Transnational Religions: The Roman Catholic Church in Brazil & the Orthodox Church in Russia

Ralph Della Cava

Ralph Della Cava (*)

This essay examines several current issues facing the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil and the Russian Orthodox Church in the post-Soviet, multi-ethnic republic that is today called the Russian Federation. To the extent possible, I shall treat both the issues and institutions comparatively, even if selectively and almost solely out of a concern for contemporary “transnational” religions, a subject I have explored since the mid-nineteen eighties and do so again here.

This essay examines several current issues facing the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil and the Russian Orthodox Church in the post-Soviet, multiethnic republic that is today called the Russian Federation. To the extent possible, I shall treat both the issues and institutions comparatively, even if selectively and almost solely out of a concern for contemporary “transnational” religions, a subject I have explored since the mid-nineteen eighties and do so again here.

By way of prologue, it should suffice to say that for whatever their differences both the Catholic and Orthodox churches under discussion are the dominant religious organizations in their countries. Each contends that better than eighty percent of their citizenry “belongs” to one and the other faith (even though less than five percent of their ascribed membership actually attends Sunday worship).

Moreover, despite their claims to numbers, the top leadership of each confession is currently engaged in working out new sets of arrangements with both the state-system and the civil societies in which they operate. For a variety of reasons, earlier modi operandi have ceased to be effective. In fact, they fell into disuse quite abruptly (although for very different reasons) as regime changes took place over the last decade. The “return to democracy” in Brazil and the collapse of communist rule in Russia respectively proved in some ways to be more of an impediment than a boon to each church. As a result, both have been left with the heavy burden of “re-inventing” themselves and of finding their place in significantly altered social orders.

Perhaps even more significantly, as the third Christian millennium commences, such seemingly different churches acknowledge that they now face a common threat. Call it “the new secularism.” Relentless in its onslaught, it is characterized by worldwide “commodification” at a hitherto unimagined speed and is driven forward by a now truly global system of mass communication.

In the face of this advance, churches grapple with a number of challenges. Just what kind of religious and ethical message could, should and must they work out for men and women of today? How, too, can they best get that message across in a highly competitive marketplace of ideas and cultural goods dominated by global media over which neither confession has much influence and even less control? Those are the questions which make up the order of the day for the intellectuals and administrators of both institutions, notwithstanding the greater disadvantage Russian Orthodoxy faces compared to Brazilian Catholicism when it comes to access to local and transnational resources.

Transnational Religions

In fact, we might begin our discussion by considering the “transnational” character of both institutions. By “transnational,” I refer to the structures and capacity of organized religions to move and circulate ideas, manpower and finances across the state-system and the capitalist-world economy. To some extent the Roman Catholic Church is the prototype of a “transnational,” the historical development of which we have no time to go into now (Della Cava 1993a and 1993b).

Often, but not always, it is in the core area countries of the world-system — to employ Immanuel Wallerstein’s framework here heuristically — that the more dynamic and wealthy units of a world church are situated. Such units might even reflect the policies and interests of core area states towards those in the periphery and semi-periphery, but not always, nor necessarily. For the most part, churches in the several, core countries act now separately from, now in concert with, both states and one another in providing resources to less welt-off sister churches, usually found in the periphery.

As a unit within world Catholicism, the Brazilian church has drawn substantially on the diverse “outside” resources typically made available by transnational religions. First, there is a large body of ideas, continually being generated and updated (in this instance, by Catholic universities, seminaries and research centers, etc.) on a wide range of public and religious issues. Second, there are highly mobile and well-trained manpower reserves in the form of missionaries, clerical and lay, male and female. Last, funding, channeled through a wide variety of related international relief and charitable agencies, is quite often made available for what might be considered strictly “national” needs and policies of a local church. Additionally, Catholicism is in the unique position among all contemporary world religions of also having a centralized administration, the Stato della Citta del Vaticano, that is universally recognized as part of the current state-system. As a result, it may at times derive benefits for it s ecclesiastical interests by invoking its role as a state (and vice versa). Since the end of World War II, the Brazilian church has been one of the principal beneficiaries of this global structure.

For all that the Russian church is part of world Orthodoxy, the latter cannot in the strictest sense be characterized as a “transnational.” For one, Orthodoxy consists of fifteen truly independent, national (or regional) churches. Each is headed by its own Patriarch and possesses full autonomy in all administrative and pastoral matters. For another, the Ecumenical Patriarch (of Constantinople), who presides over all of Orthodoxy (from a neighborhood enclave in today’s Istanbul) and who among believers is frequently thought of as the “patriarch of patriarchs,” solely enjoys a “primacy of respect.” Moreover, he is considered, unlike the Patriarch of the West, another title for the Pope and Bishop of Rome, neither infallible, nor the chief executive officer of a world community of faith. In fact, in matters of faith and morals, he is powerless to make utterances on his own, but rather is subject to and serves as a bearer of the decisions of Orthodoxy’s world (or ecumenical) councils of bishops (however rarely th ey have in fact been convened).

Lastly, the Ecumenical Patriarch can draw in no significant way on the largesse of sister churches in core areas (except perhaps from among those of Orthodox faithful in mostly emigre communities, such as the Greek, scattered throughout the wealthy states of the core area). In fact, the most populous and numerous Orthodox churches are found today in the former “communist bloc” and are for the most part resource-shy, if not also resource-needy.

Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism in the Russian Federation

Now, as in the past, I have argued that this transnational character of modern religions is also a major, if not decisive, defining feature of local constituencies or congregations. Of course, it would fly in the face of reason and reality to argue that there is only “religion from above.” But, to insist on the primacy of a paradigm of “religion from below” is to miss the central feature of organized religions: their inescapable tendency towards unity and universality in both doctrine and structure.

With such caveats in mind, let me press my case here for the significance of transnational religions by offering a few concrete examples with regard to the course of recent events in both churches under review.

First, let us turn to Russia. In Russia, the 1990 Soviet Law on Religious Liberty and Freedom of Conscience and the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union into fifteen independent republics put the Russian Orthodox Church (hereinafter abbreviated as ROC) at sixes and sevens (Davis 1995; Della Cava 1997b).

First of all, it found itself momentarily short of cadres. Virtually overnight better than a third of its some seven thousand priests, bishops, and seminarians at the time were re-incorporated into once suppressed confessions of the newly independent republics. Not a few returned to the newly legal, once dissident Orthodox and the (Ukrainian) Greek Catholic (or so-called Uniate) churches of Western Ukraine or to the Roman Catholic of Belarus.

As a result, the Moscow Patriarchate, which — as the highest administrative agency of the church — had presided for several decades over Orthodoxy throughout the entire USSR, found its hegemony challenged. True, orthodox communities in many former soviet republics continued for the most part to recognize the authority of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. But movements for autocephaly (or full church autonomy independent of the Moscow Patriarchate) arose in Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova and continue even today to grow stronger.

Second, from within the ranks of the Russian church, factionalism also erupted. Some lower clergy acerbically accused members of the hierarchy of “collaboration” with the intelligence agencies of the former communist state. Many others, more open to the West, championed at their peril ecumenical contacts with non-Orthodox denominations. These later proved to extend well beyond the formal, increasingly narrowly defined, limits acceptable to the Patriarchate.

Finally, the church found itself initially short of funds. The loss of its more numerous church-going parishioners in the fore-mentioned, former soviet republics, but especially in Ukraine, and the termination of ROC’s status as a partially subsidized institution of the soviet state, put an abrupt end to its admittedly small, but steady source of financing.

Contrast the above situation, if only briefly, to the reestablishment of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia with its fewer than half a million communicants. A diplomatic protocol between the Vatican and the Soviet State (just before the latter’s demise) established two Apostolic Administrations, one in Moscow for European Russia, another in Novosibirsk for all of Siberia. Within months, two archbishops (both former Soviet citizens who now claim Russian nationality) were named to the posts. (1)Within a year, some two hundred priests and a hundred nuns drawn from the world over, but chiefly from Poland, were manning scores of new and restored parishes. In the ensuing decade, significant funding from West European and US churches, but chiefly from that of Germany, has poured in to rebuild several historic churches, re-establish and support a seminary, create an institute of higher religious studies and found both a weekly newspaper and a bimonthly computer-based news service.

Russian Orthodoxy: Weak Links within the Oecumene?

It is not that the Russian church had no transnational links. But they were few, and in a critical political sense were either “counter-productive” or “inadequate,” terms that I shall employ here provisionally for want of others more apt.

Chief among the “counter-productive” has been ROC’s link to the World Council of Churches (WCC). Of course, many Orthodox churches have long belonged to the largely Protestant, Geneva-based conclave. For its part, the Russian church has been a member since the 1960s, motivated in part out of a shared institutional stand for world peace. As a notable goal of Soviet foreign policy at that time, its espousal by high church authorities in international forums was admittedly ambiguous. Today, it is widely argued that such was “the price her leaders were paying for being allowed to carry on real pastoral activities, for caring for the souls of believers”(Pospielovsky 1984:317-18). And, it might be added, it was also the price for taking an active part in worldwide religious bodies and activities in general.

But by the early 1990s, the WCC had shifted its priorities. Increasingly, “Third World” issues receded and such “First World” issues as the ordination of women, same-sex marriage, and the use of all-inclusive, non-sexist terminology in worship and biblical language came to dominate one recent general assembly after another. Some Orthodox, doctrinally at odds with those positions, repeatedly threatened to sever ties and then did so. In 1997, Georgians and Bulgarians were the first to leave. For their part, the Russians responded with a plan for extensive reforms. At their heart were the end to WCC’s simple majority rule (which favored Protestant confessions) and the adoption of a non-binding agreement on theological questions. Such measures would turn the Council into a “forum”. and put an end to its former “legislative” function. Should these not take effect by 2001, ROC may eventually find itself forced to join the walkout (Gundayev 1999; Doogue 1999).

Not only has theology been at issue, but so too religious toleration and pluralism. The 1990 Soviet religious law restored freedom of religion and conscience in Russia — to all. With this, many of the Russian church’s one-time Protestant allies (some from within the WCC) rushed headlong to the “rescue of religion in Russia,” — hardly as “allies,” but rather as missionaries — for the advancement of their own confessions. They competed so effectively — although from the angered perspective of the ROC, they had merely “bought up souls” with their overflowing coffers (a charge hurled with equal adamancy of late against Roman Catholics) — that a turf war for converts swiftly ensued (Filatov and Vorontsova 2000).

The WCC executive was in a bind. It successfully prevailed on such mainline, member denominations as Lutherans and Presbyterians that Russia was already Christian and not a “mission field,”(however “lapsed” seven decades of state-sponsored atheism might have made its nominal members). But it frankly fared badly with almost all the fundamentalists, the fastest growing world-wide segment of reformation Christianity and today the most militant and ubiquitous missionary entrepreneurs found in almost all the republics of the former USSR.

Fundamentalists, chiefly among them the Pentecostals, had long ago boycotted the WCC. But for more than a decade the Geneva leadership has assiduously engaged them in a dialogue that has brought their delegates to recent Assemblies. In the end, that institutional pursuit on the part of the WCC — partly out of the need to shore up both its flagging membership rolls and partly its own claim to universality — contributed in no small measure to ROC’s disaffection.

It also helped propel the Russian church to take stiff measures at home against “foreign missionaries.” From 1993 on, it intensively lobbied the Russian Duma to scrap the 1990 Soviet law on religious freedom. To that end, ROC went so far as to court openly its one-time persecutors, the Communist Party, until in 1997, a new and highly controversial law, severely restricting the activities of foreign religious personnel and organizations, was passed. Since then this so-called “new law” has been the object of a worldwide campaign for revision by human rights organizations as well as by the United States government. But in the meantime, the new law has effectively enabled ROC to put into place — thanks to this legislative norm of the Russian state and the cooperation of local officials — a virtual “territorial monopoly” throughout the Russian Federation largely for the benefit its own confession (Witte, Jr. and Bourdeaux 1999).

Russian Orthodoxy: Weak Links to Sister Churches?

ROC’s other transnational links were “inadequate.” Those to Russian Orthodox communities in Western Europe and the United States, small both in number and size, simply could not summon up the massive resources required to rebuild Orthodoxy in Russia. Moreover, from several points of view, they could not have been more diametrically at odds with many current policies of the ROC. First, their three major seminaries — in Crestwood, New York (outside New York City), Paris and Oxford — are theologically liberal, ideologically ecumenical, and culturally assimilationist and pluralistic. The works of their most respected theologians and thinkers are not only still unavailable in most of Russia’s seminaries, but are also viewed by many hierarchs as heretical. In 1998, several were ordered burned in public by the Bishop of Ekaterinburg, who was dismissed a year later for reasons not entirely bearing on the incident.

In many respects, these communities “beyond the borders” (zarubezhnie) share much more in common with ROC’s liberal and ecumenically-minded lower clergy and their parishioners of Moscow and St. Petersburg. A minority in numbers and outlook within the Russian church, many of the faithful had converted to Orthodoxy from atheism in the religiously heady decades of the seventies and eighties when faith was a badge of political opposition. But the Patriarchate has remained thoroughly suspicious of this faction’s substantial foreign financing (particularly from Roman Catholics as well as Europe’s liberal Protestant denominations) and of its “Western” ideas and sympathies. So, it has systematically disciplined some of its priests, suspended others (from holy orders), and effectively isolated many of its outstanding intellectuals.

Second, the Communist subordination of ROC during the Cold War led the overseas churches in England and France (and later in the United States.) to sever their ties with the Moscow Patriarchate and “re-incorporate” (so to say) under the aegis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. When, however, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Constantinople turned a sympathetic ear to the appeal of the churches in newly independent Estonia and Ukraine for full ecclesiastical autonomy from the Russian church, a major and still lingering malintesa between the Ecumenical and Moscow authorities arose. Whatever influence the West European Orthodox churches might have had was thus significantly diminished, if not eclipsed.

Church Finances: The State and Society

One last issue remains: the question of finances. In view of ROC’s “counterproductive” and “inadequate” links beyond the “nation-state,” it must be asked just how in the last decade the Russian church could proceed to build or rebuild its physical infrastructure. Today in Moscow alone it encompasses some 404 church buildings, a nine-fold increase since 1988. Or where did it find the estimated three hundred million dollars for reconstructing Christ the Saviour, the monumental cathedral and fast-becoming national symbol of religion’s triumph over atheism? Projected in 1813 by Czar Alexander I to commemorate Russia’s victory over Napoleon, the original edifice was demolished by Stalin in 1931 and its foundations turned into an outdoor swimming pool on the Kremlin bank of the Moskva River (Popov. 1994). Or finally how did it pay for the training and salaries that contributed to the eventual increase in clerical personnel — from fewer than 7,397 priests and deacons in 1988 to 17,084 at the start of 1998? (2)

In the absence of significant resources from abroad, ROC cut two important deals at home: one with the state, another with the so-called “New Russians,” that emergent class of capitalist entrepreneurs. The state offered the church tax concessions and rebates, the exceptional right to import “humanitarian aid” free of excise, the return of its pre-revolutionary properties (greatly reduced in numbers and almost always limited to church buildings in disrepair), and limited subsidies for the restoration of church buildings. The “New Russians,” above all, the country’s wealthiest bankers, chief executives of oil and gas companies, the flamboyant Mayor of Moscow, and many a financial wizard, have largely made hefty donations to the Patriarchate to refurbish one or another church of the capital.

And what did ROC offer in exchange? Its critics charge that the Church has turned a blind eye to widespread corruption in public and private places. Or that it unabashedly and overtly supported the electoral campaigns and policies of President Boris Yeltsin (Chaplin 1999). And finally that it shamelessly cozied up to Communist deputies to pass the 1997 new law on religion. Moreover, these same critics point to recent financial scandals involving key church leaders, hushed up by ROC and not prosecuted by the authorities, in order to reinforce their contention that the church has once again become supine handmaiden and blind defender of the state — not the faith (Bychkov 1999a).

Catholicism in Brazil: Finances and ideology

On this issue of financing, let us now turn to Brazil to consider this and some of the other variables along which we have just reviewed the recent history of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

The experience of the Catholic Church in Brazil suggests that while transnational funding is far more substantial, it may assure local recipient religious institutions of no greater independence than were they to rely for support on a single state or the wealthy private sector. From the mid-nineteen seventies until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Brazilian church was probably the single largest beneficiary of worldwide Roman Catholic philanthropy.

The country’s size only partly justified its greater share. There was also the compelling appeal to Catholics, especially in West Europe, of the dynamics of Brazilian Catholicism at that time. “Base ecclesial communities” were attempting to reorganize the church from the bottom up. Liberation Theology set forth the faith as an arm to free men from poverty and injustice as welt as from sin. Bishops stood up to generals, denounced torture, supported human rights, defended pluralism and took the lead in re-organizing and protecting civil society. That “revolution” — both in the image and reality of the Brazilian, and by extension, the entire Latin American church — ultimately helped greatly guarantee the flow of resources year in year Out (Della Cava 1989).

Until the nineties, that is. For, once the Berlin Wall had fallen (1989), all Central Europe, with significant Catholic populations, swiftly came into its own and was at last fully accessible. The response from West European confreres was instantaneous. Germany, the region’s richest Catholic nation as well as its historic major power, is a prime example. Decades before, its bishops had created Misereor, one of seven powerful charitable agencies under direct episcopal control that financed Catholic development projects throughout the world and especially in Latin America. But, by April 1993, previously loose arrangements to aid Central Europe were formalized into an eighth agency, Renovabis. For the past seven years, German Catholic funding — as well as Dutch, Swiss and Austrian, Italian and French, albeit in lesser amounts — has helped raise churches, establish seminaries, open health clinics, orphanages and old age homes, and centers for the care of refugees from Pilsen to Vladivostok (Della Cava 1997a).

By the same token, funds to Latin America have remained static, if not entered in relative decline (Mirror 2000). In Brazil, financing the base communities, especially its periodic assemblies (the tenth of which since 1975 took place in July 2000), appears to have held its own (Beozzo 2000); that to prominent Liberation Theology projects has tapered off. Only the Movimento Sem Terra, a politically militant movement for agrarian reform, comprised of rural workers and small landowners who enjoy the support of both the Catholic and Lutheran hierarchies, continues to be a major recipient. Exactly what consequences the shift of world funds from projects in the “South” to those in Central and East Europe may have had on grass-roots church activities, remains to be fully documented (Gomes de Souza 1999). But such turnarounds, corresponding to wider geopolitical changes, illustrate the precariousness and political fickleness of transnational support.

The Brazilian Church and World Religious Changes

Of course, West Europe’s rush to refashion a “Greater Europe” — so as eventually to include the countries of the former “Communist Bloc” and perhaps Russia itself — is not solely responsible for the reallocation of resources to East Europe and their decrease to Brazil. Rather, it is just as likely linked to or, in the least, coincides with the current outcome of a major, on-going ideological controversy that has torn at the entire Catholic Church, particularly since the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965). I refer to the debate over the social commitment of the church in the modern world. Over the short run, church progressives seemed to have been winning it; over the middle run, they were badly routed even if not entirely defeated. Indeed, by 1984, several of their leading exponents had been silenced, their writings deemed doctrinally “in error,” and their pastoral movements, especially in Brazil, attacked as “political” and insufficiently pastoral (Della Cava 1992a).

At about the same time, a score of so-called “new religious movements” had won firm papal support. Rooted largely in West Europe and marked by a religious and social conservatism that was and is starkly at odds with Liberation Theology, they set Out to displace progressives. By the late nineties, one of these, a largely lay undertaking, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, had come to enjoy significant influence in most of the parishes of Brazil’s approximately 300 dioceses (Della Cava 1992b). That new direction has yet to be satisfactorily explained.

But, to the relief (and rescue) of many of Brazil’s three-hundred or more bishops, the Charismatics had at least brought middle class cadres, many disaffected by Liberation Theology, back into the day-to-day running of the institution, especially at the local level. Their appeal may have also been responsible for reversing the decades-long decline of candidates to the priesthood. Moreover, the Charismatics’ form of worship, both festive and participatory, both mystery-filled and miracle-working, seemed at last to have given Catholicism a competitive chance with fast-growing Protestant Pentecostalism.

Nor has the Vatican been disappointed. It had long contended that the blame for the ebbing over the past decades of Catholicism’s religious monopoly throughout Latin America lay squarely with the singular, capital excess of the progressives: they had substituted the people’s “tried and true” faith and “down-home” religion with Marxism.

Checkmating Pentecostalism and internal dissidents is one thing. The restoration of one-time, territorially based, religious monopolies is another. Indeed, the latter — like the ancien regime — is just as unlikely ever again to come to pass — be it in Brazil or Russia, political lobbying and special legislation notwithstanding.

Moreover, the European wing of world Catholicism is swiftly making itself over, cognizant as it is of its own minority status not only within Europe and around the globe, but also even within some agencies of the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s administrative arm. No longer the hegemonic faith of a small, once triumphant Christian outpost of earth, West European Catholicism is fashioning a future role for the Church in world affairs more along moral rather than doctrinal lines. Thus, it presents itself as the ethical standard-bearer of a planetary civil society, a champion of social justice, and defender of human rights, regardless of confession, race, or nationality (Casanova 1997). Italy’s renowned “Vatican-watcher,” Marco Politi, considers this new direction “a card Catholicism cannot allow itself to lose….”(Politi 1999).

That, in part, is why the Brazilian church’s progressives are still not entirely out of the picture. Their earlier yeoman’s role in defining Brazil’s civil society, their continuing (but ebbing) influence over the National Conference of Brazil’s Bishops, and their retention of crucial positions within its permanent secretariat (roundly defeating the conservatives’ bid for control in one election after another) in part explain their “staying power.”

But, it is precisely their recent and resonating effort to restructure the church as the “Moral Watchdog” of Brazilian society — as Kenneth Serbin (1998) has so perceptively pointed Out — that is also entirely consistent with the “make-over” now in progress in Europe. Indeed, this “harmony of interests” has understandably won them support from progressive elements both within Brazil and the world church. In this regard, links to the “Universal Church,” to its ongoing, clashing debates, to the forming (and reforming) of factions across the world order over the church’s role in society, and a commitment (or resignation) to a pluralistic world do indeed stand progressives in good stead. In fact, they remain the direct heirs to the openness of Vatican Council II and to the continuing process of “aggiornamento” (i.e., “updating” the church to modern times) and they have successfully invoked these principles (however much they continue to be under attack) as justification for their pursuits.

Updating Orthodoxy: Constraints of Past and Present

But what can be said of “aggiornamento” in the Orthodox world, an issue that is not without controversy? Indeed, the Russian Church finds itself at a doubly difficult impasse.

First of all, World Orthodoxy, as a global community, has yet to take a collective stab at “up-dating” itself. A synodal church (run by bishops), bound doctrinally by a council system (all decisions on matters of faith can only be taken by a world council), modern Orthodoxy still abides in many respects by the canons of Christianity’s first seven ecumenical councils held between 325 and 787 AD (Clement 1995).

The intent to catch up with the times is certainly not wanting. The remarkable steps already taken by the Ecumenical Patriarch, His Holiness Bartholomeos I, to lend Orthodoxy’s prestige to protect the environment, renew theological education, and promote closer ties with the Vatican and the World Council of Churches point to several possible future directions. But his repeated attempts to bring together all sister churches in a world (or ecumenical) council on the occasion of the start of the Third Christian Millennium have floundered.

Reasons can only be adumbrated here. One is the financial and institutional weakness of Constantinople. Another is the priority which national churches in the former “communist bloc” have found necessary to accord to the restoration of religious life and property and the re-strengthening of ecclesiastical authority and institutions. Still another is the widespread ideological resistance and frequent outright hostility of many monastic communities — of singular importance to Orthodox spirituality and still the primary source of recruitment of future bishops — to most forms of change. Finally, not to be dismissed, is the still bitter rivalry between the patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow, the latter often invoking its standing as Orthodoxy’s single largest church in an apparent bid for greater influence over the Orthodox world (Prusher 2000).

The other impasse confronting Russian Orthodoxy is that for most of the last three centuries, it has elaborated virtually no modernizing “blueprint” of its own on which to fall back. Peter the Great ruthlessly transformed the church, blocking the election of a Patriarch (since 1700) and in 1721 turning the Holy Synod, the church’s chief interim executive body, into a mere administrative arm of government. His successors largely followed suit.

Only in the twentieth century, as the last Czar abdicated and the Bolshevik Revolution got underway, did ROC’s bishops briefly free themselves of state control. But, neither their successful reinstatement of the Patriarchal office nor the restoration of the ecclesiastical character of the Synod proved lasting. Internal church differences erupted and soon thereafter the Bolsheviks’ notorious persecution of religion relentlessly ensued (Pospielovsky 1984, v. 1:25-41, 193-248 and v. 11:301 if).

Indeed, the 1943 “patriotic union” of church and state (initiated by ROC) on behalf of the war effort and the state’s 1945 concession to the church of limited public space in exchange for its active support abroad of Soviet foreign policy did not end ROC’s political subjugation. Under the tenure of Communist Party Secretary, Nikita Krushchev, the anti-religious campaigns of the fifties and sixties were re-ignited and proved uncommonly destructive (Pospielovsky 1997).

Not even after a later successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, the author of “glasnost,” officially promoted the 1988 celebration of the Millennium of the Slays’ Conversion to Christianity, was such a fundamental policy essentially altered. For example, the 1990 “election” of the fifth patriarch in modern times (the currently presiding head of the church, His Holiness Aleksiy II) was reportedly marked by direct state interference and manipulation.

Russian Orthodoxy: “Reform from Above”?

Did the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the unexpectedly new won religious freedom bring ROC any closer to church reform? A now historic 1917 plan of the bishops to convene a “Local Council” (or pornestniy sobor), a national church’s most authoritative assemblage (and the only vehicle proper to “modernize” doctrine and practice), had been short-circuited by the October Revolution. Recently revived, it barely speaks to the current realities of the Russian Church. Nor do the conclusions of councils held in this century by overseas churches “in the West.” Indeed, since 1991, ROC has had to face up to sharply reduced numbers of believers after seven decades of Soviet rule, economic hardships experienced under the new Russian Federation, and costly conflicts between internal factions. Perhaps precisely because of their immediate insolubility, members of the current Holy Synod finally decided in July 1999 to postpone the much discussed and eagerly hoped for convention (in June 2000) of the Loca l Council (Bychkov 1999b).

As an interim alternative, however, a special drafting commission of the Moscow Patriarchate, mandated by the bishops at their 1994 meeting, was finally constituted in 1997. Its task has been to set down Russian Orthodoxy’s views on church, state and society. Experts from various walks of life were hastily recruited to draft position papers on a variety of issues. But the brunt of the labors, conducted largely behind closed doors, fell to a handful of handpicked collaborators of Archbishop Kirill, the prominent Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, a permanent member of ROC’s governing Holy Synod, and longtime director of the Moscow Patriarchate’s powerful Office of External Church Affairs (Gundayev 2000).

Fifty-three years of age, a brilliant orator, and already a prominent personality on both the national political scene and the international church circuit, Kirill is invariably viewed by friends and foes alike as the “power behind the throne” and the “second most powerful churchman in Russia.” He is widely accused of coveting the post of Patriarch. That is partly the reason his motives and deeds have almost always come under greater scrutiny by the press and give rise to endless rumor in political and ecclesiastical circles.

Nonetheless, with regard to “up-dating” the Russian church, Kirill’s strategy appears to be anchored in two objectives. First, it aims to neutralize warring factions within the church. An ultra-nationalist, xenophobic wing has proven particularly troublesome. Over the past decade, it has publicly badgered the Patriarch into striking down progressives, while boxing him into awkward silences on certain political and social issues for which not only the progressive, but also the moderate wings had desperately and unsuccessfully sought the hierarchy’s sanction (Pospielovsky 1998).

Kirill’s second objective may be to avoid replicating the experience of the Roman church. Mindful of the last three decades of turmoil and divisions thrust upon Roman Catholicism in the aftermath of Vatican Council II, a “declaration of reform” by an in-house committee might ably, even if only temporarily, forestall a similar fate on Russian soil that a Local Council could conceivably precipitate. In any case, no new date for convening that Council has even been proposed.

The special commission’s final document was to be made public at the August 2000 meeting of the triennial bishops’ conference (archiiereiskiy sobor), (Zenit 1999). (3) Reactions to it — from all quarters — will need time to run their course. Until they do, the direction and pace of church reform in Russia are likely to remain significantly unchanged.

Transnational Religions: Broader Frameworks

At best, the preceding comparison of two churches has pointed up some of the links and trade-offs within transnational religions. However, the essay has intentionally neglected three additional dimensions on which such religions could well stand to be examined (separately or at the same time). The larger societal setting is a rather obvious one. Another is the radically changing status (perhaps, even the encroachment) of non-Christian, transnational religions within and on Christianity’s historic spaces (and to which both institutions discussed here have increasingly turned their attention).

The third is the “new secularism” to which I alluded earlier. A list of even only the latest church declarations on the subject would hardly fit on these pages (even though perhaps on few other matters are the views of Catholics and Orthodox more in harmony). Moreover, one need not look far to sense the threat that the new secularism poses for religious life and values. Anyone walking the streets of Moscow in September 1999 could not have missed it. Nor did the Roman Catholic bishops of West, Central and East Europe. At their critical meetings in Rome the following October, the optimism of many was quickly tempered by the caution of a few, who, claiming to have seen the future, named it “despair” (Allen, Jr. 1999).

(*.) Direct correspondence to Ralph Della Cava at An earlier version of this text was originally delivered as a talk at the University of San Diego (CA.) on 30 November 1999. I am grateful to Dr. Kenneth Serbin, Professor of History and Director of the TransBorder Institute for the invitation to do so to the audiences at USD for their comments and questions. May I also extend my deep appreciation to Sofiya Darmanyan, Aleksandr and Irina Panov, Franco Sebasti, and Courtney and Marco Della Cava for their hospitality during preparation and writing of this essay.

(1.) In 1999, a protocol between the Vatican and the Russian Federation was signed granting two additional jurisdictions, one in Saratov, the other in Irkutsk, respectively, for the European and Siberian parts of Russia; both are administered by bishops.

(2) Statistics are from the Communications Service of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Office for External Church Affairs, made available at the beginning of 1997 and 1998. The 1990 figure, reflecting the return of former “Orthodox” clergymen to the then newly legalized dissident Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches, especially in Ukraine, is estimated to be better than a third less than in 1988.

(3.) On 22 June 2000, the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations issued a press release, entitled “Symposium on Church and Society — 2000.” It delineated the fifteen topics, which the final document will treat. They are: basic theological provisions; Church and nations; Church and state; Christian ethics and secular law; Church and politics; labor and its fruits; ownership; war and peace; crime, punishment, reformation; personal, family and social morality; problems of bio-ethics; Church and ecological problems; secular science, culture, education; international relations; problems of globalization and secularism.


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—–. 1992b. The ten year crusade toward the third Christian millennium: An account of Evangelization 2000 and Lumen 2000. In The right and democracy in Latin America, edited by D. A. Chalmers, M. DoCarmo Campello De Souza, and A. Boron, 202-22. Westport, CT, New York and London: Praeger.

—–.1993a. Thinking about current Vatican policy in Central and East Europe and the utility of the ‘Brazilian paradigm.’ Journal of Latin American Studies 25:257-81.

—–.1993b. Financing the faith: The case of Roman Catholicism. Journal of Church and State 35:37-59.

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—–. 1997a. Religious resource networks: Roman Catholic philanthropy in Central and East Europe. In Transnational religion and fading states, edited by S. H. Rudolph and J. Piscatori, 173-211. Boulder, CO, and Oxford: Westview Press.

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(Gundayev), Kirill. 1999. [Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, Director of ROC’s Department of External Church Relations]. On a possible structure of the World Council of Churches – proposals for discussion. Ecumenical Review (October): as transmitted on-line by the Holy Trinity Orthodox News Service of San Francisco, CA.

—–. 2000. Standard of faith as norm of life: The problem of the relationship between traditional and liberal values in individual and social choice. Nezavisimala Gazata, 16-17 February: as transmitted in an on-line translation by the Holy Trinity Orthodox News Service of San Francisco, CA.

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COPYRIGHT 2001 Association for the Sociology of Religion

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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