Ecumenical allies? Orthodox, Catholics take aim at European secularism

VATICAN CITY – For years, the Vatican has suggested that a promising area of ecumenical cooperation was a joint struggle by Christian churches against the moral and social challenges posed by a predominantly secular society.

Now the Russian Orthodox Church has come forward to propose a strategic alliance with the Catholic Church aimed, in effect, at saving Europe’s soul from “Western post-Christian humanism.”

The offer came in an introduction written by Russian Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion to a book of speeches by Pope Benedict XVI on Europe’s spiritual crisis, published in Russian by the Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate. In an unusual move, the Vatican newspaper published almost the entire introduction in its Dec. 2 edition.

Archbishop Hilarion, who is president of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, took a combative tone in his text. He denounced the “militant secularism” adopted by an increasingly united Europe, warned that religion was being closed off in the “ghetto” of private devotion, and urged Christians to confront their governments on issues like abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage – even to the point of civil disobedience.

Archbishop Hilarion’s proposal came as 140 Christian leaders in the United States met in New York and issued the “Manhattan Declaration” pledging renewed zeal in defending the unborn, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and protecting religious freedom. The Manhattan Declaration, too, urged non-compliance and perhaps even civil disobedience when Christians are asked to participate in acts like abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia.

There were many parallels in the Russian Orthodox initiative, along with one big difference: the Russian Orthodox Church, in the words of Archbishop Hilarion, speaks with the moral authority and practical experience of survival under communism. That chapter of ideological repression has similarities with what’s happening to religion in Western Europe today, he said.

“For religion, militant secularism is just as dangerous as militant atheism was. Both tend to exclude religion from the public and political sphere, relegating it to a ghetto, confining it to the area of private devotion,” he said.

The archbishop added that in modern Europe the “unwritten rules of political correctness” are increasingly applied to religious institutions, to the point that believers can no longer express their religious convictions publicly because it would be considered a violation of the rights of non-believers.

Archbishop Hilarion said Europe’s political unification had brought with it the risk of a new pan-European “dictatorship” that would impose a single model of secular humanistic values on all European countries.

The process has been abetted by the Western media, he said, which focus almost exclusively on the scandals and shortcomings of Christian churches and ignores their spiritual richness and social contributions. He suggested that this may be part of a wider design of intimidation and “progressive marginalization of Christianity from society, up to its complete expulsion.”

The Russian Orthodox view is that the religious beliefs of the population of each state should be reflected in its legislation. For Christian populations, that would mean rejection of practices like euthanasia, homosexual marriage, pornography and prostitution, he said.

He noted that the Russian Orthodox Church has taken strong public positions against abortion, surrogate motherhood, artificial insemination and sex-change operations. It’s crucial, he said, that churches have the right not only to hold these beliefs but also to profess them in society and influence public policy, without being accused of intolerance.

In case of a conflict between the church’s moral teachings and civil law, the Christian must have the right to follow his religious beliefs, Archbishop Hilarion said. In particular, he said, when a civil law contradicts divine law on an essential matter, it “ceases to be law and becomes illegal.”

When respecting such a law would force the Christian to commit a grave sin, the Christian is held to denounce it through legal means and, if necessary, resort to civil disobedience, he said.

“Obviously, disobeying a civil law is an extreme measure that a particular church can adopt in exceptional circumstances. But it is a possibility that cannot be excluded in advance, if a system of secularized values becomes the only operating one in Europe,” he said.

Archbishop Hilarion noted the recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that crucifixes hanging in Italian public schools violate religious freedom. The court’s decision, he said, went against the right of each state to preserve its own traditions and identity, and represented another attempt to erase Europe’s Christian roots.

“I think in all these areas we can collaborate with the Catholic Church in defending the Christian tradition against militant secularism,” he said.

The archbishop said it was a “sad spectacle” to see European churches abandoned by the faithful and turned into pubs, half-empty cathedrals, seminaries without students and empty religious houses. While the church communities themselves are partly responsible for this situation, the disruptive effects of secularism should not be undervalued, he said.

In contrast, he said, the Russian Orthodox Church has emerged from decades of repression with new vigor: new churches are being built, seminaries are full and millions of people are returning to God in a “religious renaissance.”

Vatican officials made no formal response to the archbishop’s text, but read it with great interest.

At age 43, Archbishop Hilarion is considered a young mover and shaker in Moscow. Partly educated in the West, he has been open to dialogue and recently held extensive talks with Pope Benedict and other Vatican officials.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.