Russian Orthodoxy’s aggressive obsessions

What does the Lord’s injunction to turn the other cheek in Matthew 5:39 require when it comes to ecumenical dialogue? The question regularly poses itself to those familiar with the website of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church (https://mospat.ru/en).

There, on September 17, the chief ecumenical officer of the ROC, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, complained about the “aggressive rhetoric” of the Greek Catholics in Ukraine” (a theme he has belabored for years), before laying down another gauntlet: “the Unia” (meaning the full communion of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and other Eastern Catholic local churches with Rome) “remains a bleeding wound on the body of Christendom and the main stumbling [bloc] in Orthodox-Catholic dialogue.” Three days later, on September 20, the site reported that Metropolitan Hilarion said essentially the same things to Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Vatican’s chief ecumenist, during a meeting of the Catholic-Orthodox Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue in Chieti, Italy. In that instance, and after his now-routine attack on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Hilarion said that “the issue of Unia needs to be revisited” by the Joint Commission.

It would be inappropriate to slap back, even at such provocations and lies. But surely a calm, forthright response is fully in keeping with the Lord’s command, the self-respect of the Catholic Church, and the settled conviction in true ecumenical and interreligious dialogue that the only dialogue worthy of the name is dialogue in truth.

So with that in mind, here is what ought to be said to Metropolitan Hilarion the next time he tries these gambits.

1. The full communion of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and other Eastern Catholic Churches with the Bishop of Rome and the bishops in communion with him is not a matter for negotiation. It is a settled fact of ecclesiastical life in the third millennium. Attempts to suggest otherwise are a form of aggression that has no place in genuine ecumenism.

2. What needs to be “revisited” before anything else is a real “bleeding wound”: the Lviv pseudo-Sobor (synod) of 1946. There, an effort was made, virtually at gun-point (the guns being in the hands of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD), to liquidate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church by forcing its “reunion” with the Russian Orthodox Church. Until this act of political, imperial, ethnic, and ecclesiastical aggression is acknowledged for what it was by 21st-century Russian Orthodox leaders, and forgiveness asked for the untold suffering it caused Ukrainian Greek Catholics who remained faithful to the bond with Rome during four decades of life as the world’s largest illegal underground religious community, no genuine progress is possible in Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations.

3. In the future, and absent the distraction caused by Metropolitan Hilarion’s polemics, the Catholic-ROC dialogue should focus on the search for a sound theology of Church-state relations. That exploration should include the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which has been a model of the kind of “public Church” that is not a “partisan” Church envisioned by the Second Vatican Council and St. John Paul II. Moreover, the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine has embodied the evangelical independence from state power – and the prophetic willingness to hold state power to account for its crimes – that is notably lacking in the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin (and previous czars). Thus the question of a theological development beyond the classic Eastern Christian “symphony” theory of Church-and-state should be high on the ecumenical agenda, as that “symphony” has never worked itself out in anything other than the subordination of Church to state, which is a grave impediment to evangelization.

4. And while everyone is welcome to his own bureaucratic nomenclature, might the implications of the title “Department of External Church Relations” be discussed? Is Catholicism (including the Eastern Catholic Churches) completely “external” to Russian Orthodoxy? Do we not share the same Baptism?

These points need not be raised aggressively. But unless they are raised, and then satisfactorily addressed by the ROC, the transformation of important ecumenical meetings into forums for Putinesque propaganda and the Stalinist rewriting of history will continue – as will the self-degradation of the Catholic Church implied by a failure to say, quietly but firmly, “Enough of this is quite enough.”

COMING UP: Changing the game

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For those of us who find it impossible to cast a vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump on November 8, this poem by Artur Miedzyrzecki, written during Poland’s Solidarity revolution, has a certain resonance:

What does the political scientist know?
The political scientist knows the latest trends
The current states of affairs
The history of doctrines

What does the political scientist not know?
The political scientist doesn’t know about desperation
He doesn’t know the game that consists
In renouncing the game

It doesn’t occur to him
That no one knows when
Irrevocable changes may appear
Like an ice-flow’s sudden cracks

And that our natural resources
Include knowledge of the venerated laws
The capacity to wonder
And a sense of humor

“The game that consists of renouncing the game” doesn’t mean refusing to vote for president this year. I intend to write in a candidate I judge fit for the office, which is not a description I can apply in good conscience to Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump. But however one resolves the presidential dilemma this year, perhaps serious Catholics can agree on two other matters, thinking about our civic responsibilities over the short-term and the long haul.

Mrs. Clinton’s unintentionally self-revelatory crack about the “deplorables” – into which category she would likely drop every Catholic committed to religious freedom in full, marriage rightly understood, color-blind equality before the law, and the right-to-life in all life’s stages and conditions – suggests that smart voting down-the-ballot is absolutely crucial this year. If the Scourge of the Deplorables is elected, it will be essential, over the next four years, to maintain the tension between an aggressive Clinton administration and the national legislature. If Mr. Trump takes office on January 20, 2017, it will be just as urgent to have a Congress as committed as possible to life, religious freedom, constitutional government, and colorblind equality as a counterbalance to who-knows-what will be coming out of the White House.

So the short-term task seems clear: Do everything possible to elect a pro-life, pro-religious-freedom-in-full Congress, then work overtime to holds its members to those commitments between now and January 20, 2021.

As for the long haul, orientation is crucial and a proper orientation begins with a frank acknowledgment that American political culture is sick. I don’t believe the illness is terminal, nor do I believe that four years of either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump in the White House will necessarily finish off the Republic; if that’s true, then we’re in such bad shape that we’re already finished. But the sickness in our political culture is serious and it reflects the pathogens that have been at work for some time in the general culture.

What are they?

  • A raw individualism that conceives “freedom” as radical personal autonomy because it thinks of the human person as a twitching bundle of desires, the satisfaction of which is the full meaning of “human rights” and the primary task of government.
  • A lack of commitment to the common good, which shows up in everything from bad driving habits to declining volunteerism to tax cheating to declaring a pox on politics and sitting out elections.
  • The vulgarization of popular culture and entertainment, which has so deeply wounded our politics that they’ve become another form of reality-TV, producing a spectacle that should shame us into a collective examination of our consciences as consumers.
  • The confusion of “success” with sheer wealth by individuals, businesses, and corporate boards, which empties economic life of its vocational nobility and inculcates a counter-ethic of beggar-thy-neighbor competition that’s a grave danger to markets and a threat to the capacity of free enterprise to help people lift themselves from poverty.
  • A grotesque misunderstanding of “tolerance” and “fairness,” rooted in an even more comprehensive delusion about what makes for human happiness, which isn’t “I did it my way.”

The list could be extended ad nauseam, but perhaps the basic structure of our situation is in sharper focus. We must rebuild American political culture so that, at its presidential apex, it is far less likely to produce such a mortifying choice as the one created by this election cycle. That requires the rebuilding of our public moral culture. And that is a task for several generations, which must begin now, at the retail level.