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.


Roland said...

Note: You might find the patriarch’s name spelled in any of about a dozen different ways. This comes partly from the diversity of transliteration systems from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet. But another cause is that he has two different names in Russian! His given name (transliterating by the system that FBIS uses, which is letter for letter) was Aleksey. But when he became Patriarch he took the name Aleksiy. It is technically incorrect to refer to him as "Patriarch Aleksey," which would be similar to calling the current Bishop of Rome "Pope Ratzinger," though less obvious. Let's see how many extra transliterations I can come up with:

Aleksii Aleksei
Alexiy Alexey
Alexii Alexei

monomakh said...

Now that's an easy reduction of matters of faith to politics. It's now all to easy for us to judge what happened to the Church under Soviet captivity and send anathemas to bishops who only cared about the security of their flock. Who cares for union with Rome as long as it holds the doublespeak of modernist Vatican ii reforms and obscurantist and un-Christian papal infallibility? And who cares for Constantinople if instead of presiding to love in orthodoxy seeks to Rome and extend its jurisdiction. Memory eternal and rest to Patriarch Alexy!

David Marcum said...

The article from Catholic World News is another example of the erroneous view that the head of Christ's Church is the Pope and the head of the schismatic Orthodox Church is the the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. I think a better way of describing the argument is to say that it illustrates the problem of unification -- which is caused by Rome's insistence on papal primacy and their persistent description of the Orthodox churches as "one" church under the Ecumenical Patriarch. I regret to say that some of us Orthodox seem to have bought the Latins' view, and it has led to an erosion in the good relations between the Orthodox churches. Because of this, it's not surprising that Alexy insisted on Rome ceasing its "poaching" in Russian territory.

Given this -

Patriarch Alexey has acknowledged that compromises were made with the Soviet government by bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate, himself included, and publicly repented of these compromises:

"Defending one thing, it was necessary to give somewhere else. Were there any other organizations, or any other people among those who had to carry responsibility not only for themselves but for thousands of other fates, who in those years in the Soviet Union were not compelled to act likewise? Before those people, however, to whom the compromises, silence, forced passivity or expressions of loyalty permitted by the leaders of the church in those years caused pain, before these people, and not only before God, I ask forgiveness, understanding and prayers."[39]

- Alexy's legacy is perhaps a lot more complex than the article suggests. His first priority, from what I can tell, must have been the restoration of the Russian church -- in which he achieved admirable success, despite the Latins' claim that the "vast majority" of Russians are not Orthodox (one of the articles I read described 2/3 of Russians as Orthodox). His supposed "links to the state" can be interpreted in the light of the traditional role of the patriarch as the spiritual father of secular authorities -- he is really supposed to be there to curb their excessive lust for power. The unfortunate outcome of the restoration of the Russian Church was also a resurgent nationalism, but I think we should blame Putin's deliberate propaganda (and his smart use of the Russian Church and some of its leaders) as well as the eagerness of Russians to buy into it, not Alexy.

In brief, I don't think the Catholic assessment is all that accurate.

Roland said...

monomakh - No one is hurling anathemas here, except maybe you. While I am tempted to exercise my prerogative as blog owner to delete your comment, instead I will let it stand as an example to my non-Orthodox readers of the sort of intemperate, doctrinaire rhetoric that is typical of Orthodox anti-ecumenists.

Roland said...


After re-reading the article, I don't see where you are finding anything, even implicit, about papal primacy. In any case, you should be aware that Orthodox leaders have already conceded the principle of papal primacy - they just disagree with Rome on what it should mean (i.e., universal ordinary jurisdiction vs. chairmanship of the council of bishops). But there has been growing convergence on the issue among leaders of both churches. The late Pope JPII acknowledged that, while the Papacy was intended to serve as a focus of unity for the Church, it was actually having the opposite effect, and he tried to start a conversation regarding how the Papacy might be restructured or redefined to overcome this problem. It took a while, but this conversation is now under way among bishops and theologians.

As for the EP, Orthodox consensus is that he, as the second ranking bishop, holds that primacy until the Pope ends his schism. (Catholics might very well fail to understand that the Orthodox view of primacy is much weaker than Rome's.) Moscow has recently tried to revive the "Third Rome" theory to justify its dream of displacing the EP, but no one outside Russia buys it.

A majority of ethnic Russians in Russia are Orthodox in the same sense that a majority of Brits are Anglican: they were baptized in that church and that's what they write in the "religion" blank on forms, but they don't actually go to church or pray regularly. Remember the scene in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" where the fiancé is baptized and shouts, "Now I'm a Greek!"? That actually happened when Russians were baptized in the 1990s - they would say, "Now I'm a real Russian!" To many of them, becoming Orthodox was more a matter of ethnic identity than of religious belief.

In Russia it is typically assumed that one's religion should coincide with one's ethnicity. It's okay for Turks to be Muslim, Mongols to be Buddhist, and Germans to be Catholic or Lutheran, but Eastern Slavs should be Russian Orthodox. This assumption of a religion's rightful monopoly over its associated ethnic group underlies the Russian aversion to "proselytism." This is nonsense, if not outright heresy, and there is no reason that Rome or anyone else should be expected to put up with it.

David Marcum said...

Roland –

I’ll take those points in reverse order. On the issue of the Roman right to proselytize in Russia: I think Alexy rightly objected that you can’t have a Catholic-Orthodox dialogue while one of the churches practically doesn’t recognize that the other one is Christian. In other words, if Rome wishes to have unity with Moscow, then they should also show in practice that they don’t think of Russia as “mission territory” (your own phrase with reference to the African Anglicans, if you remember!). It is uncanonical to have two bishops in the same town – that’s the argument we Orthodox in America rightly use in our search for Orthodox unity here. In other words, belonging to a particular parish or larger administrative unit has to do with location, not ethnicity. Now, having said that, I have to add that you are probably right – Russians think of having the right to be Orthodox based on their ethnicity. But that doesn’t invalidate the Patriarch’s complaint.

On the issue of being “true” Orthodox: If someone gets baptized because they want to become a “true” Russian, their baptism is not rendered invalid. People get baptized for all sorts of reasons – I got baptized, for example, because my wife wouldn’t marry me. Is that any better than getting baptized because you want to achieve some sort of true national identity? We believe that at baptism (and chrismation) we receive the Holy Spirit as a gift, not as an intellectual reward or for right belief or righteousness. At 40 days old, when a child is baptized, is he less a member of the Church than me?

On the issue of primacy: I think we (and I mean everybody) should abandon this word altogether, because it seems to be a problem. In my previous post I used it in the sense of “administrative jurisdiction,” i.e., the usual sense that Catholics (I believe) ascribe to it. I believe when you say there’s growing convergence among Orthodox and Catholic bishops on this issue, you are thinking of the joint statement issued at the meeting at Ravenna. The unfortunate thing with that document is precisely the word “primacy,” which – since it was present in the document – was interpreted in its usual sense by Catholic laity and the media. Here is a response from the OCA to the document. “Primacy” has always been interpreted as “first in honor among equals” among Orthodox, with the emphasis on ”honor” and “equals.”

While I’m all for unity with the Catholics, but not on any terms. I don’t think we should stretch our doctrine, i.e., find “common language” to accommodate them. That reminds me of Justinian’s effort to accommodate the Monophysites – it was unsuccessful anyway – and some of them are now members of the Roman Catholic church. Actually, Met. Jonah made some really good remarks on leadership in the church – from the bottom up.

Speaking of Met. Jonah, I think we need more monks in leadership positions, ripped out of monasteries against their will, not theologians (no offense meant!). Intellectual pride is something that must be guarded against and a major problem with the Roman Catholic church. That’s why this “growing convergence” worries me a little. See what David B. Hart has to say about ecumenism -- OK, I caught the irony of using Hart here.

Roland said...


Rome denies that it "proselytizes" in Russia, and Moscow's accusations on that score are pretty flimsy (i.e., essentially untrue). Moreover, when two churches are not in communion, it is not reasonable for one church to make the complete surrender of the other a prerequisite for talks. After that, what would there be to talk about? This was just a phony pretext for Alexy to keep JPII out of Russia. As for "canonical territory," it is an irrelevant matter for two churches that are not in communion, and Alexy knew it. If he really believed this, would he have maintained Russian bishops in Vienna, Paris, Britain, and New York? Why did he not withdraw Orthodox bishops from Estonia and cede it to the (Lutheran) Church of Estonia? He knows very well that a church's flock in diaspora needs to be ministered to, and that goes as much for Germans in Siberia as for Russians in France.

Proselytizing, as it is used in this context, means "sheep-stealing" - i.e., trying to convert members of another church. This is to be contrasted with evangelism, converting those who are not already Christians. How do we count the conversion of nominal Christians who never actually pray or go to church? As far as I'm concerned, it is evangelism. But the Russian Patriarchate seems to think it is better to be a non-practicing Orthodox than to be a practicing Catholic. I would argue that religion that is not lived is no better than irreligion.

Thanks for the link to Hart. It sounds consistent with Patriarch Bartholomew's Georgetown speech of a few years earlier (sometimes nicknamed the "Friends, Romans, Heretics" speech). However, Hart wrote that piece nearly eight years ago, and there has been significant progress since then. Hart lamented that we Orthodox had not taken up JPII's request for advice on how the papacy could better fulfill its purpose. But, beginning just a few months later, Orthodox theologians involved in ecumenism have made this a primary focus of their dialogue with Rome - and with other churches as well. As usual, the Orthodox responded in their own (and, one hopes, the Holy Spirit's) good time, without haste.