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Die Ökumene muss

Franz König

Pro Oriente

Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches Confront Secular Humanism

VIENNA - There was a time when the Austrian capital served as a meeting point for the parties in the Cold War, where major steps were taken towards detente, disarmament, peaceful coexistence and, ultimately, an uneasy partnership between the East and West.

Something similar was taking place in Vienna last week, when prominent representatives of Eastern and Western Christianity met for an unprecedented three-day conference. The meeting, called “Give Europe a Soul," was the strongest sign so far that the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches are ready to close a bitter chapter in their own cold war," in which they have competed aggressively over the past 20 years for prominence in the former Soviet Union after the demise of its official atheism.

On the one hand, the positions attained by the two churches have largely stabilized. On the other, the election last year of Pope Benedict XVI, whose conservatism is highly respected by the Orthodox, brought about a wave of optimism and a window of opportunity to improve relations between the world's two largest and, theologically and socially, closest Christian denominations.

So strong is this expectation of a better relationship that the two sides managed to minimize the negative effect of the transfer last year of the see of the Greek Catholic archbishop of Ukraine - the main arena of the confrontation between the two churches - from Lviv (once Austrian Lemberg) to Kiev - an event that would have caused a major uproar during the previous papacy of Pope John Paul II.

Add the understanding of a common foe, defined by the conference participants at variance as moral relativism," secular humanism," collective amnesia," neo-liberalism" and militant secularism" - and the stage is set for the discussion of an international public alliance that sets aside the remaining theological differences.

We have lived through a difficult period in our relations in the 1990s, and I think that nobody gained from it," said Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Church Relations. He was sitting beside his counterpart at this conference, Cardinal Paul Poupard, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Of course, we still need to solve problems that remain on our agenda to this day" Metropolitan Kirill added. But, compared to the problems we are discussing here now, our local problems are at a completely different level. I hope, I pray and I am working to see- together with Cardinal Poupard - that our talks refresh the atmosphere of our bilateral relations."

The forum was co-organized by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture and the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Church Relations, and sponsored by Pro Oriente, an Austrian Roman Catholic foundation, and a conservative U.S.-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Apart from being the first joint Russian Orthodox-Roman Catholic event in a number of years, the conference was different in many ways from traditional inter-church contacts.

Although it was mentioned that the disrupted theological interchange between the two churches is being resumed, and that the international bilateral commission on theological dialogue will meet for the first time in several years in September in Belgrade, the Vienna meeting deliberately excluded theological discussions. Instead, it focused on the social and moral problems of contemporary Europe and considered ways to make the voices of the traditional churches better heard in what participants said was an increasingly indifferent, if not directly anti-Christian environment.

The delegations - totaling about 50 people altogether - included clergymen, laymen, academics, activists and journalists. The Russian delegation included a number of members who could well be described as anti-ecumenists. The encounter in Vienna helped to overcome the stereotype of consultations in which professional ecumenists, usually from the like-minded liberal flanks of their respective churches, not representative of the increasingly anti-ecumenical general public, talk to each other.

While prominent Russian philosopher Sergei Khoruzhy gave his account of Christian anthropology, France's General Conservator of Patrimony, Dominique Ponnau, read his poetic essay of how beauty serves evangelization and dialogue. Archpriest Vladimir Vorobyov, Rector of Moscow's St. Tikhon Orthodox Humanitarian University, told of the evolution of parish life in Soviet and post-Soviet periods, something he experienced personally as the leader of one of Moscow's largest parishes.

Cardinal Jose da Cruz Policarpo, whose title as Patriarch of Lisbon was particularly thrilling for Russian participants, presented a thoughtful paper on how Christian culture can respond to the challenges of secularization, while several editors of both Orthodox and Catholic publications shared their insights and grievances concerning the complex relationship between Christian churches and the secular media.

Priest Igor Vyzhanov, the Moscow Patriarchate's official in charge of relations with the Catholic Church, urged Russian Catholics and Orthodox to stop looking at each other through binoculars from opposing trenches," while its representative to Strasbourg, Hegumen Filaret Boulekov, thanked his Vatican colleague for help in lobbying their common interests in the Council of Europe.

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Austria and Hungary and the Moscow Patriarchate's official representative to the European Union in Brussels, called in most resolute terms for an institutionalized Orthodox-Catholic alliance, without which, he said, it would not be possible to defend traditional values in Europe. What we are witnessing is the final attack of militant secularism on the remains of Christian civilization in Europe," he said. Without being one Church, how can we learn to act as one structure, as strategic partners vis-à-vis the external world?"

The protectionist pathos ran so high that, at one point, Russian historian Andrei Zubov broke in, saying he could barely listen to these attempts to idealize Europe's pre-Enlightenment past and to demonize its present. Are we trying just to be a conservative or even a reactionary force in today's world, or are we trying to show the light of truth?" he exclaimed.

For Metropolitan Kirill, the Vienna conference came on the heels of the high profile World Russian People's Council last month, which adopted an Orthodox concept of human rights - much to the dismay of secular promoters of human rights. The concept, which was seen by some observers in Russia as an attempt to appeal to conservative circles in the West, received de facto support at the Vienna conference.

The principle of moral responsibility, just like the principle of freedom, has to be implemented consistently in all spheres of human life - politics, economics, education, science, culture and mass media," the conference's official message, adopted on May 5, said.

But how realistic is the idea of Europe's Christian revival, which most participants said was the only way out of the mounting problems?

My answer would be that no revival in a sense of medieval Europe, no return to Charles the Great, is possible," said one of the moderators, Monsignor Jozef Miroslaw Zycinski , the Archbishop of Lublin. But, if we look at the transformations in Europe, who could have dreamed of crushing the Berlin wall? Let's hope that a spiritual revival of Europe is also possible. But this will depend on our responsibility, on our involvement." (Andrei Zolotov Jr.)