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Ukraine: Orthodox Territorialism Skews Spiritual Judgment

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 04, 2014

I see in the news today that the chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department of External Church Relations has complained that the Ukrainian Greek Catholics have been spiritually destructive in their response to the current crisis in Ukraine. In contrast, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church “has been able during these difficult months to unite people of various political persuasions including those who have found themselves on both sides of the barricades.”

I suspect that fault can be found on all sides, but surely these complaints must be taken with a grain of salt. One of the features of Orthodoxy is its pervasive territorialism. Russian Orthodoxy seems to be particularly imbued with this trait, to the point where the special character of Russia plays a major role in the Russian Orthodox vision of life.

This is something that Western Catholics find difficult to understand. As a Catholic and an American citizen, for example, I cannot imagine thinking of the United States as in any way essential to the identity of the Catholic Church. While I may love my homeland, I can see very clearly —thinking and speaking as a Catholic—that I would lose nothing of my Catholic identity if the United States should perish from the earth. As far as I have been able to tell from afar, the Orthodox find it difficult to make any similar distinction.

To put this in very pragmatic terms, it is always easier to play the “why can’t we all just get along” card when you represent the interests of an invader than when you are attempting to defend yourself against invasion. For better or worse—and by a Catholic it must, I think, be deemed for worse—the Russian Orthodox are historically closely tied with the ambitions of Russia herself. They also believe they have spiritual authority over all within the purview of Russia—by Divine right.

This is why the Russian Orthodox Church, like all of the regional Orthodox churches, has such a severe antipathy to any reunion with Rome among its members, as evidenced by this particular official’s jaundiced reference to the Union of Brest; there is a similar antipathy to the expansion of Catholicism (whether Eastern or Roman) among the Christians of the Orthodox territories. This is always denounced as proselytism, in the worst possible sense of the word. It violates the essential territorialism of Orthodoxy.

Relationships and their Implications

Our differences on this point will become clear if we examine both Orthodox and Catholic reactions to the winning of converts by the other party. The Catholic is saddened by Orthodoxy, and by conversions to Orthodoxy, because this spiritual trajectory emphasizes partiality and particularity over against the universality of Christ and His Church. But it is not too much to say that the Orthodox believer is outraged by Catholicism, and by defections to Catholicism, because they perceive this trajectory as violating the territorial prerogatives which define Orthodoxy.

It would seem the original apostles, who went just about everywhere, must be left to turn in their graves. But it is not necessary to enter into a fundamental theological discussion to fear—with ample precedent—that the leaders of Russian Orthodoxy are not likely to be reliable when it comes to judging the motives of those who resist the expansion of the Russian State—the very State which has a unique and privileged relationship to Russian Orthodoxy. And it just so happens that, while the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was granted a certain independence in 1990, it is still under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Patriarch in, well, Moscow.

Now it is true that people of all religions tend to confuse their patriotic loyalties with the will of God. There have been plenty of Catholic bishops (not to mention Catholic lay people) who have failed to see moral duty clearly when it involves the policies of their own countries. There have been even more who have acquiesced in immoral policies because of political pressures and the threat of legal punishment. And there have been more still who have simply allowed themselves to be badly formed by the false cultures which dominate the countries they call home.

But in Orthodoxy, this slavish obedience to what we might call the exigencies of territory is fueled not only by the world, which we can understand so easily, but by the precepts of religion itself. By all accounts, moreover, the spiritual dangers of this territorial obeisance are nowhere more pronounced than in Russian Orthodoxy.

The upshot? I can hardly guarantee that every Catholic word and action is good and true, but it may well be that anyone on God’s green earth who is not Russian Orthodox will tend toward moral and spiritual approval of the alleged fractiousness of the Catholics of the Ukraine. It is just such as these whom the Orthodox dismiss as “uniate”, because they were once Eastern Orthodox but were later reunited with Rome. Used by the Orthodox, the term uniate is typically derogatory.

What we must understand is that there is an agenda here. It is not an agenda which, by their own lights, the Russian Orthodox find inimical to true religion. In fact, they regard it as part and parcel of true religion. But it is an agenda which deeply colors their spiritual judgment, and it is substantially territorial in nature.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Jun. 06, 2014 10:15 AM ET USA

    Most excellent, Dr. Jeff. This post meets the My Cousin Vinny standard indeed.

  • Posted by: jacobtoo - Jun. 05, 2014 4:58 AM ET USA

    I'd love to see a debate between you and Patrick Buchanan.

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