Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow celebrates the Orthodox Christmas service at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in this January 6, 2022, file photo. A group of Orthodox theologians have issued a statement condemning Patriarch Kirill's support of the war in Ukraine. CNS photo/Maxim Shemetov, Reuters

Russian Orthodox support of war ‘heresy’

By 
  • March 24, 2022

The Orthodox world, including nearly 40 Canadian Orthodox scholars and clergy, has risen up to condemn the Russian Orthodox Church for giving moral and spiritual support to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Volos Academy in Greece, one of the world’s most influential centres of Orthodox theology, has issued a declaration calling the “Russian World” or “Russkii Mir” teaching of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill a “heresy.” Over 500 clergy, theologians and scholars have signed the declaration so far.

“We reject the ‘Russian World’ heresy and the shameful actions of the Government of Russia in unleashing war against Ukraine which flows from this vile and indefensible teaching with the connivance of the Russian Orthodox Church, as profoundly un-Orthodox, un-Christian and against humanity, which is called to be justified… illumined… and washed in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” reads the March 13 statement.

Richard Schneider, Canadian historian of Orthodoxy and founder of the Orthodox School of Theology at Trinity College, University of Toronto, calls the Russian Orthodox teaching “practically racist.” Orthodox Archpriest Geoffrey Ready, current director of the Trinity College Orthodox School of Theology, calls it a “cancer,” while Concordia University Orthodox scholar Lucian Turcescu draws direct parallels between Russian Orthodox encouragement of war in Ukraine and Naziism before and during the Second World War.

“The declaration I signed is of the magnitude of the Barmen Declaration of 1934 and Pope Pius XI’s Mit Brennender Sorge,” Turcescu told The Catholic Register. Mit Brennender Sorge was a papal encyclical issued in German in 1937 condemning National Socialism.

The war in Ukraine confirms a schism that has been brewing in Orthodoxy since the Russian Orthodox Church engineered a partial boycott of a pan-Orthodox synod in Crete in 2016. The split between the Moscow Patriarchate and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Constantinople is entirely on the Moscow side, Ready said.

It’s the Russian Orthodox Church which has provided Russian President Vladimir Putin with ideological justification for invading Ukraine, he said.

“He (Putin) just borrowed an ideology from the Church, gladly,” Ready explained. “This guy was a Soviet apparatchik in search of an identity and an ideology. And the Church handed it to him. That’s what is so disturbing for the Orthodox.”

At the beginning of Lent, Kirill used a sermon to justify the war as a spiritual struggle.

“We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance,” he said on March 6.

Churches of the Moscow Patriarchate outside of Russia are beginning to jump ship, beginning with the Moscow Patriarchate Church in Ukraine. Patriarch Onufry in Kyiv has condemned the war as “a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy.” The Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam has announced it has split off from Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Church in Lithuania is seeking independence and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch in Georgia has condemned the war.

Canadian Russian Orthodox Archpriest Sergei Rassazovsky doesn’t want to talk about it. A call from The Catholic Register was most unwelcome and Rasskazovsky refused to answer any questions.

“We pray, much pray, on our knees,” he said. “In a political sense, I’m not ready to tell you things, OK?”

The theological heart of the complaint against Moscow is the accusation that Kirill and his bishops have engaged in “ethno-phyletism,” a heresy condemned by all Orthodox churches at the 1872 Council of Constantinople. Though Orthodox churches have been largely organized along ethnic lines, this merging of Christian identity with a particular language and culture easily becomes heretical, said Ready.

“It is a problem wherever you confuse nation, language, culture with the Church, which we know is supposed to be neither Jew nor Greek,” he said.

The breakup of Orthodoxy is not some minor or irrelevant development for Catholics, said Saint Paul University theologian Catherine Clifford.

“As fellow Christians, this saddens all of us to see the fracturing of fellow churches,” said the leading Catholic ecumenist. “It makes much more complex our efforts to speak to the Eastern Orthodox world, because it’s now increasingly fractured.”

Russian claims that the Russian language is being threatened in Ukraine are not completely unjustified, said Turcescu from Bucharest, Romania, where he is teaching. A law which once gave minority communities the right to education in their own language was voted down after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and eventually ruled unconstitutional by the Ukrainian courts. It’s a controversy not unlike tension over Quebec’s legal protections for French.

“Think about Quebec,” Turcescu said. “Would you enter with tanks to repeal law 101? That’s the thing. The reaction has been excessive.”

The Russian Orthodox Church has constructed a version of the West which is entirely wicked and corrupt to justify its “Russian World” ideology, said Schneider.

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