relevant links:

Monday, September 15, 2003

Clarification & Request to those interested in participating.

Thanks to Peter Sean Bradley of Lex Communis for mentioning this website!

First I just wanted to clarify that, although I've read some of the authors discussed herein, I'm by no means knowledgeable. When it comes to these issues I'm very much the novice. Please do jump in and share your thoughts, comments, and corrections, etc.

Secondly, in the interest of making this a genuine discussion and less of a one-sided monoblog by yours truly, I would be more than happy to add additional 'members' to this blog. If you're interested in collaberating in this project and participate beyond the confines of the comment box, please contact me at "blostopher @"

THREADS Interview with Dr. David Schindler

In this post I'd like to look at interview with Dr. David Schindler, editor of the North American edition of the Catholic journal Communio and representative of the school of theologians and philosophers who are critical of the neoconservative proposition that classical liberalism can be reconciled with Catholicism.

According to Dr. Schindler, democratic capitalist societies are dominated by a pervasive spirit of autonomy; we have "a self-centered, constructivist view of the self. We emphasize doing, making and the creativity of the self." We have a "highly instrumentalist and utiliatarian [culture]; where we value things and even people for the pleasure they can bring and how they can be used for profit."

We have to order our economy within this call to love. The fact that Marxism-Leninism has been eliminated doesn't mean that the only alternative is a capitalism to which the Church must provide a moral correction. The Church proposes something different from both -- namely, communio. That should provide our basic context. In other words, the call to sanctity should form what we do in our economy. So, with a notion like self-interest: Of course we can't suppress that impulse forcibly; if we try, we end up in totalitarianism. But that doesn't mean we should bless it as a virtue of necessity. The call to sanctity requires a transformation of self-interest and its replacement, insofar as possible, with love.

Schindler concedes that Centesimus Annus blesses the free market "as an essential element in any adequate understanding of the human person", but with the qualification that the Pope has done so only in the context of a call for integral, authentic human liberation.

Liberation comes first -- liberation from sin. It involves forgiveness by the Holy Spirit and conversion, and the paradigm is Mary. So yes, there's an approval of a market economy, but precisely in the context of this radical conversion, the call to love.

The problem with utilitarianism, with "doing what works", is that it "tends to create a lowest common denominator mentality." Food, shelter, and the satisfaction of material comforts and appetites take priority over the great questions of morality and spirituality. (At this point Schindler discusses the ways in which modern society's use and fascination with technology can perpetuate an instrumentalist mentality.

Schindler explains that he wrote Heart of the World, Center of the Church to address the issues discussed in the interview, chief among which is a "practical atheism" which characterizes life in America today. Catholics are called to "reinstate a sense of God so that we can regain an adequate sense of our own creatureliness -- in other words, 'I'm not the source of my own being, my own moral norms. I'm not the author of my life and therefore not the one who decides about my death.'" He places blame on Fr. John Courtney Murray for ingraining in U.S. Catholics the assumption "we can't bring God into the heart of this discussion because, there are a lot of non-believers out there . . . Americans are privately very religious, but then in public we all agree to subscribe to the virtues that make us good democrats and good free marketeers, so that faith becomes essentially a fragmented, private reality. In effect, we're private theists and public atheists." It is precisely because religious questions are excluded from the public arena that our culture is where it is today.

According to Schindler, the Western world is implicitly guided by the post-Enlightenment liberal notion of radical individualism ("a logic or 'ontologic' of selfishness"). Despite the religious sincerity and good will of many American citizens, America "lacks the requisite [Christian] worldview" that would help us address abortion and other moral issues which constitute threats to the family. The goal of Dr. Schindler, Alisdair MacIntyre and others is to assist in reveal the underlying philosophical assumptions of liberal democracy and help us to "[understand] the logic of self-centeredness in a post-Enlightenment liberal culture."

Dr. Schindler and Fr. Zieba (who we examined in our previous post) would certainly agree on the destructive nature of Enlightenment liberalism. However, whereas Fr. Zieba would appear to side with Neuhaus, Novak and others in affirming the possibilty of another kind of liberalism, "one that is rooted in the Anglo-Saxon and, more particularly, in the American tradition", Dr. Schindler is skeptical that liberalism of any kind can be reconciled with Catholicism. Schindler quotes Alisdair MacIntyre: "all debates in America are finally among radical liberals, liberal liberals and conservative liberals", and dismisses the neoconservative premise:

["Neoconservatives" are] the conservative wing of liberalism. And in a sense, they wouldn't even deny that, insofar as their project is to show that a benign reading of American liberal tradition is harmonious with Catholicism. That's what I'm challenging. Their approach doesn't go to the roots of our [cultural and spiritual] problem, as identified in this pontificate and in the work of theologians like De Lubac and Balthasar.

[Contemporary U.S. culture is rooted in] self-centeredness. A false sense of autonomy centered in the self; an incomplete conception of rights. So we need to reinstate a right relation to God on all levels -- not only at the level of intention, but at the level of the logic of our culture. Our relation to God has to inform not only our will, but how we think and how we construct our institutions.

In future posts I'm going to look at other published interviews with the leading voices in this debate (Fr. Neuhaus, MIchael Novak, George Weigel). I find that interviews and biographical articles are the best introductions to their thought -- prior to examining the more substantial essays.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Fr. Maciej Zieba: "The liberalism that we need"

This post is a summary and thoughts on the essay "The Liberalism We Need" [First Things 40, Feb. 1994: 23-27], by Maciej Zieba, a Polish priest who, like many others residing in post-Communist nations, are "attempting to sort out the different meanings of liberalism."

He begins with a critique of Milton Friedman, "a classical liberal of the libertarian persuasion", who is wary of Pope John Paul II's insistence on the relationship between freedom and truth (as articulated in Centesimus Annus). Like many liberals, Milton perceives the Church's claim on absolute truth as an infringement upon liberal democracy, smacking of the Spanish Inquisition. Fr. Zieba questions whether liberal democracy is contingent upon such a denial of absolute truth, asking whether free society (such that he and his fellow Poles are striving to attain) can be sustained without it.

This kind of liberalism goes hand in hand with the affirmation of pluralism, which asserts that claims on truth is "culturally relative" or "socially constructed" and consequently nobody can really know what is objectively true. Fr. Zieba points out the inherent contradition in such a claim:

Radical pluralism-intellectual and moral pluralism-seems to be the only truth. Pluralism is thus presented as the fundamental principle of reality, the Absolute. Absolute truth is denied in the name of an absolute truth claim that eludes rational challenge and assumes the character of a religious faith. It is not too much to say that pluralism is the operative religion of at least one stream of liberal theory and practice.

While many proponents of radical pluralism are reticient with respect to the Absolute, they do not hesitate to expound on human nature. Fr. Zieba lists the basic tenets of this 'anthropology of pluralism':

. . . that all people are equal, that all people are good (or at least that evil is nonexistent), and that the human condition is fundamentally solitary. Since people and cultures are equal, it is the individual who must decide for himself. This becomes the chief, sometimes the only, meaning of freedom. And it is, of course, a "negative freedom," that is to say, it is delineated by minimal interference by anyone or anything that might restrict my right to choose.

Such a philosophy of radical autonomy offers little in the way of sustaining civil society. This is because liberalism of this nature "has no principled criteria by which to draw that line. It moves only in one direction: it can effectively eliminate abuses of oppressive community, but it cannot create or protect the communities required to make and keep life human." Fr. Zieba cites Karl Popper's observation that the vehement insistence on the non-existence of truth is in itself but a thinly-veiled authoritarianism, "the right of the clenched fist".

Pope John Paul II points out the very the same in Centesimus Annus:

"IIf there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. . . . the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others. People are then respected only to the extent that they can be exploited for selfish ends." [p. 44]

This, of course, does not bode well for those who wish to reside in a civil society. "In the absence of communal bonds and shared meanings related to truth," says Fr. Zieba, "society simply atrophies. Liberal theory and practice cannot explain or sustain a liberal society."

* * *

According to Fr. Zieba, liberalism was a rational reaction to the social circumstances of the eighteenth century. The Church played no small part in the terrible wars of religion which, in turn, provoked the "aggressive anticlericalism of the Enlightenment", and which also turned its hostility toward the state, "insofar as the state had absolutist aspirations that monarchs sought to realize by an alliance of throne and altar." However, says Fr. Zieba, we should also understand that the Church's general condemnation of modern liberalism (as expressed in Pope Pius IX' Syllabus of Errors) was, under the circumstances, also justified: "If in 1864 Pius IX felt besieged, it was because he was besieged."

Fr. Zieba contends that liberalism's opposition to religion was in fact misplaced -- that the real opponent is ideology:

By ideology I mean an all-comprehending explanation of social reality that is premised upon an uncritical notion of the true and the good and is in the service of creating or preserving a particular social order. Not truth, but the ideological deployment of truth, is the threat to freedom. Religious faith necessarily involves a commitment to absolute truth, and indeed to the Absolute, who is God. But the religious person should know that this truth cannot be deployed for our own purposes; the truth is not something that we "possess" in the sense of having it at our disposal. When truth is viewed as something that is in our service, rather than our being in the service of truth, it is very easy for religious faith to degenerate into ideology. This can happen despite the best of intentions, and there is no need to deny that Christians have at times attempted to advance their faith in the form of ideology.

We have already mentioned the dangers that a principle of radical autonomy poses to the health of civil society. But is the liberalism that Zieba has examined the only kind that is available to us?

There is available to us another liberalism, however, one that is rooted in the Anglo-Saxon and, more particularly, in the American tradition. In this liberalism, freedom is not separated from the existence of absolute truth; freedom can be oriented to truth. In this tradition, there is no need to pretend to have the only correct solution to all social problems. Freedom is like the magnetic needle of a compass, never immobile, always pointing to something beyond itself.

The "liberal package" (economic, political, cultural) has been regarded with suspicion by the Church, chiefly on account of the dangers posed by a liberalism marked by radical individualism and moral relativism. However, Zieba believes that "a liberalism that is respectful of community and open to absolute truth is becoming an exceedingly important part of Catholic social thought". Zieba sees the Church's appreciation of a new kind of liberalism both in the documents of Vatican II (particularly the treatment of freedom in Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium Et Spes) and the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. It is in the Pope's encyclical Centesimus Annus that Fr. Zieba sees "the Church challenging liberalism to reconstitute itself on a more adequate conception of human freedom", which he describes as nothing less than a Catholic version of liberalism.

I selected this article because I think it contains a good starting point to the discussion -- I find especially valuable Fr. Zieba's contention that "there is liberalism and there is liberalism", the liberalism distinguished by relativism and radical autonomy and the 'Catholic liberalism' of Pope John Paul II, distinguished by an appreciation of freedom's relation to and dependance upon absolute truth. It is a point I find often unrecognized by secular critics of the Church and "anti-liberal" Catholics within the Church, and something to keep in mind as we begin this investigation.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003


Welcome! -- I created this website after reading John Allen's column in The National Catholic Reporter on the current debate over liberalism -- that is to say, the classical notion of liberalism, as in "democracy, human rights, and free markets", which is defended by some (Michael Novak, Fr. R.J. Neuhaus, George Weigel among others) as consistent with the Catholic tradition, and by others as being incompatible and at odds with the mission of the Church. Needless to say it's a fascinating subject.

Over the course of the next several months I hope to investigate the articles on this website more closely, and blog my thoughts as we go along. I invite you to comment and post your thoughts as well. Whether you're sympathetic to the 'neoconservatives' or 'the Communio school' or even if you think "the jury's still out", I'm hoping you can join me in some fruitful discussion.

(Oh, yes -- and feel free to recommend additional articles and books on this topic as well).

testing . . .