A 'Strategic Alliance'?
Orthodox / Roman Catholic collaboration against western militant secularism: its proposal, benefits and dangers
Since the mid-nineties, relations between the Orthodox Churches, particularly the Russian Orthodox Church and the various protestant confessions has cooled whilst relations with the Roman Catholic Church have warmed. This is largely because of the rapid liberalisation of the protestant state churches of Northern Europe. The post-Vatican II Catholic Church has also liberalised but there is still a long way to go to reach the dizzying abandonment of doctrine of other denominations; a surrender which has come in the face of the onslaught of militant secularism. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeev of the DECR of the ROC has stated that, in the West at least, the Roman Catholic Church is now "our ally" and that Christians are no longer so much divided by their jurisdictions as between 'liberals' and 'traditionalists', between whom now lies an unbridgeable gulf. Orthodox can now seem to have more in common with traditionalist Catholics (SSPX etc) than with liberal Orthodox as liberal Orthodox are more at home with liberal Anglicans than with Orthodox. Roman Catholics and Orthodox now have common cause in realm of public morality and are working closely together in this and in other areas to defend Christians and Christianity. In the political sphere there has been talk of "a new Holy Alliance" in reference to that of Tsar Alexander I. In the UK, which has been called 'the most secular country in Europe' Christians are now embattled on all fronts. The new report by the government (The Casey Report) is proposing a secularist oath. The author has first hand experience of Roman Catholic and Orthodox collaboration against this attack and so is well placed to asses this trajectory; its benefits and opportunities but also its perils and shortcomings.
Despite the abandonment of doctrine and beliefs core to Christian teaching in the post-war period, the liberalisation of Christianity in the West did not happen overnight but was rather, the result of prolonged erosion over centuries which gathered pace following the debacle of the so-called “Enlightenment”. The Soviet-Era Orthodox intellectual Evgeniy Baranov writing in the seminal samizdat collection From Under the Rubble stated:
All the modernism, all the “adaptation” introduced by the [Western] Church are in reality nothing other than manifestations of its profound bondage to secular culture. This capitulation is not always voluntary and more often than not is the result of a prolonged siege.
More recently, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of the Department for External Relations (MP) [DECR] characterised this “siege” and suggested how the Orthodox Church might collaborate in order to counter the overwhelming fire-power (in material terms) of militant secularism:
The fact is, the Catholic Church in the West exists today under an information blockade, under a very hard diktat from secular society. In this case we are without questions allies. We can search together for the answer to those challenges which threaten the very existence of Christianity. I call it a “strategic alliance” between Orthodoxy and Catholics, which is the understanding that if there are threats, then they are common threats and if there are challenges, they also are common.
The Russian Orthodox Church has been the most public of all the Orthodox jurisdictions in support of this ‘strategic alliance’ to combat the advance of militant secularism in the public sphere and in support of Christians suffering under its heavy yoke. In particular Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion have made no secret of their criticism of the ever-onward march of secularist-humanism the post-Christian West and of the necessity of working with Roman Catholics (and others) to counter the baleful influence of its liberal elites.
However, the situation is far more complex today than when Tsar Alexander I proposed his Holy Alliance (1815) between Orthodox Russia, Catholic (Hapsburg) Austria and Protestant Prussia in order to restrain the secularism and republicanism unleashed by the French Revolution and spread by Napoleon. The problem today, as noted by Barabanov is that the ‘churches’ themselves have secularised. The protestant ‘state’ churches have all but abandoned traditional Christianity’s eschatological trajectory in place of a Rousseau-inspired this-worldly humanism. In addition the Roman Catholic Church finally succumbed to hundreds of years of attack from without (and finally from within), capitulating to the zeitgeist at the Second Vatican Council. Whilst the Roman Catholic Church has a long way to go before it promulgates such wonders as cohabiting lesbian bishops, openly atheist ‘priests’, abrogation of abortion as a sin (or of sin in general), it has been thrown into turmoil by a series of modernist-humanist ‘popes’ whom this ‘Conciliar Church’ (as it is named by traditionalist RC’s and sedevacantists) has later “canonised”.
Traditional Christians resident in the West will need no introduction to the “harsh diktat” mentioned by Metropolitan Hilarion. Barely a day goes by where there is not some fresh media and / or Deep State attack on Christians living in the European Union. By way of example, most recently (two days prior to my writing this), the media “discovered” that the leader of one of our political parties in the UK was “a Christian”. This led to an instant media hate-campaign to get him to “admit” that homosexual acts were sinful. In addition to this we have had liberal hate-campaigns against those opposed to homosexual “marriage” along with the exponential proselytization for LGBT, in particular ‘trans-genderism’. Most horrific of all has been the ‘reclassification’ of abortion in the ‘moral compass’ and national psyche as something completely “normal” such as having a tooth extraction. In the UK alone nine million babies have been murdered since 1967 and the population as a whole largely view the pro-life movement as an ultra-right fringe group.
Despite its tumultuous recent history the Roman Catholic Church remains the most vociferous and powerful critic of this wave of Christianophobia but one of the problems for the strategic alliance is that it no longer presents ‘a united front.’ The Catholic Church itself is in a bitter life-and-death struggle between liberals and conservatives in which the liberals (largely the Western hierarchs and Vatican officials) hold all the cards and the money. Large and well-organised traditionalist groups such as the Society of St Pius X (SSPX) have kept their independence by distancing themselves from the Vatican, retreating behind their walls and becoming almost a ‘church within a church’. Some people (sedevancatists), perhaps over a million in total abandoned the ‘Conciliar’ Church altogether declaring Roncalli (Pope John XXIII) and his successors ‘antipopes’, others remained inside the existing structure, painfully bearing the clownery and outlandish statements of Bergoglio and his ilk. Recent issues surrounding the indissolubility of marriage and the ubiquitous LGBT have brought this huge silent minority (or majority – it is difficult to get an idea on numbers here) out in the open. Their heroes are the conservatives Cardinals Burke and Sarah. The word ‘schism’ is often mentioned in the ever-more excitable internet blogs and articles such as the main conservative site, Lifesite News, a site which receives an astonishing ten million visits a month.
Into this mix one needs to add the issue of the Uniate churches. Perhaps paradoxically the liberalisation at Vatican II was “good” for the Orthodox (particularly Russian Orthodox) Church in the sense that the Vatican decided to largely abandon its Uniate and prosletyzing projects in the ‘sixties pursuit’ of “ecumenism”. The abandonment of the Uniates by the Vatican also resulted in a schism of traditionalists from the rump Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, forming the Society of St Josaphat under the guidance of the SSPX.
Traditionalist Roman Catholics (eg, Pat Buchanan and Bishop Williamson), aghast at the liberal apostasy of their own hierarchs, have made increasing favourable comments about Patriarch Kirill and the direction of Russia under Vladimir Putin. In light of this complex and developing situation how and in what manner is a ‘strategic alliance’ possible? What kinds of ‘joint-statements’ should be made? With whom should one meet, if at all?
It seems to me that issues of defending basic Christian morality (against the ‘values’ and ‘human rights’ of the NWO) need not necessarily be conducted in isolation from the heterodox. In addition, I would argue that meetings of hierarchs, particularly that between Patriarch Kirill and Francis Bergoglio are more often events ‘internal’ to Orthodox ‘politics’ rather than old-fashioned sixties ecumenism. Finally, I will tentatively propose a direction to the conservative / liberal divide, which exists not only in the West, but in fact the world over.
In his role as the Orthodox delegate to the EU and then as head of the DECR Metropolitan Hilarion has not refrained from castigating secularism in the West. He frequently uses language such “the suicide of European culture”:
We consider that withdrawing the moral dimension from European culture means to deprive European culture. Meanwhile, the suicide of European culture is taking place before our eyes; its place is being taken by a morally neutral, and in many cases openly immoral pseudo-culture. What is happening is calling forth protests not only from Christians but from any sane person.
And language which is redolent of ‘clash of civilisations’ rhetoric:
In my opinion, the conflict of civilizations is inevitable when only one model of civilization is given the right to exist. When only the liberal standards according to which the Western world lives are regarded as legitimate, while other standards based on other world views are deprived of recognition, the threat of a further escalation of tensions between liberalism and traditionalism (not between liberalism and fundamentalism!) can be expected, with unpredictable consequences.
But the purpose of “strategic alliance” as laid out by Metropolitan Hilarion is not only a ‘political’ one. In 2014 in Minsk he stated:
In this situation the collaboration between Catholics and Orthodox acquires a special meaning in the business of defending Christian morals. We do not have Eucharistic communion, we are divided by dogmatic questions, we have a different ecclesiology, but we have the same views on all the general moral questions. Our common task is to witness to the eternal significance of the principles which were laid down by Christ Himself and sanctified by the centuries-old tradition of the Church.
So the “common witness” is seen as the “gentle foothills” in rebuilding the failed ecumenical project of the sixties. This is one of the reasons why such “co-work in the Lord’s vineyard” must be undertaken with some caution. Obviously it is good when anyone is moved to speak up for the most vulnerable people in our society who cannot speak for themselves (the unborn). It is also good for the secularist monolith to be challenged in such overt and public ways. It is also not bad for them to see that we who support the Natural Law of God (“thou shalt not murder”) are a diverse coalition. But marching, and even praying together, as I have done and will continue to do needs to be undertaken with some sobriety. A sense of “euphoria” can occur when one is part of a group under intense attack from the outside, a euphoria which binds together disparate groups. An extreme example might be the mixed groups of Orthodox, Catholic, Oriental Orthodox and Nestorians who have gone to their deaths together at the hands of ISIS. This is the so-called “ecumenism of the martyrs” or the “ecumenism of the Gulag” both of which are well-documented. Whilst it can seem absurdly ingenuous and whinging to compare the sufferings of the New Martyrs of Russia and the Middle East to the plight of Western Christianophobia there is a similarity in terms of group psychology. Let us first consider the so-called “ecumenism of the martyrs”. John Allen writing in The Global War on Christians, states:
Ecumenists more inclined to optimism, however, believe there is a new impulse breathing life into the movement today, locating one centre of gravity precisely in the global war on Christians. The common experience of martyrdom, these figures argue, has the potential to generate a new Christian consciousness, emphasizing what Christians have in common rather than what divides them.
Allen goes on to quote Cardinal Kurt Koch from Basel who today heads the Vatican’s department for ecumenical work:
Because today all the churches and ecclesiastical communities have their martyrs, we must talk about a real and true “ecumenism of the martyrs” which contains within itself a beautiful promise. The drama of the divisions of the churches notwithstanding, these noble witnesses of the faith have demonstrated that God himself maintains a communion of faith among all the baptised at the deepest possible level, which is witnessed with the supreme sacrifice of one’s own life.
More interestingly for the concerns of this paper, Allen goes on to relate the effect of the “ecumenism of the martyrs” on congregations in the West, writing:
As Christians mobilise to defend religious freedom, they will naturally find themselves working in coalition with members of other religious traditions, creating a space in which friendships develop organically…in addition to the “ecumenism of the martyrs” there’s an “inter-faith dialogue of the martyrs” to be developed as well.
In another paper Allen further develops this idea of one of the ‘fruits’ of persecution the in West leading to greater collaboration between Christians (and other religions). The ‘ecumenism of the Gulag’ is a theme also taken up by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeev. The Russian Orthodox Church played an active part in preparing and holding the Fifth European Orthodox-Catholic Forum, which took place in Paris from 9th to 12th January 2017 and which focussed on the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Just a few days prior to the writing of this paper, Metropolitan Hilarion delivered the keynote address at the (Billy Graham) World Summit in Defence of Persecuted Christians. In his address he stated:
The feat of the martyrs is the common legacy of Christians of all denominations. In the years of persecution directed against the Church, both Orthodox and Catholics and Protestants were all subjected to persecution in the USSR. It was not unusual for representatives of various denominations to find themselves in the same prison cell. At that time the inter-confessional barriers disappeared, the inter-religious boundaries ceased to exist. What united Orthodox and Catholics in those years was far more important than that which divided them, for they were united by love of Christ.
Later he quotes St Paul “whether one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (1 Cor 12:26-27) and concludes, “By empathizing with them in these sufferings, in helping the persecuted, we must manifest our unity to the world.” As so often, such language runs the risk of introducing a suspect ‘overall’ or ‘deep unity’ by the backdoor. Metropolitan Hilarion likewise sees the ‘ecumenism of the martyrs’ as something which should rekindle the striving for Christian unity in general:
This inter-Christian solidarity ought to be more important for us on the practical level than the differences between the Christian denominations which have amassed over the centuries. These differences will still continue to divide us, but they should not be an obstacle towards joint action in defence of persecuted Christians, no matter what denomination they belong to.
This is indeed a very complicated and mysterious area, ultimately like all things in the hands of Almighty God. For example, whilst it is true that in the Gulag Roman Catholic and Orthodox priests often expressed a sense of brotherly unity in their suffering, the same cannot be said for the Renovationists and those Orthodox who supported Patriarch Tikhon, as also those who rejected Metropolitan Sergius’s ‘concordat’ with the Soviet State between whom ‘there was no love lost’ inside the Gulag as without.
Part of the problem is that those who, from the comfort of their western security, would take a very strict approach to this problem appear immediately out-of-touch and fanatical. The example of the recent massacre of Christian Copts at the hands of the Infidel is a case in point. In this regard I know of many who would consider themselves traditional, conservative Orthodox who yet speak of the “new martyrs” of Iraq – the vast majority of whom have been Roman Catholics or even Nestorians. Similarly, I myself met a man from Mosul in Jerusalem whose entire family had been killed, including all of his children and parents. To my question “are you Orthodox?” he looked almost in disbelief and replied “I am a Christian”. It was a humbling experience.
So it is that the “ecumenism of the Gulag” has come to have its counter-part in the West. In the David and Goliath struggle against Western secularism.
A year ago I became involved with the Pro-Life movement in the UK as an Orthodox Christian. This has involved attending pro-life vigils outside London abortuaries and participation in the UK March for Life, with the blessing of our ROCOR bishop (not traditionally one of the more liberal jurisdictions). In the US, Orthodox hierarchy and speakers have appeared on stage at Pro-Life rallies and events which are usually organised by Roman Catholics. The Pro-Life movement by its nature largely excludes liberals although it does cut across a swathe of Roman Catholic practice – there are to be found SSPX groups along with more mainstream youth groups and even Samba bands and rock music. Likewise, Orthodox groups have marched alongside Roman Catholics and Evangelicals against homosexual “marriage”
This ‘collaboration’ between Orthodox / Heterodox to fight the ‘hard diktat’ of secularists in the West inevitably results in the formation of friendships and common respect. But not only that. Working together on something as ‘counter-cultural’ as pro-life activity (as it has become in the UK) has the added by-product of deepening the us / them (Carl Schmitt) paradigm, in which the boundaries in the “us” can start to blur. According to Carl Schmitt, such blurring is inevitable in the political sphere and is in fact a necessity as the distinction between friend and foe is collective. So any “trench ecumenism” needs first to distinguish between the political and the theological. As noted, human emotions can seem at times almost to overwhelm the theological but it should be noted that this is the very same game played by the liberals as is born out by Francis Bergoglio’s recent statements in Egypt.
Alternatively, I have found participation in the pro-life movement has made some people (particularly Roman Catholics) intensely interested in Orthodoxy, beyond the ‘beautiful icons and incense’ of so many of the High Anglican converts. The people whom one meets in the Roman Catholic pro-life movement are generally not intellectuals or theologians but often Irish, Polish or African grandmothers or Catholic students. They often have a keen and aching sense of the loss of tradition and of liturgical and sacramental life in their own jurisdictions. In this sense, a “strategic alliance” of traditionalist Christians does seem to have a purpose, and not only because ‘through numbers lies strength’. It is possible in these scenarios to bear witness to the Truth and Beauty of Orthodoxy without belabouring the finer points of theology or the ills of the Frankish ascendancy.
It is this “traditionalist ecumenism” (if such a term can be coined) which is the most unusual outcome of the hate campaign of the militant secularists. In a famous speech in 2010 to the Anglican Nikean Club in London , Metropolitan Hilarion stated, “All current versions of Christianity can be very conditionally divided into two major groups – traditional and liberal. The abyss that exists today divides not so much the Orthodox from the Catholics or the Catholics from the Protestants as it does the ‘traditionalists’ from the ‘liberals’.”
During an interview with Metropolitain Hilarion in Moscow I asked him about this issue and also about the issue of the liberal / conservative schism in Rome. At the time I was still a Roman Catholic and his answers did not reassure me. After describing the modernist horrors which have overcome the Catholic Church since Vatican II, I warned him that I would be extremely careful in my dealings with ‘official Rome’. When I asked him about the question of “traditionalist ecumenism” he noted that it was “already happening”.
This so-called “traditionalist ecumenism” is heavily advocated by Rod Dreher in his recent best-seller The Benedict Option, a book which has taken the Catholic Church by storm. Dreher promotes a withdrawal from the political sphere for traditionalist Christians to focus on building and strengthening local connections in order to preserve the gospel through these dark times. The public battle is absolutely lost, he declares, traditional Christians must resign themselves to being a hated and despised minority in their once-Christian lands. Curiously, Dreher does not wear his Orthodoxy on his sleeve and I presumed at first that he was a traditionalist RC. The book is cleverly marketed to all traditionalist Christians and has as many quotes from Southern Baptists as from Orthodox and traditionalist RCs. Dreher sees it as imperative that traditionalists must work together in a more grass-roots “strategic alliance” than that advocated by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeev and cites the example of the Kansas-based group “Hall of Men” as a salient example of “trench ecumenism” (as he calls it) in practice. The website of this group states:
On the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, men gather at The Ladder to engage in a vigorous, non-“lowest-common-denominator” type of ecumenism among the three Great Christian Traditions. We aren’t afraid to put on our theological boxing gloves to spar for a minute, and to take them off for a shared pint the next. If you haven’t seen a Catholic listen to the life story of John Wesley; if you haven’t watched a Protestant learn about Evagrius of Pontus; and if you haven’t seen Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant men sit around a table together and talk theology until midnight . . . then you need to come to the Hall of Men.
The difficulty such groups face is the deep rethinking that needs to go on if conservative Protestants and RCs are to escape from their impasse. It is often stated that Protestantism is Roman Catholic disease, but of course not only Protestantism, the whole concept of the secular emerged from the Western Church and we inherit its fruits today. Fr Gabriel Bunge, the RC Benedictine monk who only in his seventies converted finally to Orthodoxy explained the predicament:
You can see that the Catholic Church is between these opposite positions — the Orthodox East and the Protestant West. But then the general evolution did not go towards the east, but towards the west. It became a slow self-Protestantization of the Roman Church — a self-secularization, with all the destruction, both physical and spiritual, that we have seen. This was a real historical disaster of unseen dimensions. You see, Protestantism is an inner-Catholic virus. And the Roman Catholic Church has no antibody against that virus. The antibody is Orthodoxy, which has never been, for five hundred years, tempted by Protestantism.
Finally I might add that grassroots collaboration between Orthodox and heterodox should be distinguished to some extent from large-scale more political events such as the meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Francis Bergoglio. This meeting was very controversial to some ‘hard-line’ Orthodox but I believe that such people failed to grasp the real motivation for the event which served to increase the status of Moscow (conservative) over Constantinople (modernism). There was no concelebration, no statement on the primacy of the Papacy and suchlike. Instead there were statements on the plight of Christians under the western-orchestrated genocide in the Middle East and on defending traditional values in the West. So far so good. Or is it? There is a problem and it is one that has not really been noted by the ‘hard-liners’; such events can have completely different meanings for the other side. When Metropolitan Hilarion stated in 2008 ““We must realize that Orthodox and Catholic believers are no longer rivals. We are allies. The rivalry must be gone once and for all. If we understand that, proselytism will stop,” this called forth a chorus of approval from Roman Catholics, but the following analysis from the RC journal The Trumpet, is telling:
According to Catholic and Orthodox leaders alike, there is a need to present a united Catholic-Orthodox front to rising problems such as secularism, Islamism, and liberal Christianity. That is why leaders on both side of the Great Schism of 1054 are calling for “unity among Christians.” That is why Orthodox leaders met with Vatican officials last October to sign a document establishing the primacy of the pope over all Catholic and Orthodox bishops — though there is still disagreement on exactly what authorities that status grants the Catholic leader.
Thus, the “trench ecumenism” of strategic alliances, be they ‘grass-roots’ or at hierarchical level presents an opportunity but also a temptation. The Orthodox Rod Dreher moves effortlessly between citing examples of traditionalist Catholic communities and Orthodox ones as “beacons” of the Benedict Option. In a political sense such a practice might be considered justifiable, but one cannot but think that in avoiding the elephant in the room, Dreher is presenting a rather fantastical and rose-tinted solution. Perhaps a more sober analysis is provided again by Gabriel Bunge, another Catholic convert. Fr Gabriel Bunge proposes that the agony of traditionalist Catholics will not be solved by them becoming Eastern Byzantine-Rite Orthodox, such a journey will only ever involve a few wayward souls. Instead he describes a return to the Western Church Fathers and from there a re-discovery of the West’s very own pre-Tridentine, and even pre-Scholastic Orthodoxy. Many traditionalist Roman Catholics today view the Council of Trent as the very pinnacle of counter-reformation and counter-revolution dogmatic and liturgical aspiration but the council was in many ways a capitulation to the Protestants. If the rood screens of England had not been destroyed by the Puritans they would surely not have survived the Tridentine reforms.
According to Fr Garbriel Bunge:
The only way I see it happening is if they turn to their own Orthodoxy, because unless God works an unprecedented miracle that turns everyone to Byzantine Orthodoxy, there is a whole culture at work to prevent it. It is not just a matter of texts, or formulas. But they must turn back to their own Orthodoxy, their own traditions.
One can only hope and pray that this will be the ultimate outcome of such “trench ecumenism”.