Tag Archives: Acton

Transitional Justice & Healing Social Wounds

Without question, the trust between police and their communities, especially those based in low-income areas, has broken down, bringing about a call for comprehensive reform. However, the unfortunate truth is that many of the reform proposals as they currently read will not heal decades of immediate pain, trauma, and violence, not to mention centuries of social, economic, and educational failures in governmental policy. Since there are approximately 12,000 local police departments in this country, each tasked with enforcing a different slate of local and state laws, thousands of community-specific variations on the theme of reform will be necessary for impactful and lasting change.

We want to inspire our communities to move forward and revisit ways to exist as interdependent networks of social actors. The recognition of and appreciation for human dignity is crucial, as is a mutual social covenant that affirms the rule of law while practicing reciprocal neighborly care. Transitional justice in communities emerging from egregious and tragic social conflict, police misconduct, or systemic violations of human dignity must replace today’s insufficient vision of justice. Rather than seeking to deconstruct or dismantle the rule of law, transitional justice aims to restore it to support robust social growth, development, and prosperity.

Read the rest: When police get it wrong (repeatedly): The rule of law and police reform – Acton Institute PowerBlog

At Acton’s PowerBlog I have a review of  The Idols of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity (Encounter Books, 2018), by Daniel J. Mahoney.

Here’s a bit of what I said:

Whether secular or religious, “contemporary humanitarianism is remarkably passive, allowing its adherents to detach themselves from the great ‘communities of action,’ such as nations and churches. Instead, they find salvation for themselves in strident affirmations of individual and collective autonomy, and not in deference to the grace and goodness of God.” Whether religious or secular, the adherents of contemporary humanitarianism live in a morally bland and affectively flat world “without heroes or saints, a world in which the capacity to admire what is inherently admirable is deeply undermined.”

Read the rest here.

Black balloons for the lost orphans 

My article about the Hogar Rafael Ayu and Holy Trinity Orthodox Monastery in Guatemala was just published by the Acton Institute. Here’s the first paragraph:

The protesters were mostly high school and university students. They carried black balloons, dozens of them – one for each teenaged orphaned girl who died while in police custody in a March 2017 schoolroom fire. Walking in solidarity with the hundreds of other protesters down Guatemala City’s 6A Calle was a small group of Serbian Orthodox Christian nuns. The abbess of the monastery, Madre Inés, told me that she and the nuns of Holy Trinity Orthodox Monastery in Villa Nueva, Guatemala came to the crowded Cons

You can read the rest here: Black balloons for the lost orphans | Acton Institute

Carpentry students at the Municipality Workshop School. Photo by Melanie Dent

Diocesan Ownership of Parish Property: Aspirational or Actual?

My response to a recent post on property rights and the Church over at the Acton Institute’s PowerBlog (Protecting private property: The road to sainthood?).



Fr Ben,

Thanks for posting this. I especially appreciate your pointing out the shared appreciation of the right to property in both Catholic and Orthodox moral teaching.

One of the challenges with the right to property is that this right is typically a bundle of rights. For example, in The Basis of the Social Concept of the Orthodox Church (2000), the bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate affirm the human vocation to labor and right to “the fruits of labour.” The latter includes “the right to own and use property, the right to control and collect income, the right to dispose of, lease, modify or liquidate property” (VII.1).

So immediately, we see that the right to property includes not only (1) actual ownership but (2) use the property, (3) control how the property is (and so isn’t) used, (4) obtain income from the property, (5) sell for profit or donate the property, (6) rent or lease the property, (7) alter the property in some way (e.g., build a house on land I own) or (8) surrender the property in partial payment of debts.

I leave the law to others, but the interesting thing about this bundle of rights is that exercise of any and all of them must be done in conformity to at least to the moral demands of the moral law. What happens though when the exercise of one or more of these rights come into conflict with other rights in the bundle.

Ownership of church property in Ukraine, to return to your post, is anything but straightforward. In addition to competing claims and counterclaims among the various Orthodox jurisdictions, there is the conflict between Orthodox and Greek Catholic communities. I agree with the representative of the Kyiv Patriarchate, Archbishop Yevstratii, that banning the Moscow Patriarchate is counterproductive politically and, more importantly, immoral (here). Adjudication of these claims is anything but easy.

Without prejudice to the Holy Spirit, a just solution to the property conflicts in Ukraine requires a clarity about the canonical control of parish property that we don’t as Orthodox Christians have.

Historically at least diocesan control over parochial property is typically aspirational rather than actual. For example, in traditionally Orthodox countries, the Orthodox Church is an established Church and, as such, the ultimate control of Church property belongs to the State.

Interestingly, from the early centuries, Orthodox monasteries and church buildings were often established as private foundations with the deed for the property held by an individual. This happened throughout the Byzantine era (Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents). It was done in part to keep monastic and parish communities independent of diocesan, and so Imperial, control.

Diocesan ownership of parish property in the US is more or less established under American law. Typically, the parish holds the deed to the property in trust for the diocese with the latter having ultimate control over the property. In other words, diocesan control is possible in the US because the courts will (usually) support the diocese.

Even in the US, however, bishop rarely exercise control over parish property. When they do it is typically because of either a schism or an unwillingness of the local bishop to allow a parish to leave one Orthodox jurisdiction for another.

This means that in practice, diocesan control over parochial property reflects not just the canonical tradition but (as you allude to) the peculiarities of American law on property and religious non-profits.

(An interesting and profitable discussion could, I think. be had on whether or not the Orthodox Church is a “hierarchical church” as defined by US law. The definition embraces not only the Roman Catholic Church but also mainline Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church USA, the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Methodist Church. As an aside, the Catholic Church in the US didn’t actually obtain diocesan control over parochial property until late in the 19th century.)

At least in some states, the Orthodox Church has a hybrid status. We are both hierarchical and congregational. For example, in 1993, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts agreed with the trial judge in Primate and Bishops’ Synod of Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia v. Russian Orthodox Church of Holy Resurrection, Inc., that the parish “was hierarchical in terms of internal administration, discipline, and matters of faith,” but “congregational as far as the control and use of its property.” The appellate court went on to say that “While the only person who could appoint a priest was the bishop, property and indeed churches belonged to various groups, including tradesmen, nobles, and the Tsars.”

A footnote in the case is interesting and offers a caution to assuming that the American Orthodox Church is necessarily a hierarchical church under US law:

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, there was evidence that in the Russian Orthodox Church authority was vested in the whole body of the laity as well as with the hierarchy; it was described as “an organic, as opposed to a juridical notion of authority.” There was also testimony that there were congregational aspects in the orthodox faith; in theory the bishop is elected by the people as well as the clergy, and that even in appointing the priest, the bishops would not impose someone upon the parish that the parish did not want (for more on this go here).

Evidently, our eucharistic ecclesiology and emphasis on active lay participation in the governance of the Church look very different to US courts than it does to us. Moreover, the observation that the Orthodox Church has a mixed polity, isn’t unique to the Massachusetts Appellate Court. Though he is critical of this mixed structure, Fr Nicholas Frencez makes an argument similar to that of the Court in American Orthodoxy and Parish Congregationalism.

Returning to the situation in Ukraine, while I think the proposed laws are imprudent, and even arguably immoral, they are not wholly without basis in either the canonical tradition or historical practice of the Orthodox Church. Indeed, they are not without precedent in the practice of the Moscow Patriarchate. In the 1990’s, the Moscow Patriarchate advocated for a position similar that in bill № 4128.

In 1990, a quadripartite commission was formed that included representatives of the UGCC, the Vatican, the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). One of the key points of contention was how to distribute church property. The UGCC insisted on returning churches that were forcibly taken from her in 1946 and transferred to the ROC. Representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate refused to negotiate with the UGCC as an institution that could claim lost property and insisted that the fate of the church buildings should be decided by the communities themselves locally. In other words, individual Greco-Catholics—but not the Church as an institution—could claim the property of their own communities. Following this logic, where most of the community identified as Greco-Catholic, the church building was transferred to the Greco- Catholics, and where the majority was Orthodox, the church building was theirs (more here).

Again, I’m not advocating for the proposed laws. More importantly, I agree with your point that secure, legally defensible property rights serve to secure other rights among them freedom of religion and conscience.

In defense of the right to property in general and of the Orthodox Church’s right to property, we need to be careful, however, that we do not confuse the ideal to which we aspire and the reality that we live. Diocesan, and indeed episcopal, control of parish property is in our canonical tradition. However, this tradition is more complicated than we think. Diocesan control has depended to a greater or lesser degree on the authority of the state and the co-operation of the lower clergy and laity. When the latter is absent, bishops have appealed willing to the former. St Paul’s warning against Christians appealing to civil courts comes to mind here (1 Corinthians 6:1-8).

Without minimizing the all too human elements of the conflict in Ukraine, part of the conflict arises out of the Orthodox Church’s lack of clarity regarding her own practice.

This is why, and I’ll conclude here, both this essay and Orthodox involvement in think tanks like the Acton Institute is of critical importance for the Church. For the first time since the 4th century, the majority of the Church has (in principle at least) the political and social freedom to structure our own, internal life and how we relate to the larger society. The challenge now is to figure out what to do with the mixed blessing of such freedoms.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

For Consideration…

Bet nobody saw this coming.

Pope Francis has, perhaps inadvertently, made the moral case for tax cuts.

He is right that European Union governments should have aim to expand opportunity for all, so that everyone has the chance to lift himself out of poverty and provide for a family. Their failure to do so, the massive unemployment and even higher youth unemployment that have blighted much of Europe, is a scandal that deserves more attention.

But what the pope may not realise is that the best way governments can do this is to get out of the way, to cut public spending, reduce taxes, and allow the economy to flourish. This is not just theory; the evidence of the last couple of decades shows clearly the lower-taxed countries in Europe are far more successful at generating the economic growth and the jobs the pope knows that people need.

For more go here.

A Russian businessman discovers the law of love

Here’s my latest essay for the Acton Institute, a review of Fr Alexander Torik’s novel Flavian.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory(Acton Commentary) When I first read the description of Fr. Alexander Torik’s novel Flavian, I was skeptical. Recently translated from Russian, it is the story of “an unexpected turning point in the life of Aleksei, a quite ordinary city dweller. A chance meeting with a former classmate turned much in the life of this physics-major-turned-successful-manager upside down, setting Aleksei on a new path with many amazing discoveries along the way.” I couldn’t help wondering if this was going to be simply a diatribe against business, the free market and the West.

But read it I did. And what I discovered wasn’t an angry preacher heaping scorn on the unrepentant but a loving pastor offering spiritual guidance to his flock.

spiritual rebirth article image

Though he traces the conversion and spiritual rebirth of a Moscow businessman, the author doesn’t condemn business. Yes, through the voice of Aleksei’s college classmate, the priest-monk Flavian who serves as the “rector of a village parish,” Torik is sharply — and rightly — critical of the materialism and secularism that infects Russian society including business.

We see this criticism in any number of places but probably no more clearly than when Aleksei makes his first confession. What are Aleksei’s sins? Idle talking and foul language, lies and broken oaths, judging and slander, gluttony, laziness and idleness, theft, love of money and stinginess, usury, bribery and accepting bribes, envy, pride, anger, remembrance of wrongs and last of all murder.

That’s a lot of sin for one man. Indeed Aleksei, the typical Russian businessman, is guilty of all these and, by implication, so too is Russian society, held as it is under the sway of secularism. As Aleksei says of himself, “To survive in modern Moscow life you have to do more than just love your pride – you have to cultivate it, feed it, build it up! You have to be ‘cool’, and make sure everyone sees and knows that you’re worthy of your ‘place in the sun’, so no-one will dare take it. And like an idiot that’s exactly what I tried to do – to become more and more cool, just like horny Satan commanded! Oh, Lord, forgive me! Show me how to live without all this! Help me to correct my soul, to become the kind of person You want me to be!”

Unlike the modern Christian critics of the free market, Torik avoids falling into an economic Manicheanism. There no hint that wealth is evil and poverty good. Instead, as Fr. Flavian tells his friend (and us), “All our life’s a miracle, Alyosha. Open your eyes and see how many things you’ll see!” For Fr. Flavian the wealthy aren’t so much wicked as foolish. They deserve not our scorn but compassion. “Of course you feel sorry for a human soul headed into the fire,” Flavian tells Alekesi, “but, as they say, ‘free will to the willful, heaven to the saved!’”

The novel is Augustinian in its anthropology; the problem of all sin — including economic sins — isn’t that I don’t love but that I love unwisely. This means that conversion for the businessman, like conversion for all, is not a matter of despising this life but learning to love the life to come. Aleksei, like modern Russian society, has forgotten how to live because he has lost the ability to be grateful to God for the blessings he has received. Or as Fr. Flavian tells him at their first meeting, “live, by all means, live and rejoice! Just don’t cripple yourself or anyone else. That’s essentially what the Church teaches.”

While the free market, private property and the creation of wealth are all compatible with the Christian moral tradition, there are Christians — Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant — who refuse to acknowledge this. There are Christians who argue that private property is immoral because they believe that ownership consigns a corner of God’s creation to the darkness of greed. What is often overlooked is that saying the free market is compatible with the Gospel doesn’t mean that there are no moral limits on our economic activity. While “all the earthly blessings” are from God, we need to keep in mind that material wealth as such “cannot make man happy.” True happiness only comes when we use our wealth “in accordance with the will of God … and with the law of love; for the joy and fullness of life lie not in acquirement and possession but in giving and sacrifice” (Basis of the Social Concept of the Orthodox Church, VIII.2).

St. Maximus the Confessor teaches that avarice is encountered “when a man receives with joy but gives away with sorrow.” In a monastery such a person can’t be entrusted with material well-being of the community. In the secular realm, such a one hasn’t a moral character fit for business. The importance of acquiring such a character, and how to do so, is Torik’s central concern in Flavian.

This is not a great Russian novel in the tradition of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. The dialogue feels stilted, the plot forced. It is, however, a morally good novel. The novel’s underlying point about our life in Christ is sound. Repentance isn’t just about laying aside sin but also about acquiring the vision of God, about learning to see life as God sees it. It is this point that makes the novel important for those interested in Christian social thought and what it means to be both a disciple of Christ and a businessperson.

The Not So New Russian Orthodox Banking System

by Rev. Gregory Jensen

(Acton Commentary) While they have much to recommend them, the free market and the global banking system aren’t without their shortcomings. The Orthodox Church in Russia has proposed a banking model that corrects what it sees as the most serious of that industry’s moral failings. However the system the Church purposes is unlikely to foster economic growth. It also overlooks the convergence of the free market with key elements of the Orthodox moral tradition.

As explained in a recent article, the proposed Orthodox Financial System (OFS) is more interested in economic safety than in fostering the kind of innovation required for a growing economy. For this reason it will be “made up of a low-risk credit organization that controls all transactions, and investment funds or companies that source investors and mediate project financing.”

The assertion that “a low-risk credit organization will prove invulnerable given its avoidance of operations with active financial risks” however is problematic; low risk is still risk. Low risk also means a low rate of return.  With an economy that has contracted 4 percent this year and is suffering double digit inflation, a financial plan that aims at low growth is, as the head of analysis at the Association of Russian Banks Sergei Grigoryan points out, short on practicality.

But let’s assume for the moment the OFS is going to foster the economic growth Russia needs. It still isn’t clear to me that the OFS is significantly different than the Western model it is seeks to replace. The OFS looks to me as less an alternative outside the global free market and more an attempt to create a niche bank system within that market.

The article points out that a central feature of the OFS is that the parties “share risks, profits and losses.” Far from undermining this goal, a just interest rate (as opposed to usury, or an unjust rate that the Orthodox Church condemns) is a way for the bank and the debtor to share risk.  They also share the benefits. If all goes according to plan, the bank makes a justified profit and the borrower has access to capital. Dmitry Surmilo, the coordinator of the working group creating the OFS at the Moscow Patriarchate’s department of external church relations does highlight one difference.  He says that the “Orthodox Financial System sees social wealth as more important than personal wealth.” Fair enough. But this is also true in the West; seeing this, however, requires that we look carefully at the anthropological foundation of the contemporary banking.

Surmilo’s contends that Western influenced “banks give loans to everybody and expect all of them to be returned in time without taking into account people’s financial situation or their personal circumstances.” Strictly speaking is this really the case? Does the Western system really ignore the uniqueness of the person?

I don’t think it does.

Banks require varying amounts of collateral from and charge different interest rates to different customers. Yes, the bank does this to protect its own profitability.  For the Orthodox moral tradition there is nothing necessarily immoral in the pursuit of profit. More importantly for our concern here, however, profit is not the bank’s only concern.

Treating potential customers differently also reflects the bank’s moral responsibility to determine and safeguard the unique circumstances of the person and so the ability of the borrower to repay the loan. This isn’t morally wrong. While it may seem unfair, when we look at the situation more carefully we see that it reflects the very financial personalism that Surmilo says is at the heart of the Russian model.

Valuing the uniqueness of the person is also why it both makes good business sense and good moral sense for banks to expect repayment on time. Again, while this reflects the self-interested desire for profit it also takes seriously the importance of an agreement freely entered into by the borrower and the bank. Like all contracts, a loan agreement embodies the social value of personal integrity and mutual trust. While it can be unpleasant to do so, respecting human freedom and dignity means holding individuals accountable to the promises they freely make and for the obligations they freely assume.

Surmilo is right when he suggests that there are unforeseen circumstances that make it difficult and even impossible or the borrower to repay the loan. Here too though, the Western banking system reflects the personalist orientation that guides the OFS.  There are well established and respected legal and regulatory mechanisms that take into account changes in a person’s circumstances that make it impossible (or even very difficult) to pay back a loan. The most noticeable of these is U.S. bankruptcy law. Like the proposed Orthodox model, the Western economic system “sees social wealth as more important than personal wealth” and so has developed objective guidelines that protect the dignity of both parties to a loan.

A more substantive criticism of the OFS is that its profitability depends on the very global banking system it criticizes. It is the wealth-creating ability of the free market that makes the Russian alternative model possible. OFS banks will be able to provide “low-interest loans” and “can compensate for lost profit” through their participation in the “the foreign exchange market or through investment”. The free market allows room for the niche banking system proposed by the Church. Far from being a bug, it shows the flexibility of the free market. It also opens up the possibility for greater Orthodox Christian participation and moral witness in the marketplace.