As the Russian Easter approaches – it will symbolically coincide this year with May Day – it is the right time to speak of a very important recent spiritual event that received too little publicity in the West, but it kept Russia all agog. This was not an Oscar nomination, after all. Two old men, heads of two great churches had met on the territory of the third church. These were Kyril and Francis, the bishops of Moscow and Rome on the last vestige of the communist territory, in Cuba. They represented two ancient and venerable churches: the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox, separated by a millennium-old schism, and as the ghost, the Communist church was present at this summit.
They published their Havana Declaration, a powerful document, affirming their common ground, acknowledging their long separation, avoiding theological debates, hoping for more rapprochement, burying some old (and not too old) hatchets. This is a great step forward; for many years, this meeting could not take place. Russian state leaders have met with the Pope: Vladimir Putin did a few times, so did Gorbachev, but the heads of the Russian Church never agreed to the meeting. The Russians wanted the Catholics to stop proselytising on Russia’s canonical territory and to reign in the Ukrainian Uniates. Pope Francis is the first bishop of Rome who agreed with these demands.
In their declaration, they agreed that “their mission entails mutual respect for members of the Christian communities and excludes any form of proselytism.
We are not competitors but brothers. We urge Catholics and Orthodox in all countries to learn to live together in peace and love, and to be “in harmony with one another”.
This is good. In my eyes, Catholic Church is the Church of the West, while the Orthodox Church is the Church of the East. Each church has its own garden to tend, its own traditions and ways. The East likes its priests bearded, the West prefers them shaved. The East likes them married, the West likes them married to the church. The East has no single head and spiritual leader: every national church is equal to its sister-church. The West has the Pope. The East takes for Eucharist its leavened bread mixed with wine, the West prefers unleavened bread for all, with wine for the clergy only. Such differences are normal and do not prevent the churches’ rapprochement.
Pope Francis agreed that the creation of Uniate churches (i.e. Orthodox by their liturgy but Catholic in every other way) has been a mistake, but those created – in the Ukraine and the Middle East – let them be. This agreement pleased Moscow and angered Kiev and Lvov. Ukrainians spoke darkly of “treason”, while the violently anti-Russian (and anti-Vatican, and anti-God) magazine The Economist saw “the pope kissing Putin’s ring” (sic!). This is really a historical step, putting an end to the Western attempts to colonise the East, the attempts that began with the Crusades and led to many wars. Now the two great churches can work together, as equals.
The Orthodox have much to learn from the Catholics. Vatican has its institutes of archaeology, of Biblical studies, it publishes newspapers and books, it has a program of catechisation for the youth, it participates in public discussions. The voice of the Pope has been heard on so many important topics; prominent politicians turn to the Church for advice.
Just last week, Bernie Sanders praised the Roman Catholic church for its position, saying: “There are few places in modern thought that rival the depth and insight of the church’s moral teachings on the market economy.” One Hundred years ago, the Church spoke against “enormous wealth of a few as opposed to the poverty of the many”, but now, Sanders continued, “the situation is worse today. Rather than an economy aimed at the common good, we have been left with an economy operated for the top 1 per cent, who get richer and richer as the working class, the young and the poor fall further and further behind.” He praised the Pope and the Church for understanding and proposing to deal with it.
Catholics also have much to learn from their Orthodox brethren. The Orthodox are strong in their faith, devoted in their prayers, loyal to their church. The Orthodox service is much longer, the Lent more strict, there is bigger Sunday attendance. The Orthodox meet the Jewish challenge better: they baptise Jews, while the Catholics practically gave up their mission to Jews.
For the Catholics, rapprochement with the Orthodox may stop the advance of the liberal reformers who are likely to destroy the church. For the Orthodox, friendship with the Catholics may stop the advance of the ultra-conservative forces. In friendship and brotherly love, the Churches may recover their lost balance.
The Catholics and the Orthodox are united in our faith in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and in our veneration of the Most Holy Mother of God, the Holy Virgin, in the Apostolic tradition, in the teachings of Fathers of the Church, in our rejection of sins.
The two churches condemn the same sins and thoughts. We hear too frequently of same-sex “marriages”, which is a monstrous idea previously unheard of among Christians and heathen alike. The Orthodox Church will be of help to the Catholics, as the church of Rome is under pressure from the state and from the indoctrinated part of society and media. The Russians have an advantage: their society and their state, personified in President Putin, are strictly for the family, for a natural family of father, mother and children. They even have a law against spreading gender-confusing propaganda among minors.
In the Havana Declaration, the Pope and the Patriarch stated: “The family is the natural centre of human life and society. We are concerned about the crisis in the family in many countries. Orthodox and Catholics share the same conception of the family, and are called to witness that it is a path of holiness, testifying to the faithfulness of the spouses in their mutual interaction, to their openness to the procreation and rearing of their children, to solidarity between the generations and to respect for the weakest.
The family is based on marriage, an act of freely given and faithful love between a man and a woman. It is love that seals their union and teaches them to accept one another as a gift. Marriage is a school of love and faithfulness. We regret that other forms of cohabitation have been placed on the same level as this union, while the concept, consecrated in the biblical tradition, of paternity and maternity as the distinct vocation of man and woman in marriage is being banished from the public conscience.”
How far will the churches be able to move towards each other? Even before Havana, the Orthodox worshippers could share communion in a Catholic church – from the Catholic point of view. The Russians, however, will not give communion to a Catholic and will not accept the Catholic communion. This would be good to change, to allow members of these two sister churches to give and receive communion.
It would be good to rearrange the calendar. The Orthodox Christians of Greece switched to the Western calendar, so could the Russians, for one reason at least. If they were to celebrate Christmas with the Europeans on December 25th, they would have no problem with celebrating the New Year on January 1st . Now they celebrate Christmas on January 7th, a week after the New Year, and this makes a mess of their observance of the Nativity Fast (the Winter Lent).
We have an example of the Holy Land, where the Catholics and the Orthodox celebrate the feasts together: Christmas like the West, Easter like the East.
As for the rest, the churches can keep their differences. The biggest theological difference is filioque, which is so obscure that few worshippers understand or care.
If the Pope has been attacked by professional Russia-haters, the Patriarch has been severely attacked by fundamentalists and ultra-conservatives who hated the very fact of Kyril’s meeting with the Pope of Rome. For them, the Orthodox Church is the only true church, while the Catholic church is a heretic one. Russian conspiracy-theorists nurtured dreadful pictures of Vatican run by freemasons, homosexuals and what not. However, the plight of the Middle East Christians speeded the Patriarch up. I hope he will survive the attacks, for Kyril is a great and under-appreciated spiritual figure in his homeland.
I spoke of three churches. What could there be in common between the Christian churches and the godless Red Church, you’ll ask. The common ground is their definition of vice and virtue, the most important thing for any church. In a radio talk in February 1937, T.S. Eliot said: “Perhaps the dominant vice of our time, from the point of view of the Church, will be proved to be Avarice”. He repeated the words of St Paul who said “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”.
The Communists had many faults, but they were the most persistent warriors against Avarice. The Soviet Union had no millionaires, and a person who would try to become one would be sent to a provincial factory as a roughneck for re-education. Bankers received the same salary as qualified factory workers, sometimes less.
If there is an important redeeming feature of the Communist regime, it was this noble attempt to kill Greed. We need money to eat, to pay for the house, to travel – not to collect and multiply. This is the main reason why Communism is so hated. Fidel Castro as he bade farewell to his party on April 19, 2016 said that the very name of Communism has been defamed and besmirched. “Communism has been the most distorted and maligned concept of history by those, who had the privilege of exploiting the poor.” Indeed now we know that majority of anti-Communist stories you, my reader, imbibed from childhood, are inventions of Cold War propagandists.
The Russian church is divided within itself in its attitude to the Soviet past. Some bishops are violently against anything that smacks of Communism. This is especially true regarding the bishops of the Russian Church Abroad. This church had reunited with Moscow some ten years ago, but historically it has been fanatically anti-Communist. Their bishops prayed for Hitler’s victory, and they misunderstood Moscow’s desire to bring them and their worshippers to their bosom as repentance of the Church. Their influence is to be regretted.
Patriarch Kyril is quite tolerant. Speaking of the Soviet days, he said: “In every period of our history, there were people who committed good deeds for our country. In the Middle Ages, our country has been called ‘Holy Russia’ not because it was holy per se, but because its ideal was holiness. The days of Communist revolution were quite hard and bloody, but the ideal was good, the ideal of fairness. Soviet period was also quite difficult, but there were great achievements connected with the ideal of solidarity. Let us preserve all these ideals, of holiness, of justice and of solidarity”.
Kyril spoke with great appreciation of Fidel Castro and of Cuba. He had met the Cuban leader few times in his life, he had long discussions with him, and he came convinced that Castro has been moved by a Christian sentiment, by the teaching of Our Lord: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Russian Communists, the second biggest party in Russia, are friendly to the Church. “Jesus Christ has been the first Communist”, said the head of the Communist Party, Dr Zyuganov. The biggest party, United Russia, is also Church-friendly. Only small liberal pro-Western groups and parties prefer Pussy Riot and gay freedom, but they have little following. So the position of the Church in Russia is rather enviable. But then, despite its economic disparity and wholesale embrace of the Western mores, Russia does not worship Greed.
The Catholic Church did not manage well recently. Its enemies invent and promote stories of abusing priests, of the Church’s collaboration with Nazis. The reason is the same one: the Church rejects Avarice, the moving force of their adversaries. Indeed another common feature of the Church and Communism is that they lost some important battles and became “has-been”.
The winner is Neo-Judaic Capitalist “Church”. For it, Avarice is a virtue, while the worst sin is “intolerance”, whatever this means. Its commandment is “Do Not Be a Loser”. They have no ethics: everything is ethical as long as it is not a criminal offence.
For a Christian, “loser” means nothing. Our Lord has been a loser, until he won his victory over death. “Intolerance” means nothing, for the Church always accepted people of all colours and walks of life. Not only coloured folks: there is a Russian icon of a saint with dog’s head. In the days of old, cynocephali, dog-headed folk, had been seen and reported by such varied sources as Herodotus, St Augustine, Beowulf’s author; and the Church had no doubt that such creatures also can be saved and become saints.
So what is this “tolerance” they preach? It is just a way to escape real issues. It is easier to bring a handicapped person to a school than to let poor children study together with children of the rich parents. It is easier to demand more seats for the Jewish women at the board of directors than to equalise incomes of employees of these companies. Today, it is easier to fight for unisex lavatories than against outsourcing.
Still, the most important mission of the Church is to turn us to God. Equality, justice, family – all that is very good, but it is better to feel the elation of God’s nearness.
Israel Shamir can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared at The Unz Review