Patriarch Kirill and Mr. Putin

The annals of sycophancy are, alas, replete with examples of churchmen toadying to political power. Here in the United States, we’ve seen too much of that among certain evangelical leaders recently. In today’s Sycophancy Sweepstakes, however, it’s hard to top Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.

Last December 1, after President Vladimir Putin addressed a meeting of the Episcopal Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill concluded his thanks in these cringe-inducing terms:

“There is nothing more serious and important than moral consensus within society. If there is consensus on the main moral values, then all other social relationships are formed harmoniously … and political practice corresponds to the interests of the people.

“… I  express my gratitude to you for the dialogue we hold together … and for the atmosphere of openness in which our society lives today. I believe that this openness will be the pledge for the certain success of our Fatherland in the near and distant future.

“… I would like to wish you, much esteemed Vladimir Vladimirovich, long years of life, good health, and God’s aid in the lofty mission the Lord has entrusted to you through the will of the people … May the Lord preserve you!”

In the dialogue that the Catholic Church conducts with Russian Orthodoxy, perhaps it would be useful to clarify the following points.

Does the “political practice” rooted in “moral values” to which the Patriarch referred include the assassination of Putin’s political opponents, such as Boris Nemtsov? Or the murder of his critics, like journalist Anna Politkovskaya? Or the poisoning with radioactive polonium of Alexander Litvinenko, who tried to shed light on Putin’s secret police thugs? Or the recent use of a weapons-grade nerve agent in England against two Russians of whom Putin disapproved? Are the ethics of these practices part of the patriarch’s “dialogue” with the president?

What are the “moral values” that inform Putin’s claim that the collapse of the Soviet Union, a murderous tyranny, was the worst geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century?

Why doesn’t the “atmosphere of openness” in which Russian “society lives today” extend to Alexei Navalny, the brave dissident who was not permitted to run in last month’s presidential election? How is that “atmosphere of openness” affected by 24/7 state-sponsored propaganda inside Russia, which depicts Vladimir Putin as the one man who can save the country from Western aggression and domestic traitors? In an “atmosphere of openness,” why has Mr. Putin been the beneficiary for eighteen years of a colossal, Kremlin-organized personality cult – more sophisticated than that of the late, unlamented Mao Zedong, to be sure, but of the same character?

Does the “certain success of our Fatherland in the near and distant future” mean the permanent occupation of Crimea, the ongoing presence of Russian troops in Ukraine, and the continuation of the low-grade but lethal war Russia is waging against its neighbor? Does it mean the destabilization of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia? Does it mean continued Russian support for the Syrian butcher, Bashar al-Assad? Does that “continued success” depend on Russian internet trolls and bots sowing discord and confusion (not to mention lies and propaganda) around the world? How does the alternative reality created by this tsunami of disinformation square with harmonious “social relationships”? How does it advance “the interests of the people”?

How is “the will of the people” expressed through charades that aren’t “elections” in any real sense of the term? Is the “lofty mission which the Lord has entrusted” to Mr. Putin a mission-without-end? And does that “lofty mission” include Putin’s accumulation of extraordinary wealth? Did the Lord really intend that Mr. Putin be president-for-life and a multi-billionaire to boot?

The extraordinary spiritual riches of Russian Orthodoxy are squandered when its leaders engage in this sort of propagandistic rubbish. The Russian Church suffered terribly under Lenin, Stalin, and their heirs. Its martyrs, who number in the millions, are dishonored when the bishops of a putatively free Church play the role of chaplain to the omnipotent and infallible czar, rather than speaking truth to power. Putin has cynically cast himself as the savior of Christian values and the Russian Church leadership has not only acquiesced in, but promoted, that farce. After years of suffering, Russian Orthodox believers deserve something better than this. So does true ecumenical dialogue. 

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”