Integralism and Eastern Orthodoxy

Following yesterday’s brief post on integralism, I was asked whether the Eastern Orthodox Church, either now or in the past, has an integralist tradition. Although there have been certain Orthodox-backed political movements that contain what might be called “integralist elements,” it seems to me that integralism—with its powerful emphasis on the subordination of the temporal to the spiritual—has no deep roots in the Orthodox East. This is because, since the days of the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox have promoted symphonia, that is, a complementary relationship between church and state with neither being subordinate to the other.

At the legal level, symphonia first appears in Justinian’s Corpus Iuris Civilis as at the start of Book 6 of the Novels. Here is the Preface in full from the 1932 translation of S.P. Scott.

The priesthood and the Empire are the two greatest gifts which God, in His infinite clemency, has bestowed upon mortals; the former has reference to Divine matters, the latter presides over and directs human affairs, and both, proceeding from the same principle, adorn the life of mankind; hence nothing should be such a source of care to the emperors as the honor of the priests who constantly pray to God for their salvation. For if the priesthood is, everywhere free from blame, and the Empire full of confidence in God is administered equitably and judiciously, general good will result, and whatever is beneficial will be bestowed upon the human race. Therefore We have the greatest solicitude for the observance of the divine rules and the preservation of the honor of the priesthood, which, if they are maintained, will result in the greatest advantages that can be conferred upon us by God, as well as in the confirmation of those which We already enjoy, and whatever We have not yet obtained We shall hereafter acquire. For all things terminate happily where the beginning is proper and agreeable to God. We think that this will take place if the sacred rules of the Church which the just, praiseworthy, and adorable Apostles, the inspectors and ministers of the Word of God, and the Holy Fathers have explained and preserved for Us, are obeyed.

Notice that there is no acknowledgment here that the state is subordinate to the church, or that the church can rightfully exercise indirect temporal authority. Rather, Justinian is proposing a sort of equilibrium in principle, albeit one that was rarely achieved during the long history of Byzantium or in any other Orthodox empire. In fact, Book 131 of the Novels, Justinian takes it upon himself to enact as a matter of civil law the canon law promulgated at the first four Ecumenical Councils.

Therefore We order that the sacred, ecclesiastical rules which were adopted and confirmed by the four Holy Councils, that is to say, that of the three hundred and eighteen bishops held at Nicea, that of the one hundred and fifty bishops held at Constantinople, the first one of Ephesus, where Nestorius was condemned, and the one assembled at Chalcedon, where Eutyches and Nestorius were anathematized, shall be considered as laws. We accept the dogmas of these four Councils as sacred writings, and observe their rules as legally effective.

Again, contrary to the integralist position that the state has no independent authority over spiritual matters, the symphonia introduced by Justinian presupposes that the state may turn the canonical into the civil (or not) as it sees fit. And, in fact, during the course of the Byzantine Empire, the conflation of civil and canon law would become far more frequent, resulting in the Orthodox Church being compelled to develop a form of ecclesiastical divorce that still plagues the Orthodox communion to this day.

With symphonia remaining largely an abstract ideal, the practical outcome of Orthodox political theology was the advent of caesaropapism with the state taking a direct role in ecclesiastical affairs. While several Eastern Saints felt compelled to resist this tendency, including Ss. John Chrysostom, Athanasius, and Maximus the Confessor, their witness was never enough to put an end to the practice. With the fall of Constantinople and the rise of Russia as the last Orthodox imperial power, caesaropapism continued to be the normative model for church/state relations in the Orthodox East. Indeed, caesaropapism appears to be alive and well in contemporary Russia, with the Russian Orthodox Church serving as a handmaid of Russian state policy, including international aggression in places such as Georgia and Ukraine.

None of this is to say that the Eastern Orthodox could not develop an authentic integralist tradition, though to do so would mean setting aside the ideal of symphonia in favor of a much broader understanding of the proper relationship between church and state. The Christian East is not devoid of an integralist tradition, after all. The role of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in building up strong national and civil institutions in Galicia from the 18th century onward is an excellent example of “integralism in action.” Although the aspiration for a free Ukrainian state was torn apart by two world wars and Soviet aggression, the practical potential borne out of a proper ordering of church and state should never be doubted.



  1. JG
    May 9, 2017

    Re: “Indeed, caesaropapism appears to be alive and well in contemporary Russia, with the Russian Orthodox Church serving as a handmaid of Russian state policy, including international aggression in places such as Georgia and Ukraine.”

    I think this needs some qualification in light of this Carnegie paper by Gregory Freeze: Although I’d be curious to hear what you think. I don’t know if that changes your judgment here or not. I’m otherwise a neutral observer on this issue.

    1. Gabriel Sanchez
      May 9, 2017

      That’s all fine, but I think you may misunderstand me here a bit. I am not against the idea of the Church being involved in political life and society; what I am suggesting is that in Russia, the Church is only involved to the extent that the government dictates said involvement. No mention was made of the “Russian World” ideology that is promote by the Russian Orthodox Church — an ideology that justifies Russian intervention into its “near abroad” (i.e., anywhere that ethnic Russians have a noticeable population). Unless the ideology is first unpacked, it is difficult to understand Orthodox Church/state relations in Russia today.

      Moreover, this is nothing new. In the early 20th century a student movement led by Fr. Pavel Florensky urged the Russian Church to stand up to the state, particularly as it concerned the Russian/Japanese war. Nothing came of it, but it is just one of many examples where the Orthodox Church in Russia failed to speak with an independent moral voice separate from that of the state. The trend continues to this day, and indeed has deep roots going all the way back to the Mongol invasion.

  2. makauskai
    May 12, 2017

    New data about religion and identity in Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe – you might find it interesting

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