Archives > Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: The Need to Act
The following interview will be published in the May issue
of Inside the Vatican magazine.
Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev
The Need to Act
Bishop Hilarion, who is Russian Orthodox, was born in Moscow,
studied at Oxford, and is presently the Russian Orthodox Bishop
for Central Europe based in Vienna, Austria
By Dr. Robert Moynihan
INSIDE THE VATICAN: A major conference involving
Catholics and Orthodox is scheduled to take place in Vienna
in early May. Can you tell us something about the background
of this conference, and its chief purpose?
BISHOP HILARION ALFEYEV: The theme of the
conference is "Christian Values in Europe." The
initiative to organize this conference belonged to Metropolitan
Kirill, chairman of the Department for External Church Relations
of the Moscow Patriarchate. Invited are distinguished Church
leaders and theologians from the Roman Catholic and Russian
Orthodox Churches. There will be about 25 participants on
The discussion on Christian values acquires special relevance
and urgency in the context of the process of globalization,
which is affecting more and more of the world's population.
Globalization is a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted and multi-layered
process. It exerts influence on the world as a whole and on
separate countries and regions, on the entire human community
and on concrete human beings. It affects politics and economics,
morals and law, the sciences and arts, education and culture.
Globalization leaves its imprint on practically all areas
of human endeavor, with the possible exception of one: religion.
Today only religion is systematically resisting the relentless
attack of globalization, entering into an unequal battle to
defend those values it considers fundamental and which are
being challenged by globalization.
Only religion is able to counter the ideology of globalization
with its own system of spiritual and moral orientation based
on the centuries-long experience of generations acquired during
the pre-globalization age. In the modern battle for values,
people find themselves more often than not on opposite sides
of the barricades, with those inspired by religious ideals
on the one side and those whose world-view is formed by secular
humanism on the other.
At the core of the modern globalization ideology is the humanistic
idea of the absolute dignity of the human person and of the
existence of universal, "common human" values, which
are proposed as the foundation of a single world civilization.
By "common human" values, however, are understood
not only those spiritual and moral tenets which are common
to all religions or which are equally obligatory for both
religious and non-religious people ("thou shall not kill",
"thou shall not steal", "thou shall not bear
false witness", etc.), but also many ideas that are questionable
from the religious point of view and which are rooted in liberal-humanistic
morality. To this latter group belong, in particular, the
affirmation of the right of each individual to his or her
own way of life, which extends insofar as it does not cause
harm to others. From the viewpoint of humanistic morality,
the only limitation on human freedom is the freedom of other
people: the moral person is one who does not harm the interests
of others, while the immoral person is one who infringes upon
their freedom. The idea of absolute moral norms as well as
the notion of sin are completely absent from modern humanistic
In the religious tradition, on the contrary, there exists
the concept of an absolute, divinely-established moral law,
as well as of the deviation from it, known as sin. From the
viewpoint of the religious person, by no means is everything
that does not directly infringe on the interests of other
people morally permissible. For the believer true freedom
is not the permissibility of everything, but the liberation
from sin, the overcoming in oneself of everything that hinders
It is not by mere chance that modern liberal humanism is
closely connected with globalization. In its foundation, just
as in the foundation of the project of globalization, lies
the idea of its universality and its being the only alternative.
Indeed, humanists will acknowledge in word the right of the
person to belong to any religion or belong to none at all,
since it would not be politically correct to totally deny
religion the right to exist.
However, in practice humanism is inspired first and foremost
by an anti-religious pathos and thus strives to weaken religion
as much as possible, drive it into a ghetto, force it out
of society and minimize its influence on people, especially
on the youth.
The secular, worldly, anti-Churchly and anti-clerical orientation
of modern humanism is obvious. It is precisely because the
humanist ideology is acquiring increasingly clearer characteristics
of militant secularism that the conflict between it and religion
becomes ever more similar to a battle for survival -- a battle
not unto life, but unto death.
Liberals and humanists themselves like to depict this battle
as a clash between, on the one hand, an outdated world-view
based on pre-scientific ideas, on "metaphysical and theological
speculations of the past," and, on the other, a progressive,
scientific and modern view of life.
They inculcate this idea into the minds of people through
the mass media and the state systems of primary, secondary
and higher education, which are in their hands in most Western
countries. The youth are brought up with the idea that we
are living in a "post-Christian" age, that religion
is something for the hopelessly backward and elderly. Liberal
humanism actively fights for the hearts and minds of the young,
knowing that the outcome of the worldwide debate over values,
which the humanists attempt to present as a conflict of generations,
will depend on the value system of the next generation.In
reality, however, the secular ideology has not at all come
to replace the religious world-view, since the religious value
system will continue to exist alongside the liberal-humanistic
one. It would be incorrect to speak of the succession of value
systems in their historical development: the question is rather
about their opposition to one another, which sometimes leads
to political, religious and armed conflicts.
The potential explosiveness of today's inter-civilizational
situation is to a significant degree caused by the fact that
the Western liberal-humanistic ideology, acting on the idea
of its own universality, is imposing itself on people who
were raised in other spiritual and moral traditions and have
different value systems.
These people see in the total dictate of the Western ideology
a threat to their identity. The evidently anti-religious character
of modern liberal humanism brings about non-acceptance and
rejection by those whose behavior is religiously motivated
and whose spiritual life is founded on religious experience.
The question here is not only about individuals for whom
faith is a matter of personal choice, but also about entire
nations, cultures and civilizations formed under the influence
of religious factors. It is at the international, inter-cultural
and inter-civilizational levels that the opposition between
secularism and religion can grow into an open conflict. All
these questions must be addressed by both the Catholics and
the Orthodox during the Vienna conference on Christian values
INSIDE THE VATICAN: Catholics and Orthodox
are Christians, divided since 1054. Can that division be healed?
BISHOP HILARION: It is not easy to heal
the division that exists on the level of theology and ecclesiology.
We must not forget that the division between Eastern and Western
Christianity which took place in the 11th century was in itself
the result of a long development of alienation between these
When one looks at the history of the Early Church, one is
struck by the fact that Latin Christianity was markedly different
from its Greek counterpart almost from the very beginning.
Differences are evident both at the dogmatic and ecclesiological
levels. The Trinitarian theology of Latin Christian authors,
such as Tertullian and Augustine, differed significantly from
that of the Greeks, e.g. Origen and the Cappadocians. Over
the centuries the divergence became more and more acute, leading
to the long and still unresolved Trinitarian dispute around
the question of the Filioque. Ecclesiological presuppositions
were also dissimilar. If in the East, a system of Patriarchates
gradually developed, where each head of a local Church was
regarded as equal to the others, in the West the central role
of the Bishop of Rome was stressed with ever-increasing insistence.
While the Easterners regarded the Bishop of Rome as primus
inter pares, i.e. the first among the five equal great Patriarchs
(the so-called "Pentarchy"), he himself was rather
inclined to regard his primacy as that of jurisdiction over
the other four. At several Ecumenical Councils this difference
was manifested in the behavior of the papal legates: while
their interventions were regarded by the Easterners as contributions
to discussions leading to conciliar decisions, the legates
thought that it was their right to pronounce the final word.
The Pope would normally express approval or disapproval of
the decisions of the Councils, while the Councils themselves
did not deem it necessary.
Political developments in East and West also contributed
to growing differences in the ecclesiological visions of the
two traditions. In the Byzantine East, the figure of the Emperor
was central: it was he who convened the Councils, who gave
approval to various decisions regarding Church life, who in
many cases appointed and dismissed patriarchs and bishops.
The ideal of "symphony" between Church and state
was developed against this background.
In practice this most often led to a direct interference
of the state into Church affairs. No central ecclesiastical
figure emerged in the Byzantine East during the first millennium,
even though the Patriarch of Constantinople received the title
Western developments were altogether different. For many
centuries Western Europe was disunited and divided into many
small and fragile kingdoms. In the absence of a strong centralized
civil authority, the papacy gradually became the strongest
unifying factor. Hence the role of the Pope not only as the
head of the Western Church, but also as a powerful political
figure, a head of state, a mighty magnate, a land- and slave-owner.
The West was separated from the East not only by political
and theological factors: there was also an apparent cultural
difference, conditioned to a significant degree by the use
of Latin in the West and Greek in the East. Different cultural
contexts contributed to differences in theological approaches,
and vice versa.
When reading Byzantine polemical treatises against the Latins
or Latin diatribes against the Byzantines, one is struck by
how theological accusations were permeated with various reproaches
of a purely cultural nature.
The "Encyclical Letter" by Patriarch Photius is
but one of many such examples. Being dedicated to the important
question of the procession of the Holy Spirit, it begins with
petty accusations against various liturgical and domestic
customs of the Latins, such as fasting on Saturdays. Even
if one takes into account that such accusations were advanced
in the heat of the polemics and were part of a developed propaganda
strategy, it is still evident that even minor cultural differences
were regarded by both sides as grave deviations from Tradition.
This, in turn, resulted from people's inability to cross the
borders of their own cultural contexts. Maximus the Confessor's
attempt, in his "Letter to Marinus," to look at
the Filioque question from the Western perspective is a rare
and extrinsic example of the opposite.
The schism of 1054 was, therefore, the result of quite a
long development, and not simply a matter of misunderstanding
between the papal envoys and the members of the Church of
Constantinople, as it is sometimes presented. Obviously, dogmatic
and ecclesiological differences between East and West in the
first millennium did not necessitate the complete breach of
eucharistic relations between the two traditions, but they
definitely contributed to the alienation that resulted in
The second millennium was marked by a continual struggle
between East and West, and by the numerous attempts of the
Pope to bring disobedient Easterners under his control.
The Crusades were the most striking and outrageous example
of the use of violence against the Orthodox by their Western
fellow-Christians. The memory of the Crusades is still alive
among the Greeks: the wound is still bleeding. The late Pope
John Paul II apologized for the Crusades before the Archbishop
of Athens, which by itself was a noble action. One has to
admit, however, that the apology was delayed by eight centuries.
It must also be recognised that numerous remnants of the
Crusaders' activity still survive, including, for example,
the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which was created at
the time of the Crusades in order to replace the respective
Other blows dealt repeatedly to the Orthodox were the numerous
attempts to bring them under the jurisdiction of Rome by means
of "union". The first such attempt, made in Lyon
in the 13th century, was followed the Union of Ferrara-Florence
in 1439, on the eve of the fall of the Byzantine Empire. Nothing
has remained of these two "unions". But the Union
of Brest, proclaimed in 1596, gave birth to ecclesiastical
structures that still exist and whose recent revival has contributed
to aggravating Catholic-Orthodox relations.
Parallel to these processes, a continuing theological alienation
between Orthodox and Catholics also grew. This was to a significant
degree conditioned by the introduction of new doctrines in
the Catholic Church, which were (and are still) regarded by
the Orthodox as dogmatic innovations. The belief in the infallibility
of the Pope when he speaks ex cathedra is the most striking
example. A teaching that was the consequence of many centuries
of theological debate within the Catholic Church, it was strongly
censured by the Orthodox. Indeed, this doctrine was rejected
also by some traditional circles within the Western Church:
hence the appearance of the Old Catholic movement, which for
many decades conducted a dialogue with the Orthodox.
The struggles between the two Christian traditions in the
first half of the 20th century did not differ from those of
previous times in that they continued at various levels. There
were, however, some latent streams within both traditions
which predetermined a rather rapid rapprochement in the second
half of the 20th century. Already in the 1930s and 1940s theologians
from both sides began to meet on a more regular basis, and
for the very first time in Christian history the possibility
emerged for each to cross the borders of its own context.
The theological exchange that took place at that time contributed
to the remarkable change on the part of the Catholics towards
the Orthodox which was most evidently manifested during the
Second Vatican Council. At this Council, the Orthodox Church
was recognized as possessing the fullness of the divine grace
that leads people to salvation. It is from Vatican II that
the term "sister Church" with reference to the Orthodox
This same Council predetermined the significant achievements
attained by the Mixed Commission for Theological Dialogue
between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches,
which was created in 1980.
The work of this Commission lasted for 20 years and then
was interrupted in 2000 because of a strong disagreement on
the question of Uniatism. After a five-year break the Coordinating
Committee of this Commission met in the fall of 2005 in Rome
to prepare the plenary session, which is to be held in Serbia
Thus, the theological dialogue has now resumed, and it is
a good sign. However, there is not much ground for excessive
optimism, since the questions to be discussed are quite difficult
and quite numerous. The issue of the primacy of the bishop
of Rome, which will be addressed by the Commission in 2006,
is among the most difficult ones, not only because it remains
the main cause of disagreement between the Catholics and the
Orthodox, but also because there is no unity among the Orthodox
on the understanding of primacy in the Universal Church. I
envisage long and difficult discussions, many years of assiduous
work, and no immediate and visible results.
INSIDE THE VATICAN: If the division cannot
be healed, can Catholics and Orthodox nevertheless work together
on certain social problems, like caring for abandoned children,
or supporting marriage and family life? What possibilities
do you see for this type of collaboration?
BISHOP HILARION: I think there are many
possibilities for such collaboration, and I regret that until
now we have done very little together in the field of Christian
charity. Sometimes our missions and charitable organizations
act almost as competing structures, while we desperately need
to learn to work together.
Caring for abandoned children and supporting marriage and
family life are among the most urgent tasks in such countries
as Russia. It is important, however, that these noble activities
not be used for the aims of proselytism, which devalues them
and makes them an obstacle, rather then a means for Christian
I hope some way of closer collaboration of the Catholics
with the Orthodox in the field of promoting and defending
Christian values in Europe will be found in the near future.
Over a year ago, on the pages of your periodical, I called
for a European Catholic-Orthodox alliance to be created, and
I still think this idea is quite relevant.
There are now two obvious essentially-differing versions
of Christianity -- the traditional and the liberal. The abyss
that now exists divides not so much the Orthodox and Catholics,
or the Catholics and Protestants, as the "traditionalists"
and "liberals" (with all the conventions of such
labels). Of course, there are defenders of traditional values
in the Protestant camp (especially in the Southern churches,
that is, Africa, Asia, Latin America). But a liberal attitude
prevails among the Protestants.
In this situation, I suppose that a consolidation is needed
in the efforts of those churches which consider themselves
"Churches of Tradition," that is, the Orthodox,
Catholics and the Oriental Orthodox. I am not speaking about
the serious dogmatic and ecclesiological differences which
exist between these Churches and which can be considered within
the framework of bilateral dialogue. I am speaking about the
need to reach an agreement between these Churches on some
strategic alliance, pact or cooperation for defending traditional
Christianity as such -- defending it from all modern challenges,
be it militant liberalism, militant atheism or militant Islam.
When I expressed this idea for the first time, I used the
word "alliance' to describe the body which, in my opinion,
needs to be created. Some subsequent critics, while enthusiastic
about the idea itself, did not like the term "alliance"
for the military or political connotations which, allegedly,
could be discerned in it.
Indeed, what matters most is not the terminology, but the
idea. Perhaps we could speak about a Catholic-Orthodox Committee
on Cooperation in Europe, or about a European Catholic-Orthodox
Consultative Board. In any case, for the body in question,
we need a word which has no ecclesiastical connotations: words
like "council" or "union" should be avoided.
Otherwise one may suspect that a new type of Uniatism is envisaged.
I would like to make clear that we do not need another union
of the type of Ferrara-Florence, a union aimed at restoration
of full Eucharistic communion but based on a theological compromise.
What we do need at this stage, in my opinion, is a close
and efficient strategic cooperation, for the challenge is
made to traditional Christianity as such. This is especially
noticeable in Europe, where de-Christianization and liberalization
are occurring as persistently as the gradual and unswerving
Islamization. The liberal, weakened "Christianity"
of the Protestant communities cannot resist the onslaught
of Islam; only staunch, traditional Christianity can stand
against it, ready to defend its moral positions. In this battle,
the Orthodox and Catholics could, even in the face of all
the differences accumulated over the centuries, form a united
The primary purpose of the strategic cooperation that I propose
should be the defense of traditional moral values such as
the family, childbirth, spousal fidelity. These values are
subjected to systematic mockery and derision in Europe by
liberals and democrats of all types. Instead of spousal fidelity,
"free love" is promoted, same-sex partnerships are
equated with the union of marriage, childbirth is opposed
by "family planning." Unfortunately, we have serious
differences in these matters with most Protestants, not to
speak of fundamental differences of theological and ecclesiological
character. I will use as an example a conversation with a
Lutheran bishop, held within the framework of a theological
dialogue with one of the Northern Lutheran churches. We tried
to prepare a joint document in the defense of traditional
values. We began to talk about abortion. I asked: "Can
we put in the joint document that abortion is a sin?"
The Lutheran bishop responded: "Well, of course, we don't
promote abortion, we prefer contraception." My question:
"But abortion is in the opinion of your church, a sin,
or is it not?" His reply: "Well, you see, there
are various circumstances, for example, the life of a mother
or child could be in danger." "Well, if there is
no threat to either the mother or the child, then is abortion
a sin, or not?" And the Lutheran bishop still could not
concede that abortion is a sin.
What is there to talk about then, if abortion is not a sin,
same-sex marriage is fine, and contraception is wonderful?
There it is, liberal Christianity in all its glory. It is
clear for me that presently only Catholics and Orthodox preserve
the traditional view of family values in Europe, and in this
regard, as in many others, we are strategic partners.
INSIDE THE VATICAN: Is there a specific
structure you have in mind for this type of collaboration?
BISHOP HILARION: A European Catholic-Orthodox
Alliance, or Committee on Cooperation, or Consultative Board,
whatever name is given to the body that is proposed, should
consist of the official representatives of both Catholic and
Orthodox Churches. If, for example, the 25 representatives
of the European Bishops' Conferences, who now constitute the
COMECE (the European Catholic bishops' conference), could
be joined by some 15 Orthodox bishops, representing the Orthodox
Churches that have dioceses and parishes in Europe, this could
become an authoritative and creative body for defending traditional
Christian values in Europe. But I presume there could be some
other, perhaps less ambitious structures of a smaller scale.
Whatever is the structure and whatever is its name, I am
convinced that we must act speedily, since the challenges
that traditional Christianity faces are numerous and are growing.
We should not wait until Christianity is swallowed by Islam,
or defeated by militant secularism, or crushed by consumerism
and relativism prevailing in modern society. We must think
very seriously about common ways of facing all these modern
challenges, and I greatly hope that the Vienna conference
will be just the first step on the path which we will travel
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