Two-thirds of the Orthodox churches but less than a half of the Orthodox people are formally represented at the Pan-Orthodox synod in Crete. Is this a victory or a failure? Despite the last minute malfunctions, there was a common will to have a single voice in the future. But the absence of the Russians in particular, demonstrates one more time how fragile and illusory may be the Churches’ concord.
First of all, we shouldn’t idealize the past. The seven ecumenical synods admitted by the Orthodox Church – for the Catholic Church, their number continued to grow after the “Great Schism” – often took place in dramatic circumstances, far from being some peaceful meetings and from an acquired legitimacy. Not just once, the political factor – the Byzantine emperors, starting with Constantine the Great – had a decisive role. In other words, the debates were held with the soldiers at the door, which was a pressure as important as the “inspiration” coming from the Holy Spirit. Some decisions of the synods had tragic consequences, from long confessional ruptures to undermining on the long term the Empire’s vitality and to its failure in front of Islam. Later, in the Modern Age, the nationalist disputes took the place of the old religious disputes, so that the Orthodox Churches started to primarily serve political purposes and to grow revanchist feelings against the neighbors – a situation that still persists today in many places.
But what prevents more the Orthodox concord is the traditionalism, and not the nationalism. The Orthodoxy has built, especially in the last half of the millennium, an identity of the fidelity towards the “Tradition” – otherwise a pretty vague notion. This “tradition” is actually full of regular innovations, hidden under an appearance of a monolithic doctrine. So, as in the case of the today’s Islam, many persons claim the role of the guardian of the “true religion”, scarifying without any scruples the real fundaments of their faith – for Orthodox people, these are exactly the evangelical teachings. This kind of identity muster is amplified by the contemporary context, with the various reactions to the cultural and political globalization, so that the Orthodox can easily turn into reactionary agents fighting against the “evil” historical developments.
It’s interesting that two of the Churches declining their attendance to this synod in Crete have exactly opposite reasons. The Patriarchate of Antioch, having a Syrian and Lebanese ground, but with most of its believers located in the Western diaspora, would have wished an equivalent of the Vatican II council, were significant mutations of the Catholicism happened in the direction of adapting to the current circumstances – which has been called “aggiornamento”. One of the topics of the Pan-Orthodox is the religious marriage. If Pope Francisc dares to speak today with a surprising pragmatic freedom about its real problems, the Orthodox seem that they haven’t surpassed the rhetoric of another millennium. In Romania, some of them want to ban the sexual education classes in the name of a failing and hypocritical puritanism. Maybe it wouldn’t be bad for them to notice the Catholic experience. The same puritanism, which was dominant until recently, made many Catholic people to break away from the religious habits.
On the contrary, Russia’s refusal has completely other reasons. Putin era has relaunched the old “Byzantine symphony” – namely that cooperation between State and Church which the Tsarist Russia took over from Byzantium. The current Russian regime is concerned with the defense of the “public morality” in the name of the “Christian” values, and Church legitimates its authoritarian policy every time it has the opportunity. Moreover, a new ideological convergence gains ground – the defense of the Christianity all over the world. Occident is rotten – it’s a rhetoric with secular traditions in Russia -, Islam is on the rise, so Russia has remained the only Christian bastion. Such a belief, doped with a lot of multinationalism and accompanied by a strong imperialist feeling, decisively strengths this kind of political – religious alliance. It’s an alliance that actually represents the most redoubtable opponent of a beneficial renewal of the today’s Christianity. Because the great challenge is to abandon the old temptation to accompany the sword with the cross.
But some of the commenters also see – in a very rightful manner – another cause of the Orthodox misunderstandings: the retrogressive clericalism of these Churches. Only very few people decide the future of some institutions which should represent millions and dozens of millions of people. They are a few of them and they are trapped in the straps of an outdated mentality which is far from being benign. But overcoming clericalism seems to be an impossible mission, and this situation is seriously reducing from the start the expectations related to a desirable “aggiornamento”.