Caesaropapism and the Liberty of the Church – Part I

The Emperor Justinian and His Suite

The horrific conflict occurring in Ukraine has been at the forefront of our consciousness in recent days. And one aspect of the tragedy that stands out from a religious perspective is the servile position of the Russian Orthodox Church under Patriarch Kirill in relation to Putin’s government. George Weigel recently published an interesting piece at First Things discussing 500 Eastern Orthodox scholars who have recently condemned the Russian church’s Russkiy mir (“Russian world”) ideology because it subordinates the Christian church to a deified earthly state.[1] The scholars – and Weigel by extension – make some good points about how the Russian ideology leans toward a problematic worldly theocracy not unlike the error of the Jews in the Gospels who rejected Christ. They also accurately identify the underlying issue – caesaropapism (the state as the head of the church) – and the schismatic mentality of opposing all things “Western” which it produces. And I share Weigel’s hope that this awareness will foster dialogue with our Eastern brethren.

These political realities are the main factors beneath the East-West Schism. Indeed, I would even say the underlying “error of Russia” – much deeper than the relatively brief episode of Bolshevism – is this centuries-old domination of Russian Christianity by first the Tsarist and later Soviet and Putinist empires. It is this sort of “politicization” of the faith that, in my opinion, is responsible for the painful separation of the vast majority of Slavic Christians from Rome, more than dogmatic controversies such as the alleged dispute over the Immaculate Conception.[2] As the great Russian proponent of reunion Vladmir Soloviev noted, it was the imperial court hierarchy that cut the Russian church off from both its roots in the Christian Slav tradition (clung to by Old Ritualists) and also the Roman trunk as well as the other branches of the Catholic Church around the world. And it was Soloviev who further remarked this legacy had left Russian Orthodoxy as a diminished and secularized regional church that could only be revivified by opening up to the Universal Church.

And herein lies the irony of a figure like Mr. Weigel approvingly citing the Orthodox scholars’ critique of caesaropapism. For it is hardly a secret that many prominent American (Americanist?) Catholics have adopted a similarly deferential attitude to the political and (anti-) cultural powers and organs of the American Empire. And this phenomenon crosses party lines; both the “Left” and “Right” have been guilty of putting Caesar before God. Indeed, why do we even classify fellow Catholics primarily based on their political affiliation? Asking the question proves my point that Caesar has become the measure of all things. This attitude may involve enabling “liberal” politicians and personalities to “redefine” Holy Church’s perennial teachings against prenatal infanticide and alphabet-soup ideologies. But it may just as well entail endorsing (neo-) “conservative” unjust and destructive wars in opposition to the Holy Father. In either case, the fundamental error is the same. Too many American Catholics have permitted these worldly concerns to guide our views on spiritual matters, instead of going about it the other way around.

[1] An Orthodox Awakening | George Weigel | First Things

[2] The ancient Russian tradition clearly affirms the Holy Theotokos Mary as ‘immaculate’. Cf. Morning Prayer VII from the Jordanville Prayer Book. Russian opposition to the dogma is modern, and from what I understand, owes much more to objections against its definition by Rome than to its actual content.

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