The need for orthodoxy in a world of dangerous “orthodoxies”

The Christian today must beware of allowing orthodoxy in relation to the deposit of faith to become muddled with orthodoxies of the age.

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One succinct definition of orthodoxy is “An authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice.” Within the Catholic faith, orthodox belief is considered to be adherence to the deposit of faith that has come down to us from Jesus Christ through his Church. Much of the internal struggle within the Church today, as in the past, has been about what constitutes orthodox belief. Or else distinguishing between orthodox belief and religious practices that are the norm in certain eras or nations.

In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton wrote eloquently about orthodoxy in relation to religion. While Chesterton was a staunch defender of orthodox Christian faith because he was convinced it proceeded from, and was sustained by, God himself, he was also a fervent critic of what might be called the orthodoxy of the age. In Chesterton’s age, the emerging orthodoxy was a God-less materialism in which everything proceeded from mindless immutable forces throughout the universe and within each person. This orthodoxy reduced Truth, Beauty, and the Good to mere preferences, or to social and cultural norms.

Chesterton criticized the materialist skeptic who claims to have a corner on rational thought and a program for a new materialist worldview:

… As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is a waste of time… will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. . . . The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts… In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men.

C. S. Lewis, in the essay titled “The Rival Conceptions of God,” said much the same thing about human knowledge in a God-less materialistic universe:

… atheism [one could substitute materialism] turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.

The materialistic worldview is now dominant rather than emerging as it was in Chesterton’s time. Thus, the Christian (and the Church at large) must beware of allowing orthodoxy in relation to the deposit of faith to become muddled with orthodoxies of the age—political and economic systems in opposition to truth and human flourishing.

For instance, while most Christians care deeply about the natural environment and try to act on this concern, there is a vocal and powerful environmentalist dogma that rejects human-centered environmentalism, and thereby opposes energy from fossil fuels, strategic infrastructure, and manufacturing that might ameliorate the suffering and want of millions of people. Those who promote this ideology are quick to label dissenting voices as “anti-science” or “irresponsible”, forgetting or ignoring that as late as the late nineteenth-century the scientific world was comfortable in the knowledge that Newtonian laws of motion, magnetism, and the atom explained everything—until they didn’t.

In fact, as never before, we have the means and know-how to foster human-centered environmentalism with manageable impacts on the environment. Examples of such a balance between human needs and the environment abound in America and around the world.

You could say that human-centered environmentalism was eloquently depicted by C. S. Lewis in his Narnia chronicles. Narnia is a magical and beautiful place. Yet, there is a more beautiful and higher place in comparison with which Narnia is only a shadowland, a higher place to which Lewis’s faithful characters travel at the end of the chronicles. Thus, Lewis’s characters are the purpose for Narnia, not mere physical phenomena in that world.

While most Christians care deeply about social justice and social welfare and act on these concerns, there is a vocal and powerful ideology that wishes to impose virtually unchecked state control of economies and social welfare, with corresponding massive bureaucracies, insisting that only state-directed economies, health care, and public welfare can share the world’s bounty equitably. Those who promote this ideology are quick to label dissenting voices as rapacious or unjust. Yet, as never before, we experience how such massive state programs produce bureaucratic behemoths with few checks on power, along with creeping restrictions on human liberty.

In contrast, the outcomes, if not the ethos, of authentic free markets are checks on power via innovation, customer choices, the demise of sclerotic companies, and the laws of the state. In fact, twenty-first-century free market economies have a better environmental record than command and control nations, and are more accountable to societies.

These modern age orthodoxies: dogmatic environmentalism and state-directed economies and societies have seeped into the Church to one degree or another. In some quarters of the Church, secular orthodoxies receive favorable pronouncements by religious leaders, while contrarian perspectives receive criticism. Among some ostensibly Christian denominations, secular orthodoxies inform practically everything.

Furthermore, secular orthodoxies are now piped into our brains—the brains of religious leaders as well—via the internet, TV, and social media, and by people close to us who are informed by all of the above. There’s no escaping it. The mind-forming influence of J. R. R. Tolkien’s far-seeing stones (Palantiri) was small potatoes in comparison to what we face today.

Needless to say, human-centered environmentalism, the subsidiarity of the bureaucratic state to local authority and independent institutions, and free markets were also subject to historical abuses: robber barons, localities that vigorously persecuted racial and ethnic minorities, environmental irresponsibility. That’s why robust debates about political and economic systems that include credible and articulate champions of different perspectives should be encouraged within the Vatican and the Church around the world. Such spotlighted debates could also be a light to a world that is increasingly being fed orthodoxies that don’t deliver what they promise.

Evaluating competing political and economic systems to achieve social justice, human welfare, and care for the natural world has traditionally relied on prudential judgment. Considering how often orthodoxies of the age change, perhaps prudential reserve is an even better perspective, where we don’t give ourselves wholeheartedly to any particular approach.

Chesterton and Lewis, for their part, understood the one orthodoxy that always delivers what it promises.


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About Thomas M. Doran 81 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), The Lucifer Ego, and Kataklusmos (2020). He has worked on hundreds of environmental and infrastructure projects, was president of Tetra Tech/MPS, was an adjunct professor of engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and is a member of the College of Fellows of The Engineering Society of Detroit.

18 Comments

  1. Be wary of any who, in the absence of worshipping the One True and Only God, wind up worshipping just about everything else under the sun. Before signing on to any ideology, find out who or what its proponent worships in his life.

  2. Thoughtful article. I would wish that before priests and deacons wade into including the current dominant political thought in their homilies would read this article.

    The Chesterton reference is enlightening, his books can be a difficult read, but rewarding. Regarding free markets versus state dictated choices another reference point is F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.

  3. Yet, there remains the cumulative challenge and dilemma confronting even “human-centered environmentalism”…

    What if our centuries-long TRAJECTORY ever further away from Subsidiarity (into big manufacturing, big energy, big markets, big government, big media, etc.) is constrained within an ecological NICHE which–for whatever reason–is limited and possibly even contracting? Whether by consumerism and smokestacks or, instead, by terrestrially cyclical and epochal causes, or both? What, then, about the meaning of “human-centered” and therefore what is prudent and corrective?

    Decades before Laudato Si (2015), Centesimus Annus (1991) addressed more DISTINCTLY both the “human ecology” and the “natural ecology” as “interrelated,” but not too-conflated (?) as in “integral ecology.” Less ideological than any environmetal-ist slant, then, the perennial Church’s message clearly invokes the heading of human Solidarity, meaning attentiveness to future generations as well as current populations already threatened by institutional neglect and ecological triage (e.g., water-short areas including the Sub-Sahara).

    Fully in step with Doran, and with ALL things considered–short- and [!] complex and very long-term–how to “ameliorate the suffering and want of millions of people”?

    Which leads us to the new dicastery on Evangelization. Will this institution be diluted into a more generic Christianity, possibly blurred with and co-opted by secular/ ideological environmental-ism, rather than alertly focused on Creation as such? Of the new Evangelization and its needed “authenticity,” St. John Paul II offered this clarity (in another writing):

    “Indeed this challenge [authentic evangelization] is posed not so much by the social and cultural milieu that she [the Church] encounters in the course of history as by the mandate of the Risen Christ, who defines the very reason for the Church’s existence: Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature [….].
    “Today’s widespread tendencies towards subjectivism, utilitarianism, and relativism appear not merely as pragmatic attitudes or patterns of behavior, but [also as] claiming full cultural and social legitimacy. Evangelization—and therefore the new evangelization—also involves the proclamation and presentation of morality [Veritatis Splendor!]. Jesus himself, even as he preached the kingdom of God and its saving love, called people to faith and [!] conversion.
    “…the life of holiness…constitutes the simplest and most attractive way to perceive at once the beauty of truth, the liberating force of God’s love, and the value of unconditional fidelity to all the demands of the Lord’s law, even in the most difficult situations.”

    St. John Paul II recommends that we find as models the saints…WHAT WOULD THE SAINTS DO in our current moment for both Solidarity and Subsidiarity, living “in accordance with God’s commandments and the Beatitudes of the Gospel [both]”? So, yes, in our ecologically tightening niche (yes?) and its “difficult situations,” how to live and possibly retrofit, together, in the knowledge that while God is infinite, our “common home” is not?

  4. When I was a young married Catholic I had a discussion on the environment with our priest on the world population and its impact on our finite planet.

    He argued that population would not be a concern since there are large land parcels of unoccupied land like Africa. Did Fr O’Mara have an answer? That is the dilemma when the Bible contrasted…

    God said “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and elsewhere over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

    Earth’s population is reaching eight BILLION. Scientists say “we will see a decline in earth’s ability to sustain life, as we know it if we take no action by 2030.

    Pray that we will leave a viable planet to our grandchildren.

    • “Scientists say we will see a decline in earth’s ability to sustain life, as we know it if we take no action by 2030.”

      I thought it was 1970. Or 1980. Or 1990. Or…

      • Exodus 22:25–27 – Esekial 18 – Deuteronomy 23 18 – Luke 6: 34-36
        Ursury: Up to the 16th century, usury was condemned by the Catholic Church.
        Pope Sixtus V condemned the practice of charging interest as “detestable to God and man, damned by the sacred canons, and contrary to Christian charity.

        St. Thomas Aquinas, argued charging of interest is wrong because it amounts to “double charging”, charging for both the thing and the use of the thing. Aquinas said this would be morally wrong in the same way as if one sold a bottle of wine, charged for the bottle of wine, and then charged for the person using the wine to actually drink it.[46] Similarly, one cannot charge for a piece of cake and for the eating of the piece of cake. Yet this, said Aquinas, is what usury does. Money is a medium of exchange, and is used up when it is spent. To charge for the money and for its use (by spending) is therefore to charge for the money twice. It is also to sell time since the usurer charges, in effect, for the time that the money is in the hands of the borrower.

        The Congregation of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Claretians teach that the charging of interest is sinful

        • Thanks for showing why Aquinas is highly regarded as a theologian and not as an economist. Aquinas was wrong in thinking consumables and nonconsumables are the same and thinking that selling and lending are the same. If a thing is sold, the seller gets paid the full value of the thing and the buyer gets ownerhip of the thing. When a thing is lent, the borrower gets the temporary use of the thing (e.g., a rental car) but not ownership of the thing and does not pay for the full value of the thing but only for the value of the temporary use. With a consumable, use is tantamount to ownership, so a consumable can’t be rented or lent; the obvious fallacy of Aquinas’s analogy between an nonconsumable like money and a consumable like a bottle of wine is turned on its head in Archie Bunker’s old joke, “You can’t buy beer, you can only rent it.” Not so with money. If you want a dollar, you can buy it, but it will cost you a dollar. But if you only need the temporary use of a dollar, that shouldn’t cost a dollar, because the lender will get the dollar back. If the use of a dollar for a period of time has no value, there is no reason to borrow it in the first place. But if the use of a dollar for a period of time has value to the borrower, it also has the value to the lender, the “interest” in that use that the lender is giving up for the term of the loan, a value that the lender sells to the borrower at a price that reflects the value of that interest to the lender.

      • Yous truly would not proclaim the apocalypse in 2030…
        But maybe locally it was already 1930? For multiple reasons, the Dustbowl happened. Not a simple or heretical question to ask scientifically about multiple other local settings today, or possibly even on a larger scale. An inquiry for both conservative and liberal progressives–Icarus waxed (his wings!) and then waned.

      • Hey! One of these days, Malthus is going to be proven right. And if not Malthus, Ehrlich. And if not Ehrlich, Thunberg. And if not Thunberg, then Chicken Little!

    • Morgan,
      Have you not taken a look at more recent demographic projections? We’re more facing a population implosion in the future than an explosion.
      I think overpopulation worries are a generational thing. The current challenge facing us is an aging population with fewer and fewer young people.

      • Precisely right! My concern is for my grandchildren who will never benefit from Social Security due to the absence of enough working age people to fund it. In addition to being a moral outrage, abortion is a demographic catastrophe. Ask the Chinese.

        • That’s true Mr. Tom.
          Ask Japan also. Or almost any nation outside of Sub-Saharan Africa or SE Asia. Even the few remaining regions of the globe with higher fertility rates are expected to be at or below replacement level in the future.
          The West thinks it can go on indefinitely counting on migrants to fill its workforce gap but not when birthrates are plummeting everywhere.
          Abortion is a piece of the puzzle but it’s not the only cause. Women are putting off marriage & childbearing until quite late & often too late.

  5. I would say that pretty much every secular orthodoxy is in some way a heresy. This is because all mistaken moral beliefs are heresies.

    However, one must put “free market” along side other secular “orthodoxies.” The free market, if as another term for laissez faire, amounts to government complicity with economic coercion by private parties (i.e. mostly companies) and the virtual attempted murder that is a result of coerced unemployment or underemployment.

    “Evaluating competing political and economic systems to achieve social justice, human welfare, and care for the natural world has traditionally relied on prudential judgment. Considering how often orthodoxies of the age change, perhaps prudential reserve is an even better perspective, where we don’t give ourselves wholeheartedly to any particular approach.”

    Justice deserves our full support. It wouldn’t be very difficult, but there would be a necessity for massive “capitalist propaganda deprogramming.”

    I think that an at least partially just solution is relatively simple if “radical.” Set the minimum wage to about where it should be, $24/hr. Make it a crime to have an open position, and to refuse to fill it with some unemployed male. Make wrongful discharge a crime.

    Either “failure to hire in violation of public policy” or wrongful discharge would result in the CEO and/or the complicit in positions of authority losing their positions and being permanently prohibited by law from attaining the same level in other companies. In fact, it wouldn’t be going too far to require that the now unemployed person be forced (i.e. that would be their only permitted employment) to work menial labor for a time at barely sufficient wages.

    The imagination of our so-called “justice system” is pretty much nonexistent. Jail, fines, and “supervised release” likely aren’t very appropriate most of the time. Certainly not as currently implemented. I have knowledge of a person who spent 10 years behind federal bars for possessing child pornography. 10 days would likely be more appropriate. And certainly the distributors should face the death penalty. However, it always must be noted that pornography is wrong, and ought to be outlawed regardless of the age of the person photographed.

  6. If you love the outdoors, tying flies fishing for trout, some call communing with nature, to my mind communing with God’s creation contamination might come home fearfully, that the speckled beauty you caught may be poisonous.
    The place is one of the lakes that are the Rochester NY watershed. Miles and miles distant supplying wonderful water. Except for the dastardly dumping of barrels of toxic waste wherever was convenient. When real persons you know and love, healthy, vivacious like the blond RN unit manager who contracted ca.
    Water in NYS is generally abundant and pure unlike areas of our Southwest where drilling could require multiple efforts as was my experience starting a reservation mission. Advancement, improvement of life by its own nature becomes a business. By that, meaning as example loans and interest, discussed here some idealistically, Christians believing it’s sinful, others like myself realizing obtaining a substantial loan places the lender’s assets at risk. It would be nice if wealthy organizations could, and would loan the needy what they need without interest. Biblical. Although, then there’s reality. Back then it wasn’t so complex. Although Moses speaks of the recipient offering a pledge, like his cloak. So risk even then was component of gracious lending.
    What then, that the world has advanced dramatically and is far more complex. Ecology and the environment, its protection for our own safety, and respect for the Author who made us stewards require a moral consciousness. Dumping is a major sin. We know we’re poisoning others. Lending is complicated and has reasonably evolved into a business.
    If Doran is speaking about dangerous ideologies it seems that the religious extreme such as sinful interest, is as dangerous to the needs and welfare of a current living body, a modern society as are populist idealists [the woke right] who believe restrictions on industrial practice is restrictive of our freedom, right to success then I would agree. Advancement with its technical complexities and common sense requirements requires a right reasoning capable of apprehending the difference between the universal concept of justice and justice within its given conditions.

    • Father. I am Catholic Democrat and I applaud your defense of our ecology, but I may have a retort on the “WOKE LEFT” statement and the inference to Democrats. I still don’t understand the term, except it seems always points to the “LEFT” and populist idealists. You say: “dangerous ideologies it seems that the religious extreme such as sinful interest, is as dangerous to the needs and welfare of a current living body, a modern society as are populist idealists [the woke right] who believe restrictions on industrial practice is restrictive of our freedom, right to success. Idealists are loyal, honest and kind, and tend to pursue careers that enable them to help people.” I would agree. Ho, with some exceptions. However, politics don’t fit this mindset. They seek power driven by ego, misogyny and greed, no to mention lies, falsehoods and misdirection. I would include certain cable TV carriers in that effort. Who would support those… who advocate for discarding a valid vote without any proof, scare opponents with life-threatening calls to their families, voter suppression, violent attacks on our democracy, dark money, gerrymandering, continuation of the unconstitutional filibuster? Etc, All that said, I am a supporter of the right-to-life effort. However, I have difficulty with the “federal law” being transferred to the states where it becomes a patchwork roll of the dice. Thank you for your good work. God bless.

  7. We may be seeing the residue from the industrial revolution. I forgot to state that I am no scientist, but the evidence of global warming appears telling…
    .The ozone layer has been depleting from carbon emissions. Earth heats
    .Deadly storms are more frequent, powerful and slow
    .Greenland icebergs are melting at a rapid rate.

    Clips from SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY and Bio Science…
    .”World’s Glaciers Melting Faster than Ever May 06, 2021″
    .11,000 scientist signatories from 153 countries warn of the future.
    There so many more dark clouds, like the impact on our animal food source

    Hope this helps
    Thanks

  8. Great article. I would add Jesus never said the Roman Empire should provide for the poor. He was specific that we as individuals should so that we could love and discipline when necessary. We aren’t to give with no accountability. Jesus told people not to sin.

    Recently I read a book about Pentecostals in Brazil and why so many Catholics become Pentecostal. The poor and destitute would go to Priests and Bishops. When they listened they would say yes the government needs to give more to the poor and provide for health. The Pentecostals would say go to Jesus Christ convert and have him send his Holy Spirit into you. Start behaving as if the Holy Spirit is with you. Results were amazing. Just like here our Church believes in government and money Pentecostals believe in Jesus Christ to guide them.

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