2006-05-03 12:00:00

Paper of Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) read at the international Orthodox-Catholic Conference “Give a Soul to Europe. The Mission and Responsibility of the Churches”

Christianity in Danger


With regard to the number of believers, Christianity is today the largest of the world religions, and occupies a firmly established place in society in many European countries. In a number of Eastern European countries a rebirth of faith is taking place, with thousands of churches and hundreds of monasteries being restored or re-built, seminaries being opened, and millions of people finding their way to God. It would seem that there should be no cause of worry over the fate of Christianity.

However, if we look at the situation more widely and attempt to look into the future, the prospects for Christianity indeed do not look so bright. In some areas of the world we can observe tendencies which, it seems to me, can only cause serious concern. For the first time in many decades one can speak of a significant weakening of the state of traditional Christianity in Latin and South America, where hundreds of thousands of believers are becoming members of sects, new religious movements and various charismatic groups. In North America scandals caused by the immoral actions of clergymen have dealt such a serious blow to the Church that entire dioceses are forced to declare bankruptcy.

Alarming processes are also taking place in Europe - the cradle of Western Christianity. In many Western European countries there is a catastrophic lack of candidates for the priesthood, who must be imported from Eastern Europe, Asia or South America. The number of young people who consider themselves Christians and attend church is drastically falling. According to statistics, for the first time in many centuries the number of people in Vienna belonging to the Catholic Church has fallen to less than 50 per cent. The demonstrative exit from the Church has become a normal phenomenon, and some former believers even ask to be given a certificate claiming that the Sacrament of baptism conferred on them is annulled.

The traditional Christian view of the family no longer dominates in Europe. Large families have become a rarity: more and more frequently we see families with no children, one child, or families with one parent. The Christian population of Europe is steadily shrinking, accompanied simultaneously by the dramatic growth of the number of European Muslims.

All of these processes are well-known, and plenty has been spoken of them in the press, both Church and secular. I mention them not to cause panic, but so that we might think together of the challenges that face traditional Christianity today, and of the response that we might give together to these challenges.

The challenges facing Christianity today come from both inside as well as outside. Those from the outside are legion. First and foremost we should mention militant secularism, which is claiming ever more impressive victories in European society, declaring itself the only legitimate world-view on which the new world order both in and outside Europe should be built.

To drive religion out of the social sphere and relegate it to the outskirts of human existence, limiting it exclusively to the private life of individuals - this is the program which adherents of modern militant secularism are attempting to realize. We are witnesses of a consistent, systematic and conscious assault of secularism on the remains of European Christian civilization, the desire to rid oneself of it once and for all. This assault is taking place to the drum beat of the adherents of democracy and liberal values, to loud cries over the defence of the rights and freedoms of the citizen. However, in doing so the main right of the person - that of openly confessing one’s faith in God, is being questioned; the right of societies to order their lives based on the religious world-view is under threat.

The assault of militant secularism is acquiring new dimensions in the context of globalization processes that affect an ever increasing number of people of all classes throughout the world. Globalization is a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted and multi-level process affecting both the world as a whole as well as separate countries and regions, both the entire human community and individual people. It has left its mark on politics and the economy, morals and law, science and art, education and culture. Globalization has affected practically all areas of human endeavour, with the possible exception of one: religion. Today only religion is consciously resisting the desperate attack of globalism, entering into an unequal battle for the defence of those values that it considers to be of fundamental importance and which globalization is challenging. And only religion is able to oppose the ideology of globalism with its own system of spiritual and moral tenets based on the centuries-old experience of generations formed in the pre-globalization era. The “dictatorship of relativism” is another force challenging Christianity, of which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke several days before his election to the Papacy. He noted that relativism “does not recognize any limitations and proposes the human ego and its desires as the final criterion”. Relativism has become the dominating ideology in elementary, secondary and higher education in most educational institutions in Europe. From childhood on pupils are inculcated with the idea that there are no absolute moral norms and values, that religion is something from the past, that the main value for the person should be his own prosperity and comfort. The liberal philosopher Francis Fukuyama writes with unconcealed satisfaction about this tendency in education: “Modern education stimulates certain tendencies to relativism, i.e. a teaching according to which all value horizons and systems are relative, tied to a place and time, and in which no words are the truth... The last person at the end of history knows that there is no reason to risk one’s life for the sake of a great goal, since he considers history to be full of useless battles which people fought with each other to decide if one should be a Christian or a Muslim, Protestant or Catholic”.

The reality, however, witnesses to the fact that for millions of people on this planet it does indeed matter if they are a Christian or Muslim, Protestant or Catholic. And many of them are ready not only to “risk their lives for the sake of a great goal”, but, if necessary, to give their lives for their faith, as it occurred with tens of thousands of martyrs and confessors of the faith in Russia in the 20th century. Their heroism, as well as the religious revival of the last 15 years in Russia and some countries of Eastern Europe, unprecedented in scale, bears witness to the fact that the religious phase in the development of humanity is not yet over and that faith is able to inspire people in our time, just as it did centuries ago. Rejecting those spiritual and moral values that lie at the foundations of the traditional religious world-view, secularism has dealt a blow not so much to religious communities as to the human community itself, above all to families and children. It is not just the traditional notions of the indissolubility of marriage, marital fidelity and child-bearing that have been undermined: in Europe these notions are undergoing a systematic mocking and humiliation by liberals and democrats of all colours. Instead of marital fidelity “free love” is propagated, same-sex partnerships are being equated with marital union, and child-bearing is opposed by “family planning”. The destruction of the institution of the family and child-bearing is an extremely serious crime against humankind, for which liberals and secularists will have to bear responsibility before history. The rejection of traditional family ethics lies at the very roots of the serious demographic crisis in Europe, which has overtaken many European countries and which is threatening the Christian population with extinction. Totalitarian sects and so-called new religious movements are one more real missionary challenge for the Church in the 21st century, to which we are called to give a common answer. As His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and all Russia said, totalitarian sects and new religious movements “re-examine the entire system of Christian values, attempting to find a basis for their world-views in reformed Eastern religions, esoterica and sometimes even in common occultism”. These movements and sects “deliberately undermine the centuries-old traditions and principles of peoples, cause conflict with social institutions, and declare war against Christ’s Church”. Their destructive activity “leads not only to the distortion of the Christian message, but also to the destruction of national spiritual heritage”. Modern-day sectarians make use of the latest methods to control peoples’ minds, as well as the newest means of propaganda and recruitment.

Many sects have massive financial assets at their disposal. The uncontrolled activity of “new religious movements” is causing serious harm their peoples’ health, tramples on basic human rights, creates a threat to the family, society and state, and challenges traditional values. Claiming to be the only ones in the right, sect leaders, concealing their true aims, very often hide behind the mask of various religious, political, educational, cultural and other slogans. The danger of pseudo-religious expansion has long become clear and has been clearly understood by some European countries such as Germany, France, Belgium and Poland, which have taken a number of measures to limit the activities of destructive movements and sects. The problems associated with sects and new religious movements have been reflected in the documents and decisions of the Assembly of the Council of Europe, in the recommendations of the European Parliamentary Assembly, and in the decisions of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. However, because of its calling to unceasingly witness to the Truth, the Church must not stay on the sidelines and shy away from these problems. And we must acknowledge that some part of the blame for the widespread expansion of sects is to be put on us, the representatives of traditional Churches. Statistics show that more often than not sectarians were formerly not atheists, attracted to some new doctrine that they had found interesting, but rather people whose voices had not been heeded in the Church, who came to the Church for spiritual assistance but were not met with understanding or a respectful attitude. We must approach the problems of contemporary people with more attention and sensitivity, since many of them seek from the Church today a support in difficult life situations. It is necessary to speak with people in the language of contemporary society and know its life and problems. We should not be afraid to expose the pernicious traps of sects while not forgetting that one should fight with lies, not with people. Sectarians are children of God “for whom Christ died”, who loves all of His creation equally.

Islamic fundamentalism is one more challenge for traditional Christianity. The rules of political correctness imposed on the majority of Europeans do not allow one to speak of the “Islamic threat”. More frequently we hear that Islam is a peaceful religion, and that only separate extremists and terrorists attempt to use it for their inhumane aims. But while such talk is going on, in Afghanistan the death penalty is being imposed for conversion to Christianity, in Indonesia Muslims burn Christian churches, and in Kosovo, before the very eyes of the entire world community and in the presence of the so-called “peacekeeping forces”, the systematic and barbaric destruction of ancient Christian holy places is taking place. Liberal politicians are calling Muslims to integrate into Western society, but many Muslims are not making any attempts to do so, and the most militant imams are calling for Jihad against all Western civilization and for the capture of Europe.

If we speak of the challenges to traditional Christianity from within Christianity itself, to my mind the main one is that of the liberalization of doctrinal, ecclesiological and moral doctrine in many Protestant communities. This process at the ecclesiological level has led to the introduction of the female priesthood and to a number of other novelties unacceptable from the point of view of traditional Christianity. In the area of Christian ethics this process has led, among other things, to the re-examination of traditional notions of marriage and the family, of marital fidelity and chastity, to the acceptance of so-called “homosexual marriages” and even to the introduction of a special rite of “blessing” of such unions. With regard to doctrine the same process has frequently led to dogmatic relativism that allows for a free interpretation of many fundamental truths of Christianity such as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity or the Resurrection of Christ. It is becoming more and more difficult to speak of “Christianity” as a unified doctrinal and moral system, since the deep differences in views between Christians of Tradition and liberal Christians are becoming ever more visible and glaring.

In this situation it seems opportune and necessary to consolidate the forces of those Christian communities that are ready to defend the traditional version of Christianity and to oppose all of its possible liberal versions. Among such communities we should name, first and foremost, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, as well as the Ancient Eastern (pre-Chalcedonian) Churches. I am not speaking now of the serious dogmatic and ecclesiological differences that exist between these Churches and which can and should be discussed at bilateral dialogues. I am speaking of the necessity of creating between these Churches a certain strategic alliance, pact or treaty for the defence of traditional Christianity as such, the defence against all the challenges of modernity coming from both within and without, be they liberalism, sectarianism, Islamic fundamentalism, militant secularism or relativism. Until now Christian conservatism in Europe has been equated almost exclusively with the Catholic Church, while the position of the Orthodox has remained little-known. If the Catholics were to come forward as a united front, the voice of the Orthodox Churches would become much more audible, and the position of the Catholic Church would receive a powerful additional support. We must not forget that there are about 280 million Catholics and about 210 million Orthodox currently in Europe. Together they would comprise a half-billion strong army able to defend their values and ideals. Catholics and Orthodox should be able to rise together to the defence, above all, of traditional moral values such as the family, childbearing, and marital fidelity. Unfortunately, with the majority of Protestants we have serious differences on these issues, not to mention the fundamental differences of a theological and ecclesiological nature. Let me give as an example a conversation with a Lutheran bishop that took place during a theological dialogue with one of the Lutheran churches of the North. We were trying to prepare a joint document for the defence of traditional values, and were speaking about abortion. I asked: “Can we write in a joint document that abortion is a sin?” The Lutheran bishop answered: “Well, we, naturally, do not advocate abortion, we prefer contraception”. My question: “But is abortion, from the point of view of your church, a sin or not?” The answer: “Well, you know, there are various circumstances, for example, when the life of the mother or child is threatened”. I asked “Well, if there is no threat either to the life of the mother or to that of the child, is abortion a sin or not?” In the end the Lutheran bishop did not agree with my view that abortion is a sin. What sense is there in dialogue if abortion is not a sin, if homosexual unions are wonderful, if contraception is splendid? In contemporary Europe only the Catholic and Orthodox have maintained the traditional view of family values, and in this sense, as in many others, the Orthodox and Catholics are strategic partners. Today it is necessary for both the Orthodox and Catholics to answer the following question: “while not being one Church, can we learn to act as a single structure, as a union of like-minded people, as strategic partners in the face of the outside world?” Many Orthodox are convinced that we can, and this conviction, as far as I can ascertain, is also shared by a significant number of Catholics. The structure that would allow Catholics and Orthodox in Europe to come forward as a united front could be called by different names. When I first proposed creating such a structure a little more than a year ago on the day of the election of Pope Benedict XVI, I called it the “Orthodox-Catholic alliance”. Since then there have been many responses to this idea, mainly positive. Some, however, were disturbed by the word “alliance”, in which they saw militaristic or political connotations. The main thing is, of course, not the terminology, but the idea itself. It was important for me to find a term that would not carry any ecclesiological connotations and would not make people think that the Orthodox were being offered a new union with the Catholics for establishing doctrinal unity. This structure could be called, for example, the Catholic-Orthodox Committee for Cooperation in Europe or the Consultative Board. Incidentally, at the Eucharistic congress in Bari in May 2005 Cardinal Walter Casper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, voiced the idea of an Orthodox-Catholic “council”. This idea had a varied reaction from the Orthodox, since the word “council” in this context carries very specific connotations for the Orthodox, reminding them of the Ferrara-Florentine and other councils at which Catholics imposed union on the Orthodox. It seems to me that at the current phase it is too early to speak of any “council” with the aim of achieving doctrinal or ecclesiological unity. We should speak precisely of strategic cooperation with the aim of working out a common position on social and moral issues, of an alliance, committee or consultative board that would help the Orthodox and Catholics not to defend their own interests, but those of Christianity as such. This proposed structure might include, on the one hand, those Catholic bishops who comprise the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), on the other - official representatives of those Local Orthodox and Ancient Eastern (pre-Chalcedonian) Churches that have dioceses or parishes in Europe. It goes without saying that other models of organization of the alliance are also possible. As mentioned before, the topic of discussion within the framework of this proposed organization might be, firstly, social and ethical questions such as the attitude toward secularism and relativism, problems of bioethics and biotechnologies, abortion, contraception, cloning, euthanasia and many others. On all such questions the organization could, as an authoritative partner, conduct dialogue with European international organizations such as the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. While discussing these questions the organization might represent traditional Christianity in the dialogue with Islam, Judaism and other world religions. Within the framework of the European Orthodox-Catholic alliance, or the Committee for Cooperation, or the Consultative Board, it would also be possible to work out a “code of conduct” for Catholics in Orthodox countries and Orthodox in Catholic countries necessary for resolving the issue of proselytism. In this case the organization would fulfil the function of an “Orthodox-Catholic Bishops’ Conference” at the European level. Questions of doctrinal character should, of course, be discussed within the framework of the existing Mixed Commission for Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue, which will convene in Serbia this autumn after a six-year hiatus. But given the current situation, when Christianity itself is being threatened, do we have the right to limit our bilateral cooperation to unhurried, leisurely discussions of the papal primacy, the Filioque and other theological and ecclesiological questions that divide our Churches? Being a “professional” theologian, I am perfectly conscious of the significance of these questions for establishing ecclesiastical unity. But they have been discussed for almost one thousand years, and it is uncertain how much time will still be needed to resolve them. We cannot count on a swift achievement of doctrinal unity and must not make it a condition for expanding our cooperation. Let the theological dialogue proceed at its own pace: its successes and failures should not affect out cooperation in those many areas in which we never ceased to be in harmony. It is precisely today, more than ever, that such cooperation is necessary. In twenty, thirty or forty years it may be too late.


Vienna, May 3-5, 2006