Russian Orthodoxy and the SSPX

Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times blog post on Pope Francis’s critics contained an unfortunate but all-too-common mischaracterization of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) as “schismatic.” Like many who suggest that charge, Douthat backed it up with neither an argument nor a citation to an official decree. Both Frs. John Zuhlsdorf and John Hunwicke—two canonically regular priests in good standing with the Catholic Church—have explained why the “schismatic” label is improper; so, too, has the Society. The thing is, if the SSPX were truly schismatic, Catholics like Douthat (and countless others) would likely have no problem with Rome playing nice, as evidenced by the adulation and cheers which accompanies the brief, insubstantial, and soon-forgotten meetings between a pope and hierarchs of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Never mind of course that unlike the SSPX, the Orthodox do not accept concrete tenets of the Catholic Faith such as Papal Primacy and appear hostile (though not absolutely so) toward others (e.g., Immaculate Conception, Purgatory, and the Filioque). The Society’s “crimes,” according to its critics, are threefold: rejecting modern liturgical reform; criticizing Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty; and opposing ecumenism. But where does Eastern Orthodoxy come down on these three issues? A brief, but informative, glance at Orthodoxy’s largest canonical body, the Russian Orthodox Church, reveals no measurable deviation from the Society’s positions.

First, the Russian Orthodox Church is undoubtedly the most liturgically impressive Christian body on the planet. Despite some rumblings of change in the early 20th C., the Russian Church by and large rejects using the vernacular in the liturgy and strives for a “maximalist” approach to both the Divine Liturgy and the other hours of the daily office. Even if the Russian Orthodox come to adopt some modifications to their liturgical praxis, they will no doubt be minor and demonstrate nothing close to the radical deviations found throughout the post-Vatican II Roman Rite. Contemporary Catholics who trumpet the “virtues” of the Novus Ordo Missae would quickly find themselves being shown the door if they brought those views into Russian Orthodox circles—and rightly so. The late Patriarch of Moscow, Alexi II, openly praised Summorum Pontificum and the liberation of the Tridentine Mass. It is hard to imagine how the Russian Orthodox liturgical mindset, which is arguably even more conservative than the SSPX’s, could get a free pass from the Society’s critics, many of whom believe that the watering-down of the Roman Rite has been a positive development for the Catholic Church.

Second, as we have seen in post-Soviet Russia (and certainly in pre-Soviet Russia), the Russian Orthodox have little time for religious liberty. Although the Russian state officially tolerates non-Orthodox Christians and other religious minorities, Orthodoxy remains the openly favored confession—and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Moreover, the situation in Ukraine (specifically the Crimea) reveals that the Russian Orthodox Church is not above using military force to drive out other Christians groups such as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. This attitude is consistent with historical Russian Orthodox praxis which, inter alia, included violently converting Greek Catholics to Orthodoxy, burning Old Believers alive for making the Sign of the Cross with two fingers, and driving Jews out of the country. Whatever one thinks of the SSPX’s criticisms of religious liberty, specifically the document Dignitatis Humanae, they pale in comparison to the living reality of Russian Orthodoxy on its native soil.

And last, despite occasional appearances to the contrary, the Russian Orthodox Church is rabidly anti-ecumenical. No pope has been allowed to visit Russia or meet with the Patriarch of Moscow, and Rome/Moscow relations have been at a standstill for some time. Some have gone so far as to charge the Russian Church with being disingenuous on ecumenical relations, claiming, on the one hand, that it wants to find practical ways to work with Rome while, on the other, looking for any excuse to halt participation in Catholic/Orthodox rapprochement efforts. As for non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians, the Russian Orthodox Church remains, at best, leery. There is not a single criticism of ecumenism the SSPX holds which, by their lights, the Russian Church could not accept and vice versa. If the Society is backwards, unenlightened, and outmoded in its views on other religions, so is the Russian Orthodox Church—so why does it get a free pass on this and the other aforementioned matters? Answering that question will have to wait for another day.