Sunday, February 01, 2009


On the ‘New Republic’ site Leon Aron reviews a book by John and Carol Garrard entitled “Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and Prayer in the New Russia”.

The Russian Orthodox Church itself is not my concern here. But it gets me thinking about matters of more immediate concern to Us.

The Russian experience contrasts greatly with the American vision and experience. The Russian Church, broken from Rome long ago, wound up subordinating itself to the Russian throne (as it evolved over time). This was not merely a matter of political expedience. It was based on a comprehensive Russian vision of the Russian national entity itself: a 3rd Rome, the comprehensive embodiment of God’s grace and will in History and on earth, united under a Sword – the Russian Tsar, chosen of God – and a Cross – the Orthodox Church that supported the Russian people spiritually as the Tsar executed his God-assigned responsibility to govern the Russian people and state.

This was different from the relationship that evolved between Christendom’s Rome and the various and numerous rulers of the European world as it re-shaped itself after the fall of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages. The Pope in Rome governed Christendom spiritually, while the ruler (at least until Henry VIII broke himself away) of this or that state or statelet governed ‘temporally’. The Cross did not serve the Sword and Throne; rather, the Cross – the Pope – exercised a concurrent jurisdiction over the people. The ruler governed in matters temporal, and the Pope governed in matters spiritual.

Of course, there was a presumption built-in that the ‘spiritual’ realm was more important than the ‘temporal’ realm, which seemed obvious enough in an age when life was indeed “nasty, sharp, brutish, and short”. But it always chafed the ‘temporal’ power, especially as Europe began to recover from the monstrously painful consequences of the fall of the Roman Empire. No sovereignty likes to have any other ‘power’ over it, to which it is – even in theory – answerable and to which it must, if push comes to shove, submit. And an enterprising Pope could always construct a string of inferences from any particular point back to the ultimate and the ‘spiritual’.

The Reformation joined in synergy with the developing monarchies of Europe to reduce the ‘outside’ and ‘foreign’ influence of the Papacy. The result being that ‘Christendom’ – a body of human beings ultimately answerable to God (and His vicar, the Pope) and baptized into the Universal Church, also (and in a secondary way) subordinated to their crowned ruler. As nationalistic consciousness developed, hand in hand with the sense of ethnic and ‘national’ identity, so much the more did the overarching vision of a united Christendom of all peoples begin to fade away.

Not that the Popes consistently handled their awesome responsibilities well. The Renaissance Popes were a scandal, and Luther’s and others’ abhorrence of what was going on in the Church and with the Papacy was hardly unwarranted.

The ‘spiritual’ authority of the Papacy began to fray as its temporal power was also waning in the face of the emerging national monarchies.

Wherein something of a problem. For while the Papacy as the earthly instrument of God’s Will and Providence for humanity did indeed succumb to no small extent to the gravitational pull of ‘this world’, the need for – and many would say the ‘reality of’ – the Beyond, remained.

The assorted Protestant churches, bereft of any authority beyond their borders (horizontally, if not vertically, one might say), slid into a reliant compliance with the monarchies of the nation in which they found themselves. Those monarchies wound up – for all practical purposes – with a ‘spiritual’ helper in the form of their respective Protestant church polities. In matters large and small, though mostly still ‘of this world’, the monarchs could increasingly count on the support of their local churches.

In Russia, the theory was always there, inscribed in the very rock of Russian self-conception, that that the Orthodox Church was assigned by God to assist His Vicar of all things Russian, the Tsar, in all matters both temporal and spiritual. Compared even to Henry’s Anglican polity – whose bishops still retained a dim flicker of the separate and ultimate authority of the Spiritual Power, however little they dared to assert it – the Russian Church was indeed an arm of the Russian Throne and government.

It was for that reason that as European consciousness began to grow away from ‘monarchy’, especially of monarchy that held its place by Divine Right, the Europeanizing Russian world saw its Church draw even closer to the Throne of the Tsars. By the 19th century, as nascent forms of ‘democracy’, and certainly of revolution, swept Europe and Russia, those Liberals who sought to modify, if not do away with, monarchy could say of the Church and its icons: Goditsya – molitsya, a ne goditsya – gorshki pokryvat … If it fits then we pray to it; if it doesn’t, then we cover pots with it.

Again, the intense focus on the Church as an arm of monarchy eclipsed the far more crucial question of the relationship of the people and the State to the Beyond, to that Being or Dimension of Ultimate Existence for which all human beings demonstrate – and have since the dawn of human consciousness – an ineradicable ‘sense’ and need. Humans live on the edge of an abyss, a spiritual vacuum, it seems, and must be supported and consoled. If not, the human spirit withers or runs rather wild.

This was, I would say, a crucial and unaddressed complexity at the heart of Liberalism as it evolved in the 19th century: eager to reduce the power of monarchy and enhance the power of ‘the people’ (however broadly or narrowly conceived), the Liberals willy-nilly sought to reduce the power of ‘the Church’ which appeared to be an arm of monarchy (officially in Russia, by a less formal dynamic in Europe) and thus an ‘enemy’ and ‘oppressor’ of ‘the people’. But human beings need a Beyond; the French Revolution found itself scrambling to replace ‘the Church’ as well as the monarchy – constructing some form of old paganism’s gods – now robed in Reason – to meet a need that the most ‘enlightened’ cadres of the revolution had figured could be dispensed with. But the human spiritual ‘sense’ would not go away; could not be driven away.

In Europe, as in America, the Catholic Church remained in possession of a vestige of its old authority: it filled a spiritual need that no State could provide on its own (as even Lenin and Stalin were to discover), but by that same token retained the fundamentally ‘untouchable’ authority of somehow speaking for ‘the Beyond’.

Which state of affairs, as aforesaid, no government is prepared to seriously accept. A certain surface ‘respect’, certainly, and ‘toleration’, even a bit of indulgence – but no government would allow itself to ‘feel a side’ towards the direction of the ‘spiritual’ and the Beyond, would allow itself to be hemmed in, obstructed, overruled, or even prophesied-unto, by any power claiming independence from its own. Nor would it allow its citizenry to hearken too much to any such purported ‘power’ or ‘authority’.

The Russian Throne enjoyed the submissive support of its Church by the very governing concept of the Russian Orthodox entity; the Soviets – after the Great Patriotic War – by co-opting that Church.

The Western monarchies in Europe, and the American Republic, had to exercise a ‘softer’ hegemony. The Protestant polities, themselves simultaneously ‘free’ of ‘Rome’ and yet thereby bereft of its powerful conceptual authority as a support for their independence, fell into one or another form of the Russian Orthodox solution: to see their national government as the Instrument of God and themselves as that government’s ‘helpers’ and ‘supporters’. Nowhere did this take more powerful root than in America, a nation founded with overt Scriptural authority to be in this world the Biblical ‘city on the hill’.

Hence, as America entered the 20th century, its Liberalism had yet to accept some support but also ‘rival’ authority from ‘religion’, even as its government had to delicately balance a respect for ‘religion’ with a need to keep it from getting too carried away with itself.

Eager to demonstrate that they too could be 100% American, the Catholics of the immigrant waves were happy to ‘prove’ themselves; the American hierarchy, a long way from Rome and operating in a milieu where the this-worldly seemed to be doing quite well for itself, thank you … was also leery of Roman and Papal interference. And with that, more often than could be wished, went a tendency to lose a sense of religion’s responsibility to ‘represent’ the Beyond to this-world.

After the Second Vatican Council there was however a remarkable rebirth of profound Catholic social thinking and of overt action in behalf of the requirements ever-present in prophetic scripture to hew to Truth and improve the lot of the poor and the stranger. All of which was impossible to sustain without the help of the Beyond. Which raised up once again the specter of that ‘authority’ from Beyond that was gall and wormwood both to ‘government’ and to Liberalism.

As the Garrards mention in their book, the current Russian government is re-embracing the Orthodox Church, at least insofar as status and social appearances go; so far, that is, as this-worldly matters go. Rights and freedoms of the Church, honors, even property, are being returned; the Leader himself is photographed with prelates, wearing a cross around his neck like any good believer. Ancient privileges are being somewhat restored; Peter the Great, it is recalled in a by-the-by, had abolished the secrecy of confession.

Which brings Us into the present quickly and precisely enough. Peter, the first ‘modern’ Russian monarch, would brook no ‘independence’ from ‘his’ Church – or, being a ‘modern’, from the Beyond. The secrecy of confession represented just such an independence: that the Church could enjoy on behalf of and on the authority of that Beyond a relationship with its adherents which no this-worldly government or authority could contravene.

Peter was not about to allow any other authority to enjoy such a relationship with ‘his’ citizens, ‘his’ people.

I had mentioned in the immediately previous Post here that several deeper and insufficiently considered factors in these priest-sex-abuse campaigns had to do with a power struggle in this country recently in which both Fundamentalism and ‘liberalism’ (as it has evolved or devolved) as well as the government itself were chafing under the ‘independent’ authority of the Catholic Church and the influence and reputation it still held in the minds of the public, non-Catholic as well as Catholic.

I see dots to be connected.

This is not at all to say that any sort of mediocrity or worse among clergy is to be tolerated. It was a failing in the American hierarchy that priests were not more carefully overseen. But part of that failing was a failing in the American Catholic Church itself: it had become too out-of-touch with its own spiritual responsibilities, awesome as those are. America presents a unique and in some ways insidious challenge to genuine spiritual ministry and witness: it’s a very this-worldly country and (up until very recently) very successful in things this-worldly – any ‘Gospel witness’ that sought to ‘tamper’ with that would get the bum’s rush forthwith. The Church in America became in its way a ‘garrison force’, concentrated on its parades and its polishing, on the routine patrols and regulations. The awesome challenges, the ancient foes of Sinfulness and spiritual mediocrity and the distractions of this-world, had been ‘dis-remembered’.

Which is not to say that vast numbers of priests were going about raping children. Even the independent report commissioned by criminal-justice experts under the auspices of John Jay College indicates – though tactfully doesn’t discuss directly – that few pre-pubescent children were involved, and much of the ‘abuse’ fell short of rape. (See again my review of that Report in ‘Can’t Tell Your Priests’ of July6, 2008 in the archives on this site). And while no ‘study’ has yet been done comparing the percentages of offenders among the Catholic clergy with ‘trusted providers’ in other faiths or professions, the very absence of such study, plus an intuitive but hardly phantasmagoric sense that sexual impropriety or worse is not an issue peculiar to Catholicism, strengthen the grounds for thinking that there is more going on here than meets the eye – or gets on the front pages of most papers.

I hold no briefs in all of this. But it seems essential that We be well and thoroughly informed about matters that are meant to elicit Our concern and – much more importantly – Our support and – even more importantly – Our acquiescence as citizens and as The People.

Behind and beyond the particulars of this abuse scandal, and even those have not been fully comprehended yet, there are even larger issues, ancient ones, having to do with the independence of the ‘spiritual’ in the lives of human beings in this nation and in all nations; having to do with the relationship of any this-worldly government to that Beyond which – in Our case – is even printed on the money; having to do with a responsibility that extends far beyond the power-struggles of any human community and polity to reach, however tenuously, the undying and ineradicable human need for connection to, and support from, that Beyond – without which the human spirit becomes simultaneously dulled and frenzied, from which much blood and suffering has always flowed.

Lincoln said that “we cannot escape history”. And that we would “be remembered in spite of ourselves”. And that “we – even we here – hold the power and bear the responsibility”.
If the need for genuine connection to the Beyond, the achievement and maintenance of an individual spiritual life on the part of each citizen, is both a right and a responsibility, then We as The People as well as the Catholic Church, must ensure that such a great commission be fulfilled.

The historian Christopher Dawson once observed that there is no culture without ‘religion’, and to extinguish the flame of ‘religion’ will inevitably lead to the fading of the culture. In the most profound sense, Our culture is starved and starving. And while the government might fear the great this-worldly unrest that may yet follow upon Our current this-worldly shortages, We must be even more concerned with the spiritual starvation that is robbing Us as individuals and as a society and as The People of the ability to take confident, intelligent action, secure in the confidence that Our lives – individually and communally – have purpose and meaning and are Supported by the Beyond without which no lasting human progress can ever be achieved and sustained.

If that sounds a bit ‘beyond’ itself, it’s only because We have somehow lost the ability to realize that Our lives operate on such a level, and Our struggles must be waged there as well.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home