Our Neoliberal Orthodoxy

by Davor Džalto  |  српски

This essay is about the institutional church, and about the way it operates in the countries where Orthodoxy has been the dominant and traditional faith (so called “Orthodox countries,” which, although effective, is essentially an oxymoronic phrase). The basic thesis here is that the leadership of the Orthodox church (that is to say many, although not all of the church leaders) seems to be accepting and applying many values and methods that we normally associate with the functioning of the neoliberal business world.

Of course, the neoliberal ideology (which, in its core, is neither new nor liberal) is not something that characterizes the business world alone. Over the last couple of decades, its logic has been applied to practically all the segments of our social, cultural and political life.

In a very digested form, the neoliberal doctrine can be described as the ideology in which the (corporate) profits, together with the financial and political power they secure, are the supreme, if not the only value. It is an ideology in which the “markets know best” mantra is advanced and endlessly repeated (normally by those who have a privileged or monopoly market positions). It is an ideology and a system in which deregulation and the imposition of insecurity and slavery upon those placed lower in the social pyramid of wealth and power, is praised as freedom, ethical norm and sometimes even as the law of nature. It is an ideology in which the destruction of everything, including human lives, nature and entire species, is tolerated and even considered ethical, as long as it leads to higher profits.

Over the last couple of decades, this ideology became a new all-pervasive metaphysics, the way “the world works.” It has penetrated (often violently) into almost all the segments of people’s daily lives. Many institutions that previously functioned based on very different sets of principles and values (e.g. schools, universities, state institutions, non-governmental organizations) have adopted this new/old “spirit of the age,” becoming corporate-like entities, with making profits as the ultimate/sole purpose of their existence. No wonder then, that many religious institutions, as the traditional ally of power structures (including capitalist ones), have adopted the same logic. Orthodox church, in spite of its self-affirmed image of a “tradition-loving” entity, is no exception.

The institutional church, in the afore-mentioned “Orthodox countries,” basically functions as a neoliberal corporation. If we think of bishops and patriarchs as “top managers” (CEOs), and priests as lower-level administrators, in charge of specific, money-making divisions, and the lay people as simple workers (or, worse, resources), the parallel is striking. The church normally enjoys the monopoly status, and exploits it to a very high degree. There are many direct and indirect benefits that the church (just as any major corporation in the neoliberal world) enjoys: the state support, which ranges (depending on the country) from special, tax-free status for its property and income, priests’ salaries and pensions paid by the state, to the privileged access to state officials, party leaders and the media, privileged treatment in the (in)justice system, etc. In return, the church provides useful ideological narratives, and the “moral support” to the dominant socio-political system.

When it comes to its internal functioning, the parallel with the neoliberal corporate world is even more discernible. The selection of new top managers (bishops) is highly nontransparent, subject to various types of corruption, and only occasionally and secondary based on meritocracy and their (real) social contribution. In many (although, to be fair, not all) dioceses, if you’re a priest (lower-level administrator) that means that your primary duty is to make money and send the assigned sum/percentage to the top management (bishop and/or patriarch). The more money you produce/collect the better. If you’re really successful (you send a lot of money), and you make the senior management really happy, you will be rewarded by certain privileges and the management will be ready to overlook many of your misconducts, incompetence, lack of the very elementary Christian sense of compassion, etc. It normally does not matter whether you’re a good priest or not (in the old-fashioned sense, that is someone who cares about the people, who is fully invested in liturgical services and parish life in a self-sacrificing way, who aspires to live, as much as possible, according to the Gospel, and so forth); following our neoliberal church, making a lot of money makes you a good priest. (This, of course, does not mean that there are no many wonderful bishops and priests, who exercise their pastoral service with the utmost care and love, to which the above described system does not apply.)

If you are, on the other hand, a priest who believes in Christ, who tries to practice your faith through the loving relationships with other people, if you, out of that faith and love, use the church property in such a way that is beneficial for others and for the whole community, but you do not produce “profits,” you’re potentially in trouble. If you, moreover, dare to speak your mind, to tell the truth, to criticize the “management” for their misconducts, for not living Christian lives, for not really practicing Orthodoxy and so on—you’re, more often than not, finished.

The neoliberal senior management does not tolerate disobedience, protests, different ways of thinking. Neoliberalism is not there to promote freedom, critical thinking, creativity, general well-being, or, for that matter, anything else that might be meaningful from a human and humane point of view. It is there to affirm obedience, vertical distribution of power, and, above all, profits, that contribute to the replication and expansion of power. This neoliberal, corporate slavery is, of course, not advertised that way; it is normally advertised as “competitiveness,” “flexibility,” “innovation,” and so forth. In the church context, it is advertised as “tradition,” “centuries-old practices,” “Christian life,” “reverence,” etc.

The alliance between big businesses, political ideologies and religion is not something new. In the U.S. the alliance between the corporate sector and the religious (church) institutions is a very well-known phenomenon. Not so much in the Orthodox world, which often believes that it is immune to the various monstrosities coming from the “West.” And many in the West believe the same, except that they formulate it differently—for them Orthodoxy appears as fundamentally incompatible with the “Western values.” It’s a high time to reconsider and reject this narrow ideological frame, which seriously distorts the image of (our neoliberal) reality.

Davor Džalto is Associate Professor and Program Director for Art History and Religious Studies at The American University of Rome President of the Institute for the Study of Culture and Christianity.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.