Bishops Behaving Badly

Source: The American Conservative

This happened in Moscow over the weekend:


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

But there’s an important theological point to be made here, for Western audiences. Orthodoxy does not have a pope, nor does it have a theological concept of indulgences, which would seem to apply here. In the Crusader era, the pope promised heaven to anyone who fought in that holy war on the side of the Church. As I understand it — I am happy to be corrected — the Roman pontiff has the authority to do this, based on the Catholic model of salvation (e.g., “treasury of merits” and all that). Though the Catholic Church recognizes today that the concept of indulgences was abused during the Renaissance, and that this led to the Reformation, it has never repudiated 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 confessed and forgiven sins will not send a person to hell, consequences remain to be paid on earth or in purgatory. An indulgence frees the recipient from those consequences. Reception of an indulgence always springs from sincere repentance, the desire to live a holy life, reception of the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion as soon as possible and prayer for the Holy Father. An indulgence cannot be bought, nor can one be obtained by going through the motions without sincerity.
A partial indulgence covers part of the punishment due for sins; a plenary indulgence removes all of it. Both kinds 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 through holy living. To grant indulgences, the Church draws on a great treasury of merits: the infinite value of Christ’s Passion, death and Resurrection, and the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints – including all of those on earth who live holy lives.

This concept is alien to Orthodox Christianity. This Russian Orthodox church website explains briefly what indulgences are, and how they are contrary to Orthodox spirituality. People in the West who falsely assume that Orthodoxy is simply a Byzantine form of Catholicism can mistakenly analogize Patriarch Kyrill to one of the Crusader-era warrior popes. I want to be careful here, because I am no theologian, but I can’t see how the Russian patriarch can make this statement except based on some concept of indulgences. He’s smart enough to know that that won’t fly theologically within Orthodoxy, which is why, I think, he reasons crudely from a concept of martyrdom.

And it could hardly be cruder. Kyrill says that the sacrifice of a soldier who dies fulfilling his duty has all his sins wiped away. Where is Jesus in this? By the patriarch’s reasoning, an atheist soldier who nevertheless goes into Ukraine in fulfillment of his duty, and dies, can go to heaven. I would not want to rely on that rationale before the judgment seat of Christ. I mean, look, a German soldier fighting under Nazi leadership might be doing so not because he believes in Nazism, but because he feels a loyalty to his country, and to the oath he swore to defend it. If he dies in battle, are all his sins wiped away because of the sincerity in his heart? Really?


To be clear, we should leave it to God to judge the souls of soldiers who die in battle, in both just and unjust wars. I don’t have much trouble 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 presume it, and certainly wouldn’t say such a thing as a priest, much less as the Moscow patriarch. By Kyrill’s reasoning, Ukrainian Orthodox soldiers shooting at Russian Orthodox ones are equally able to have their sins washed away if they make the ultimate sacrifice.

One can’t realistically expect the Moscow patriarch to take sides against the Tsar’s war, but it is not too much to expect him to refrain from imitating a Crusader pope, and baptizing it as a holy war, which is what he has done, in effect. It is un-Orthodox. In fact, the Orthodox Church requires soldiers who return from war — even a just war! — to go to confession and repent. From the Orthodox Church in America website:

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

Also, one 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 evil. But when doing so they must not yield to anarchy, but must submit to whatever punishment is given so that their witness will be fruitful.

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

Moving elsewhere, the Catholic bishops of the Flemish region of Belgium have promulgated a liturgical blessing for same-sex couples:

The announcement of the initiative is highlighted on the website of the Belgian Catholic Church, with explicit reference to the encyclical Amoris Laetitia, and more broadly, to the openness witnessed by Pope Francis in his call for “discernment, guidance, and integration.” The Flemish bishops express their intention to “give a concrete response and fulfilment to the desire to give explicit attention to the situation of homosexual persons, their parents, and families in their policy making.” By signing their document “the Flemish bishops,” the prelates present themselves collectively. The term refers to 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 People” includes a formal proposal for a ceremony to bless same-sex couples in church. With this gesture, the Belgian episcopate no longer intends to offer a simple reflection or a prayer intention proposed to the faithful for the return of homosexuals to lives in conformity with the Catholic faith; it is instead a deliberate policy intended to be implemented. 

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

There’s a somewhat more detailed discussion of this by Ed Condon at The Pillar.

Theologically, the Flemish bishops don’t have a leg to stand on. Here’s a statement that Cardinal Francis Arinze, the venerable Nigerian cardinal of the curia, put out in response:

It is reported that Flemish Bishops in Belgium, on or around 20 September, 2022, published what theycalled a liturgical blessing for homosexual couples. They, it is said, regarded this step as “being pastorally close to homosexual persons, for a welcoming Church that excluded no one.”

Even if the aim is to be pastorally helpful to homosexual couples, this is an error on the part of the Bishops. Holy Scripture presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity (cf. Gen 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 always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”

While persons with homosexual inclination are to be respected and not unjustly discriminated against, they, like every Christian and indeed every human being, are called to chastity (cf CCC, 2358, 2359). The Lord Jesus said to his followers: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). That is why the CCC says: “Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection” (CCC, 2359).

This explains why the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 15 March 2021 answered that the Church does not have the power to give a blessing to unions of persons of the same sex.

This is what the Flemish Bishops, and indeed all Bishops and priests, should be teaching. They should be blessing, not homosexual couples, but properly married unions of one man and one woman. Human beings have no power to change the order established by God the Creator. The Church is sent by Christ to all people “teaching 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 scheduled to go to Rome in November for their annual visit with the pope. This move by the Flemish half of the Belgian episcopate is throwing down the gauntlet in front of Pope Francis. A lot rides on his response.

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

So around 3.6% of Belgium’s baptized Catholics attended Mass on an average Sunday. Compare that to 1967 — at the height of Suenens’ influence — when 42.9% of the country’s Catholics were present at Sunday Mass.

So, if the Belgian bishops lead the Belgian Church into schism, will anyone in Belgium care? What do faithful Catholics in Flanders do now that their bishops are blessing serious sin? Live in some sort of underground situation? What would that look like? How do you pass on the faith to your kids in that kind of situation? I guess we will find out.

This is a more severe move than the Greek archbishop of the US baptizing the children of a gay couple. Will any Catholic bishops publicly condemn it? I hope so.

It is important for those outside the Orthodox and Catholic churches to understand that in both the cases I mentioned above, the bishops in question are speaking and acting outside of the moral and spiritual traditions of which they are a part. You can’t legitimately say that “Orthodoxy blesses Russia’s war on Ukraine,” any more than you can say “the Catholic Church blesses same-sex couples.” You can say that Patriarch Kyrill has 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 have created a rite approving of something the magisterium (teaching authority) of the Catholic Church has forbidden. But you can’t go further in either case. These two recent acts of high-ranking prelates in Russia and Belgium are scandalous, but they do not represent theological truth.

Still, they make it very hard on the laity to know what truth is, and to live it out.