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Russia and the United States: Same Error

Above: the Latin Rite Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Moscow. Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is also the Patroness of the United States. 

The horrific conflict occurring in Ukraine has been at the forefront of our consciousness in recent days. And one aspect of the tragedy that stands out from a religious perspective is the servile position of the Russian Orthodox Church under Patriarch Kirill in relation to Putin’s government. Back in March George Weigel published an interesting piece at First Things discussing 500 Eastern Orthodox scholars who have recently condemned the Russian church’s Russkiy mir (“Russian world”) ideology for subordinating the Christian church to a deified earthly state.[1] The scholars – and Weigel by extension – make some good points about how the Russian ideology leans toward a problematic worldly theocracy not unlike the error of the Jews who rejected Christ. They also accurately identify the underlying issue – caesaropapism (the state as the head of the church) – and the schismatic mentality of opposing all things ‘Western’ which it produces. And I share Weigel’s hope that this awareness will foster dialogue with our separated Eastern brethren.

These political realities are the main factors beneath the East-West Schism. Indeed, I would even say the underlying ‘error of Russia’ – much deeper than the relatively brief episode of Bolshevism – is this centuries-old domination of Russian Christianity by first the Tsarist and later Soviet and Putinist empires. It is this sort of “politicization” of the faith that, in my opinion, is responsible for the painful separation of the vast majority of Slavic Christians from Rome, more than dogmatic controversies such as the alleged dispute over the Immaculate Conception.[2] As the great Russian proponent of reunion Vladmir Soloviev noted, it was the imperial court hierarchy that cut the Russian church off from both its roots in the Christian Slav tradition (clung to by Old Ritualists) and also the Roman trunk and the other branches of the Catholic Church. And it was Soloviev who remarked this legacy had left Russian Orthodoxy as a diminished and secularized regional church that could only be revivified by opening up to the Universal Church.

And herein lies the irony of a figure like Mr. Weigel approvingly citing the Orthodox scholars’ critique of caesaropapism. For it is hardly a secret that many prominent American (Americanist?) Catholics have adopted a similarly deferential attitude to the political and (anti-) cultural powers and organs of the American Empire. And this phenomenon crosses party lines; both the “Left” and “Right” have been guilty of putting Caesar before God. Indeed, why do we even classify fellow Catholics primarily based on their political affiliation? Asking the question proves my point that Caesar has become the measure of all things. This attitude may involve enabling “liberal” politicians and personalities to “redefine” Holy Church’s perennial teachings against prenatal infanticide and alphabet-soup ideologies. But it may just as well entail endorsing (neo-) “conservative” unjust and destructive wars in opposition to the Holy Father and the worldwide episcopate (as happened in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq). In either case, the fundamental error is the same. Too many American Catholics have permitted these worldly concerns to guide our views on spiritual matters, instead of going about it the other way around.

And this brings us to the crux of it all: the institutionalized hypocrisy called “separation of church and state.” For it is impossible to separate governance from notions about the nature of things and how they ought to be ordered. And this philosophy of governance ultimately comes from spiritual/religious assumptions on what reality is. Even one’s lack of belief in anything beyond the material involves making a definite judgement on the topic. As we know, atheists can be some of the most dogmatic people out there! Hence, what really results in a society like that of America claiming separation of the religious and political is not religious freedom, but rather a kind of “soft” caesaropapism. For keeping religion out of the government does not secure the liberty of the Church, but rather gives the secular state hegemony over the public sphere, which, due to the connectedness of “private” and “public” life, inevitably exerts pressure on the Church to conform to the values and ideals of the specific secular ideology in vogue at the moment.

Soloviev here again is insightful, for unlike liberals, he did not believe the remedy to an oppressive Russian caesaropapism was to overthrow the traditional union of throne and altar. Rather, he envisaged a Russian Catholic empire with both Tsar and Pope working together in cooperation to maintain the firm hand of the civil power to restrain man from error and sin, but with the Church reigning supreme, free from state manipulation. As he writes to Strossmayer,

The reunion of the Churches would be advantageous to both sides. Rome would gain a devout people enthusiastic for the religious idea, she would gain a faithful and powerful defender. Russia for her part… would thereby become free to fulfil her great universal mission of uniting around herself all the Slav nations and of founding a new and truly Christian civilisation, a civilisation uniting the characteristics of the one truth and of religious liberty in the supreme principle of charity, encompassing everything in its unity and distributing to everyone the plenitude of the one unique good.[3]

I think it is this realization that leads many traditional Catholics to sympathize with the Russian vision of integrating church and state. And herein lies an important insight. Make no mistake: the Russian system as now constituted is not amenable to Catholicism, and Patriarch Kirill’s failure to condemn Putin’s fratricidal war is disgraceful. But the problem with Russia is not in it seeking to restore an integral society but inverting its proper order. In other words, the issue is not that church and state work together in “symphony” (to use the Eastern expression), but that the state, rather than the church, is the one on top. It is unnatural, and indeed impossible, for religion to be isolated from political life. The only way for the Church to be truly free is for her to take leadership and assert the social reign of Christ the King over the kingdoms of men. Nothing less than subjection of the earthly powers of darkness to the Kingdom of God will do.


[1] An Orthodox Awakening | George Weigel | First Things

[2] The ancient Russian tradition clearly affirms the Holy Theotokos Mary as ‘immaculate’. Cf. Morning Prayer VII from the Jordanville Prayer Book. Russian opposition to the dogma is modern, and from what I understand, owes much more to objections to the fact it was defined by Rome than to its actual content. See N. Xavier, “The Immaculate Conception and Eastern Orthodoxy.”

[3] Vladimir Soloviev, letter to Msgr. Strossmayer. Vladimir Soloviev, prophet of Russia’s conversion (

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