Rorate Caeli

Met. Hilarion (Alfeyev) on Wikileaks: Some Comments

A few websites and discussion forums have drawn attention to one of the leaked cables published by Wikileaks, describing a conversation between a U.S. ambassador and Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of the Russian Orthodox Church. The cable, among other things, details the cozy relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the post-communist Russian State. It is possible that the cable seriously misrepresents the statements of Metropolitan Hilarion, but that seems unlikely as it merely reinforces information that can already be found elsewhere on the Internet. (Think as well of the recent dedication of icons on the Kremlin Towers -- see this and this).

Some passages in the cable should be of interest to Traditional Catholics, and I reproduce them here with a bit of commentary:

9. (C) Although the ROC has accomplished a great deal recently in its efforts to gain more social and political prominence, a significant gap remains between its teachings and the ethos of modern Russian culture. The GOR may see no problems with eroding the wall between Church and State, but that appears to be affecting the ROC’s political role more than its social one. Hilarion lamented that although 70-80 percent of Russians call themselves Orthodox, very few (about 5 percent) attend church regularly, and even fewer “have their life influenced by the Orthodox faith.” The Church’s dilemma, he explained, is that it needs to build a bridge to young people who see no role for the Church in their lives, while at the same time maintaining the original essence of the Church’s teachings. “We don’t need to update or modernize services,” Hilarion said, but “we must still overcome cultural and psychological barriers” separating religious and secular life in Russia. In his opinion, the best forum for accomplishing this is education, and he envisioned a comprehensive program that raised awareness without appearing invasive.

One of the justifications for major liturgical reform and endless innovation in the Catholic Church -- both in the Roman Rite and, in recent years in the Eastern Rites -- is that such changes are needed in order to reach out to the youth and to the unchurched. In contrast, Metropolitan Hilarion -- who is sometimes considered as one of the more liberal Russian prelates -- sees that the path to reaching out to the youth is not by changing ancient liturgical traditions, but by educating them in the faith, despite the great difficulty of this endeavor. Why can't more Catholic bishops see this as well?

2. (C) In a January 28 conversation with the Ambassador, Head of the ROC’s External Relations Division Archbishop Hilarion made the case for the Russian Orthodox Church’s (ROC) recent push to assert its influence over Russian society and politics. By turns candid and circumspect, Hilarion freely admitted that the ROC has been ramping up its public statements in favor of its interests, and has been extending its reach further into heretofore secular areas of society such as children’s education

10. (C) In the absence of a widespread, active following among most people (at least in their day-to-day activities), the ROC is clearly attempting to throw its weight around politically. For those of us accustomed to seeing a firewall between Church and State the ROC’s growing assertiveness, and open admission that they intend to pervade all aspects of public Russian society may appear alarming...

Given the difficult and often violent history of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church in schism and the Catholic Church, and the memory of the persecution of the Catholic Church in Ukraine and Russia, a persecution often carried out by the Soviet (and then the Russian) State in collaboration with elements of the Russian Orthodox Church, it is understandable that many Catholics would hesitate to criticize the negative tone of this particular cable. I, personally, have a different take on this. Notwithstanding the fact that Russia remains in a lamentable state of schism from Rome, the Russian Church continues to have a view of its own role in society that in many respects is nearer to Traditional Catholic doctrine than the uncritical championing of relativistic concepts of "religious freedom" and "pluralism" that has become accepted even among a lot of "conservative" Catholics. No traditionally-minded Catholic can possibly object to the idea that the Church must fight for its interests in the public sphere, and must influence children's education, and must seek to pervade all aspects of public society. I personally wish that more Catholic prelates would speak openly of their desire to suffuse society with the influence of the Church, instead of being content to settle for "the right to voice their opinions" in the public square.

(To those wishing to post in the combox: no conspiracy theories or politics, please. CAP)


  1. Cosmos6:17 AM

    As a Catholic who loves the Orthodox and has at various points attended eastern Catholic services exclusively, this puts things in a little perspective. There is a lot wrong with VII, but VII was not the primary cause of the mass exodus from the Roman Catholic Church. Modern man seemingly rejects Christianity everywhere. Those Orthodox in the West, who are so quick to point out that their Churches have avoided the RCC's problems because of a theology which emphasizes Tradition above all else, must face the facts that their Churches are not successfully fostering Christian cultures either. Modernity is a formidable foe which neither East nor West has withstood with any great success.

  2. Like many good Catholic people in the West, you seem to have a somewhat enthusiastic attitude towards ROC. This is understandable, because ROC indeed does -seem- to be a "rock of stability" and "guardian of Tradition" due to golden frameworks of its icons and long beards of its clergy. You should be informed, though, that the "tradition" of Stalin's Patriarchate (re-established in 1943 under the close auspices of MGB - the future KGB) is something quite different from that of the Catholic Church. Just as an example, one can cite the permitted use of condoms and even the existence of a special rite of re-marriage, which casts doubts on the very validity of marriage in ROC from the Catholic point of view.

    Metropolitan Hilarion is not one of the most liberal, but rather one of the most educated people in this organization (please remember that in Russia, “liberal” and “educated” often mean the same - “liberal” in the good sense of that word). He will not inform you, though, how important is anti-Western, which includes anti-Catholic, sentiment to the identity of ROC - that very identity which they want to impose on children in secondary schools. Neither will he tell his Western interlocutors about just how and why they seized old Lutheran and Catholic church buildings in Kaliningrad recently. I can tell that story if you want.

  3. "Modern man seemingly rejects Christianity everywhere. Those Orthodox in the West, who are so quick to point out that their Churches have avoided the RCC's problems because of a theology which emphasizes Tradition above all else, must face the facts that their Churches are not successfully fostering Christian cultures either."

    Yes, Orthodox countries aren't withstanding modernity with great success for now, but that shouldn't be an argument for them to abandon the great elements of Tradition that they have kept.

    I think that this issue should also be approached with greater nuance, and not in a way that would seem to give support to the thesis of the modernists that traditional liturgy and spirituality -- whether Eastern or Western -- are a burden on evangelization. While church attendance in Eastern European countries (except Poland and some Catholic enclaves) remains very low compared to Western European standards, at least it is on the rise. The same cannot be said of the most modernist-drenched areas of Western Europe, and even of Poland, where church attendance and vocations have plummeted in the last 3 years while modernist influences have begun to make their presence felt.

    Most of the Orthodox (and Byzantine Catholic) world was under Communist rule for much of the 20th century, and contrary to what some Catholics like to believe the Orthodox had numerous martyrs as well. ("Numerous" being an understatement). That, plus the incalculable carnage of the Russian Civil War, the relentless internal political conflicts of Eastern Europe, and the unparalleled waste of the Eastern front in the Second World War, severely retarded the capacity of the Eastern Churches to continue nourishing their flocks. In the former Soviet Union the destruction of churches went on until 1988 and the politically-motivated killing of priests until 1990, and the decade after the fall of Communism was marked by numerous schisms, conflicts (among the Orthodox as well as between Greek Catholics and the Orthodox) and serious economic troubles. The Eastern Churches survived through the troubled years mainly by clinging to their liturgical tradition.

    I think that it would be very unfair to try to judge the capacity of the Eastern Churches -- whether Orthodox or Catholic -- to withstand modernity, given that it is only in the last 15 years or so that they have been able to breathe and begin rebuilding. In 20-30 years, things should be clearer.

  4. Oleg: I am appreciative of whatever is beautiful and true that can be found in Russian Orthodoxy, just like all the Popes from Leo XIII onwards and numerous Greek Catholic martyrs. I think I'm in good company.

    Or do you think that a Catholic should never have anything good to say about the dissident East?

    My comments are quite limited to noting that on the question of liturgical reform and of influencing society, the Russians have kept their head. Well, yes, the Russians have a deep sense of anti-Catholicism, and that is terrible and should be protested incessantly by Rome, but it does not erase the fact that they have held fast to the principle that public society -- even in a pluralistic and secular one like contemporary Russia -- must be influenced in all aspects of its life by the Church. How many Catholic bishop still speak in this vein?

    In my post I take careful note of the Russian Church's schismatic character (which would imply the presence of theological errors), collaboration with the Soviets and its persecution of Catholics. Elsewhere in this blog and on other fora I have spoken out for the Russian Greek Catholic Church -- certainly not a "friendly act" towards the Moscow Patriarchate. I don't think I'll be getting any medals for ecumenical enthusiasm anytime soon. Apparently this is not enough for you!

    Last but not the least, I think it is calumny to continue using terms such as "Stalin's Patriarchate". Despite the Russian Church's compromised past with Stalin and his communist successors, it has in recent years glorified numerous men and women who were killed under Stalin's rule, and many Russians Orthodox have denounced Stalin. All my life I have abided by the rule that even in criticism, we must be just; we must criticize without fear, but also without exaggeration. This is what the saints of our Church have always taught, and this is what we as Traditional Catholics must always keep in mind.

  5. Igumen Gregory1:48 PM

    I wish comments on both side of the Tiber/Bosphorus would avoid catch phrases like in schism or mother of new heresies. these labels do not advance a better rapport and only create an atmosphere of ill will. Let us follow the example of Pope Benedict, who never uses such patronizing phrases and yet maintains the position of his office.

  6. Anonymous4:57 PM

    1. Having been to Russia several times and visited numerous Orthodox churches, I can report that there are a tiny fraction of attendees under 60, and almost no young people relative to a typical American Ordinary Form mass.

    2. The visual symbols of Orthodoxy are being used by the Kremlin as well as ordinary secular Russians as a rallying badge of Slavic identity -- a sort of "Russia for the Rus" campaign. The Bolsheviks' effort to dissolve ethnicity into the New Soviet Man having failed, Russians are now catching on that Slavs will be replaced as the majority within a couple of generations, mostly by Turkic Moslems from the Caucasus and the "-stans". But Soviet nihilism has permeated the culture deeply, and secular Russians still abort more babies than they carry to term.

    3. Russian self-identity is based in antipathy to the West in ways that are incomprehensible to Westerners. Their culture is filled with images of historical resistance against Western attempts at subjugation. In part this comes from Orthodoxy's memory of 1204; in part it comes from the Holy Roman Empire and the Teutonic Knights. It was only reinforced by Bonaparte's invasion, the Eastern Front of WWI, and Operation Barbarossa of course. So in Russian culture, Germany in particular and the Catholic Church in general are enemies not to be trusted. Given all this, it is astounding that Pope Benedict has received as warm a reception as he has from the Orthodox.

  7. Anonymous5:34 PM

    "I wish comments on both side of the Tiber/Bosphorus would avoid catch phrases like in schism or mother of new heresies. these labels do not advance a better rapport and only create an atmosphere of ill will. Let us follow the example of Pope Benedict, who never uses such patronizing phrases and yet maintains the position of his office."
    This makes perfect sense if one is speaking of diplomatic cocktail parties (which is what professional Ecumenists basically engage in ad nauseum) but until a traditional spade is called a spade the "schismatic" Orthodox will never become Uniates or will the "heretical" Latins ever become Orthodox. There is more to tradition than incense.

  8. Anonymous7:03 PM

    ...Let us follow the example of Pope Benedict, who never uses such patronizing phrases and yet maintains the position of his office...

    Let's not, and call a spade a spade!

  9. Anonymous8:17 PM

    "Given all this, it is astounding that Pope Benedict has received as warm a reception as he has from the Orthodox."

    This is understandable when one is aware of the political functions of the ROC. Support for Pope Benedict is just another way of antagonizing the western societies from inside. When we want to be just with the ROC we have to say that it hasn't "compromised" with the KGB, at some point it had been totally destroyed. A new church has been set up, which was part of the communist secret services from the beginning. And there was no magical transformation of the KGB staff into pious clergymen in 1991.

  10. "When we want to be just with the ROC we have to say that it hasn't "compromised" with the KGB, at some point it had been totally destroyed."

    Rome still recognizes the validity of their orders, so I guess that settles the question.

    I actually recognize this argument -- it is often used by radical elements of schismatic fringe Orthodoxy who argue, among other things, that the chief proof that the current Moscow Patriarchate is a completely new creation of the KGB is that it is engaged in ecumenical dialogue with the evil Papists, who must be shunned like the plague by all true Orthodox.

    Anyway, I think this thread confirms my suspicion that when it comes to 1) Jews, 2) Muslims and 3) Russians, much of the Rorate commentariat simply tends to lose all reason. How pitiful. It is quite possible to be a Traditional Catholic and call a spade a spade and still have a reasonable attitude towards non-Catholics.

  11. Picard5:53 PM


    Yes, I agree: there are so many good things and sound considerations
    within the so called Orthodox church(es) and concretely in Bf.
    Hilarion´s statements that I also would wish the "Catholic" bishops
    had such a real catholic and orthodox spirit!

    But nevertheless, lgumen Gregory:

    You are dead wrong - and the critique of the annon. [But: GET A
    NAME!!! Grrr!!] is correct:
    Within a theological debate/discussin it is necesarry to use the correct words:

    call a spade a spade, a schism a schism.

    So yes, there are the real praiseworthy things and statements in so
    called Orthodoxy [what CAP correctly stressed] - that does not change
    that there are also the bad points, the schism etc.[what Oleg-M or
    otheres stress].

    It´s catholic to call the good good and the bad/evil bad/evil.

    But the "joke of history", the paradoxy of our crazy modern times and
    Church-crisis is that:
    yes, the "Orthodoxes" are schismatics and heretics and I will call
    them so -- but they are obviously more catholic and orthodox than many
    "Catholics", even bishops --- and sometimes even the Pope Himselfe!

    That´s a curio, isn´t it, yes - but it´s a truth, worth to be called
    true! (So I do not only agree with CAP but want to aggravate/enforce
    his points re this aspect!)

  12. Anonymous7:24 PM

    You sure have enough nerve to call Christians "schismatics, heretics". The fact is - Rome, roman confession has separated from the Christian Church in 1054, is full of herecies, man-made teachings, is guilty of horrendous crimes against Christian (crusades, inquisition, jesuits, ustasha, etc.). Roman confession has nothing to do with the Church of Christ.


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