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An Orthodox awakening

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For years, the two leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church with whom Pope Francis met by videoconference on March 16 — Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’, and Metropolitan Hilarion, the Church’s chief ecumenical officer — have worked to buttress Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reconstitute a simulacrum of the Soviet Union in the name of a Russkiy mir (“Russian world”). Kirill and Hilarion’s efforts have run the gamut from falsifying the history of eastern Slavic Christianity to the virtual beatification of President Putin as a figure providentially ordained to save the world from Western decadence and “liberalism.” Most recently, Kirill blasphemously blessed a war of aggression with holy icons.

This shameful enterprise has now been forthrightly rejected by some 500 Orthodox scholars throughout the Eastern Christian world, in a Declaration on the “Russian World” Teaching.

The Declaration unambiguously deplores the “Russian world” ideology as “a form of religious fundamentalism” that is “totalitarian in character.” Orthodox believers who espouse this ideology cease to be members of the “Church of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Apostles, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Ecumenical Councils, and the Fathers of the Church.” In a word, the “Russian world” is a “heresy,” and from that “vile and indefensible” heresy have sprung “the shameful actions of the Government of Russia in unleashing war in Ukraine with the connivance of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

The Declaration goes on to “condemn…and reject” six pseudo-theological facets of “Russian world” ideology:

First, the signatories deplore “any teaching that seeks to replace the Kingdom of God, proclaimed and inaugurated by Christ ... with a kingdom of this world, be that Holy Rus’, Sacred Byzantium, or any other earthly kingdom.”

Second, the signatories “firmly reject all forms of government that deify the state (theocracy) and absorb the Church, depriving the Church of its freedom to stand prophetically against all injustice.” They also “rebuke all those who affirm caesaropapism,” which subordinates obedience to Christ to obedience to a “leader vested with ruling powers and claiming to be God’s anointed, whether known by the title ‘Caesar,’ ‘Emperor,’ ‘Tsar,’ or ‘President.’”

Third, the signatories deplore as antibiblical and heretical “any teaching that attributes divine establishment or authority, special sacredness or purity to any single local, national, or ethnic identity,” or that divinizes “any particular culture.”

Fourth, the signatories reject the demonization of those who are “other” and flatly condemn “any Manichean and Gnostic division that would elevate a holy Orthodox Eastern culture and its Orthodox people above a debased and immoral ‘West.’”

Fifth, the Declaration summons Orthodox believers to exercise authentic Christian responsibility for public life while calling out the hypocrisy of Russian churchmen: “We rebuke those who pray for peace while failing to actively make peace, whether out of fear or lack of faith.”

And finally, the Declaration demands that Russian Orthodox leaders be truth-tellers after the mind of Christ. Those who refuse to “speak the truth or actively [suppress] the truth about [the] evils that are perpetrated against the Gospel of Christ in Ukraine” condemn themselves as cowards, liars, or both. The signatories also “condemn all talk of ‘fratricidal war’” or the “repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his brother out of envy” if any such use of biblical imagery does not “explicitly acknowledge the murderous intent and culpability of one party over another” — in other words, Russia’s unwarranted assault on Ukraine.

Putin’s savage war has altered so many things on the world political stage that its effects on Eastern Christianity may be overlooked. The sea-change that may be underway there is of great importance, however, for two reasons.

For more than a decade, Russian imperial bullying has been paralleled by the bullying of other Orthodox communions by the Patriarchate of Moscow, as it seeks hegemony in the Orthodox world. But because of his pusillanimous actions since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Patriarch Kirill’s moral authority is now at the sub-basement level. As Putin’s missiles have shattered Mariupol’, Kirill’s acquiescence in barbarism has shattered Russian Orthodoxy’s campaign to be first among Orthodox equals.

The Declaration on the “Russian World” Teaching also opens important ecumenical possibilities, especially in fostering a dialogue on social doctrine between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Through the Putin/Kirill dyad, the ancient Byzantine notion of a “symphony” between Church and state has once again led to the Church’s corruption, as Russian Orthodoxy plays chaplain to the czar. The signatories of the Declaration understand that. The door is therefore open to a creative ecumenical conversation on Church, state, society, culture, and economy in the future.

One hopes the Vatican eventually grasps this.

George Weigel
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Comments from readers

Rafael Maria Calvo Forte - 04/18/2022 11:26 AM
Me sorprende su artículo, no por lo que expone veraz y oportunamente; sino porque todavía Ivo asombrado por la actitud servil del patriarca Cirilo…
Valli Leone - 04/18/2022 09:13 AM
Thank you, George, for this truthful article and for exposing the heinous crime of the Russian Orthodox Church leaders who stand beside Putin in the name of Jesus Christ. I have no doubt in my heart and mind that Pope Francis is very well aware of what is happening there and is capable through his prayers and teachings to accomplish what the Lord, our God, has planned for such a time as this. Horrible human history repeats itself through the ages, and the greed of nations and their leaders always ends in the death and destruction of the innocent. There really is nothing new under the sun. As a confirmed and committed Catholic for 74 years and as an American citizen born in this country, I will continue to pray and praise the Lord for an end to this crazy Cain-inspired war. We know that God‘s word is true and that all things are working together for good, if only we can believe, pray and do whatever the Holy Spirit tells us to do. Miracles of God‘s love and grace do happen; let’s pray for one today. And may the gruesome tales and photos of these happenings in Ukraine propel us toward deeper conversion and compassion in our own lives. Jesus’ love never fails! Arise and shine, Body of Christ! ✝️⚓️💜

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