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May 17, 2022

Byzantine symphony

President Traian Basescu attended another fatuous mass, this time in the Transylvanian lands of Nasaud. It is an old Byzantine tradition that the ‘emperor’ should be more than an important pious layman. Even the name of the main door still separating the altar from the body of the church (aisle) takes its name from the exception of the emperor’s entry together with the serving clergymen – the only lay person enjoying such privilege. Contemporary presidents, for reasons of personal piety or, especially, ‘state duty’ (the case of the ‘atheist’ Ion Iliescu) continued – of course diluted in a secularised society, the privileged relationship. Traian Basescu did not miss the opportunity to invite the Orthodox Church to join his personal political round dace. Ion Iliescu had done it before him, by giving enough financial support to a Church that was energetically re-launching in post-communism in the construction of new warship establishments, public theological education and social welfare.

And the clergy, led by the old Teoctist, had discretely legitimised the regime, helping it with its electoral purposes. Traian Basescu had started by counting on the card of the opposition. He had preferred to win the more effective electoral support of the intellectuals militating for a secular society. As mayor of Bucharest, he delayed by a few years the beginning of the works for the new majestic cathedral arguing that the place chosen for it was improper. He took a big risk when, in his very election campaign, chose to promote more tolerance towards homosexuals and the legalisation of prostitution, two subjects of conflict with the Orthodox Church. However, once he had become president, he did not hesitate to stake on the good old ‘Byzantine symphony’. At first he continued his privileged relations with the old Cluj Church head Bartolomeu Anania, whose administrative succession in Sibiu he supported. Actually, he owed him, as Bartolomeu had defied Patriarch Teoctist when he took a public position against the candidate Basescu. Next came a rather successful partnership with the patriarch in office, who seems to become the founder of the big cathedral.

The success of Patriarch Daniel (among other things – a very favourable, to the Church, law on social work) is also due to his very good relations with the Liberals, before the new orientation given to the party by Crin Antonescu.Nonetheless, apart from all these political interests, what would be the point of the festive presence of a president during a religious mass (especially one dedicated to the name of the church)? There are enough catholic politicians who discretely attend some religious service, however without being in the centre of attention like Putin, for example, amidst so many metropolitan bishops. He obviously counts on the symbolic value of such a gesture, always extensively media-covered. On the other hand, the president (or another top official of the state) is legitimised as the representative of the divine power, which alleviates some of the resentment specific of democratic politics, always subject to changing opinions. Once elected (even if by suffrage), the official is not only the representative of the citizens, but also, the temporary representative of God. A brief Orthodox political theology is founded on the model of autocracy, however adapted to a society constructed in keeping with the Western model. Naturally, such a support of the Church cannot be innocent. Cluj Metropolitan Andrei (who was also present for the mass we were speaking about), knows how to support political careers if needed, using his pastoral authority. Remuneration of the priests, keeping icons in public spaces, supporting religious education classes are just some of the points where the state ‘reward’ for the support received from the Church can be crucial. A younger and resourceful MP has recently made the proposal to adopt the German model for the financing of Churches. Its main advantage would be transparency.

The first negative reaction surprisingly came from those politicians who do not have much connection with the Church. Constanta Mayor Radu Mazare, for example. Proof that the ‘Byzantine symphony’ is a win-win deal. It doesn’t mean that Remus Cernea’s proposal lacks less ‘subjective’ flaws, but it would certainly have deserved a more applied consideration. The Orthodox Church won its independence and got back enhanced properties, its moral authority is only questioned in what are believed to be ‘marginal’ situations, its system of religious education and, most of all, its ‘pastoral guidance’ practice are almost completely free of secular control, the heads of the Church continue to be autocrats. Even its finance raise suspicions due to lack of transparency. How many Orthodox will be willing to pay a special tax for the Church? The Church gets its prosperity more from the support of the Governments or donors such as Gigi Becali (who, inevitably filmed and then publicised on the TV, distributes euro banknotes to anyone willing to recite ‘Our Father’ in front of him), although it sometimes does not forget to charge its dues on the poor. An Orthodox politician should, perhaps, take his mission more seriously and hold the Church accountable for the often poor quality of the ‘services’ it is supposed to render. How successful has, in reality, been religious education over the past twenty years? What’s the quality of the Sunday sermon, often the only form of genuine catechesis? The level of quality is also commensurate with the quality of theological schools. How bad is, in reality, the role of monasteries, often hotbeds of commensurate (on Orthodox criteria)? How inoperative is the surrogate of political theology of a Church priding itself of its losing conservativeness? But many politicians lack culture in general, therefore why should we expect them to have a solid religious education? Without it, they will always be at the beck and call of a Church they can use or hurt, but to the reform of which they are unable to contribute.

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