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Orthodox Social Teaching

Church and Politics

V. 1. In the contemporary state, citizens participate in the government of the country by voting. Most of them belong to political parties, movements, unions, blocs and other suchlike organisations based on various political doctrines and views. These organiZations, seeking to order social life according to the political convictions of their members, have as one of their goals to hold or reform power in the state. Exercising powers given to them by popular vote during elections, political organisations can participate in the work of the legislative and executive power structures.

The presence in society of different, sometimes opposing political convictions and discordant interests generates political struggle which is waged by both legitimate and morally justified methods and methods sometimes contradicting the norms of public law and Christian and natural morality.

V. 2. The Church, according to God’s commandment, has a task to show concern for the unity of her children and peace and harmony in society and the involvement of all her members in common creative efforts. The Church is called to preach and build peace with outer society: “If it is possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:19); “Follow peace with all men” (Heb. 12:14). It is even more important for her, however, to be internally united in faith and love: “I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind” (1 Cor. 1:10). For the Church the highest value is her unity as the mysterious body of Christ (Eph. 1:23) on which the eternal salvation of humanity depends. St. Ignatius the God-Bearer, addressing the members of the Church of Christ, writes: “You all make up as if one church of God, as if one altar, as if one Jesus”.

In face of political differences, contradictions and struggle, the Church preaches peace and co-operation among people holding various political views. She also acknowledges the presence of various political convictions among her episcopate, clergy and laity, except for such as to lead clearly to actions contradicting the faith and moral norms of the church Tradition.

It is impossible for the Church’s Supreme Authorities and for the clergy, hence for the plenitude of the Church to participate in such activities of political organisations and election processes as public support for the running political organisations or particular candidates, election campaigns and so forth. The clergy are not allowed to be nominated for elections to any body of representative power at any level. At the same time, nothing should prevent bishops, clergy and laity from participation in the expression of the popular will by voting along with other citizens.

In church history there were not a few cases when the whole Church gave support to various political doctrines, views, organisations and leaders. In some cases, this support was linked with the need for the Church to defend her fundamental interests in the extreme conditions of anti-religious persecution and the destructive and restrictive actions of the non-Orthodox and non-Christian power. In other cases, this support resulted from the pressure from the state or political structures and usually led to divisions and controversies within the Church and to the falling away of some of her people infirm in their faith.

In the 20th century, the clergy and hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church were members of some representative bodies of power, in particular, the State Duma of the Russian Empire and the Supreme Soviets of the USSR and the Russian Federation, some local councils and legislative assemblies. In some cases, their participation in the work of governmental bodies was beneficial for the Church and society. However, it sometimes generated confusions and divisions. This happened especially when the clergy were permitted to run for elective offices without the blessing of the Church. The practice of this participation as a whole has shown that it is almost impossible without one’s assuming responsibility for making decisions which are in the interests of only a part of the population and against those of others. This is a situation that seriously complicates the pastoral and missionary work of the clergy called to be, according to St. Paul, “all things to all men that by all means some may be saved” (1 Cor. 9:22). At the same time, history has shown that the decision of the clergy to participate or not to participate in political activities was made and should be made depending on the needs of a particular period and the internal condition of the church organism and its place in the state. From the canonical point of view however, the answer to the question of whether a priest in a public office should work as a professional is unequivocally negative.

On October 8, 1919, St. Tikhon appealed to the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church not to interfere in the political struggle. He pointed out in particular that the servants of the Church “by virtue of their rank should be above and outside any political interests. They should remember the canonical rules of the Holy Church whereby she prohibits her servants from interfering in the political life of the country, joining any political parties and, what is more, from making the liturgical rites a tool of political demonstrations”.

Prior to the elections of the USSR people’s deputies, the Holy Synod resolved on December 27, 1988, that “in case of the nomination and election of representatives of our Church, blessing be given upon this activity in the conviction that it will benefit the faithful and our whole society”. In addition to being elected as USSR people’s deputies, some bishops and clerics occupied deputy’s posts in republican, regional and local soviets. The new situation in the political life compelled the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in October 1989 to pay more attention to the two questions: “Firstly, how far can the Church go in assuming responsibility for political decisions without casting doubt on their pastoral authority and, secondly, is it permissible for the Church to refuse participation in legislation and the opportunity to make a moral impact on the political process at a time when a particular decision determines as much as the fate of the country?” As a result of this discussion, the Bishops’ Council recognised the Holy Synod decision of December 27, 1988, as valid only for the previous elections. It adopted the procedure for the future, whereby the Supreme Church Authorities, namely the Holy Synod (in case of bishops) and ruling bishops (in case of clergy under their jurisdiction), should decide beforehand in every particular case whether the participation of the clergy in an election campaign was desirable.

Notwithstanding, some representatives of the clergy did take part in the elections without obtaining the necessary blessing. The Holy Synod regretted to state on March 20, 1990 that “the Russian Orthodox Church declines the moral and religious responsibility for the participation of these persons in the elected offices”. For the reasons of oikonomia, the Synod refrained from using appropriate sanctions against the violators, “stating that such a behaviour lies on their own conscience”. On October 8, 1993, in view of the establishment of a professional parliament in Russia, the Holy Synod at its enlarged session decided to prescribe to the clergy to refrain from participating in the parliamentary elections in Russia as nominees to parliament. It resolved that the clergy who violated this decision should be defrocked. The 1994 Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church approved this resolution as “timely and wise” and resolved to apply it to “the future participation of the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church in any election to the representatives bodies of power in the CIS and Baltic countries on both national and local levels”.

The same Bishops’ Council, responding to the challenges of time in faithfulness to the holy canons, adopted a number of rules concerning the subject under discussion. Thus, in one of its resolutions, the Council decided: “to re-affirm the impossibility for the church Plenitude to give support, first of all in election campaigns, to any political party, movement, bloc, union or a similar organisation and to any of their leaders To consider it extremely undesirable for the clergy to join political parties, movements, unions, blocs and similar organisations which are intended primarily for pre-election struggle”.

The Bishops’ Council that took place in 1997 developed the principles of the Church’s relations with political organisations and made even stronger one its previous resolution by refusing to give its blessing to the clergy for them to join political associations. It resolved, in particular, in its statement “On Relations with State and Secular Society: “to welcome the Church’s dialogue and contacts with political organisations if such contacts are not supportive politically; to consider it admissible to maintain co-operation with these organisations in tasks beneficial for the Church and the people unless this co-operation can be interpreted as political support to consider inadmissible the participation of bishops and clergy in any election campaign or their memberships in political associations whose constitutions provide for the nomination of their candidate to elective offices on all levels”.

The fact that the Plenitude of the Church does not participate in political struggle, in the work of political parties and in election processes does not mean her refusal to express publicly her stand on socially significant issues and to present this stand to governmental bodies in any country and on any level. This position may be expressed only by Councils, the church authorities and those empowered to act for them. In any case, the right to express it cannot be delegated to public offices or political or other secular organisations.

V. 3. Nothing can prevent the Orthodox laity from participating in the work of legislative, executive and judicial bodies and political organisations. This involvement took place under various political systems, such as autocracy, constitutional monarchy and various forms of the republican system. The participation of the Orthodox laity in civic and political processes was difficult only in the contexts of non-Christian rule and the regime of state atheism.

In participating in government and political processes, the Orthodox laity are called to base their work on the norms of the gospel’s morality, the unity of justice and mercy (Ps. 85:10), the concern for the spiritual and material welfare of people, the love of the fatherland and the desire to transform the surrounding world according to the word of Christ.

At the same time, the Christian, a politician or a statesmen, should be well aware that in historical reality and, all the more so, in the context of today’s divided and controversial society, most decisions adopted and political actions taken tend to benefit only a part of society, while restricting or infringing upon the interests and wishes of others. Many such decisions and actions are stained with sin or connivance with sin. Precisely for this reason the Orthodox politician or statesman is required to be very sensitive spiritually and morally.

The Christian who works in the sphere of public and political building is called to seek the gift of special self-sacrifice and special self-denial. He needs to be utterly attentive to his own spiritual condition, so that his public or political work may not turn from service into an end in itself that nourishes pride, greed and other vices. It should be remembered that “principalities or powers, all things were created by him, and for him and by him all things stand” (Col. 1:16-17). St. Gregory the Theologian, addressing the rulers, wrote: “It is with Christ that you command, with Christ that you govern, from Him that you have received the sword”. St. John Chrysostom says: “A true king is he who conquers anger and jealousy and voluptuousness and subjects everything to the laws of God and does not allow the passion for pleasure to prevail in his soul. I would like to see such a man in command of the people, and the throne, and the cities and the provinces, and the troops, because he who subjected the physical passions to reason would easily govern people also according to the divine laws But he who appears to command people but in fact accommodates himself to wrath and ambition and pleasure, will not know how to dispose of the power”.

V. 4. The participation of the Orthodox laity in the work of governmental bodies and political processes may be both individual and corporate, within special Christian (Orthodox) political organisations or Christian (Orthodox) units of larger political associations. In both cases, the faithful have the right to choose and express their political convictions, to make decisions and to carry out appropriate work. At the same time, lay people who participate in public or political activity individually or within various organisations do it independently, without identifying their political work with the stand of the Church Plenitude or any of the canonical church institutions or speaking for them. At the same time, the supreme church authority does not give special blessing upon the political activity of the laity.

The 1994 Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church resolved that it is admissible for lay people to join political organisations and “to found such organisations, and if they describe themselves as Christian or Orthodox organisations, they are called to increase their interaction with the church authorities. It is also possible for the clergy, including those representing canonical church structures and the church authorities, to participate in particular activities of political organisations and maintain co-operation with them in tasks beneficial for the Church and society if this participation is not supportive of political organisations and contributes to building peace and accord among people and in the church community”.

A similar resolution of the 1997 Bishops’ Council reads in particular: “To believe it possible for lay people to participate in the work of political organisations and to found such organisation if the latter have no clergy among their members and conduct responsible consultations with the church authorities. To resolve that these organisations as participants in the political process cannot enjoy the blessing of the church authorities and speak for the Church. The Church’s blessing cannot be given and, if given previously, will be denied to the church-public organisations involved in election campaigns and political agitation and claiming to express the Church’s opinion, which is expressed before the state and society only by church Councils, His Holiness the Patriarch and the Holy Synod. The same should be applied to the ecclesial and ecclesio-public mass media”.

The existence of Christian (Orthodox) political organisations and Christian (Orthodox) units in larger political associations is perceived by the Church as positive as it helps lay people to engage in common political and public work based on Christian spiritual and moral principles. These organisations, while being free in their activity, are called to consult the church authorities and to co-ordinate their actions in implementing the Church’s position on public issues.

In relations between the Church Plenitude and Christian (Orthodox) political organisations, in which Orthodox lay people participate, and particular Orthodox politicians and statesmen, situations may arise where their statements or actions essentially differ from the Church’s stand on public issues or impede the realisation of this stand. In such cases, the Church Authorities ascertains the fact of differing positions and states it publicly in order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding among the faithful and society at large. The statement of such a difference should compel the Orthodox laity participating in political activity to think whether it is appropriate for them to continue their memberships in this political organisation.

The organisations of Orthodox Christians should not have the nature of secret society presupposing one’s total subjection to the leaders and conscious refusal to disclose their essence when consulting the Church Authorities and even making one’s confession. The Church cannot approve of the participation of the Orthodox laity and, more so, clergy in the non-Orthodox societies of this kind, since by their very nature they divest a person of his total commitment to the Church of God and her canonical order.

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