Russian Orthodoxy and its Discontents

Published March 13, 2002

The Catholic Difference

Titles can be revealing. For example: it tells you something about the cast of mind that pervades the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church that the ecumenical office in the Patriarchate of Moscow is called the office of foreign (sometimes translated “external”) affairs. The Patriarchate, in other words, does not limit its notion of “foreigners” to non-Orthodox Christians in Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Armenia – or Australia, South Africa, and Argentina, for that matter. Non-Orthodox Christians in Russia are also foreigners, or at the very least foreigners to the Russian Orthodox Church.

What is the notion of baptism at work here? Are not all those baptized into Christ in some relationship with each other in the Body of Christ — a relationship that is not very well expressed by words like “foreign” or “external”?

To be blunter than ecumenical proprieties generally allow, the Russian Orthodox Church seems to have a very large chip on its shoulder. Thus the ROC’s reaction when the Vatican recently decided to regularize the Catholic situation in post-communist Russia by erecting four dioceses on the basis of the apostolic administrations established in 1991 was predictably raw. Aleksy II, the Patriarch of Moscow who has thus far obstinately refused to sanction a papal pilgrimage to Moscow, saw more of that dreaded Catholic “proselytism” at work. His chief ecumenical officer, Metropolitan Kirill (who is usually regarded as a “moderate”), said the erection of the dioceses was an “unfriendly act” and “very alarming.” A “Russian Catholic Church is something with no future or prospects,” Kirill told a French news agency.

To be fair, Russian Orthodoxy had a very tough twentieth century. During and immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, it gave hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of martyrs to the glory of God. In 1941, Stalin needed a visible Russian Orthodox Church to help promote the “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany, so the Church was allowed a public presence while being kept on a very close leash. After World War II, the Church’s episcopal leadership was deeply compromised by its relationship to the KGB. Its bishops were vetted by the Soviet secret intelligence service and, in more than once instance, were KGB officers themselves.

With the break-up of the Soviet Union in late 1991, Russian Orthodoxy lost its geographical tether to the place where the Eastern Slavs were first baptized in 988, which is now in Ukraine. Fractious relations with Orthodox Churches in the Baltics, the splintering of Ukrainian Orthodoxy into three groups (only one of which is in communion with the Patriarchate of Moscow), and cool relations between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople have all made life-after-communism difficult.

Meanwhile, Russia itself continues its death-spiral into demographic and social crisis. Russia is the only place in the developed world where life-expectancy is dramatically less today than twenty years ago. Alcoholism is epidemic. The fantastic assault on the environment under communism, which resulted in decades of polluted water, soil, and air, is now showing its human effects, and not only in eroding adult health; one estimate has it that 10% of Russian first-graders today have serious retardation problems because of environmentally caused genetic damage. Russia’s overall population will both shrink and age in the decades ahead.

Yet there are voices of hope. Some of them are Catholic, and one them comes from a former student of mine, Father Michael Shields, who has been working for the past decade in Siberia. Many of his people are refugees from the former Soviet Gulag camps in the area, including the notorious camp at Kolyma. Money is scarce and life is hard.

But Father Michael’s annual Christmas letters are full of miracles: a prostitute reforms her life and becomes a daily communicant; orphans find surrogate parents in the Church; a thief who stole from the priests come to Father Michael’s minuscule apartment, seeks forgiveness, and is reconciled; a woman threatening to abort her baby accepts Father Michael’s offer to help take responsibility for the child’s future and gives birth to a healthy boy; teenagers begin to test religious vocations.

Are these lights in the Siberian darkness “foreign” to the Russian Orthodox Church, or “external” to it? I hope not. I pray not.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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