Friday, December 5, 2008

The Legacy of Patriarch Alexy II

Alexy II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, died this morning at age 79, after leading the Russian Orthodox Church for 18 years.

Some of you know that I have always had reservations about Patriarch Alexy because of his KGB ties, which were instrumental in his rise to power. Given his background, it was only natural that he would become entangled with Russian nationalism and with the government of Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer. In recent years, however, I have been impressed by the patriarch’s strong opposition to some of the more extreme manifestations of Russian nationalism. In putting down the monarchist faction pushing for the canonization of Ivan the Terrible and Rasputin, for example, Alexy asked rhetorically, “What believer would want to stay in a church that equally venerates murderers and martyrs, lechers and saints?” And earlier this year, rather than serve as an apologist for Russian aggression against Georgia, he issued a heartfelt call to both sides: “Stop! Don’t let more blood shed! Don’t let today’s conflict boil over! Show wisdom and courage: come to the negotiating table to respect the traditions, outlook, and hopes of the Georgian and Ossetian people.

But those who are more interested in international ecclesiastical politics than in governmental politics will remember Patriarch Alexy more for his rivalry with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, his blocking of better relations with the Vatican under the late John Paul II, and his clinging to Moscow’s dominance over the Orthodox Church in the former Soviet republics that gained their independence during his tenure as patriarch. I was delighted to find that everything I might say on these topics has already been said better than I could say it in this brilliant analysis from Catholic World News, which considers Patriarch Alexy’s legacy and the future of the Russian Orthodox Church, particularly with regard to Moscow’s relations with Rome and Constantinople. The article concludes:

If a new Russian Orthodox Patriarch adopted a friendlier attitude toward Rome – or even toward Constantinople, for that matter – his leadership could produce enormous strides toward the goal of Christian unity. But in order to take those strides, the Russian leader would need to question his Church’s strong identification with the forces of Russian nationalism. And simply by raising such questions, he might endanger the current ties between the Moscow patriarchate and the Russian political leadership. The new Patriarch, whoever he may be, will face challenges every bit as difficult as the ones that faced the late Alexei II.

Addendum: My friend Alphonse pointed me to another analysis of Patriarch Alexy’s legacy – this one from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – which takes a broader perspective than just ecclesiastical politics.