Bishops Behaving Badly – The American Conservative

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It happened in Moscow this weekend:

Well, that’s pretty shameful. As an Orthodox Christian, it is painful to see such an august episcopal figure dragging the reputation of the Church through the mud of Putin’s dirty war.

But there is an important theological point to be made here, for Western audiences. Orthodoxy has no pope, or theological concept of indulgences, which would seem to apply here. During the time of the Crusaders, the pope promised paradise to all who fought in this holy war alongside the Church. If I understand correctly – I’m glad to be corrected – the Roman Pontiff has the authority to do this, based on the Catholic model of salvation (eg, “treasury of merits” and all that). Although the Catholic Church today recognizes that the concept of indulgences was abused in the Renaissance, and this led to the Reformation, it has never denied the concept of indulgences. For example, Pope Francis offered “plenary indulgences” during Covid. What are plenary indulgences? From the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh website:

Even though sins confessed and forgiven will not send a person to hell, the consequences are still to be paid on earth or in purgatory. An indulgence releases the recipient from these consequences. Receiving an indulgence always stems from sincere repentance, a desire to live a holy life, receiving the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion as soon as possible, and praying for the Holy Father. An indulgence cannot be bought, nor obtained by passing through insincere gestures.

A partial indulgence covers part of the penalty due for sins; a plenary indulgence removes everything. Both types of indulgence come from the merits of Jesus, the Blessed Mother and the saints. These “merits” are the opposite of “demerits”. They are spiritual fruits accumulated by a holy life. To grant indulgences, the Church draws from a great treasury of merits: the infinite value of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, as well as the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the saints – including all who live holy lives on earth. .

This concept is foreign to Orthodox Christianity. This website of the Russian Orthodox Church briefly explains what indulgences are and how they are contrary to Orthodox spirituality. People in the West who mistakenly assume that Orthodoxy is simply a Byzantine form of Catholicism may mistakenly compare Patriarch Kyrill to one of the Crusader-era warrior popes. I want to be careful here, because I’m not a theologian, but I don’t see how the Russian patriarch can make that statement except based on a concept of indulgences. He’s smart enough to know that it won’t work theologically in Orthodoxy, which is why I think he reasons crudely from a concept of martyrdom.

And it could hardly be cruder. Kyrill says the sacrifice of a soldier who dies doing his duty makes all his sins go away. Where is Jesus in this? According to the patriarch’s reasoning, an atheist soldier who nevertheless goes to Ukraine in the performance of his duty, and dies, can go to heaven. I wouldn’t want to lean on that justification before the judgment seat of Christ. I mean, look, a German soldier fighting under Nazi leadership might do this not because he believes in Nazism, but because he feels loyalty to his country and has sworn to defend it. If he dies in battle, are all his sins blotted out because of the sincerity of his heart? Oh good?

To be clear, we should leave it to God to judge the souls of soldiers who die in battle, in just and unjust wars. I have no great difficulty in believing that the Lord, in his boundless mercy, would forgive the souls of some soldiers fighting in war on an unjust side. But I would never assume that, and I certainly wouldn’t say such a thing as a priest, let alone as the Patriarch of Moscow. According to Kyrill’s reasoning, Ukrainian Orthodox soldiers who fire on Russian Orthodox can also have their sins blotted out if they make the ultimate sacrifice.

The Patriarch of Moscow cannot reasonably be expected to take sides against the Tsar’s war, but it is no exaggeration to expect him to refrain from imitating a crusader pope and baptizing her. holy war, which he did indeed. It’s not orthodox. In fact, the Orthodox Church needs soldiers returning from war, even from a just war! — to confess and repent. From the Orthodox Church in America website:

When violence is to be used as a lesser evil to prevent greater evils, it can never be blessed as such, it must always be repented of, and must never be identified with perfect Christian morality.

Also, a final point of great importance is that Christians who are involved in the relativistic life of this world must resist military conscription when the state is bad. But in doing so, they must not give in to lawlessness, but must submit to any punishment inflicted so that their testimony may be fruitful.

Earlier this year, when the Greek Orthodox archbishop in the United States baptized the offspring of a gay couple, several Orthodox bishops stood up to condemn his act as unorthodox. I hope we hear the same kind of things from the Orthodox bishops, in the face of Kyrill’s declaration of de facto holy war.

Elsewhere, Catholic bishops in the Flemish region of Belgium have issued a liturgical blessing for same-sex couples:

The announcement of the initiative is highlighted on the website of the Catholic Church of Belgium, with an explicit reference to the encyclical Amoris Laetitia, and more broadly, to the openness shown by Pope Francis in his call for “discernment, orientation and integration”. The Flemish bishops express their intention to “give a concrete response and fulfillment to the desire to pay explicit attention to the situation of homosexual people, their parents and their families in the development of their policies”. By signing their document “the Flemish bishops”, the prelates present themselves collectively. The term designates Cardinal Josef De Kesel of Brussels, Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Bishop Lode van Hecke of Grand, Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt and finally Bishop Lodewijk Aerts of Bruges.

The document “On Pastoral Closeness to Homosexual Persons” includes a formal proposal for a ceremony to bless same-sex couples in church. By this gesture, the Belgian episcopate no longer intends to offer a simple reflection or an intention of prayer proposed to the faithful for the return of homosexuals to a life in conformity with the Catholic faith; rather, it is a deliberate policy intended to be implemented.

This text – for liturgical use, therefore intended to be used by priests in the parishes – is accompanied by the appointment of an interdiocesan coordinator or of the pastoral care of homosexuals, Willy Bombeek, a layman himself homosexual.

There is a slightly more detailed discussion of this by Ed Condon at The Pillar.

Theologically, the Flemish bishops have no foot to stand on. Here is a statement that Cardinal Francis Arinze, the venerable Nigerian cardinal in the curia, issued in response:

It is reported that the Flemish Bishops of Belgium, on or around September 20, 2022, issued what they called a liturgical blessing for same-sex couples. They have, it is said, considered this approach as “a pastoral closeness with homosexual people, for a welcoming Church which does not exclude anyone”.

Even if the goal is to pastorally help homosexual couples, it is a mistake on the part of the bishops. Sacred Scripture presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity (cf. Gn 19, 1-29; Rom 1, 24-27; 1 Cor 6, 10; 1 Tim 1, 10). Tradition, says The Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2357, “has consistently held that homosexual acts are inherently disordered”.

If people with a homosexual tendency must be respected and not unfairly discriminated against, they are, like every Christian and even every human being, called to chastity (cf CCC, 2358, 2359). The Lord Jesus said to his disciples: “You must therefore be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). This is why the CCC says: “Homosexual people are called to chastity. Through the virtues of self-mastery which teach them interior freedom, sometimes through the support of disinterested friendship, through prayer and sacramental grace, they can and must gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection” (CCC, 2359).

This is why the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded on March 15, 2021 that the Church does not have the authority to give a blessing to same-sex unions.

This is what the Flemish bishops, and in fact all bishops and priests, should teach. They should be blessings, not of same-sex couples, but of properly married unions of a man and a woman. Human beings do not have the power to change the order established by God the Creator. The Church is sent by Christ to all men “to teach them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). This includes calling people to repentance, sacrifice, chastity, and perfection.

The Belgian bishops are due to travel to Rome in November for their annual visit with the pope. This decision by the Flemish half of the Belgian episcopate throws down the gauntlet in front of Pope Francis. Much depends on his answer.

Just so you know, Catholicism in Belgium has collapsed. From The Pillar, quoting the Belgian Church’s own statistics:

Thus, about 3.6% of baptized Catholics in Belgium attended Mass on an average Sunday. Compare that to 1967 – at the height of Suenens’ influence – when 42.9% of the country’s Catholics attended Sunday mass.

So if the Belgian bishops lead the Belgian Church to schism, will anyone in Belgium care? What are faithful Catholics in Flanders doing now that their bishops are blessing grave sins? Living in some sort of underground situation? What would that look like? How do you transmit the faith to your children in this kind of situation? I guess we’ll find out.

It is a more serious decision than that of the Greek archbishop of the United States baptizing the children of a homosexual couple. Will Catholic bishops condemn him publicly? I hope.

It is important for those outside of the Orthodox and Catholic churches to understand that in the two cases I have mentioned above, the bishops in question are speaking and acting outside the moral and spiritual traditions of which they are a part. You can’t legitimately say “Orthodoxy blesses Russia’s war on Ukraine”, any more than you can say “the Catholic Church blesses same-sex couples”. You can tell that Patriarch Kyrill offered a pious political opinion on what happens to the souls of Russian soldiers who die fighting in Ukraine. And you can say that the Flemish bishops created a rite approving something that the magisterium (teaching authority) of the Catholic Church forbade. But you can’t go further either way. These two recent acts by high-ranking prelates in Russia and Belgium are outrageous, but they do not represent theological truth.

Yet they make it very difficult for the laity to know what the truth is and to live it.


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