Alexy II, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church recently made a speech before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe denouncing homosexuality as “an illness” and a “distortion of the human personality, like kleptomania.” He also claimed that homosexuality is part of “a new generation of rights that contradict morality, and [an example of] how human rights are used to justify immoral behavior.”
Such homophobia is hardly unique to Alexy and his Church. However, they are in a particularly poor position to lecture the Europeans on human rights in light of the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church is hand in glove with Vladimir Putin’s repressive regime, endorsing that government’s authoritarian policies and even using the power of the state to harrass other religious groups and suppress art they disapprove of.
Unfortunately, the ROC’s current policies are an extension of its long and disreputable history of collaboration with both czarist and Soviet tyranny in Russia. Although there were certainly individual priests and lay activists who became dissidents under Soviet rule, the ROC leadership generally supported the communists once the latter consolidated their grip on power and removed those priests and bishops most opposed to their rule. As the Library of Congress puts it, “the church espoused and propagated Soviet foreign policy and furthered the [forcible] Russification of non-Russian believers, such as Orthodox Ukrainians and Belorussians.”
There is, perhaps, a limit to the amount of condemnation the ROC deserves for its record in the Soviet era. Open resistance to the communists would have landed anyone engaged in it in a Gulag or worse; that degree of heroism is too much to expect as a matter of course. However, the fact remains that the ROC collaborated with the communists to a much greater extent than most of the Soviet Union’s other religious groups (many of which engaged in active or at least passive resistance) and its record also pales in comparison with that of the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe, which played a leading role in organizing resistance to communist rule. The ROC’s conduct under communism may deserve only limited censure, but it certainly does not justify placing any confidence in the Church’s moral judgment.
And today, the ROC should reexamine and repudiate its past and present collaboration with tyranny before its leader presumes to lecture the Europeans on “morality” and human rights.
UPDATE: To avoid possible misinterpration of my point, I am not arguing that Alexy’s position on homosexuality is wrong merely because he and the ROC have been egregiously wrong on other issues. That would be a logical fallacy. However, Alexy’s critique of homosexuality is based not on logical reasoning but on an appeal to the moral authority of his Church and his “brothers in faith;” and, presumably, he was invited to address the Council of Europe because of his position in the ROC religious hierarchy, not because he has any independent standing as a deep thinker on morality and human rights. The ROC’s overall record on morality and human rights is therefore relevant to our assessment of his speech. And that record is far from admirable.
UPDATE #2: I was going to write a brief response to some of the points made in the comments. But nearly all the things I wanted to say have already been said by other commenters. So, I will note just two points. First, I am struck by how so many more people are interested in the pros and cons of using the term “homophobia” (a tangential issue in the post) than in the ROC’s longstanding record of collaboration with tyranny (the main focus of the post). Second, it is true as some have pointed out that many of the ROC’s pre-1917 leaders were repressed and replaced by the communists. I noted that in the original post. This, however, is not enough to get the ROC fully off the hook for its record under communism. Other Soviet and East European churches were subjected to comparable or even greater repression under communism, and yet most did not end up collaborating with the communists to anything like the same degree. And, of course, the ROC has collaborated with Putin’s tyranny, notwithstanding the fact that the risks of refusing to do so are much less than in the communist era.
UPDATE #3: It is perhaps worth noting that there is considerable continuity between the ideology and personnel of the Soviet-era ROC and those of today. For example, Alexy II was himself a high-ranking archbishop and Metropolitan under the Soviets – a position he could not have reached had he been opposed to the ROC’s close relationship with the Communist regime. Thus, the Church’s actions under communist rule are not mere ancient history, and remain relevant to any evaluation of its moral authority today.