“Orthopraxis” is a word that I’ve encountered a lot when reading texts on Catholic social thought. As to what the word really means, depends on who you ask. Many of those advocating what is called “liberation theology” conceive of orthopraxis in opposition to orthodoxy, prioritizing the former over the latter as the starting point of orthodoxy. In an article on “theocentric Christology”, Paul Ritter explains his understanding of ‘orthopraxis’ from the perspective of liberation theology:
For liberation Christology, as for liberation theology in general, praxis is the foundation and touchstone of theory. This means, according to these theologians, that one can really know who Jesus is, one can know the meaning of his titles, only in the concrete following of Jesus, only in the practice of the Gospel. Furthermore, liberation theologians hold that it is not necessary to have crystal clarity and certainty in one’s theory or doctrine about Jesus before one commits oneself to living his message. Orthodoxy, in other words, will flow from, and constantly have to be reexamined in, orthopraxis. 1
From Ritter’s perspective, one could say that we arrive at orthodoxy (“right knowledge”) by way of orthopraxis. Or as one Catholic blogger has put it:
“The position of the liberation theologians is that in order to encounter the God of the Bible, we cannot simply do theology in the academy. Rather, we must live the gospel in a rather literal and radical way with and for the poorest and the most marginalized in society. The emphasis is on orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy” 2
Granted that we are called to live the gospel, and not just merely study it in the context of the classroom or the pulpit, this understanding of “orthopraxis” begs the question: what would Jesus do? What does it mean, exactly, to live the gospel in various circumstances in everyday life? As Cardinal Ratzinger points out, it would be incorrect to prioritize right action over knowledge, as the former presupposes the latter. He raises this question in his address to the Latin American bishops in 1996:
Where do I find a just action if I cannot know what is just in an absolute way? The failure of the communist regimes is due precisely to the fact that they tried to change the world without knowing what is good and what is not good for the world, without knowing in what direction the world must be changed in order to make it better. Mere praxis is not light. 3
Later on in the address, Ratzinger notes that orthopraxis was identified as a key component in Indian religions, the character of which is not proclaim a system of knowledge but rather a precise system of salvific ritual acts embracing the whole of life. Modern understandings of orthopraxis, on the other hand, tend to exclude from their understanding the authentic Indian concept of religious ritual, reducing it to a matter of ethics or political criticism. According to Ratzinger the traditional conception of orthopraxis in Indian religions had something in common with the early Christian church:
In the suffix doxia, doxa was not understood in the sense of “opinion” (real opinion). From the Greek viewpoint, opinions are always relative; doxa was understood rather in its meaning of “glory, glorification.” To be orthodox thus meant to know and practice the right way in which God wants to be glorified. It refers to the cult and, based on the cult, to life. In this sense here there would be a solid point for a fruitful dialogue between East and West.
In his address to the Eucharistic Congress of the Archdiocese of Benevento, Italy in June of last year, Ratzinger returned to the alleged opposition between orthopraxis and orthodoxy:
For the early Christians, there was no difference between what today is often distinguished as orthodoxy and orthopraxis, as right doctrine and right action. Indeed, when this distinction is made, there generally is a suggestion that the word orthodoxy is to be disdained: those who hold fast to right doctrine are seen as people of narrow sympathy, rigid, potentially intolerant. In the final analysis, for those holding this rather critical view of orthodoxy everything depends on “right action”, with doctrine regarded as something always open to further discussion. For those holding this view, the chief thing is the fruit doctrine produces, while the way that leads to our just action is a matter of indifference. Such a comparison would have been incomprehensible and unacceptable for those in the ancient Church, for they rightly understood the word “orthodoxy” not to mean “right doctrine” but to mean the authentic adoration and glorification of God.
They were convinced that everything depended on being in the right relationship with God, on knowing what pleases him and what one can do to respond to him in the right way. For this reason, Israel loved the law: from it, they knew God’s will, they knew how to live justly and how to honour God in the right way: by acting in accord with his will, bringing order into the world, opening it to the transcendent. 4
Not all of those occupied with Catholic social thought and justice embrace the prioritization of orthopraxy over orthodoxy criticized by Cardinal Ratzinger. Robert Waldrop, who maintains the Catholic social justice website JustPeace.Org, defines orthopraxis as: “rooted in the belief that Christian orthodoxy will yield, as its fruit, a Christian “orthopraxy”, a way of being and living that is consistent with the social justice imperatives of the Catholic faith.”
However, just because Mr. Waldrop and Mark & Louise Zwick of the Catholic Workers share the orthodox Catholic faith of Fr. Neuhaus and Michael Novak doesn’t necessarily mean that they agree on how that faith is manifested in concrete practice in everyday life, especially in the world of business and economics.
- “Theocentric Christology” Theology Today July 1983 Vol. 40, No. 2.
- “Liberation Theology”, posted by ‘jcecil’ on Thursday, May 22, 2003. Part of ‘J. Cecil’s Progressive Catholic Reflections’, making unconventional use of the blogging medium to “advance progressive Catholic views.”
- “Current Situation in Faith & Theology”. Given during the meeting with the presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions of the Bishops’ Conferences of Latin America, held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in May 1996.
- Eucharist, Communion & Solidarity. Lecture by H. Em. Card. Joseph Ratzinger at the Bishops Conference of the Region of Campania in Benevuto, Italy. June 2, 2002.