Kirill’s “terrible sermon” of March 6, where he justified the invasion as preventing “Gay Prides,” comes from a dangerous apocalyptic theology.
by Massimo Introvigne
The terrible sermon delivered by Patriarch Kirill, the highest authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior on 6 March, which for the Orthodox is Fogiveness Sunday, was a scandal to many. The Patriarch blessed Putin’s aggression, presenting it as a “metaphysical war” against a West sold out to hedonism and immorality, whose symbol, he said, is the Gay Pride.
I have personally met Patriarch Kirill twice, when I was the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) Representative for combating racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance and soon thereafter. I met more often his second-in-command Metropolitan Hilarion, who has a role comparable to that of the Secretary of State in the Vatican.
Hilarion has—or had, with the war many things are changing—a more open and dialogical attitude towards Western culture, for which he has been the object of attacks in Russia by the most conservative circles. But Kirill is not an ignoramus either—he is a former professor of dogmatic theology—and for a long time he was not perceived as a fanatic. On the contrary, he was also criticized by an ultra-conservative fringe for his cordial meetings with Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, who in the eyes of the more radical Orthodox represent a church that they consider heretical.
Even after my tenure at the OSCE, Kirill and Hilarion had me invited several times to Moscow to discuss a problem that is close to their hearts and also explains the stances of these days, the progressive alienation of many Russians, especially in the younger generations, from the Orthodox Church. Certainly, in the polls just under eighty percent of Russians continue to declare themselves Orthodox, but the number of those who maintain some contact with the Church is decreasing by the day.
Two solutions are offered for this problem, including within the Russian Orthodox Church. The first is based on the idea that the model of the “State Church,” which supports by definition whomever is in power, meaning today Putin, is no longer attractive for many Russians. The Church must modernize its structures, also by resuming a dialogue with the great Western theological currents that was interrupted in the Soviet era because of the difficulty of international contacts.
The second answer explains the problems of the Russian Orthodox Church with an aggression by the West, which, in an attempt to destroy Russia, spreads hedonism and immorality and organizes the expansion in the Russian Federation of “foreign” religions, from Pentecostals to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Many scholars, some of them Russian and Orthodox, believe that the first analysis is the most credible. Kirill, however, after hesitating for a few years, has embraced the second, which reassures the Orthodox bishops by telling them that the Church in Moscow is not losing faithful because of its mistakes but because of foreign aggression. The more this analysis has prevailed, the more Kirill has tied himself in triple strings to Putin, with whom he has concluded an unwritten pact.
On the one hand, Kirill guarantees Putin the unconditional support of the Orthodox Church, which, though weakened, is still able to organize consensus for the regime, especially in rural areas. On the other hand, Putin guarantees Kirill protection against competition from other religions through four different types of measures.
The first, which governs the others, is the joint promotion by the regime and the Patriarchate of the concept of “spiritual security” as part of national security. There is even an academic course on “spiritual security” at the major Orthodox university in Moscow. “Spiritual security” means that any threat to the Orthodox identity of Russia is at the same time a threat to the security of the state, and becomes a police issue.
The second is the repression through special laws—the toughest came into force in 2016—of proselytizing by any religion that attempts to convert Orthodox believers. Religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Judaism (and even the small Catholic community) have a right to exist in Russia among non-Russian ethnic minorities, but if they preach their faith to Orthodox citizens they commit a crime.
The third, since not all religious minorities accept to renounce proselytism, is the reform of the laws on extremism, introduced after September 11, 2001 to contrast Islamic fundamentalism, which now declare “extremist” any religious group that considers its own religion “superior” to others. Actually in every religion you can find statements that it is the best possible spiritual path, but these laws are used to outlaw those who continue to proselytize. They will be accused of declaring themselves “superior” to the Orthodox Church and “liquidated,” as happened to Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017.
The fourth aspect, which is no less important, is that although the laws in theory proclaim the separation of Church and State, in practice Kirill and Putin have found a thousand ways to circumvent them and grant to the Patriarchate generous public funding, which the Patriarch now thinks he can no longer do without.
The problem is that all these measures have not stopped the hemorrhage of Orthodox faithful. Putting Jehovah’s Witnesses in prison does not bring young Russians back to the Orthodox fold. One of the latest measures is to ban or falsify statistics, but the reality is well known to Kirill and the bishops.
The answer is a more somber and apocalyptic attitude, accusing the West of attacking the “spiritual security” of Russia not only—and perhaps not so much—by spreading other religions but by corrupting young people with its ideas of democracy and human rights, the symbol of which, the Patriarch said, is the “false freedom” left to homosexuals to demonstrate in the Gay Prides. To others it may seem just a detail, but for the Patriarch the Gay Prides have an apocalyptic meaning because they directly offend God.
The Orthodox Church, Kirill said, does not hate the sinner but abandons him to God, who will administer his mercy but also his punishment. The sermon both hailed the soldiers who “are fighting and shedding blood” and exhorted to be “on the side of God, His truth, and the Divine Commandments,” which suggests that God administers his chastisement through Putin and the Russian army.
Pro-family in the West who may be tempted to applaud the Patriarch should understand that he is not affirming their values, he is manipulating them and putting them at the service of those who bomb and kill civilians, including children, actions that for a Christian really “offend God.”
At a certain point Kirill’s sermon abandons all logic, even an internal logic, and becomes pure propaganda. If God is offended by the Gay Prides, why should he be more offended in Ukraine—a country where the Parliament, by the way, consistently rejected any proposal to introduce same-sex marriage or even civil unions—than elsewhere? For the believer, God is everywhere, and if it wanted to stop the Gay Prides, Putin’s army, before Kiev, should march on Berlin, Rome, London, or Paris, not to mention New York or Los Angeles.
Here lies the most disturbing aspect of Kirill’s apocalyptic drift. The theology of the final clash between Good and Evil is ready to justify even the nuclear attack against the evil and corrupt West.