Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev – The Need to Act
Bishop Hilarion, who is Russian Orthodox, was born in Moscow, studied at Oxford, and is presently the Russian Orthodox Bishop for Central Europe based in Vienna, Austria
Tuesday, May 09, 2006 by Dr. Robert Moynihan
INSIDE THE VATICAN: A major conference involving Catholics and Orthodox is scheduled to take place in Vienna in early May. Can you tell us something about the background of this conference, and its chief purpose?
BISHOP HILARION ALFEYEV: The theme of the conference is “Christian Values in Europe.” The initiative to organize this conference belonged to Metropolitan Kirill, chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate. Invited are distinguished Church leaders and theologians from the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches. There will be about 25 participants on each side.
The discussion on Christian values acquires special relevance and urgency in the context of the process of globalization, which is affecting more and more of the world’s population.
Globalization is a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted and multi-layered process. It exerts influence on the world as a whole and on separate countries and regions, on the entire human community and on concrete human beings. It affects politics and economics, morals and law, the sciences and arts, education and culture.
Globalization leaves its imprint on practically all areas of human endeavour, with the possible exception of one: religion. Today only religion is systematically resisting the relentless attack of globalization, entering into an unequal battle to defend those values it considers fundamental and which are being challenged by globalization.
Only religion is able to counter the ideology of globalization with its own system of spiritual and moral orientation based on the centuries-long experience of generations acquired during the pre-globalization age. In the modern battle for values, people find themselves more often than not on opposite sides of the barricades, with those inspired by religious ideals on the one side and those whose world-view is formed by secular humanism on the other.
At the core of the modern globalization ideology is the humanistic idea of the absolute dignity of the human person and of the existence of universal, “common human” values, which are proposed as the foundation of a single world civilization. By “common human” values, however, are understood not only those spiritual and moral tenets which are common to all religions or which are equally obligatory for both religious and non-religious people (“thou shall not kill”, “thou shall not steal”, “thou shall not bear false witness”, etc.), but also many ideas that are questionable from the religious point of view and which are rooted in liberal-humanistic morality. To this latter group belong, in particular, the affirmation of the right of each individual to his or her own way of life, which extends insofar as it does not cause harm to others. From the viewpoint of humanistic morality, the only limitation on human freedom is the freedom of other people: the moral person is one who does not harm the interests of others, while the immoral person is one who infringes upon their freedom.
The idea of absolute moral norms as well as the notion of sin are completely absent from modern humanistic ethics.
In the religious tradition, on the contrary, there exists the concept of an absolute, divinely-established moral law, as well as of the deviation from it, known as sin. From the viewpoint of the religious person, by no means is everything that does not directly infringe on the interests of other people morally permissible. For the believer true freedom is not the permissibility of everything, but the liberation from sin, the overcoming in oneself of everything that hinders spiritual perfection.
It is not by mere chance that modern liberal humanism is closely connected with globalization. In its foundation, just as in the foundation of the project of globalization, lies the idea of its universality and its being the only alternative.
Indeed, humanists will acknowledge in word the right of the person to belong to any religion or belong to none at all, since it would not be politically correct to totally deny religion the right to exist.
However, in practice humanism is inspired first and foremost by an anti-religious pathos and thus strives to weaken religion as much as possible, drive it into a ghetto, force it out of society and minimize its influence on people, especially on the youth.
The secular, worldly, anti-Churchly and anti-clerical orientation of modern humanism is obvious. It is precisely because the humanist ideology is acquiring increasingly clearer characteristics of militant secularism that the conflict between it and religion becomes ever more similar to a battle for survival — a battle not unto life, but unto death.
Liberals and humanists themselves like to depict this battle as a clash between, on the one hand, an outdated world-view based on pre-scientific ideas, on “metaphysical and theological speculations of the past,” and, on the other, a progressive, scientific and modern view of life.
They inculcate this idea into the minds of people through the mass media and the state systems of primary, secondary and higher education, which are in their hands in most Western countries. The youth are brought up with the idea that we are living in a “post-Christian” age, that religion is something for the hopelessly backward and elderly. Liberal humanism actively fights for the hearts and minds of the young, knowing that the outcome of the worldwide debate over values, which the humanists attempt to present as a conflict of generations, will depend on the value system of the next generation. In reality, however, the secular ideology has not at all come to replace the religious world-view, since the religious value system will continue to exist alongside the liberal-humanistic one. It would be incorrect to speak of the succession of value systems in their historical development: the question is rather about their opposition to one another, which sometimes leads to political, religious and armed conflicts.
The potential explosiveness of today’s inter-civilization situation is to a significant degree caused by the fact that the Western liberal-humanistic ideology, acting on the idea of its own universality, is imposing itself on people who were raised in other spiritual and moral traditions and have different value systems.
These people see in the total dictate of the Western ideology a threat to their identity. The evidently anti-religious character of modern liberal humanism brings about non-acceptance and rejection by those whose behaviour is religiously motivated and whose spiritual life is founded on religious experience.
The question here is not only about individuals for whom faith is a matter of personal choice, but also about entire nations, cultures and civilizations formed under the influence of religious factors. It is at the international, inter-cultural and inter-civilisation levels that the opposition between secularism and religion can grow into an open conflict.
All these questions must be addressed by both the Catholics and the Orthodox during the Vienna conference on Christian values in Europe.
INSIDE THE VATICAN: Catholics and Orthodox are Christians, divided since 1054. Can that division be healed? How?
BISHOP HILARION: It is not easy to heal the division that exists on the level of theology and ecclesiology. We must not forget that the division between Eastern and Western Christianity which took place in the 11th century was in itself the result of a long development of alienation between these two traditions.
When one looks at the history of the Early Church, one is struck by the fact that Latin Christianity was markedly different from its Greek counterpart almost from the very beginning. Differences are evident both at the dogmatic and ecclesiological levels. The Trinitarian theology of Latin Christian authors, such as Tertullian and Augustine, differed significantly from that of the Greeks, e.g. Origen and the Cappadocians. Over the centuries the divergence became more and more acute, leading to the long and still unresolved Trinitarian dispute around the question of the Filioque. Ecclesiological presuppositions were also dissimilar. If in the East, a system of Patriarchates gradually developed, where each head of a local Church was regarded as equal to the others, in the West the central role of the Bishop of Rome was stressed with ever-increasing insistence.
While the Easterners regarded the Bishop of Rome as primus inter pares, i.e. the first among the five equal great Patriarchs (the so-called “Pentarchy”), he himself was rather inclined to regard his primacy as that of jurisdiction over the other four. At several Ecumenical Councils this difference was manifested in the behaviour of the papal legates: while their interventions were regarded by the Easterners as contributions to discussions leading to conciliar decisions, the legates thought that it was their right to pronounce the final word. The Pope would normally express approval or disapproval of the decisions of the Councils, while the Councils themselves did not deem it necessary.
Political developments in East and West also contributed to growing differences in the ecclesiological visions of the two traditions. In the Byzantine East, the figure of the Emperor was central: it was he who convened the Councils, who gave approval to various decisions regarding Church life, who in many cases appointed and dismissed patriarchs and bishops. The ideal of “symphony” between Church and state was developed against this background.
In practice this most often led to a direct interference of the state into Church affairs. No central ecclesiastical figure emerged in the Byzantine East during the first millennium, even though the Patriarch of Constantinople received the title of “Ecumenical.”
Western developments were altogether different. For many centuries Western Europe was disunited and divided into many small and fragile kingdoms. In the absence of a strong centralized civil authority, the papacy gradually became the strongest unifying factor. Hence the role of the Pope not only as the head of the Western Church, but also as a powerful political figure, a head of state, a mighty magnate, a land- and slave-owner.
The West was separated from the East not only by political and theological factors: there was also an apparent cultural difference, conditioned to a significant degree by the use of Latin in the West and Greek in the East.
Different cultural contexts contributed to differences in theological approaches, and vice versa.
When reading Byzantine polemical treatises against the Latins or Latin diatribes against the Byzantines, one is struck by how theological accusations were permeated with various reproaches of a purely cultural nature.
The “Encyclical Letter” by Patriarch Photius is but one of many such examples. Being dedicated to the important question of the procession of the Holy Spirit, it begins with petty accusations against various liturgical and domestic customs of the Latins, such as fasting on Saturdays. Even if one takes into account that such accusations were advanced in the heat of the polemics and were part of a developed propaganda strategy, it is still evident that even minor cultural differences were regarded by both sides as grave deviations from Tradition.
This, in turn, resulted from people’s inability to cross the borders of their own cultural contexts. Maximus the Confessor’s attempt, in his “Letter to Marinus,” to look at the Filioque question from the Western perspective is a rare and extrinsic example of the opposite.
The schism of 1054 was, therefore, the result of quite a long development, and not simply a matter of misunderstanding between the papal envoys and the members of the Church of Constantinople, as it is sometimes presented.
Obviously, dogmatic and ecclesiological differences between East and West in the first millennium did not necessitate the complete breach of eucharistic relations between the two traditions, but they definitely contributed to the alienation that resulted in this breach.
The second millennium was marked by a continual struggle between East and West, and by the numerous attempts of the Pope to bring disobedient Easterners under his control.
The Crusades were the most striking and outrageous example of the use of violence against the Orthodox by their Western fellow-Christians. The memory of the Crusades is still alive among the Greeks: the wound is still bleeding. The late Pope John Paul II apologized for the Crusades before the Archbishop of Athens, which by itself was a noble action. One has to admit, however, that the apology was delayed by eight centuries.
It must also be recognised that numerous remnants of the Crusaders’ activity still survive, including, for example, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which was created at the time of the Crusades in order to replace the respective Orthodox Patriarchate.
Other blows dealt repeatedly to the Orthodox were the numerous attempts to bring them under the jurisdiction of Rome by means of “union”. The first such attempt, made in Lyon in the 13th century, was followed the Union of Ferrara-Florence in 1439, on the eve of the fall of the Byzantine Empire.
Nothing has remained of these two “unions”. But the Union of Brest, proclaimed in 1596, gave birth to ecclesiastical structures that still exist and whose recent revival has contributed to aggravating Catholic-Orthodox relations.
Parallel to these processes, a continuing theological alienation between Orthodox and Catholics also grew. This was to a significant degree conditioned by the introduction of new doctrines in the Catholic Church, which were (and are still) regarded by the Orthodox as dogmatic innovations. The belief in the infallibility of the Pope when he speaks ex cathedra is the most striking example. A teaching that was the consequence of many centuries of theological debate within the Catholic Church, it was strongly censured by the Orthodox. Indeed, this doctrine was rejected also by some traditional circles within the Western Church: hence the appearance of the Old Catholic movement, which for many decades conducted a dialogue with the Orthodox.
The struggles between the two Christian traditions in the first half of the 20th century did not differ from those of previous times in that they continued at various levels. There were, however, some latent streams within both traditions which predetermined a rather rapid rapprochement in the second half of the 20th century. Already in the 1930s and 1940s theologians from both sides began to meet on a more regular basis, and for the very first time in Christian history the possibility emerged for each to cross the borders of its own context.
The theological exchange that took place at that time contributed to the remarkable change on the part of the Catholics towards the Orthodox which was most evidently manifested during the Second Vatican Council. At this Council, the Orthodox Church was recognized as possessing the fullness of the divine grace that leads people to salvation. It is from Vatican II that the term “sister Church” with reference to the Orthodox Church stems.
This same Council predetermined the significant achievements attained by the Mixed Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches, which was created in 1980.
The work of this Commission lasted for 20 years and then was interrupted in 2000 because of a strong disagreement on the question of Uniatism. After a five-year break the Coordinating Committee of this Commission met in the fall of 2005 in Rome to prepare the plenary session, which is to be held in Serbia in 2006.
Thus, the theological dialogue has now resumed, and it is a good sign.
However, there is not much ground for excessive optimism, since the questions to be discussed are quite difficult and quite numerous. The issue of the primacy of the bishop of Rome, which will be addressed by the Commission in 2006, is among the most difficult ones, not only because it remains the main cause of disagreement between the Catholics and the Orthodox, but also because there is no unity among the Orthodox on the understanding of primacy in the Universal Church. I envisage long and difficult discussions, many years of assiduous work, and no immediate and visible results.
INSIDE THE VATICAN: If the division cannot be healed, can Catholics and Orthodox nevertheless work together on certain social problems, like caring for abandoned children, or supporting marriage and family life? What possibilities do you see for this type of collaboration?
BISHOP HILARION: I think there are many possibilities for such collaboration, and I regret that until now we have done very little together in the field of Christian charity. Sometimes our missions and charitable organizations act almost as competing structures, while we desperately need to learn to work together.
Caring for abandoned children and supporting marriage and family life are among the most urgent tasks in such countries as Russia. It is important, however, that these noble activities not be used for the aims of proselytism, which devalues them and makes them an obstacle, rather then a means for Christian unity.
I hope some way of closer collaboration of the Catholics with the Orthodox in the field of promoting and defending Christian values in Europe will be found in the near future. Over a year ago, on the pages of your periodical, I called for a European Catholic-Orthodox alliance to be created, and I still think this idea is quite relevant.
There are now two obvious essentially-differing versions of Christianity – the traditional and the liberal. The abyss that now exists divides not so much the Orthodox and Catholics, or the Catholics and Protestants, as the “traditionalists” and “liberals” (with all the conventions of such labels).
Of course, there are defenders of traditional values in the Protestant camp (especially in the Southern churches, that is, Africa, Asia, Latin America). But a liberal attitude prevails among the Protestants.
In this situation, I suppose that a consolidation is needed in the efforts of those churches which consider themselves “Churches of Tradition,” that is, the Orthodox, Catholics and the Oriental Orthodox. I am not speaking about the serious dogmatic and ecclesiological differences which exist between these Churches and which can be considered within the framework of bilateral dialogue. I am speaking about the need to reach an agreement between these Churches on some strategic alliance, pact or cooperation for defending traditional Christianity as such — defending it from all modern challenges, be it militant liberalism, militant atheism or militant Islam. When I expressed this idea for the first time, I used the word “alliance’ to describe the body which, in my opinion, needs to be created. Some subsequent critics, while enthusiastic about the idea itself, did not like the term “alliance” for the military or political connotations which, allegedly, could be discerned in it.
Indeed, what matters most is not the terminology, but the idea. Perhaps we could speak about a Catholic-Orthodox Committee on Cooperation in Europe, or about a European Catholic-Orthodox Consultative Board. In any case, for the body in question, we need a word which has no ecclesiastical connotations: words like “council” or “union” should be avoided. Otherwise one may suspect that a new type of Uniatism is envisaged.
I would like to make clear that we do not need another union of the type of Ferrara-Florence, a union aimed at restoration of full Eucharistic communion but based on a theological compromise.
What we do need at this stage, in my opinion, is a close and efficient strategic cooperation, for the challenge is made to traditional Christianity as such. This is especially noticeable in Europe, where de-Christianization and liberalization are occurring as persistently as the gradual and unswerving Islamization. The liberal, weakened “Christianity” of the Protestant communities cannot resist the onslaught of Islam; only staunch, traditional Christianity can stand against it, ready to defend its moral positions. In this battle, the Orthodox and Catholics could, even in the face of all the differences accumulated over the centuries, form a united front.
The primary purpose of the strategic cooperation that I propose should be the defence of traditional moral values such as the family, childbirth, spousal fidelity. These values are subjected to systematic mockery and derision in Europe by liberals and democrats of all types. Instead of spousal fidelity, “free love” is promoted, same-sex partnerships are equated with the union of marriage, childbirth is opposed by “family planning.” Unfortunately, we have serious differences in these matters with most Protestants, not to speak of fundamental differences of theological and ecclesiological character. I will use as an example a conversation with a Lutheran bishop, held within the framework of a theological dialogue with one of the Northern Lutheran churches. We tried to prepare a joint document in the defence of traditional values. We began to talk about abortion. I asked: “Can we put in the joint document that abortion is a sin?” The Lutheran bishop responded: “Well, of course, we don’t promote abortion, we prefer contraception.” My question: “But abortion is in the opinion of your church, a sin, or is it not?” His reply: “Well, you see, there are various circumstances, for example, the life of a mother or child could be in danger.” “Well, if there is no threat to either the mother or the child, then is abortion a sin, or not?” And the Lutheran bishop still could not concede that abortion is a sin.
What is there to talk about then, if abortion is not a sin, same-sex marriage is fine, and contraception is wonderful? There it is, liberal Christianity in all its glory. It is clear for me that presently only Catholics and Orthodox preserve the traditional view of family values in Europe, and in this regard, as in many others, we are strategic partners.
INSIDE THE VATICAN: Is there a specific structure you have in mind for this type of collaboration?
BISHOP HILARION: A European Catholic-Orthodox Alliance, or Committee on Cooperation, or Consultative Board, whatever name is given to the body that is proposed, should consist of the official representatives of both Catholic and Orthodox Churches. If, for example, the 25 representatives of the European Bishops’ Conferences, who now constitute the COMECE (the European Catholic bishops’ conference), could be joined by some 15 Orthodox bishops, representing the Orthodox Churches that have dioceses and parishes in Europe, this could become an authoritative and creative body for defending traditional Christian values in Europe. But I presume there could be some other, perhaps less ambitious structures of a smaller scale.
Whatever is the structure and whatever is its name, I am convinced that we must act speedily, since the challenges that traditional Christianity faces are numerous and are growing. We should not wait until Christianity is swallowed by Islam, or defeated by militant secularism, or crushed by consumerism and relativism prevailing in modern society. We must think very seriously about common ways of facing all these modern challenges, and I greatly hope that the Vienna conference will be just the first step on the path which we will travel together.