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June 25, 2022

Cultural crisis of the Church

Is the Romanian society still Christian or is it post-Christian already? What’s there beyond surveys and statistics? Romanian churches are generally full (sometimes packed), the pilgrimage is again a mass phenomenon, fasting is a reality food industry marketing is taking very seriously, icons and little crucifixes sustain a profitable trade and religious literature competes with bestseller shelves. The Church (mainly Orthodox, but not only), has made its way into schools, universities, army bases, hospitals, prisons, elderly homes, canteens. A majority of the population still baptises their children and weds in a church. Most funerals are religious, although the fashion of incineration is already more than an eccentricity. Some of the Orthodox confess sporadically and other ones even have a more stable confessor (with the additional role of a spiritual counsellor).

TV Trinitas has its own audience and so do the various religious radio stations in the country. And a book on ‘Jesus’ parables’ written by a reputable intellectual not necessarily with a religious savour and cheerfulness still marks record sales months after release. All this proves a wider cultural interest in religious matters. Politicians, too, have spotted the interest, some soon invoking Christian benchmarks for opposing legislative innovation in the area of manners, other even claiming a special status of representation (debatable) in the arena of political parties (the ‘Christian-Democratic’ Peasants’ Party, Gigi Becali, Mihai Neamtu). The public debate has not overlooked religious polemic altogether, yet they never went beyond the level of regular argument (in the world) between the supporters of secularism and religious followers. Looking at the situation sine ira et studio, we will see the Orthodox Church (but not only) feels sure of its offer and special role in the society, coming from the still very big authority it enjoys. And yet, how deep is this authority? Let’s take the example of a recent Synod resolution: baptisms and weddings are to be officiated only in parish churches. It is to say that, despite the traditional ritual, the practices have slid towards cultures other than Christian. The baptism and the wedding are ‘ecclesial’ acts, meaning they only make sense if integrated into the privileged space of Christian community. What should tell Christians apart in a society to legitimise such a special and apparently discriminating adhesion? The spirit of human relations, uprooted (with difficulty) from the habitual and ‘pragmatic’ mediocrity, the ideal of ‘spotless’ moral conduct, zealous personal and spiritual loyalties. One could at times wonder why today’s ‘fancy weddings’ need a priest after all. Or what’s the point of biblical lectures, ceremony or its obscure rituals almost nobody takes seriously anyway. What’s the purpose of the baptism exorcism not even godparents – often presenting a concerning Christian ignorance for the future education of the godchild – understand? Sometimes you get the feeling that many Christians are dawn to the Church precisely by such obscurity, like a sort of magical initiation, operating through blind practice.  On the other hand, the other pillar of Church authority is psychological weakness. The ‘confessors’ are the persons who pull the strings of millions of consciences and the legitimacy of such guidance will definitely never be questioned by individuals turning to them as if they were mental therapists throwing lifebuoys of super-human quality in their direction. So a priest from a city that happens to be a big metropolitan seat can play with human consciences by statements such as: ‘God only comes where there is a lot of poverty and illness’. In this way, you can win in one shot all those in grief (either because they are sick or poor) and people who feel ‘guilty’ for being healthy and wealthy. What is actually missing – dramatically, we may say – is an aware Christian culture rather than the one that dominates today, improvised according to questionable pastoral interests. Another decision of the Orthodox Synod is for the promotion of the relationship between culture and religion, by supporting the Day of National Culture. Linked with the anniversary of the ‘national poet’, Mihai Eminescu (apart from his merits, he is already a personality dated and somewhat distorted through nationalist tools), the initiative is not the most appropriate for promoting a culture attentive to religious realities. Otherwise, it risks continuing the ambiguities of a nationalist Orthodoxy that has created so much confusion for about two centuries. And it risks ignoring and even despising even more the fertile (despite appearances) contemporary culture, all in the name of a badly understood and rather damaging nationalism. If the Orthodox Church has turned into a significant social actor and even a commercial one (proved, among other things, by the monopoly it seeks on the lucrative pilgrimage business), its cultural role is in crisis. It may also enter a decline unless it finds the strength to drop spiritual self-sufficiency and find its vocation in the arena of culture as it had done during many centuries in the promiscuity of adverse conditions.

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