Catholics should be wary of supporting the Russian Orthodox Church against Pussy Riot
Here are some memories that have resurfaced from the depths of my mind of late.
The first concerns a very kind and wise British priest, now long gone to his reward, who told me of something that happened in Rome back in the 1970’s. The Cardinal Vicar (that is the Cardinal who governs the local Church in Rome on behalf of the Pope) called all the religious resident in the diocese to a meeting in the Lateran, which is of course the Cathedral of Rome. The Lateran is an enormous church, but it must have been pretty packed, for in these days there were thousands of nuns in Rome, as well as thousands of male members of the religious orders. Anyway, the Cardinal – who may have been Ugo Poletti – got up to address the assembled religious and harangued them at length (people who have heard a certain type of Italian sermon will know what I mean by ‘harangue’) about the necessity of voting Christian Democrat at the forthcoming elections.
According to my old friend the British priest, who sat through this with a wry smile, many of the Italians present were enraged by the Cardinal’s speech. Most of them were the sort of people who voted Christian Democrat as second nature, but if anything could put them off voting for the Christian Democrats, it was this sort of intervention from the institutional Church.
As a matter of fact, it is well known that the Church supported the DC (as the party was known) and was instrumental in securing the DC victory in the elections of 1948, when it was feared that Italy was on the brink of going Communist. Italians, particularly those of a certain age, will tell you that the DC saved Italy from Communism, and therefore the Church’s support of the DC was a good thing.
This may have been true in a sense, for the idea of an Italy ruled from Moscow makes one shudder, but it is also true that the close association between Church and DC may have damaged the Church. Indeed, it is remarkable that when the DC fell, in a welter of corruption scandals, the Church escaped relatively unscathed.
Another memory – an Italian Jesuit, a specialist in archaeology, telling me that he was very interested in politics. To my innocent enquiry about whether he supported the DC, he replied: “No, I am a member of the Communist party! It is the only decent party there is in Italy!”
Yet another memory: a young man, very keen on Berlusconi in his early days, saying to me: “The Cattocommunisti, they are the worst of the lot!” The Cattocommunisti were the Catholic members of the Communist party, the ones who fused Marxism with Catholic social teaching. There must have been some present at the Lateran meeting, but I doubt they were among the enraged – they would have expected a cardinal to back the DC, but continued voting communist themselves. Though in fairness, there was a large wing of the DC which was far to the left of the British Labour party.
Why these thoughts now? Well, they are occasioned by the world’s most famous feminist punk group, Pussy Riot, and some of the hard things that Nick Cohen has to say on the matter in yesterday’s Observer, which you can read here.
I disapprove of political demonstrations in churches, but, and it is a huge but – when the Church itself turns political, party political, then it opens itself up to precisely this sort of behaviour. The Russian Orthodox Church has compromised its integrity by allying itself with Mr Putin’s regime – an alliance which results, incidentally, in state-sponsored persecution of Catholics in Russia. Pussy Riot were not wrong to protest at the way the Church has behaved. Remember, their demonstration was not aimed at Putin, per se, it was aimed at the Church. And the Church responded to the Pussy Rioters by invoking the power of the state against them
It cannot be the job of a Catholic such as myself to tell the Orthodox Church what to do. But let us remember, that when the Church is married to the spirit of the age, she will be a widow in the next. What will come after Putin? And what will the Patriarch do then?