Orthopraxy is certainly important and should not be ignored in favour of a focus on Orthodoxy. As the 1965 encyclical Gaudiem et Spes confirms,
“… the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.”
Pope Paul VI might have been inspired by Jesus’ own example in admitting this. The Gospels record how Jesus put the needs of the poor, the sick and outcasts and the spirit of agape ahead of following the letter of the law. For example, he was criticized for healing people on the Sabbath (Luke 13). Although Jesus affirmed that he had not come to alter “one jot or iota” of the law (Matthew 5:18), and even required higher standards from His followers than the notoriously fastidious Pharisees did of theirs (Matthew 6-7). Jesus clearly respected Orthodoxy, the Scriptures and particularly the Law of Moses. Nevertheless, Jesus reminded His followers that the Law was created to serve man, not man to serve the Law; He put the immediate needs of people, love and compassion, first and ahead of following the letter of the Law as it was usually interpreted. For examples, when Jesus was touched by the woman with a hemorrhage, he didn’t for a moment consider how her action in touching him had made him ritually impure (Mark 5:25-34) . When Jesus was approached by the Centurion on behalf of his servant (Matthew 8), or on behalf of the Syro-Phonecian woman on behalf of her daughter (Mark 7), Jesus agreed to help people who were beyond the pale in Jewish society. His parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) underlines how Jesus put emphasis on orthopraxis. Jesus forced his Jewish listeners to admit that the Samaritan’s good actions meant that he deserved praise, despite his identity, while by inference, the behavior of the Scribe and the Levite deserved no praise, despite the letter of the law and their exalted positions in Jewish society. It is clear that both the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the Bible confirm the importance of Orthopraxy, that it should not be ignored in favour of a focus on Orthodoxy.
Further, following Pope Paul VI’s teaching in Gaudiem et Spes, in “A Theology of Liberation” (1971) Gustavo Gutierrez argued that the process of Praxis and doing Theology must include both a critical reflection on Christian texts and interpretations (Orthodoxy) in the light of peoples’ lived experience and the needs of the poor (Orthopraxy). It is not a case of either orthodoxy or orthopraxy, both are needed, both must be in dialogue – to risk using the Marxist language f historical materialism, in a dialectical relationship – if Christianity is to stay alive.
If Orthopraxy is given priority to the exclusion of Orthodoxy then there is nothing distinctively Christian about what is done to improve conditions for the poor. The actions of feeding and clothing somebody, of visiting them and listening to them, are definitely right actions but any or all of these can be carried out for multiple reasons, including reasons which have nothing to do with Christianity or love. For example, a political party might help the poor with the intention of buying votes or an overseas-aid project might help the poor with the intention of exerting political influence in another country; this might seem like Orthopraxy, but because it is not informed. guided and motivated by Orthodoxy it is not. Without Orthodoxy, there is no clear line between Orthopraxy and basic social work and, as St Paul confirms in 1 Corinthians 13:3:
“If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
Marxists and indeed many other non-Christians who are concerned with social justice engage in first-act Praxis by visiting and/or living with the poor and acting in solidarity with them. Yet without second-act Praxis and the mediations of seeing, judging (reflecting on what is needed in the light of the Gospel) and acting, there is nothing Theological, nothing distinctively Christian, about what is done. Certainly “liberation theology leads to action” but, as Leonardo and Clodovis Boff affirm in “Introducing Liberation Theology” (1987, p.39) this is
“action for justice, the work of love, conversion, renewal of the Church and the transformation of society”
and is thus much more than just charity work. It follows that both Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy are important, and that neither is more important than the other.
On the other hand, if Orthodoxy is given priority to the exclusion of Orthopraxy Christianity loses sight of what it is for. Before the Second Vatican Council Pope John XXIII recognized that the Catholic Church had become obsessed with Orthodoxy and had turned inwards, focused on narrow issues in ecclesiology rather than on the social problems faced by most Christians. This threatened to make the Church irrelevant in the lives of ordinary people, which would in turn lead to a decline in numbers, influence and strength. Jesus’ great commission demands that Christians should “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), not be satisfied with a diminishing pool of existing believers. Further, Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 emphasizes that the eternal fate of each Christian depends on how they respond to people who are in need. Jesus affirmed that “when you do this for the least of these brothers of mind, you do it for me…” (Matthew 25:40). In allowing itself to become irrelevant, the Church would have betrayed a disregard for people and for the poor in particular, who are most in need of its love and help. Further, the Church would have demonstrated that it was ignoring both Jesus’ Great Commission and the consequences of ignoring those in need, falling well short of what it means to be disciples of Christ. Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council to cause the Church to engage with social challenges and by confronting them and critically reflecting on its own teaching (Orthodoxy) devise a series of reforms designed to refocus the Church on holiness, each individual being responsible for doing Christ’s work (Orthopraxy). The Papacy of Pope Francis has resumed this drive for Holiness, with the encyclicals Laudato Si and Amoris Laeticia serving as powerful, if controversial, calls for Catholics to temper their zeal for ecclesiology and Orthodoxy with heartfelt consideration for the lived experience of other Catholics, particularly the poor. In Amoris Laeticia Pope Francis acknowledged
“Nor it is helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority… We also need to be humble and realistic… We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them… Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would “indoctrinate” that message, turning it into “dead stones to be hurled at others”
While it is clear that Pope Francis’ words are informed by concern for Orthodoxy, he is seeking to refocus the teaching and work of the Church in the lights of Orthopraxy.
Within the Protestant Reformed tradition, John Hick drew attention to the consequences of focusing on Orthodoxy in such doctrines as the Incarnation or Sin and Salvation. He argued that Religious traditions have much in common and can work together to the benefit of humanity. Inter-faith dialogue opens the way for reconciliation and peace-building in communities from India to Indonesia, from South Africa to South Armagh. The obstacle to meaningful dialogue lies in peoples’ attachment to doctrines like the Incarnation or Original Sin which either cannot be understood literally or are frankly incompatible with broader principles which all religions can agree on such as love and justice. For Hick, Orthopraxy is more important than Orthodoxy. It is not that Orthodoxy has no importance, just that what we accept as Orthodox doctrines on the strength of history, tradition and authority should be open to revision in the light of experience. When Orthodox doctrines conflict with reason and science and undermine the pursuit of the real and what is true, when they cause confusion and lead to disillusionment with faith and when they lead to division, conflict and injustice, then it is right that Orthodox doctrines should be reconsidered and even revised. Hick proposed that the Incarnation should be understood as a powerful metaphor rather than as a literal fact, that the Christian beliefs in Original Sin and Exclusivism should be revised to allow for non-Christians to be saved by a just God. In his arguments for Philosophical Pluralism Hick did not suggest that Christians should ignore Orthodoxy, just that it should be informed by Orthopraxy. Nevertheless, his ideas led to deep and lasting controversy, particularly following the publication of The Myth of God Incarnate in 1977. Hick was put on trial for heresy twice as leading Christians lined up to condemn the idea that Christianity should be guided by humanitarian love, should not be quick to judge and should be humble. The affair serves as an illustration of why Orthodoxy cannot be allowed to dominate and exclude considerations of Orthopraxy.
It is fair to say, therefore, that both Orthopraxy and Orthodoxy are important and not fair to say that Orthopraxy should override considerations of Orthodoxy altogether.
Despite this, some Liberation Theologians argue that Orthopraxy is more important than Orthodoxy when Orthodoxy means conforming to Church teachings which prevent good works because of points of doctrine or which intend to stifle Orthopraxy for political reasons. For example, Leonardo Boff argues that the Papacy changed direction away from that set by Vatican II under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, largely because of pressure from the Americans, who found the activities of Liberation Theologians threatened their policy of creating dependency in South American states. The Americans found both Liberation Theologians’ use of Marxist terminology and the willingness of some Priests to get involved in the Political struggle for workers’ rights and policies which would give the Poor a Preferential Option in a practical sense, incendiary and not conducive to the success of their ongoing war against Communism in Catholic countries such as South America. It is true that CELAM was set up as a result of Pope Paul VI’s initiative and directed by Vatican II’s call for holiness. It is also true that the language of Gaudiem et Spes (1965) and of Populorum Progressio (1967) is distinctively Marxist in flavor. Gaudiem et Spes seems to accept a Historical Materialist account of history:
“the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one. In consequence there has arisen a new series of problems, a series as numerous as can be, calling for efforts of analysis and synthesis.”
Populorum Progressio rejects:
“oppressive political structures resulting from the abuse of ownership or the improper exercise of power, from the exploitation of the worker or unjust transactions.”
The attempt to exert control over CELAM through the Puebla conference in 1979 did indeed coincide with the beginning of Pope John Paul II’s papacy and it is easy to see how his opening speech to the conference could have been interpreted as a radical change in direction by the Liberation Theologians – including Gutierrez – who were barred from attending CELAM for the first time. The Papal condemnations of Liberation Theology, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1984 and again in 1986 seemed to reverse the focus on Social Justice that came out of Vatican II. In claiming that…
“Liberation is first and foremost liberation from the radical slavery of sin… Faced with the urgency of certain problems, some are tempted to emphasize, unilaterally, the liberation from servitude of an earthly and temporal kind…”
there seems little doubt that Pope John Paul II (and Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI) were trying to assert the importance of Orthodoxy over Orthopraxy, and seemingly the importance of faith over works. While they could legitimately claim support from St Paul and St Augustine for this argument, there is undeniable tension between the focus on spiritual liberation rather than practical liberation and the practical focus of Jesus, found in the Gospels and described above. For this reason and because it does not seem to match the teaching found in documents emanating from Vatican II under John VI (or the more recent documents emanating from the Papacy of Francis I) the Orthodox position defined by Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, with its inward-looking focus on spiritual salvation rather than practical liberation, cannot be taken as reflective of Christian Orthodoxy as a whole. There is no denying that Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, along with Gaudiem et Spes, Populorum Progressio and recent encyclicals like Laudato Si and Amoris Laeticia support a focus on Orthopraxy, right action and providing a preferential option for the poor in a practical sense. Pope Francis beatified Oscar Romero and invited Gustavo Gutierrez to be the keynote speaker at a Vatican conference to underline this point.
In conclusion, there is no way that Christian Orthodoxy can be defined in terms of ignoring the practical needs of the poor and focusing on unity and political expediency over agape and what is right. To define Christian Orthodoxy in these terms is to take the same path as the Papacy did during WWII in appeasing the Nazis. While it is fair to criticize some Liberation Theologians for embracing Marxism too “uncritically“, being a Christian cannot and should not be apolitical. While Jesus avoided confrontation with Rome over paying taxes, saying “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17), he also cleansed the Temple in a fearless political protest against the corruption of the Jewish authorities and showed no hesitation in either healing on the Sabbath or in helping Gentiles, in both cases putting himself on the wrong side of religious law in the interests of love and attending to the practical needs of people. Further, Marx’ critique of institutional religion as peddling the “opium of the masses” was fair, given the practices of the Church during the 19th Century. The fact that Marx and most Marxists were atheists and critics of religion does not detract from the truth of their analysis of Capitalism or the legitimacy of Christians learning from their work to further Christ’s mission. While some of those influenced by Liberation Theology have undoubtedly gone too far in their pursuit of Orthopraxy, in effect excluding the hermeneutical mediation (reflection on the Bible and Christian doctrine in the light of the situation faced by the poor) from their second act praxis, it is not fair to reject Liberation Theology as a whole for its focus on Orthopraxy. Seen in context, the focus on Orthopraxy that Gutierrez and Boff argued for offered necessary balance and was designed to pull Christians back from the Papal retreat into inward-looking politically expedient Orthodoxy during the 1980s and 1990s. In the end, both Orthopraxy and Orthodoxy – in the sense of a focus on the Bible and central Christian principles – are important; they should exist in a dialectical relationship at the heart of all Christian Praxis and it is wrong to prioritize either one to the exclusion of the other.