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November 29, 2022

The offer of the church

The Orthodox Metropolitan Church of Cluj recently established its strategy for the next 4 years. The principles of this action plan are significant for the way Orthodox leaders conceive the presence of clerics in the society. First, the contretemps has been admitted, with sincerity and concern: the majority of priests are focused on liturgical duties, like if living in a world detached from actuality. This should not come as a surprise, because Orthodox theology insisted up to saturation on the specificity of Orthodoxy among other Orthodox confessions, betting precisely on the specific taste of ‘eternity’ – which detractors ironically called ‘the exit from History.’ This pretended title of glory now also proves to be a setback, because there is no sound theological basis for involvement in the society. More preoccupied with a ‘theology of History’ were less formal Orthodox circles, which try to grant more importance to a cult of martyrs from the communist era, meant to legitimize a stronger spiritual influence in the Romanian public space.

As regards the official leaders (patriarch, metropolitans, bishops), the position is less conflicting, although the polemical rhetoric has similar theological roots: fighting secularism and rejecting the militant atheism. The difference is given by betting on a privileged relation with the State.
If the ‘radicals’ (meaning the ultraconservatives) dream of a new State with a strong Christian influence, formal leaders are content with a mutually beneficial agreement. With pragmatism, they set a target which is not unrealistic, staying within areas that are traditionally associated with the mission of the Church: education and social assistance. ‘Traditionally’ is just so to say, because modern Europe was founded by setting up a laic education system, which gradually marginalized the religious one. Now the two coexist, but the State further remains the guarantor of the independence of the laic side from the ambitions of the religious one.
From country to country, the status of religious confessions differs, but their influence is – more or less – circumscribed constitutionally. Thus, the political agenda of various Christian groups also includes a fresh debate on these boundaries, which some of them consider as too restrictive. In Romania there are polemics about the religious education, its opportuneness and a possible negative pedagogical impact. But a more general issue is at stake, in fact: to what extent is the theological discourse convergent with laic values? The ‘radicals’ contest the convergences, while others believe in an accord, but are unwilling to seriously revise their own theological culture. This fundamental immobility is very convenient, especially as the influence of Orthodoxy has something of the seduction of a counter-culture, so many of its adepts enjoy its ‘inactuality’ and the embracement of old traditions – even though some of them are not as old an ‘authentic’ as pretended.
If education is a deeply cultural matter and it is normal for polemics to be fierce, things are different when it comes to social assistance.
With mercy and philanthropy being fundamental principles of Christian doctrine, regardless of confession, nothing is more natural than they express themselves through a support granted with priority to those in need and suffering. In fact, Orthodoxy lags much behind neo-Protestants or Catholics in the institutionalized exercise of social assistance. Unlike the former, in order to become involved the Orthodox Church demands State financing. Few years ago, it was even close to becoming a privileged part of a governmental accord, but polemics blocked its implementation. The Transylvanian Orthodox leaders even say that money for social assistance will be spent of a ‘more efficient and judicious manner.’
This is a risky affirmation, because among the fundamental problems of BOR are both a low transparency and a poor professionalization beyond the liturgical universe. This means rather ineffective control mechanisms (which can encourage corruption), but especially a low strategic potential. Until now, the Orthodox Church has not achieved large-scale private projects that would represent an enviable model for a future partnership capable to bring important public financing. The prerequisites to the aforementioned governmental accord were mostly political and did not rely on strong administrative arguments.
But the Transylvanian leaders of Orthodoxy expressed their worry over a profound phenomenon of erosion: youths are not very attracted by the Church. An observation that sparks an already classic tirade against the civilization of the show, consumerist and cosmopolitan. Unfortunately, the trend is one of a tense identity, the concern referring to the ‘excessive’ influence of those belonging to other confessions and ethnicities in the Romanian society. The Orthodox leaders deplore the new idolatries, but forget to what extent they still encourage the ethnic-related idolatry. Even emigrants are seen as lost sheep that risk neglecting their Orthodox identity, despite the fact that BOR operates a network in the West that is enviably large. Yet many priests sent to churches in western countries have a discourse which we can describe, without fear, as too obscurantist, which will soon prove its ineffectiveness, although it still appeals to some alienated people now. Instead of encouraging them to integrate culturally in the West, Orthodox priests go to great lengths to remind them of their ‘nation.’ Anyway, youths deserve the presence of priests in the turmoil of the internet. Here the intuition is correct, because there already exists a vast universe of an underground Orthodoxy, active on thousands of blogs of Orthodox influence. The thorny issue remains: what culture will they be proposed? Even if the marketing operation will succeed through cunning advertising ideas, the basis will not suffer courageous reevaluations.
The most surprising initiative regards a ‘stronger involvement of priests in the leadership of local communities and granting assistance in making some decisions.’ Goodwill aside, what is the real competence of priests? Can they give useful indications with political and administrative effects? Or will they become the promoters of strategies drafted by Orthodox leaders? It would be very useful if priests became, if needed, critical voices with influence, but in order to do this it would be enough for them to militate in the field of civic initiatives, without ambiguous political implications. And there must be some programmatic principles that express the position of BOR especially in matters that divide the society, without fear of upsetting various people or political leaders. This however requires a courage that is still absent, because the Church does not want to lose its adepts by irritating them with critical positions. It better admonishes them (inefficiently, on most occasions) for classic sins, than for amendable civic positions. And it also does not want to lose the support of an important party (which can get the power in the future) only for the sake of consistent criticism. The case of polemics over the exploitation of shale gas is representative with this regard: a rather evasive formal position.
Unfortunately, BOR relies rather on people’s discontentment than on their aspirations. It provides support to those who suffer (in various ways), but we can ask: what spiritual support does the Church offer? Maybe we should wonder, without prejudice, what ‘spiritual’ means. Such an investigation can be full of surprises.

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