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Freedom and Democracy from Catholic and Orthodox Perspectives

The ideas of freedom and democracy are at the core of the most successful parts of human civilization today. Can modern Catholicism and Orthodoxy find a way to unite around these ideas? Maxim Bogachev from the HSE raised this question in his paper to the HSE April Conference.

Maxim Bogachev asserts that the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches have taken cardinally different positions on the issues of freedom, democracy, and human rights. Catholicism, after a considerable review of its positions in the 19th-20th centuries, has, in the new century, become an advocate of such liberal, democratic values as freedom and human rights, acknowledging the people as the source of sovereignty. The Orthodox Church has not undergone such changes.

‘The human person is the foundation and purpose of political life’, says the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the (Catholic) Church. Catholicism regards the individual as ‘the foundation and purpose of the political community’, and urges us to protect and promote key and inalienable human rights, including freedom of conscience.

‘The subject of political authority is the people considered in its entirety as those who have sovereignty. In various forms, this people transfers the exercise of sovereignty to those whom it freely elects as its representatives, but it preserves the prerogative to assert this sovereignty in evaluating the work of those charged with governing and also in replacing them when they do not fulfill their functions satisfactorily. Although this right is operative in every State and in every kind of political regime, a democratic form of government, due to its procedures for verification, allows and guarantees its fullest application’, says Maxim Bogachev citing the Catholic Compendium.

Maxim Bogachev refers to the Centesimus Annusencyclicalto support his idea that the modern Catholic Church acknowledges the importance of democracy: ‘The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate.’

According to Bogachev, Catholicteaching iscritical of autocratic regimes, likening them tothe Beastof the Apocalyseand prescribes the citizens’ right to confront authority, and overthrow the unworthy sovereign, even take up arms against him. According to modern Catholicism, a person is not obligated to follow the orders of a state authority if they contravene the requirements of the moral order, key human rights, or the teachings of the Gospels. It permits us to challenge authority if it is seriously and systematically in breach of the principles of natural rights.

Maxim Bogachev cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church which outlines the conditions wherein it is permitted for society to use arms to resist political authority: 1) there is certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights; 2) all other means of redress have been exhausted; 3) such resistance will not provoke worse disorders; 4) there is well-founded hope of success; and 5) it is impossible reasonably to foresee any better solution.

This means, according to Bogachev, that Catholicism regards freedom, human rights, and democracyfavourably, and provides for the citizens’ right to overthrow the state authority.

Russian Orthodox Church

The official Orthodoxy takes avery different position. According to Bogachev, it has not reviewed its dogmas. The Russian Orthodox Church is has a low regard for human rights, and particularly it disapproves of religious freedom and advocates monarchy.

Here is what the Basic Social Doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church says on human rights: ‘Through secularization, the high principles of integral human rights have turned into the concept of an individual’s rights outside of his connection with God. At the same time, the protection of personal freedom has transformed into protecting self-will’. It also says that the emergence of the principle of freedom of conscience is a sign of decline in the system of spiritual values, loss of desire for salvation among the majority of the population, loss of religious aims and values, and massive apostasy (disaffiliation from Christianity – OPEC.ru) and indifference to the cause of the Church and the fight to conquer sin.

From the Orthodox point of view, a sovereign’s power should be sanctioned by God, which means given by God or the Church. ‘Modern democracies, including those which are in a form of monarchy, do not seek divine sanction for their authority. They are a form of authority in a secular society, which imply every legally capable citizen’s right to express their will through election’. But ‘in a monarchy, power is always God-given’. At the same time, the Assembly of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1994 emphasized the correctness of the‘Church’s non-preference for any state regime, nor for any of the existing political doctrines’.

As far as the right to resist authority goes, Orthodoxy prohibits it. It preaches non-negotiable obedience: ‘the Church not only prescribes its sons to obey the state authority, independently of the beliefs and religion of its holders, but also to pray for it’.

The only case in which the Russian Orthodox Church allows resistance to the state is when it urges the people to apostasy: ‘if the authority urges the Orthodox faithful to renounce Christ and His Church, as well as to sinful and soul-spoiling actions, the Church should refuse to obey the state’.

This means, concludes Bogachev, that Orthodoxy is does not value freedom, human rights, and democracy. But, if the state takes anti-church action, the Russian Orthodoxy shares the citizens’ right to overthrow the authority, although it is formulated in the evasive term of ‘disobedience’.

Summing up, Bogachev concludes that, while Orthodoxy and Catholicism are united in the opinion that ‘democracy should not become a fetish’, the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches are ‘diametrically opposedas far as freedom and democracy, and human rights are concerned.

 

April 12, 2013