University of Notre Dame

Liberalism and Orthodoxy: A Search for Mutual Apprehension

June 16, 2023

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Brandon Paradise* & Fr. Sergey Trostyanskiy**


This Article seeks to evaluate and contextualize recently intensifying Christian critiques of liberalism’s intellectual and moral claims.  Much of this recent critique has been from Catholic and Protestant quarters.1  Christianity’s third major branch—Orthodox Christianity—has not played a prominent role in current critiques of liberalism.  This Article seeks to help fill this void in the literature.  In helping to fill this void, it contributes to understanding how liberalism fits with one of the world’s most ancient Christian traditions.

The Article begins by disambiguating the terms Orthodoxy and liberalism.  After identifying each body of thought’s foundational commitments, it notes that Orthodoxy endorses the advancement of ideals that are today widely associated with liberalism, namely, the protection of human dignity and the advancing of human rights and liberties.  However, differences in philosophical anthropology drive differences in Orthodox and liberal understandings of the nature of evil and suffering and differences over the degree to which liberal ideals can be realized in our world.  In particular, whereas liberalism appears to hold that human beings have capacities necessary for the realization of liberal ideals at the societal level and can thus act virtuously so as to contribute to societal well-being,2 Orthodoxy maintains that liberal ideals can only be partially realized in humanity’s postlapsarian (i.e., after the Fall) condition.3  Furthermore, Orthodoxy holds that maximal though partial realization of liberal ideals requires the presence of human beings who, with divine aid, are in the process of being refashioned to take on the mind of Christ, thereby becoming capable of reliably manifesting Christian love.4

The Article argues that although liberalism and Orthodoxy differ over philosophical anthropology and over whether liberal ideals are fully or partially realizable, Orthodoxy and liberalism are nonetheless compatible with respect to their mutual commitment to advancing the safeguarding of dignity and human freedom.  The Article notes that although antireligious forms of liberalism appear to render liberal and Orthodoxy antagonists, antireligious liberalism is a mere historical contingency.  In conclusion, the Article notes that the patristic, “two societal orders” approach to the relation between church and state premised upon the theory of unitive action remains relevant today to fostering mutual apprehension, appreciation, and collaboration between liberal states and the Orthodox Church.

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©2023 Brandon Paradise & Fr. Sergey Trostyanskiy.  Individuals and nonprofit institutions may reproduce and distribute copies of this Article in any format at or below cost, for educational purposes, so long as each copy identifies the authors, provides a citation to the Notre Dame Law Review, and includes this provision in the copyright notice.

**Associate Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School and McDonald Distinguished Fellow, Emory Center for the Study of Law and Religion.

**Rector, St. Gregory the Theologian Orthodox Mission and Visiting Professor, Marist College.

[Editor’s Note: Due to the interdisciplinary nature of this Article, the Notre Dame Law Review has not verified certain generalizations, summaries, or opinions on philosophical or theological concepts.  Any uncited claims are the opinions of the authors.]

1R. Scott Clark, Roman And Protestant Integralists Together: Or Why an Established Religion Is a Really Bad Idea, The Heidelblog (Apr. 13, 2022), https://‌‌/2022‌/04‌/roman-and-protestant-integralists-together‌/ [https://‌‌/8NXU-TUJ9].

2As Michael Freeden has observed, “liberalism is frequently understood by philosophers and ethicists to be a binding set of virtues and precepts that deserves universal standing.”  Michael Freeden, Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction 7 (2015).  Some liberals maintain that liberalism is a “general set of ideals appropriate for all right-thinking individuals, regardless of whether or not [liberalism] is realized in actuality.”  Id.  Our view is that pursuant to ought implies can, coherence requires the premise that liberalism be meaningfully realizable in practice even if it is not actually achieved.

3Compare The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basis of the Social Concept: IV. Christian Ethics and Secular Law,, http://‌‌/documents‌/the-basis-of-the-social-concept‌/iv‌/ [https://‌‌/4TAX-29ZR] (“The idea of the inalienable rights of the individual has become one of the dominating principles in the contemporary sense of justice.  The idea of these rights is based on the biblical teaching on man as the image and likeness of God, as an ontologically free creature. . . .  In the contemporary systematic understanding of civil human rights, man is treated not as the image of God, but as a self-sufficient and self-sufficing subject. Outside God, however, there is only the fallen man, who is rather far from being the ideal of perfection aspired to by Christians and revealed in Christ.”), with Emmanuel Clapsis, Human Rights and the Orthodox Church in a Global Worldin Theology and the Political: Theo-political Reflections on Contemporary Politics in Ecumenical Conversation 51, 61 (Alexei Bodrov & Stephen M. Garrett eds., 2021) (“In Orthodoxy, human rights cannot be perceived independently of humanity’s intrinsic relationship with God.  The acceptance of human rights should be founded on the belief of the divine origins of humanity, its continuous dependence on God, and its ultimate fulfillment in God’s kingdom.”).

4For Orthodoxy, maximally honoring dignity (and by extension, rights) requires Christian love, which in turn requires becoming Christlike.  Compare Aristotle Papanikolaou, The Mystical As Political 128 (2012)  (“The movement toward divine-human communion is not an increase in human dignity as much as it is a recognition of the dignity that is always-already present.”), with Stanley S. Harakas, Toward Transfigured Life 58 (1983) (positing that“[f]rom an Orthodox point of view agape can be identified with the Christ-like, God-like telos which we seek to realize” in the process of divinization).