On top of all else, in our remarkable time, a schism in the church?

On top of all else, in our remarkable time, a schism in the church?
(Images: Patriarch Kirill (L) - Patriarchia via Catholic News Agency; Pope Francis (R) - CNA)

I wrote in April 2015 about the remarkable condition in which today’s world finds itself, with geopolitical earthquakes breaking up longstanding arrangements, and no hegemon to set boundaries for how far it can go.

It has been at least 600 years since we saw comparable conditions – and in some ways it may be more than that.  The longer we watch conditions deteriorate, the further back it seems we have to go to find a world in which there was so little effectively organized state power, imposing limits, according to a guiding framework, on the potential disarray.

A few months later, the dramatic eruption of the migration crisis in Europe made it clear that a cornerstone of Western order, Westphalianism, is dead.  In its original incarnation, Westphalianism is unrecoverable at this point.  It will have to be reconstituted, in some way and after some period of upheaval whose consequences we can’t accurately foresee.

We shouldn’t despair of reconstituting an order that protects liberalism (in the classical sense) and encourages stability and peace.  The guiding ideas for these arrangements aren’t dead, and can’t be killed.  But too many big, paradigm-breaking things are happening today for us to be complacent about an easy restoration of the status quo ante.  We should, rather, face the fact that where we are isn’t where we were seven years ago – conditions have been transformed that abruptly – and 2008 isn’t coming back, period.

A further sign of this extraordinary time is the juxtaposition of developments in the organized church, of a kind the radical revolutionaries of a century ago called “world-historical.”

One simple thing that’s amazing about these developments is how closely they have coincided in time.  Another is how significant they are.

The first one is the historic meeting in February 2016 between Pope Francis, the pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Since the East-West schism in the church in the 11th century, the Pope in Rome has met only once before with an Orthodox patriarch – the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1964 – and never, until this year, with the leader of the Russian church.

Yet Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill have diverged significantly at the same time in their approach to the tremendous threat to both Christians in the Middle East, and the peace of the European West, from radical Islamism.

The nature of their divergence is not a small thing.  They have enunciated fundamentally opposing views of the situation – and in terms that carry inherent implications for both cultural expectations and politics.  It would require sophistry, at the very least, to try to reconcile their statements about it in a single theory of Christian response to the crisis.

In the fall of 2015, the Russian Orthodox Church characterized the posture of the Russian government against Islamic radicalism as a “holy war.”

The fight with terrorism is a holy battle and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it.  The Russian Federation has made a responsible decision on the use of armed forces to defend the People of Syria from the sorrows caused by the arbitrariness of terrorists. Christians are suffering in the region with the kidnapping of clerics and the destruction of churches. Muslims are suffering no less.

In doing this, Kirill and the Russian church not only named the struggle a “battle,” and a “holy” one, but effectively endorsed the Russian state’s response as justified for that reason.

I urge readers not to be too hasty to judge what is going on here; the church’s reactions cannot be dictated by complacent assumptions taken from the Westphalian period we are crashing out of.  What you think ought to be assumed or done – by the church as it has been for 400 or 500 years, by modern Christians – is being washed out today on a tidal wave of collapsing conditions.  This is no longer the world in which those assumptions were bred into you.

Francis, by contrast, has spoken from a completely different orientation.  He clearly does not see state action by the Western, majority-Christian nations as the right response to the slaughter of Christians in the Middle East.  Nor is he troubled by the unprecedented wave of Muslim migration from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa into Europe – an astoundingly rapid and massive development caused by Islamic radicalism, and serving as a carrier for it into the heart of Europe.

Indeed, the Pope said this month that he sees Muslim migration as necessary to redress Europe’s demographic problems, and suggested that Muslims and Christians in Europe need to learn to live together on a model like Lebanon’s.  (He also characterized Christianity as having, in common with Islam, an “idea of conquest” stemming from Jesus’s “Great Commission” to his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).  Christians have pushed back against this interpretation in droves over the last week.)

Reading the Pope’s actual comments – aside from the “idea of conquest” point – is advisable before deciding how off-base you think his sentiments may be.  (I agree with him, for example, that Europe has driven itself with secularist statism to a marked degree of “demographic emptiness.”)

But invoking Lebanon as a model for Muslim-Christian coexistence can hardly be comforting to Christians, as Virginia Hale points out at Breitbart.  Besides the massacres of Christians cited by Hale, there is the point that Christians have lived a contingent existence in Lebanon since the Ottoman Empire gained control of the territory there, and have retained viability as a major, respected minority solely because of the outside interest of armed Western powers, in the near-century since the end of World War I.

This is not a model for sustainable “peace.”  It is a model for a Christianity perpetually at risk, and subordinated, in the local political order, to Islam.

Perhaps the strongest divergence between the Russian Orthodox view and that of Pope Francis is expressed by this summary from Giulio Meotti, writing for the Gatestone Institute:

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI, in his Regensburg lecture, said what no Pope had ever dared to say — that there is a link between violence and Islam. Ten years later, Pope Francis never calls those responsible for anti-Christian violence by name, and never mentions the word “Islam.” Pope Francis also recently recognized the “State of Palestine,” before it even exists — a symbolic and unprecedented first. The Pope also might abandon the Church’s long tradition of a “just war,” one regarded as morally or theologically justifiable. Pope Francis always speaks of the “Europe of peoples,” but never of the “Europe of Nations.”

So much for holy and just war, as framed by the Moscow Patriarchate.

In the face of radical Islam and its apocalypse-baiting manifestations, there are big, Islamic-Conquest-and-Crusades-level questions, and a yawning gap, between the Pope and the Patriarch.  Quite honestly, I think it is impatient and foolish to assume, reflexively, that we know the answers to the big questions.  I have reasons myself for coming down on the “Europe of Nations” side, but those reasons are derived from Christian principles, more than they are explicitly articulated by them.  And they don’t lead me to buy into the Russian Orthodox posture hook, line, and sinker.  (I’m a Protestant in any case, but Christians are all working from the same basic playbook.)

That there is such a divergence in patriarchal and pontifical responses is an indication of what an epic disruption the world is experiencing today.  The major divisions of our liturgical legacy churches don’t even see the situation the same way, much less agree on what to do about it.

I know that plenty of Christians out there will say – and I agree – that in such circumstances, there is only one sure refuge to turn to, and we are being called to Him.  We have to peel back all the layers and centuries of human organization to find the place where we are “one in the Spirit,” as so many Christians used to sing when I was a kid.  Such is the time we live in.  Kairos is large and in charge.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.

Commenting Policy

We have no tolerance for comments containing violence, racism, vulgarity, profanity, all caps, or discourteous behavior. Thank you for partnering with us to maintain a courteous and useful public environment where we can engage in reasonable discourse.

You may use HTML in your comments. Feel free to review the full list of allowed HTML here.