Moscow Patriarchate Returns to Era of Excommunications

Some may remember that when Vladimir Putin initiated his “special military operation” against Ukraine, one of his earliest supporters was Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church. What was his perspective? In his first public address following the commencement of what Moscow terms the “special military operation,” he provided a clear answer: he saw it as a “metaphysical war.” In other words, for the Patriarch, it was evident that this conflict represented a battle between Russia defending the fundamental values of its Christian essence, and Western de-Christianization, which sought to spread, through Ukraine, even to this part of Europe, concepts like gay pride, seen as the epitome of evil. The conflict was deemed metaphysical in the sense that it represented a clash between those upholding traditional values and those promoting progressive ideals.

As the anniversary of the Russian military intervention approached on February 20 of this year, attention once again turned to the issue. Shedding light on how and why this was significant, Hilarion, formerly the second-in-command of the Moscow Patriarchate’s international relations and now serving as Metropolitan of Budapest (a city crucial for Russian diplomacy due to its proximity to neighboring communities) as well as the chairman of the Patriarchate’s Theological and Biblical Commission, offered an explanation. In an interview with the Novosti news agency, Hilarion clarified that according to the commission, “the blessing of same-sex couples is in radical contradiction with Christian moral teaching… These new decisions of the Catholic Church contradict fundamental moral norms.”

I wasn’t looking for the Commission’s documents on fundamental moral norms; rather, my focus was on gaining insight into the perspective of Russian theologians and biblical scholars regarding the statement “Fiducia supplicansissued by the Holy See on December 18, 2023. Hilarion clarified that the document has been presented to Patriarch Kirill for assessment alongside the Holy Synod.

Let’s start with an observation: the core of the Declaration “Fiducia supplicans,” as evident to those who have read it, revolves around the quest to reconcile doctrinal precision with pastoral compassion towards individuals “in their struggles.” It appears to me that this is fundamentally the overarching theme of Francis’ papacy. Each religious leader has an underlying theme: “metaphysical warfare” being one; tending to people in their humanity, even within the clarity of doctrine, being another. This care can also manifest through a blessing, albeit not a liturgical one, bestowed upon two individuals who seek it together. Francis remarked on this: “When a couple spontaneously approaches to request it (the blessing), one does not bless their union but rather the individuals who have jointly made the request.”

Father Lorenzo Prezzi, a keen observer of ecumenical relations between churches and the Christian-Eastern context, initially presented and analyzed these developments on the website of the Dehonian Fathers. He highlighted that the Moscow Patriarchate has long abstained from theological dialogue, opting instead for a strategic dialogue with the Holy See, focusing on shared actions and attitudes. He further pointed out that in his statement to the Novosti agency, Metropolitan Hilarion stated, “There is talk of same-sex couples as individuals in need of the Church’s blessing for healing and edification. Hence, it is permissible to bless the couple collectively rather than each individual separately. The statement emphasizes multiple times, in various ways, the importance of ensuring that such blessings remain spontaneous and distinct from marriage rituals. It provides practical suggestions for differentiating these blessings from marriage ceremonies. While reaffirming the Church’s teaching on marriage as the union between one man and one woman, open to procreation, the document maintains that blessing same-sex couples contradicts Christian moral teaching.”

The commentary from the Catholic priest, an expert in matters concerning dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox, holds merit: “The statement overlooks the repeated assertion of the distinction between same-sex cohabitation and marriage, elevating what is not sacramental to that level and neglecting the possibility of a pastoral approach to complex situations. It implies that every blessing must be ritualistic and liturgical, disregarding the prevalent culture in Russia that condones severe and systematic violence against homosexuals. In the Fundamentals of Social Doctrine, it is stated: ‘The Church holds that those who promote a homosexual lifestyle should not be allowed into teaching, educational, or other roles involving children or youth, nor into leadership positions in the military or re-education institutions’ (Chapter 12, No. 9). The Church has remained silent on defending the dignity of homosexuals against imprisonment, violence, and social exclusion. This echoes the situation in the document regarding the sanctity of human life (published December 27, 2023), where the relentless defense of life was followed by the successful lobbying to defeat a bill aimed at protecting women from domestic violence. Sodomy is portrayed as the gravest and unforgivable sin, serving as the litmus test for an entire civilization.”

Could one perceive the provocative stance of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate as an attempt to meddle in the “internal affairs” of another Church, endorsing a viewpoint (that of individual blessings but not joint ones) shared by many critics of Francis? The possibility of such interference may exist, yet it remains speculative. However, there is undoubtedly a critical view towards other Churches, though Metropolitan Hilarion refrains from explicitly labeling them as such. He pointed out that Protestants also began with non-liturgical blessings, eventually evolving into something distinct in some of their communities, not recognized as Churches. This cautious criticism extends to sister Churches within the Orthodox family, such as the Greek Orthodox, who were reproached by another prominent member of the Moscow Patriarchate, Yacklimehuk, for failing to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage by the government in Greece.

Father Lorenzo Prezzi’s assessment suggests that Moscow aims to transition from being criticized for supporting the invasion of Ukraine to positioning itself as the defender of authentic Christian principles. This shift underscores the importance of a new theological perspective, epitomized by the concept of the “metaphysical war” mentioned earlier—an ideological battle between good and evil. This perspective challenges the traditional teachings traced back to St. Augustine, who vehemently opposed Manichaeism. It appears that Hilarion is making a bold messianic assertion: “The Russian Orthodox Church serves as the restraining force—I assert this with full responsibility—that courageously and decisively upholds the unchanging commandments established by God, which form the foundation of human existence.” However, there is silence regarding God’s commandments concerning the case of Navalny, who passed away four days before this interview. Nonetheless, around 400 Russian Orthodox priests, advocating for the return of Navalny’s body to his mother, have addressed this issue.



Cover photo: Head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill blesses people congregated for mass in Donetsk on May 7, 2011 during his visit to the Ukraine. Photo by Alexander Khudoteply / AFP.

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