We Orthodox who are especially nerdy followed the remnants of what was planned as a “Great and Holy,” “Pan-Orthodox” council of the Orthodox Churches, which concluded Sunday in Crete. The sad reality, however, is that for various reasons Antioch, Russia, Bulgaria, and Georgia decided not to attend. Antioch, especially, had unique and legitimate grievances. So, “Pan-Orthodox” is a bit of a misnomer at this point, and “Great and Holy” was probably overly aspirational to begin with.
But despite its questionable importance and authority, the council marched on. On June 20, the draft document “The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World” was officially approved with some small changes. While in general not a bad document – at least they didn’t forget to mention Jesus – the statement’s economic pronouncements range from ambiguous and questionable to both wrong and harmful. Similar statements can be found in the encyclical issued at the conclusion of the council, as well.
The document begins strong by claiming that the word of the Church, “addressed to the world, has as its aim first of all not to judge and condemn the world … but to offer it as guidance the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.” This is wonderful. However, in seeking to tease out the social implications of the Gospel, it at times comes frightfully close to judging and condemning virtually all of human civilization.
While claiming that the “Church cannot remain indifferent to the economic processes which have a negative impact on all humanity,” the mission document gives little indication that its authors are aware of any actual, basic economic processes like competition, the price system, business cycles, creative destruction, inflation, and so on. Instead, it ambiguously asserts the “need … of structuring the economy on moral principles.”
Which economy? The global economy is a network of various national economies, and national economies are a web of various international, national, and local markets, all with unique competitive and regulatory structures, often expressly based upon moral principles, such as environmental and safety concerns or the right to own, trade, and develop private property.
From there the document slips from ambiguous and questionable, to wrong and harmful. “Greed,” says the authors, “manifested in the gratification of material needs, leads to the spiritual impoverishment of the human person and the destruction of the environment.” (Emphasis added.) Minus the concern for the environment, Marcion would be proud. The gratification of material needs is not greed but the natural, human impulse for survival. It is what we wish to be met when we decry, in the words of the document, “the hunger of millions of people.”
This alarming statement about greed and material need comes after several paragraphs concerned with consumerism. Consumerism is certainly a bad thing, but the statement conflates consumption and consumerism, even denouncing “constant growth in prosperity.” Yet in the last 200 years or so, this is precisely how hundreds of millions of people have overcome hunger, poverty, and unjust inequality. As Orthodox priest Fr. Gregory Jensen put it in his monograph The Cure for Consumerism:
If consumption is immoral, if the goal of our economic life is to consume less, then we ought to dismiss the economic gains of the last two centuries as also being immoral. Assuming this, however, reflects not only a lack of gratitude to God for his material blessings but it also condemns our neighbor to poverty.
Indeed, he continues, “If consumption were not a good thing, then the reception of Holy Communion would be a sin.” Consumerism is a problem, but the simplistic platitudes of this document do nothing to address its complex nature. It is about consuming wrongly, not consuming in general.
The lessons of economic history show us indisputably that nations only overcome poverty through industrialization and economic liberalization. If we truly believe the affirmation of the inviolable dignity of the human person that begins the document, we must hope not for less but more and faster industrialization. The alternatives to “constant growth” are stagnation, recession, or depression. Why, then, is the Church condemning it? Rather, the quicker a country increases it, the sooner it will be able to afford “cleaner” forms of energy that may do less harm to the environment without simultaneously impoverishing its people.
This brings me to a further issue: The offered solution for the supposed problem of consumption is “moderation and self-limitation.” I wholeheartedly support these virtues. But I support them because they are virtues, not because of some beneficial environmental side-effect they may or may not have. We must be very careful that in seeking the latter we do not lose sight of the former.
As Fr. Michael Butler and Andrew Morriss, both Orthodox scholars, put it in Creation and the Heart of Man, “Fasting is not dieting; neither is it an ecological statement. For a Christian, fasting is a spiritual discipline that is fruitful when it is joined with prayer and repentance, a discipline that is oriented toward God to effect the purification and transfiguration of the heart.” They continue:
What is more, for Orthodox Christians to use the ascetical discipline of fasting for any other purpose undermines its real purpose. If we do not use ascetical disciplines to grow in a right relationship with God, we will not grow in right relationships with our neighbor or with creation, either.
Similarly, to presume that good intentions apart from knowledge of economic science and history is sufficient to address issues of economic justice will surely exacerbate unjust inequality, poverty, and hunger.
We can vividly see this tragic reality today in the formerly developed nation of Venezuela. As Dany Bahar and Miguel Angel Santos put it for Brookings, “Venezuela’s current crisis was completely preventable. In fact, it is the consequence of almost two decades of irresponsible policies.” They continue to detail how the government seized private property, ran up debt like a teenager with her mother’s credit card, implemented price controls, printed money like it was popping popcorn, and so on, making itself utterly fragile to the recent shock in petroleum prices.
The scene there today is harrowing as the nation with the world’s largest oil reserves has descended into rioting, theft, and even murder due to lack of food and other necessities. This is what Chavez and Maduro’s “twenty-first century socialism” has done. This is what happens when people are actively prevented from pursuing the “gratification of material needs” and “constant growth in prosperity.”
To be clear: I truly believe that the council fathers who ratified this document want people to thrive. I impute no ill will upon them, nor do I mean to imply that they are socialists. But, however unintentionally, their attempt to promote that thriving through high-minded pontification tragically amounts to economic misguidance unworthy of the “Gospel of the Kingdom of God.”