Orthodoxy, state and society

In a conversation about Russian Orthodoxy some dozen years ago, that famous source who can only be quoted off-the-record, the Senior Vatican Official, said to me, “They only know how to be chaplain to the czar—whoever he is.”

Such asperity reflected deep frustration over the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow’s continued rudeness (some would say, cruelty) to John Paul II and its nasty habit of throwing sand into the gears of the international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. And my interlocutor surely knew that there were exceptions to his rule: men like the late Father Alexander Men, axe-murdered in 1990, almost certainly because politicians and senior Russian Orthodox churchmen feared that this son of a Jewish family might, in a free, post-Soviet Russia, help craft a new relationship between religious and political authority; men like Father Gleb Yakunin, a founder of the Christian Committee for the Defense of Believers’ Rights who did hard time in the Gulag as a result; men like the country pastors who, since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, have been rebuilding Russian Orthodoxy in the countryside, one wounded soul at a time.

Yet there were also hard truths in that Senior Vatican Official’s comment. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has been in thrall to political power for centuries, and its 20th-century history was a particularly unhappy one. The Bolsheviks hated pious priests, so Lenin and his successors ruthlessly crushed authentic Russian Orthodox religious life—the expression of a great spiritual and theological tradition—wherever they could; the list of ROC martyrs to communism is a long and noble one. After Stalin rehabilitated the ROC in his campaign to ramp up Russian nationalism after the German invasion of June 1941, the leadership of Russian Orthodoxy, the Patriarchate of Moscow, became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Soviet regime, and specifically of its secret police, the KGB. Patriarchs of Moscow were senior KGB officers; the present Patriarch, Kirill, began his career as an ROC representative at the World Council of Churches in 1971 when he was 25 years old, a sure sign of KGB affiliation.

In recent years, Kirill and his “foreign minister,” Metropolitan Hilarion, have been mouthpieces for Russian president Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reconstitute something like the old Soviet Union in the name of a “historic Russian space,” an exercise in Great Russian irredentism that has taken a particularly grave turn in Ukraine; concurrently, they’ve conducted a campaign of seduction in the Vatican and among American evangelical Protestants, putatively in service to a united front against western decadence and secularism. But in the ironies of history (or the strange ways of divine providence) the Ukraine crisis, in which Kirill has been duplicitous and Hilarion mendacious, just might initiate a break in this historic pattern of Orthodoxy playing lap dog to authoritarian power among the eastern Slavs.

As the people of Ukraine rose up against the kleptocratic and despotic government of Viktor Yanukovych last year, in the Maidan movement of national moral and civic renewal, the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches faced a dramatic choice: stand in pastoral solidarity with the people, or stand with the state that was brutally repressing Ukrainian citizen-reformers? The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches (Byzantine in liturgy and Church organization, but in full communion with the Bishop of Rome), did not face this dilemma; the UGCC was long the safe-deposit box of Ukrainian national consciousness, and in the post-Soviet period it has devoted its public life to building Ukrainian civil society. But the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches did face a historic fork-in-the-road: civil society, or the state?

The choices made have not been unambiguous. But the evidence to date suggests that more than a few Ukrainian Orthodox leaders and believers have chosen to stand with civil society, rejecting the Patriarchate of Moscow’s support for Putin’s Great Russian nationalism. If that new alignment holds, it may eventually lead to a history-changing revolution in Orthodox understandings of the right relationships among Church, state and society: a development that would, among other things, vindicate the memory of Orthodoxy’s 20th-century martyrs.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash