Ways of Russian Theology

Encounter With the West. Orthodoxy in West Russia

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2. Encounter With the West.

Orthodoxy in West Russia.

The sixteenth century constitutes a tragic and troubled period in the life of West Russia. It was a time of political conflict and social unrest, and also a time of religious strife, bitter theological controversies, and factionalism. The political merger of Lithuania and Poland consummated in the Union of Lublin (1569) 1 created a new situation for the Orthodox minority under their control. Could this minority maintain its identity and continue its own cultural traditions under the new conditions? The problem was both national and religious. Poland was spiritually a Roman Catholic country, but its East Slavic citizens belonged to the Byzantine sphere. Even before West Russia became a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania 2 and the Kingdom of Poland, its Orthodox population had been torn by the pull between Byzantium and Rome. Since 1299, when the metropolitan see “of all Russia” was transferred from Kiev to the north (and subsequently to Moscow), this region had known a constant drive for ecclesiastical autonomy. The motive was mainly political, especially after the annexation by Poland and Lithuania: a non-resident metropolitan, it was feared, might be open to the influence of an alien power. The Patriarchate of Constantinople preferred a single, undivided metropolia, and the epithet “of all Russia” was rigorously maintained in the title of the metropolitan of Moscow. True, departures from this principle were occasionally made, such as the appointment of a special metropolitan for Galicia 3 and later one for Lithuania. However, these “autonomies” never lasted long. An inclination in favor of the Roman West often accompanied this urge for ecclesiastical autonomy in West Russia. It is hardly a coincidence that shortly after his appointment, Gregory Tsamblak, 4, the first metropolitan of Lithuania should attend the Council of, Constance (1417-1418). 5 Apparently he did so at the request of the Lithuanian princes who at that very time were negotiating with the pope for an ecclesiastical union. Certainly the eventual separation of the Orthodox Church in Lithuania from the Moscow metropolia was accomplished under circumstances peculiarly related to Rome. Isidore, who was appointed metropolitan of all Russia to the Council of Florence, turned out to be one of the strongest partisans of the “Unia” during the council's sessions. Shortly after award, the pope raised him to the rank of cardinal. When Isidore returned to his see, Moscow disavowed and rejected him, but he found acceptance in Lithuania. Unable to remain in Moscow, he retired to Rome. But the story does not end there. In 1457, the Uniate patriarch of Constantinople in exile, Gregory Mammas, 8 together with the synod of Greek bishops residing in Rome, appointed a certain Gregory as metropolitan of Kiev and Lithuania and totius Russiae inferioris, obviously with the hope that in the course of time Gregory would extend his jurisdiction to “all Russia.” This Gregory was a former abbot of the St. Demetrius monastery in Constantinople and an associate of Isidore. Oddly enough, the appointment did not introduce the Florentine Union into Lithuania. Instead, Gregory seems to have sought recognition from the Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople. Wishing to preserve both connections, his successors did the same. This created an ambiguous situation. 9 The papacy distrusted this kind of divided allegiance. Early in the sixteenth century the links with Rome were broken, and henceforth the Orthodox Church in Lithuania continued in obedience to the ecumenical patriarchate alone.

The major problem, however, had not been solved. The concept of a pluralistic society was still unknown and unwelcome, and the right to religious freedom was rarely recognized and often even strongly contested. The state for the most part was “confessional, with religious non-conformity” or “religious dissent” regarded as a threat to political and national unity. Certainly this was a fundamental an inescapable issue in the United Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania: the “East Slav problem” was at one and the same time a Polish-Lithuanian problem, for it involved the integrity of the realm. Could the “Orthodox minority” remain an independent cultural unit without endangering the common cultural bond? Could “two Churches” (and that intrinsically meant “two cultures”) peacefully co-exist in a single realm? Could the “Orthodox minority” be truly integrated into corporate life of the land without some agreement or at least compromise with Rome? Could the Byzantine tradition be safely allowed in a country more and more attuned to western ways of life? Here lay the crux of the problem of the “Unia.” Union with Rome was inseparable from the wider problem of civil unity within the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom. In the context of the sixteenth century it was a sociological and cultural problem more than a theological one.

The rapid growth of the vast and impressive Orthodox State of Muscovy aggravated the whole situation. The Orthodox faithful in the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom could hardly fail to turn to Muscovy in times of trouble and distress. The rise and expansion of the Reformation into Lithuania and Poland proper as well as into its West Russian provinces further complicated the picture. Lutheranism did not make much headway, but Calvinism spread swiftly and triumphantly, especially in Lithuania, where it won the open support of local magnates and, at least initially, met no effective countermeasures from the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The Czech [Bohemian] Brethren, 10 exiled from their own country, also took refuge in Poland and for a time assumed a prominent role in the general “evangelical” movement. Even more conspicuous was the growth of the “New Arians,” as the Antitrinitarians were commonly labeled. 11 For a while Poland served as one of the centers of the movement on the European continent.

In general the country became a shelter for all kinds of religious exiles persecuted and prosecuted in their own lands. Poland was ironically described as a “paradisus haereticomus.” Radical trends were especially dominant in the reign of Sigismund II Augustus (1548-1572). 12 The situation changed under the subsequent rulers Stephen Batory (1576-1586) 13 and especially Sigismund III of the Swedish house of Vasa (1587-1632), 14 justly called the “Jesuit king.” The Roman Church finally regained control with the help of the Jesuit fathers, who were called in at the advice of the Nuncio Commendone 15 and Cardinal Stanislaus Hosius, bishop of Courland. 16 The Jesuits concentrated their efforts on education but they also succeeded in making their influence strongly felt at the Polish-Lithuanian court.

By the end of the sixteenth century, the kingdom of Poland and Lithuania was once again a Roman Catholic realm and a major stronghold of the Catholic faith in Europe. In this quickened environment the problem of “non-conformity” assumed a new urgency and gravity. The Orthodox of West Russia now found themselves between two opposing camps. For a time the greater threat of a Catholic domination brought them to the support of the Protestants in a common struggle for “religious freedom.” Under the circumstances, religious freedom for the Orthodox also meant “national identity.” But the alliance was more forced than voluntary, dictated as it was by politics rather than doctrine. Once their independence had been regained, incomplete as this may have been, the Orthodox ended the coalition. The achievement, however, was no simple one, and the struggle left a distinct and deep imprint.

The Orthodox Church in Poland and Lithuania was ill prepared for a militant encounter with the West. With sorrow and anguish contemporaries tell of “the great rudeness and ignorance” of the common people and the local clergy. The hierarchs were little better equipped to do battle. The Orthodox themselves deplored and exposed their low moral standards and worldliness. It was commonly complained that the bishops were more interested in politics, personal prestige, and privilege than in matters of faith or the spiritual needs of the people. A great Orthodox champion of that day, the Athonite monk Ivan Vishenskii, 17 acidly commented that “instead of theology they pursue the knaveries of men, lawyer's deceptions, and the devil's twaddle.” They were, he went on, more interested in the “statutes” of the law than in the “canons” of the Church. True, Vishenskii's rhetoric is passionate, but it discloses the profound disappointment and loss of confidence that contemporaries felt in their hierarchs. Furthermore, the bishops were divided among themselves.

By the end of the sixteenth century, no longer able to withstand the external pressure, they capitulated en masse to Roman obedience. Their flocks, however, would not follow. In order for ecclesiastical union with Rome to be established, coercion and even persecution would be needed. This account, of course, can be differently construed: the bishops did not desert their flocks, rather the laity refused to obey their pastors. Whatever the case, the Orthodox community was rent and an unhappy tension divided the hierarchy from the people. The burden of the defense of Orthodoxy against an enforced union with Rome fell entirely on the shoulders of the laity and lower clergy. Their devout efforts and concerted action preserve the Orthodox faith, making the eventual canonical restoration of order possible. A major task, however, was yet to be accomplished. Orthodoxy urgently needed, and its integral preservation require a creative “reconstruction of belief,” a restatement of the Orthodox faith. Such a “reconstruction” had to derive from a conscious confrontation with the West's dual challenge: Roman Catholicism and the Reformation. Could the Byzantine tradition be maintained strictly as it was, or must new forms be devised? Should Orthodoxy remain purely “eastern,” or under the new conditions would it in some way have to be “westernized?” Such a task could not be accomplished in an instant. Obviously it was a program for many generations. In the process a new tension bordering on a break emerged among those who remained Orthodox. The result was an ambiguous “pseudomorphosis” of Orthodox thought, and to some extent also of Orthodox life. Even though these seventeenth century efforts by Orthodox theologians of West Russia may have ended in failure or compromise, the nobility and importance of their work cannot be obscured.

The significance of these various events can be comprehended only if set in a wider European perspective. Europe was then divided into two hostile camps, at once political blocs and confessional confederations: the Catholic league and the Evangelical alliance. The Orthodox minority in Poland and Lithuania could not escape entanglement in this larger power struggle. No political stand was possible apart from a confessional commitment, and each confessional choice carried with it a political connotation. The patriarch of Constantinople, too, was heavily involved in this political contest. Since he served both as head of a large church and as national leader of the “Christian nation” [Rum milleti] within the Ottoman Empire, he was a prominent political figure on the international scene. 18 Also of significance is the interest shown, and active part taken, in the fate of the West Russian Church by the other eastern patriarchs beginning in the last decades of the sixteenth century. However, the historical destiny of the Orthodox Church in Poland and Lithuania ultimately depended upon the outcome of the political struggle between Catholic and Protestant powers which was soon to erupt in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). In this conflict Poland emerged as a strategic center. This explains the lively interest of the Moldavian princes in the ecclesiastical affairs of the West Russian Church and why a Wallachian prince was eventually named metropolitan of Kiev. 19 This act symbolized more than Orthodox solidarity; it also reflected a common political concern. Non-theological factors thus weighed heavily on the ecclesiastical and cultural situation of West Russia, where by the third quarter of the sixteenth century the Orthodox Church faced a severe challenge from the West, an existential challenge at once religious and cultural.

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