Written by The Saker; Originally appeared at The Unz Review
First, a disclaimer: today I am going to touch upon a subject which is intensely painful for me and which will get quite a lot of my readers angry at me. Frankly, I did everything I could not to discuss this issue on the blog, because I know, out of my personal experience, that discussing this topic is mostly futile and typically gets a lot of hostile reactions. This is made even worse by the fact that to be able to discuss this issue requires a certain level of knowledge in various subject matters which most people have only a very superficial familiarity with (if that). Finally, this topic is often debated in a nasty and vindictive manner and I have no desire whatsoever to contribute to that. And yet, there comes a time when I cannot remain silent, especially when I am constantly asked what my position on this topic is. At the end of the day, I have to follow my conscience and this conscience tells me that now is the time to put down in writing that which I mostly have tried to keep to myself, primarily because I did not see the point in publicly discussing it.
By now most of you must have heard that Poroshenko and the Ukrainian Rada have made an official request to the Patriarch of Constantinople to grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church its full “autocephaly” (i.e. independence from the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate). Right there, in the preceding sentence, there are a lot of assumptions which are invalid and a lot of terms which are not defined and are, therefore, ambiguous at best.
To really be able to understand what is really at stake here you would need, at a very minimum, to have a basic but solid understanding of the following topics:
- Orthodox ecclesiology (probably the hardest topic to get a grasp of)
- The history of Orthodoxy in the territory called “the Ukraine” today
- The history of the Russian Orthodox Church between the 16th and 19th century
- The history of the Russian Orthodox Church during the early 20th century
- A good understanding of what the Moscow Patriarchate today really is (its nature, status, role, how it functions, etc.) and what it’s historical and theological roots are
- A basic understanding of the history of the Orthodox Churches under Ottoman occupation
I am very sorry to say that I cannot offer even a short summary of these topics here simply because there is no way of shortly summarizing them. For those interested, I did touch upon these topics in the past, especially in this and in this article. I strongly recommend you read them to get at least a sense of what I am going to be touching upon below.
To say that this topic is very complex is an understatement. Sadly, very few Orthodox Christians nowadays have the kind of basic knowledge needed to develop an informed opinion about this. Not by their fault, by the way, but simply because the level of religious literacy (taken broadly) has been in free fall for many decades, including among the Orthodox people.
So what I want to begin with here are a number of “bullet point” observations which I want to share with you “as is”, without going into the kind of deeper analysis every single one of them would deserve. What I hope to achieve is just to give a sense of the issues involved and to convince you that things are nowhere nearly as simple and black and white as some would like them to be.
First a few historical bullet-points
- First, I want to immediately set aside any discussion of Orthodox ecclesiology. Besides, 99.9999% of those discussing this issue today do not really refer to Orthodox ecclesiological arguments anyway (even when the pretend to), so there is no point in arguing about this from this perspective. I will just say that a reasonable case can be made that the territory of what is today the Ukraine should be considered separately from the rest of Russia. Simply put, the history of Orthodoxy in southwestern Russia (roughly what we think of as the Ukraine today) and northeastern Russia (roughly what we think of as Russia today) between the 13th and 18th century have been dramatically different: the Orthodox people in these regions had to live, and sometimes survive, in very different circumstances, overcoming very different crises and, for a long while, they lived in dramatically different realities (primarily thanks to the Lithuanian and Polish occupation of western Russia and the systematic anti-Orthodox policies of the Vatican and its agents). Yes, Orthodoxy in the Ukraine and Russia have the same root, but then their paths took them along very different roads, so to speak.
- Second, the Russian Orthodox Church underwent a dramatic and bloody internal schism during the 17th century (the so-called “Old Rite” schism) which saw the state (not so much the Church!) violently crush the opposition. This left deep wounds inside the Russian society and these events deeply alienated the masses of the Russian people against their leaders.
- Third, the Russian Orthodox Church lost her independence and was gradually subordinated to the Russian state since, at least, the reforms of Czar Peter I (called “The Great” by westernizers) who reigned from 1682 to 1725. Furthermore, starting with Peter I, Russian ruling classes were gradually replaced with “imported” West European elites, which only further alienated the common Russian people.
- Fourth, much of the Ukraine was liberated from the Polish Latin yoke by Catherine II (also called “The Great” by westernizers) who reigned from 1762 to 1796. However, by liberating the Ukraine, Catherine also inherited a population which included a large number of westernized elites, both Orthodox and Latin, and a huge Jewish population.
- By the late 19th early 20th century the Russian elites were largely secularized and westernized while the traditional Orthodox ethos was severely disrupted inside the Russian society at large. Furthermore, there were very diverse movements inside the Russian Orthodox Church ranging from hesychastic monasticism (I think of Saint Theophan the Recluse) to rabid modernism (which resulted in the “living church” movement). This created severe internal tensions inside the Russian Orthodox Church.
- The Bolshevik Revolution resulted in massive and genocidal religious persecutions against all religions in Russia, especially against Orthodox Christians which the Bolsheviks saw as 1) class enemies, 2) crypto-monarchists, 3) anti-Semites, 4) subversives 5) reactionaries 6) supporters of Grand-Russian chauvinism.
- As a result of vicious and widespread religious persecutions, at least four distinct groups appeared among Russian Orthodox Christians: 1) those who fled abroad 2) those who openly opposed the new regime 3) those who went into hiding 4) those who fully embraced the new regime. The first group left Russia and eventually founded the so-called “Russian Orthodox Church Abroad”. The second group (often called the “Josephites” after their leader Met. Joseph of Petrograd) was completely exterminated. The third group (the so-called “Catacomb Church”) split into many small subgroups and survived until our days, albeit with great difficulties and in very small numbers. The fourth group formed the basis of what is known today as the “Moscow Patriarchate” which today represents the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Christians in Russia.
- During the Soviet era, the Moscow Patriarchate became the loyal instrument and supporter of the state in exchange for the exclusive control of all parishes, monasteries, cathedrals, seminaries, etc. The Department of External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate was basically run by the KGB and while the rank and file faithful had no choice which Russian Orthodox parish to attend, the Soviet state was in full control of the Moscow Patriarchate. This is what the famous Russian singer Igor Talkov, later murdered, referred to when he sang in his famous song “Globe” “Show me such a country, Where the churches are boarded up, Where the priest hides under his cassock, KGB epaulettes” (Покажите мне такую страну, Где заколочены храмы, Где священник скрывает под рясой, КГБ-шный погон).
- In 1991, following the end of the Soviet era, the Moscow Patriarchate initially was challenged in its legitimacy by various groups of people, but with every passing year the Russian state under Eltsin and then Putin re-gained full control of the Moscow Patriarchate and a wave of repressions was unleashed against those small, but surprisingly numerous, Orthodox Christians groups who challenged the legitimacy of the Moscow Patriarchate.
- In 2007, the majority of the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, allured by a strong sense of religious revival in Russia and a completely secular type of patriotism, reunited with the Moscow Patriarchate thereby conferring upon it a degree of legitimacy it had never enjoyed in the past.
- In the Ukraine, officially independent since 1991, the situation remained far more fluid and a number of schisms occurred creating at least two versions of an “independent” Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Latin Uniats also played a key role in the re-ignition of Ukrainian nationalism and even though most Orthodox bishops in the Ukraine remained under the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the pressure began to remove this “Moskal” jurisdiction and replace it by a “purely Ukrainian” one.
- The main problem with the so-called “Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate” (a self-proclaimed and therefore completely illegitimate ecclesiastical body) is that it is a pure product of the Moscow Patriarchate. It’s founder, Metropolitan Filaret (read about him here), was even considered a likely candidate to become Patriarch of Russia, this is might seem outright bizarre, but this is true. It gets even more surreal – in 1990 the Moscow Patriarchate actually gave the Ukrainians a bizarre status of “autonomy” (but not quite independence) thus creating something called the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate”, not to be confused with the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate” or, for that matter, with the “Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church” (all three are “sort of” official in the Ukraine).
- As for the Latins and their Uniats, they have played a key role both during Bandera’s years in WWII and then in the resurgence of Ukronazi nationalism since 1991. They are one of the key factions of the Ukronazi regime in power since the coup in 2014 (the Poles and the Latins have always attacked Russia every time they perceived her as weakened by some internal or external problem; this is really nothing new).
Next, the term “canonical” and its misuses
There is a term which you will hear used a lot by all sides in this, and other, disputes. This term is “canonical”. Originally, the word “canon” simply means “measure” or “rule”. The correct modern meaning of the word “canonical” should be, but is not, “in accordance with, or in harmony/compliance with, the canons”, i.e. in conformity with the praxis and rules agreed upon by the Church Fathers and which were proclaimed by local and ecumenical Church Councils. Alas, this is not AT ALL what the word “canonical” means nowadays. Nowadays, the world canonical is used as an equivalent/substitute for “official” or “officially recognized” or even “majority endorsed”. From a strictly Orthodox point of view, this is an absolutely absurd interpretation of the notion of canonical since there were MANY times in Church history when the secular rulers backed heretical bishops and when most bishops had fallen into heresy (the times of Saint Maximos the Confessor and the Monothelite heresy come to mind). This misunderstanding of the word “canonical” is a sad witness to the deep state of secularization which so many putatively “Orthodox” Churches have undergone. But it gets even worse. Since many, or even most, “official” Orthodox churches have some very serious problems with their legitimacy and/or with their compliance with Church canons and traditions, they came up with a new trick: they confer “canonicity” upon each other. That is, one illegitimate bishop or Church declares itself the “only canonical one” in region A; another does the same in region B, and then they recognize each other and together proclaim themselves as “the only canonical” bishops/Churches worldwide. Conversely, those who do not have the support of secular powers and who cannot use the local riot police to seize parishes or monasteries are therefore decreed as “uncanonical” and dismissed as “fringe extremists”. From a purely Patristic point of view, this is all totally nonsensical and if anything, sheds a great deal of doubt upon the putative “canonicity” of the self-proclaimed “canonical” bishops or Churches. Let me give you just one example:
The 3rd Canon of the 7th Ecumenical Council says:
Every appointment of a bishop, or of a presbyter, or of a deacon made by (civil) rulers shall remain void in accordance with the Canon which says: “If any bishop comes into possession of a church by employing secular rulers, let him be deposed from office, and let him be excommunicated. And all those who communicate with him too.”
All the most authoritative interpreters of canons (Zonaras, Aristenos, Balsamon) agree that this canon categorically forbids the appointment of bishops by the interference of secular powers. In fact, the Canon quoted in this Canon is the 31stApostolic Canon and says exactly the same thing:
If any bishop makes use of the rulers of this world, and by their means obtains to be a bishop of a church, let him be deprived and suspended, and all that communicate with him.
Pretty clear, no? This is what the Apostles themselves decreed! And yet it is undeniable that in many Orthodox countries nowadays (and in the past) bishops have their bishopric primarily, and often solely, by the intervention of secular state rulers. Christ said “my kingdom is not of this world” so how can the support of the (often secular and even atheistic) powers that be confer legitimacy aka “canonicity” upon modern bishops?! In reality, this practice itself is completely uncanonical!