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Putin Calls to Increase the Public Role of the Orthodox Church

Anna Krestyn - published on 02/05/13

What can we take away from this example of cooperation between the Church and State?

February 1, 2013 marked the fourth anniversary of the election of Kirill as Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, an event which was formally commemorated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin, who has increasingly supported the Russian Orthodox Church over the course of his twelve year rule, emphasized the need for the Church to exert her influence in the areas of “supporting families and mothers, raising and educating children, youth policy, resolving the many social problems [facing Russia], and strengthening the patriotic spirit in the Armed Forces.”

Ties between the Russian state and the Orthodox Church have grown increasingly strong since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The promotion of traditional moral values has become part of the political discourse, and in the past year, a number of legislative proposals for things such as “respect for religious feelings” have appeared.

“We are a secular state of course,” Putin said at a meeting last Friday with Kirill, “and cannot allow state life and church life to merge, but at the same time, we must avoid too, a vulgar and primitive interpretation of what being secular means.… Traditional values, believers’ religious feelings, and people’s rights, freedoms, and dignity must all be protected by both the power of public opinion and the power of the law,” he said.

Kirill, in his speech, said that he particularly noted “how the dialogue between the state and the Church has developed over this time.” The Patriarch continued: “This dialogue has helped us to resolve many issues that have a direct bearing on the lives of the people you spoke of just now. This dialogue is not about abstract matters after all, but is about what directly concerns people’s lives: the state of their souls and level of their morals. Most important of all is that quality of life cannot be measured in material terms only, but has a spiritual dimension too. I think that the church-state relations in Russia show that the Church can carry out its service in full and support our people in their spiritual life, and help them materially too where needed.”

While some applaud this growing cooperation between the church and state in Russia, others see it as a dangerous blurring of a necessary separation between these two powers. Many, including in the Western nations, fear that the presence of religion in the public forum will work against the freedom of society.

According to Catholic teaching, the Church exists to bring the truth about God and man not only to individuals but also to nations. “Christ, to be sure, gave his Church no proper mission in the political, economic or social order. The purpose which he set before her is a religious one. But out of this religious mission itself comes a function, a light and an energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to the divine law” (Gaudium et Spes, 42).

The Church, then, as the visible sign of Christ in the world has a mission to teach the truth concerning every aspect of human life, including social, economic, and political. She exists to serve humanity, and to enlighten it as to its true identity and calling. “The whole Church, in all her being and acting – when she proclaims, when she celebrates, when she performs works of charity – is engaged in promoting integral human development. She has a public role” (Caritas in Veritate, 11).

The true development of man and of nations can never advance through a purely secular vision of humanity. As witnessed by the atheistic ideologies of the past century, such as Marxism and socialism, a vision of humanity without God does drastic harm to the human person. “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation” (Caritas in Veritate, 5). Yet “the vulgar interpretation of secularism,” as Putin called it, is still alive and well.

“Today,” says Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, “we have witnessed a movement in recent years away from the appreciation of the basic religious values that underpin our culture, our society and our laws. In place of the religious values accepted and expressed by a great variety of faith communities, we face today the assertion of the need to substitute a so-called secular frame of reference within which public policy should be articulated. It is as if we were supposed to paint over all of those road signs, erase all of our roots and start over – this time without God…. Indeed, the secular model as the sole model for public political discourse fails us. The secular model is not sufficient to sustain a true reflection of who we are as a people. Every culture in human history that has endured has recognized as innate to the human experience the need for a transcendent authority to sanction and recognize right from wrong.”

In reality, humanity is best served through a fruitful cooperation between church and state that recognizes the functions proper to each:

Although the Church and the political community both manifest themselves in visible organizational structures, they are by nature different because of their configuration and because of the ends they pursue.… The Church is organized in ways that are suitable to meet the spiritual needs of the faithful, while the different political communities give rise to relationships and institutions that are at the service of everything that is part of the temporal common good. The autonomy and independence of these two realities is particularly evident with regards to their ends.

The mutual autonomy of the Church and the political community does not entail a separation that excludes cooperation. Both of them, although by different titles, serve the personal and social vocation of the same human beings. The Church and the political community, in fact, express themselves in organized structures that are not ends in themselves but are intended for the service of man, to help him to exercise his rights fully, those inherent in his reality as a citizen and a Christian, and to fulfill correctly his corresponding duties. The Church and the political community can more effectively render this service “for the good of all if each works better for wholesome mutual cooperation in a way suitable to the circumstances of time and place” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 424-25).

It is the duty of the State to make just laws, according to the objective moral order. In complementary fashion, it is the responsibility of the Church to help form men’s consciences so that they are capable of making such laws, and to motivate them to make the necessary sacrifices for the common good. The Church clarifies the universal truths about human nature on the basis of reason and natural law (as well as on the authority of Christ) so that the State can apply these truths appropriately in concrete circumstances. The Church never imposes, but always proposes, and holds fast to the right to do so. Church leaders are bound to espouse the words of St. Paul: “Woe to me if I do not preach!” (I Cor. 9:16).

“Without engaging in politics,” says Benedict XVI, “the Church participates passionately in the battle for justice.  It corresponds to Christians involved in public service to always open, in their political action, new ways for justice. And beyond justice, man will always need love, which alone is able to give a soul to justice” (Famiglia Cristiana, February 5, 2006).

Putin’s call to protect the rights of the Russian Orthodox Church in the public forum shows a certain fitting appreciation of the ideal cooperation between these two entities – a cooperation which is the duty of each to seek.

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