The Orthodox Church’s Social Concept

17 2005 .

Christian Values and Secular Society

If we accept that Christian values as expressed by the Orthodox Church form part of modern Russian society’s value system, then the Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church are its fullest expression.
In the Bases of the Social Concept (OSK, in its Russian acronym), an extensive 80-page document that was adopted at the Sacred Bishop’s Council in 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church for the first time set out its position on a broad spectrum of social issues, ranging from church-state relations, the nature of war and the effects of globalization on property rights, labor relations and the morality of cloning.
Countering the widespread myth that Orthodox tradition is overly ascetic and that the church structure is too closely bound to the state, its social doctrine formulates the foundations for a socially active Christian life within a secular society.
Priests and active parishioners form a sizeable part of the document’s target demographic. “Given the combination of diverse views and great spiritual inexperience that characterizes our clerics and lay people, a consolidated position expressed by the Church on the main issues of social and political life can provide answers to verify private opinions,” said Andrei Zubov, professor at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO) and director of the Church and International Relations Center.
But the document is also intended for a broader audience. After its publication, seminars were held in many Russian towns to give a broad range of politicians and officials the opportunity to learn about the OSK. However, the document was received with relative indifference both by academic and political circles.
MGIMO’s Zubov links this apathy to what he termed “a general lack of interest in theoretical developments. Our society today thinks too much in down-to-earth terms.” He stated, however, that “the OSK is a document for the long term.”
In contrast to the reaction at home, the OSK was well received by both Christians and experts in the West. “The document was hardly criticized because the very fact that it was even written counted for so much,” said Konstantin Kostyuk, an expert at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. “However, the reception has been slower in Russia and within the Russian Orthodox Church than was hoped for, so it is hard for me today to say whether it will become the foundation for developing social Christian ethics as a direction in Orthodox theological thinking.”
Church, State and Society
A large part of the OSK is devoted to the relations between the Church, state and society. The relationship between the Church and political parties has proven the most difficult. Some parties, such as United Russia, do not define their attitude towards the Church in their party documents, but cooperate with it actively. Other parties, such as Rodina and the Communist Party have appealed directly to Orthodox voters.
Relations between the Church and the state are currently following a contradictory course of development. On the one hand, the areas where the two cooperate have been defined, but on the other, these areas are considerably fewer than they could be. The OSK makes this clear in section III, Church and State: “The principle of the state’s secular nature cannot be interpreted to mean that religion should be pushed out from all areas of people’s lives, and religious associations be prevented from influencing tasks of public importance. This principle implies simply the separation of the respective areas of competence of the Church and the state and their non-intervention in each other’s internal affairs.”
Acute problems between the Church and the State remain in the areas of education, charity work and the question of returning Church property. A difficult negotiation process involving all of Russia’s traditional religions resulted in a partial solution to issues of taxation and legislative regulation of religious activities, but there is still a long way to go before a real mutual understanding is reached.
Family Values
Despite the amount of space the document devotes to church-state relations, issues of personal values are what interest people the most, according to questions posted on Orthodox websites or asked of priests.
The OSK puts much emphasis on family relations and family values, stating that the family should provide the grounding of piety, since it plays an important role in developing an individual’s personality and in linking one generation to the next. The Church makes clear that it believes modern life leads to the destruction of traditional ties between parents and children.
In the view of Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, young people today are taught sin as a normal part of modern life. “While aware that school, along with the family, should provide children and teenagers with information on relations between the sexes and the physical nature of human beings, the Church cannot support ‘sexual education’ programs that accept premarital sexual relations as normal,” commented the Metropolitan. “It is completely unacceptable to impose such programs on schoolchildren. Schools have a mission to counter vices that destroy an individual’s integrity, provide an education in chastity and prepare young people to found solid families built on faithfulness and purity”.
The Church takes an equally consistent line against abortion. In section XII, Problems of Bioethics, the OSK states: “Since ancient times the Church has viewed deliberate abortion as a grave sin. The canons equate abortion with murder. This assessment is based on the conviction that the conception of a human being is a gift from God. Therefore, from the moment of conception any encroachment on the life of a future human being is criminal.”
It is clear that the Church’s position is uncompromising, condemning abortions at any stage of pregnancy. In many Russian towns, parishioners’ initiative groups have set up centers to explain the Church’s position. In order to put their beliefs into practice, parishioners have also provided material support for women who decide not to have an abortion, including the ‘Zhizn’ (Life) Medical and Educational Center in Moscow.
A Vehicle for Participation in Society
Positive reaction to the Bases of the Social Concept encouraged the Church to become more involved in public life. In February 2004, the “Code of Moral Principles and Rules in Economic Life” was adopted. This document, sometimes called the “commandments for business,” received the support of Islamic, Jewish and Buddhist groups in Russia, as well as the backing of Business Russia, Opora and the Chamber of Trade and Industry.
Nikolay Bulyaev, chairman of the State Duma Commission on Education and Science, characterized this text as a “carefully thought through and balanced document that identifies the sore points of Russian society and offers solutions to the most complex problems in our lives based on the voluntary adoption of certain moral rules and principles by business directors and commercial organizations.” He added, “Legal norms can only have real force in a society that also follows moral norms.”
In autumn 2004, the Church began a national campaign to raise the birth rate by holding a series of forums on the moral aspects of the demographic crisis. “It is often said that economic reasons are to blame for demographic problems, but the roots of the crisis are not only economic,” commented Patriarch Alexii II at a demographic forum in Nizhny Novgorod. “I am firmly convinced that moral problems are above all at the root of the demographic difficulties our country is facing today, and the Russian Orthodox Church, which has always supported and will always support strong families and a strong moral foundation for people’s lives, cannot be silent and not react to a problem that is making itself felt more and more acutely felt in our country with every passing year.”
Also at the end of 2004, the Church approved guidelines for its participation in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS, which call for the Church and its members to show a tolerant and caring attitude towards people with HIV/AIDS. However, at same time they emphasize the Church’s position that a sinful way of life is one of the main causes of the spread of the disease.
Despite changes, problems remain
Despite the positions set out in the OSK, the Church is still struggling to find its place in modern Russian society. At the root of the problem are the contradictions between Christian values as expressed by the Church and the liberal values of the modern world.
The court case against the organizers of a modern art exhibit called “Caution, religion!” that was vandalized by Orthodox activists two years ago was one of the manifestations of this confrontation.
The Church also has an uneasy relationship with human rights groups. Speaking in June at a round table on human rights issues, the Deputy Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations, Vsevolod Chaplin, referred to contradictions between the generally accepted concept of human rights and the Orthodox view.As a result, he came under fire from human rights activists.
“I proposed launching a discussion on whether there are values in society that are higher than the rights and life of an individual,” said Chaplin in an interview with The Moscow News. “Sometimes human rights are taken as an absolute, but this is not right. Often the rights of individuals are restricted in the name of a society’s security. Not even an individual’s life is always placed higher than convictions.”
The sudden end of communism and the emergence of religious freedom produced many ideological branches within the Russian Orthodox Church. These ideologies tried to cope with the new free market of religion by demonizing political groups, other countries, other faiths or other ethnic groups, creating division within the Orthodox community. The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church has played an important part in unifying the Orthodox faithful by standardizing the Orthodox social ideal and developing a religious-political culture.
The emergence of these documents does not mean that the Church seeks to establish an Orthodox ideology for the secular world. From the Church’s point of view, ideology is a truncated form of religious teaching with a pragmatic focus. Divine revelation does not fit into an ideological format. The Church’s objective is different: to give the various members of civil society the chance to identify their position with regards to Christian values and the Orthodox public and political ideals.
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