Recent talks between Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis mark a turning point in Russian-Catholic relations, but it also raises many questions about the future of orthodox Christianity and its relationship with Rome.
The Russian Orthodox church has defied past suppressions and restrictions due to state control, yet it continues to struggle for identity in a modern world dominated by secular forces. At the heart of this conflict lies the issue of religious freedom.
1. The Church in the Modern World
Throughout the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church faced an uphill struggle against Communist government authorities. Though nominally neutral on religious matters, Moscow seemed more inclined to discourage organized religion and do everything it could to weaken its presence within society.
Despite numerous obstacles, the Russian Orthodox Church managed to endure and even thrive under Communist rule. During this period it was able to expand by opening many new churches, monasteries, and theological schools.
The Church also experienced an expansion in its emigre community. As a result, many people overseas became acquainted with Russia’s traditions – particularly its vibrant liturgy, prayerfulness, icons, and monastic life – through exposure.
Papkova notes that Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church has demonstrated more involvement in secular affairs than his predecessor did, yet the Church remains somewhat dependent on political influence.
2. The Church and Science
Many religions are wary of scientific advances, believing them to contradict biblical truths. On the contrary, the Catholic Church encourages and embraces scientific inquiry as a means of better comprehending our world on both macrocosmic and microcosmic scales.
The Moscow Patriarchate has long held that science and Christianity are inextricably linked. While some historians and philosophers have challenged this assertion, its basis rests in several historical events that demonstrate how Christian doctrines and beliefs have affected scientific inquiry by natural philosophers.
One of the most egregious examples of this religious soft power stance occurred in 2014 when President Vladimir Putin used the Ukraine crisis to claim that both nations shared a history rooted in Orthodox Christian faith.
Although not unique to Russia, the politicization of religion in the current Ukraine conflict is indicative of a wider trend. It illustrates how states can transform religious soft power into hard power tactics as necessary when faced with exigencies.
3. The Church and Politics
According to Irina Papkova, an assistant professor of religion and politics at Central European University who studies religion and politics, there is no formal separation in Russian politics. Unlike other Western countries with strong political traditions, Russia doesn’t have one, so the church has always played an influential role in politics.
Papkova asserts that the church has two sets of interests. One is a “staple list of demands from the state,” while another stems from factions within the church.
The Roman Catholic Church faces an increasingly challenging and precarious situation. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for it to maintain a viable ecclesiastical presence across all of its constituent churches, and the ROC appears increasingly disillusioned with its capacity for autonomy.
Patriarch Kirill’s stated support of Russia’s war in Ukraine is another major issue. He knows that his political ambitions are more important than principles, so he would rather hide them behind a facade of protecting persecuted Christians.
4. The Church and Culture
The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is the largest of all Orthodox churches, with approximately 80 percent of Russia’s population belonging to it. As a political force, ROC has had an influential role in Russian politics since the late 1990s.
In Russia, the Church is a powerful symbol of national identity. Images of Orthodox priests blessing buildings and military installations have become ubiquitous across the country.
In many instances, the Church has had an influential role in social policymaking. Its teachings on religious freedom and suppression of anti-Christian practices were influential factors in Soviet and post-Soviet politics.
In 2000, the Council of Russian Bishops released a document entitled Church-State Relations that outlines their official position regarding the relationship between religion and state. This comprehensive document covers cultural, moral, social, political issues that affect Orthodox Christians around the world. Editor’s Note: We believe this document deserves to be better known and studied outside Russia.