Retrieving Patristic Social Thought – A Book Review

St John Chrysostom Denouncing Empress Eudoxia

I recently came across a quite pertinent and interesting volume in my recent “vacations” in the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. It represents a meeting held in Leuven in 2007 as part of a research program at the Catholic University of Leuven during the years 2005 to 2009. The seminar and subsequent volume proposed to “investigate[s] the potential for a dialogue between the social teachings of the Fathers and the living theology of Catholic social thought today”. It has been published as – Reading Patristic Texts on Social Ethics: Issues and Challenges for Twenty-First-Century Christian Social Thought edited by Johan Leemans, Brian Matz, Johan Verstraeten.

The assembled papers and research followed Brian Matz’s study that catalogued 110 patristic citations or allusions in twenty-one Catholic social teaching documents (Patristic Sources and Catholic Social Teaching), which concluded that the patristic sources are second class citizens in contemporary Catholic Social Teaching’s consideration, e.g. Augustine’s Confessions is used eight times, but not specifically as socio-ethical commentary.

Over view

The book is divided into four sections, each with differing focuses. Part I is suggestive of a renewed appreciation for the texts of the Fathers while also expressing concern for a too casual and hermeneutically reductive approach to the Fathers. Part II commends a nuanced approach by paying attention to different contexts, namely: moral discourse in late antiquity, early Christian eschatology and the audiences of the era.

Part III provides examples of a dialogue between patristic social thought and the Christian social tradition. Susan Holman explores the idea of the “common good” in the Greek Fathers augmenting the typical historiography that begins with Aristotle, flows to Augustine, and skips Aquinas. Brenda Ihssen explores the patristic understanding of usury showing us how in our blurring of the lines between usury and interest we have fallen down the same slippery slope the Fathers denounced. Brian Matz explicates St. Basil’s views of detachment regarding private property in the Graeco-Roman context and how these theological principles could inform current thought. Thomas Hughson, coming from a systematic theologian’s perspective, addresses the use of justice in Lactantius and how it compares with contemporary Catholic social teaching and social thought. He concludes wondering if the Catholic Church has neglected a rapprochement with the early church to its own detriment.

Part IV contends for room for dialogue between patristic and contemporary Christian thought, in a way meeting and moving on from skepticism of the essay in Part I. Richard Schenk, O.P. employs Ricoeur’s “ideas about memory and constructive forgetting in suggesting that a healthy dialogue between the past and present social teachings should being by acknowledging what is worth remembering and forgetting”. Remembering what articulates common principles, that bring up marginal voices, and that expose radical expressions of discipleship from beneath layers of institutionalization. The book ends with two of the editors reviewing the overall contribution to the goal of the research program at Leuven.

The real struggle of the volume is the hermeneutical gap between late antiquity and late modernity. How do we categorize and then apply the theological and practical concerns of the Fathers, which come from a completely different socio-political context. For a quick and simple example: slavery and usury, both of which were viewed quite differently in late antiquity then they are in our age. How does a homily by St Gregory the Theologian, which advocates for the obligation of Christians to meet the needs of lepers, actually work for us today?

Fr. Schenk’s reflections
(supplemented by my own)

Instead of plotting through each essay, which honestly I have not read each essay in full detail (the pitfalls of not having library lending privileges yet), I thought the most beneficial essay reflecting on the hermeneutics of retrieval, which expresses a perennial concern of mine, would be Fr Schenk’s essay. I will be outlining the major parts of the article as well as including my own explication and commentary. I apologize in advance if this is confusing to any reader.

Fr Schenk reflections take two routes: a restatement of the argument for patristic retrieval and then the sources of suspicion about the cogency of projects of retrieval.

The symposium’s mood had been set by the opening remarks by reflecting on the hermeneutical thought of the late French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur stressed a dual hermeneutic of suspicion and of retrieval. As no one is an innocent and entirely correct storyteller, we need to implement “strategies of self-examination as part of an ars memoriae”. We must not drown in the suspicion but endure the tutelage of the “schools of suspicion” in order to clear the dross and still narrate and speak of our ethical responsibility, however complicated that may be. This ethic of reading and narrative is supplemented by Ricoeur’s explication of Heidegger’s enigmatic statement in Being and Time that “remembering is possible only on the basis of forgetting”. At this point Fr. Schenk quotes Gadamer in order to further elucidate Ricoeur’s insight:

“In ways that are largely overlooked, forgetting belongs to the relation between retaining and remembering. Forgetting means not merely loss and privation, but as F. Nietsche stressed, it is a necessary condtion for the life of our mind. It is only by forgetting that our mind receives the possibility of a thorough-going renewal, the ability to see things anew with a fresh look, so that what was old an familiar now blends with what is newly seen into a multidimensional unity” Truth and Method, pg.13.

Here Fr Schenk remarks, “…precisely because a certain kind of forgetting is necessary for there to be genuine recollection, forgetting, too like remembering, needs direction and self examination; it too, must be raised to the level of an art”. This artful forgetting and remembering is part of the practice of tradition. Riceour did demur about those who too quickly jump to reading history for particular goals, which “can lead to revisionist histories and to a selective amnesia about the more troubled aspects of the past”. Coming to the texts of the Fathers in order to read for contemporary social teachings implies a preliminary reinterpretation of that text, that being that we already pretty much have an idea where the text could take us. We have chosen certain texts over others. Fr Shenck follows Riceour further to recommend that “we must first somehow accept the story or history for what it is and only then try to elicit its future possibilities, even if it means living with an uncomfortable memory”. For an easy example, to my knowledge St. Gregory of Nyssa is one of the few Fathers who speak out against slavery. Our relationship to our past is a difficult one, parts of which are to be set aside or gotten past, that which we still need to forget, or what we need to remember in order to be guarded against, and therefore calling for forgiveness and not for our emulation.

Fr. Schenk then turns to a contribution from Johann Baptist Metz adapted from Ernst Bloch, the idea of “productive noncontemporaneity”. The products of noncontemporaneity can be destructive; where some theologians develop ways of being sectarian as badges of honor or, on the flip side, assimilated theologians in shamefulness of their community’s otherness seek to minimalize all distinctions. Productive noncontemporaneity approaches with a “chronic vigour” (J.H. Newman) that “liberates from servile adherence to both stagnation and modish fads, to continually bring the memory of the past into reflective conversation with the better movements of the times”. If we are going to approach the Fathers in order to frame our positions on social ethics, an awareness of the dangers of retrieval need to be on our horizon. Instead of an assumption of the perennial sameness of patristic teaching, which creates barriers for creative and productive grappling with modern issues, we could look to apply the teachings in our current globalized context. Here Fr Schenk suggests “migration, labor, communication, commutative and distributive justice”. This way of reading is in “hope for not yet domesticated insights prefigured in an uneven but provocative patristic literature”.

Fr Schenk then turns to the case for “suspicion”. As is the typical hermeneutical point, the work must be done for the context of then and then its application to the here and now. Recollection of patristic writers without context and with the pretext of obvious agreement and then uniting it to contemporary wisdom is dangerous. Obviously, in academia, there has been a strong tide going the other way, arguing for the particularity and incommensurability of each. The maxim “If you have read one church father, you have then read just one father” applies. At play here is obviously also the contest of the faculties, each vying for their own expertise and domain. But this heightened suspicion can all too easily push all texts to the periphery in an unending receding horizon. Memory can be blocked when it is stuck in recollection. This misuse of memory, following Ricoeur, skips the work of mourning “which comes to accept the loss of the past, falling instead into a debilitating form of melancholic or morose attachment to a past with no future”. A work of mourning that seems to be lost on certain segments of North American Orthodoxy.

Pace the suspicion of distance, otherness, and conflicting concerns Fr Schenk recommends that coming to the texts provides the ability to also revisit our modern presupposition and evaluate them accordingly.

Fr Schenk concludes his essay by suggesting that the present volume is indicative of the future dialectic of Christian social thought’s use of patristic thought. Neither direction, suspicious or overly ambitious, presented a grand, harmonious synthesis. A future sourcebook should be attentive to all of the nuances:

“…by showing the past and present state of Christian social teaching as an ever searching form of practical wisdom, growing in its treasury of articulated convictions and motivated by common principles, but also appropriated by many persons, in many times and places, for often disparate needs and with varying degrees of merit, guilt, and what has been called “moral luck”…Aware of its own past and present fragility, it should look for those overlooked impulses among patristic writings, suggestions of a more radically genuine discipleship hidden meanwhile beneath layers of otherwise defensible domestication and institutionalization…In an age tempted towards the extremes of secular and religious identities, each styled as self sufficient, glorious and universally liberating, this admission of a sometimes halting, partial and mendicant progress might be the greatest social teaching of all.”

St. Nicholas saving innocents - Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky


My interests in such a long overview is due mostly to the fact that I found this volume to be a fascinating and practical application of the tensions of the Orthodox ideal of “Neo-Patristic Synthesis”. I am aware of the baggage this “movement” and phrase have, but I move forward nevertheless. There have been numerous attempts of developing various sides of the Neo-Patristic project, but to my mind not many successful moral or ethical works that take their cue from the project (excepting maybe Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality as a great handbook for personal ascesis). It seems most of the work has been warmed over accomodationist material that seems regulated to the demands of this age and certain modish fads, i.e. why the focus on “green” theology at the loss of the development of the Greek Father’s view of natural law? I do not say this because I think we should rape and pillage the earth because of some horrible understanding of “having dominion”, rather I say that we need to attend to our tradition in all of its aspects, not just sexy fads (and by all means, I am in favor of a prophetic critique of our indiscriminate relationship to our environment).

My casual acquaintances with various Orthodox websites and the arguments had on blogs, comment threads, and even Facebook with a certain lovable Hierarch, show an adversity to some of the basic teaching of the Fathers, mostly due to the hermeneutical jump from then to now, or to too simple reductions and simplifications of the “Christian”ness of various socio-political positions (libertarianism not being the only target here). From the other direction, comes the overly simplistic jump that Aaron documents here in a review of a volume of St. Basil’s homilies. Perhaps I am too indebted to my agrarian/Hauerwas-MacIntyre/distributist/anarcho-syndicalist leanings, which should be the topic of a future blog post as a way of historically/biographically situating my own struggling with the tradition (i.e. how I needed St. Silouan in order to finally push me into Orthodoxy).

Anyway, I opened this volume to read some excellent essays, and came away specifically with Fr. Schenk’s great overview of the very basic tensions of any retrieval of the Fathers. I am and will be blogging specifically in the direction of Orthodox moral theology and welcome any complaints, comments, or suggestions in future reviews/topics.

For now, to be continued….