Orthodox Official Worried About New World War — Why?

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Think we’re sprinting toward a new Cold War? Think again, says a leading Russian Orthodox official, at least when it comes to calling it “cold.”

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the chairman of the Department of External Relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, warned of a world tumbling toward World War III in a Russian newspaper of record, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, on Thursday.

“The current situation is increasingly reminiscent of that in the run-up to the First World War. News programs have turned into frontline news summaries, each day we hear about more and more victims. Yes, so far the conflicts have been on a local scale but whole countries and whole military-political blocs are getting sucked into the militaristic rhetoric,” Met. Hilarion said in an excerpt quoted by Interfax, a Russian non-governmental news organization.

Earlier this month, Metropolitan Hilarion struck a similarly bleak tone during a visit to San Francisco for a meeting of the hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. In the “Epistle of the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia,” he made note of the 100th anniversary of World War I and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

“May the Lord not allow the 100 th [sic] anniversary of the onset of World War I, which initiated the terrible catastrophes not only for Russia, but for the whole world, spark new fatal sufferings and killings in Eastern Europe,” he wrote. “War always leads to more war.”

Given the close relationship between the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate, it may be easy to read Hilarion’s statements as in-line with the standard Kremlin line — i.e., the West and it’s allies aggression is driving Russia to “protect” its citizens, forcing Putin’s hand. He has, after all, become a persona non grata in Ukraine. The Moscow Patriarchate, arguably in part because of a tug of war over who should lead Ukraine’s faithful, has been all too gleeful in its support both of the Kremlin’s activities in Crimea, as well as its overall nationalist agenda in Russia.

The close, but unofficial, bond between church and state has allowed the Kremlin to draw upon Orthodox tradition to justify some of its more conservative and expansionist policies. From Orthodox hagiography to the view that Moscow is the “Third Rome” (i.e., the heir to honor bestowed once upon the bishop of Rome, and later Constantinople, as “the first among equals”), Putin has found appealing to a millennium-plus old institution is an effective way of tying in his political aspirations with a larger historical narrative.

But there’s also reason to believe Hilarion’s warnings may instead signal a growing rift between church and state, and it’s not just because he’s offered to be a mediator in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

With a pan-Orthodox synod on the books for 2016, the Moscow Patriarchate could find itself between a rock and a hard place. Sure, Moscow’s jurisdiction is the largest. And while Kirill in Moscow, thanks to its close ties to the Kremlin, has far more political prowess than Bartholomew I in Constantinople, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is still bishop of the “New Rome,” the first among equals. What he says may not come ex cathedra as it may in the “Old Rome,” but if he’s fed up with the Moscow Patriarchate thumping its chest in tune to the old Kremlin line in Ukraine, then those frustrations will carry some weight. Kirill can only go so far in his support of Putin’s campaign to “save” Russian-speaking Ukrainians until he: a.) pisses off those Orthodox who are looking to bring the two currently schismatic Ukrainian churches into the fold; b.) loses his credulity by becoming nothing more than a tool of the Russian state.

For Kirill and Hilarion, the latter point is especially important to remember. There’s a reason the church asserted it was separate from the Russian state in the Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church: It’s aware of Russia’s long-standing history of subjugating the church to the state. Under the tzars, particularly under Peter the Great and beyond, the introduction of what some may consider Caesaropapism, a fusion of church and state, according to Max Weber, “wherein a secular figure exercises supreme authority in ecclesiastic matters by virtue of his autonomous legitimacy.” And as Metropolitan Sergius learned in the 1930s under Soviet rule, declaring loyalty to the state is not a sufficient self-preservation technique in the face of tyranny.

Whenever the church flew too close to the sun, it got burned. It’s high time Hilarion and Kirill realized that fact.