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Interview With Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev

VIENNA, Austria, NOV. 9, 2006 (Zenit) - Catholics and Orthodox should establish a "strategic alliance" for the defense of Christian values in Europe, says an Eastern prelate.

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna and Austria, representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions, made this suggestion, and others, in this interview on topics linked to ecumenism.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Wednesday on Catholic Online.

Q: Benedict XVI is looking for the "full and visible unity" of all Christians -- a unity which man cannot "create," but which he may encourage, through his own conversion, through concrete gestures and an open dialogue about fundamental topics. On the basis of which topics can Orthodoxy and Rome strengthen their bonds? How should they be put into praxis?

Bishop Alfeyev: I believe, first of all, that it is necessary to identify several levels of collaboration and then to work for better understanding at each level.

One level relates to the theological conversations that are pursued by the Joint Catholic-Orthodox Commission. These conversations are and will be focused on the dogmatic and ecclesiological disparities between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Church.

At this level I can predict many years of exhaustive and difficult work, especially when we come to the issue of universal primacy. Complications will arise not only because of the very different understanding of primacy between the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, but also from the fact that there is no unanimous understanding of universal primacy among the Orthodox themselves.

This fact already became evident during the recent session of the Commission in Belgrade, and the internal disagreement within the family of the Orthodox Churches on this particular issue will be manifested in ways more acute and striking in the future. Thus, a long and thorny path lies ahead.

There is, however, another level to which we should set our sights, and here I mean not so much what divides as what unites us. To be specific, this is the level of cooperation in the field of Christian mission.

Personally, I believe that it is quite premature and unrealistic to expect restoration of full Eucharistic communion between East and West in the foreseeable future. Nothing, however, prevents us, both Catholics and Orthodox, from witnessing Christ and his Gospel together to the modern world. We may not be united administratively or ecclesiastically, but we must learn to be partners and allies in the face of common challenges: militant secularism, relativism, atheism, or a militant Islam.

It is for this reason that, since the election of Pope Benedict XVI, I have repeatedly called for the fostering of ties between the Catholics and the Orthodox Churches through the creation of a strategic alliance for the defense of Christian values in Europe. Neither the word "strategic" nor "alliance" has so far been commonly accepted to describe a collaboration such as this.

For me, it is not words that matter but rather the connotation behind them. I used the word "alliance" not in the sense of a "Holy Alliance," but rather as it is employed for "The World Alliance of Reformed Churches," i.e., as a term designating collaboration and partnership without full administrative or ecclesial unity.

I also wanted to avoid pointedly ecclesial terms such as "union," because they will remind the Orthodox of Ferrara-Florence and other similar unfortunate attempts at achieving ecclesial unity without full doctrinal agreement.

Neither an ecclesial "union" nor a hasty doctrinal compromise is needed now, but rather a "strategic" cooperation in the sense of developing a common strategy to combat all the challenges of modernity.

The rationale behind my proposal is this: Our churches are on their way to unity, but one has to be pragmatic and recognize that it will probably take decades, if not centuries, before unity is restored.

In the meantime we desperately need to address the world with a united voice. Without being one Church, could we not act as one Church? Could we not present ourselves to secular society as a unified body?

I strongly believe that it is possible for the two Churches to speak with one voice; there can be a united Catholic-Orthodox response to the challenges of secularism, liberalism and relativism. Also in the dialogue with Islam, Catholics and Orthodox can act together.

I should add that any rapprochement between Catholics and Orthodox will in no way undermine those existing mechanisms of ecumenical cooperation that include also Anglicans and Protestants, such as the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches.

However, in the struggle against secularism, liberalism and relativism, as well as in the defense of traditional Christian values, the Roman Catholic Church takes a much more uncompromising stand than many Protestants. In doing so it distances itself from those Protestants whose positions are more in tune with modern developments.

The recent liberalization of doctrine and morality in many Protestant communities, as well as within the Anglican Church, makes cooperation between them and the Churches of Tradition, to which belong both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, ever more difficult.

Yet another level of Catholic-Orthodox cooperation would be that of cultural exchange between the representatives of the two Churches. Many misunderstandings that exist between us have a purely cultural origin.

Better knowledge of each other's cultural heritage would definitely foster our rapprochement. Icon exhibitions, choir concerts, joint literary projects, various conferences on cultural subjects -- all this can help us overcome centuries-old prejudices and better understand each other's traditions.

Q: In his letter to the Pope on February 22, the patriarch of Moscow mentions some challenges of the modern world, which should be solved together, and his deep wish to bring back Christian values to society. How can forces be joined, so that the dangers of materialism, consumerism, agnosticism, secularism and relativism could be overcome?

Bishop Alfeyev: These questions were raised during the conference "Giving a Soul to Europe" that took place in Vienna on May 3-5, 2006. The conference was organized jointly by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Some 50 participants representing the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox Churches gathered together in order to ponder on the challenges facing Christianity in Europe and to develop ways of collaboration in facing them.

It is precisely materialism, consumerism, agnosticism, secularism and relativism, all based on liberal humanist ideology, that constitute a real challenge to Christianity. And it is this liberal humanist ideology that we must counteract if we wish to preserve traditional values for ourselves and for our future generations.

Today Western liberal humanist ideology, standing on the platform of its own, self-made universality, imposes itself on people who have been raised in other spiritual and moral traditions and have different value systems. These people see in the total dictate of Western ideology a threat to their identity.

The evidently anti-religious character of modern liberal humanism brings about non-acceptance and rejection by those whose behavior is religiously motivated and whose spiritual life is founded on religious experience.

There exist several variations on the religious response to the challenges of totalitarian liberalism and militant secularism. The most radical answer has been given by Islamic extremists, who have declared jihad against "post-Christian" Western civilization with all of its so-called common human values.

The phenomenon of Islamic terrorism cannot be understood without full appreciation of the reaction that has arisen in the contemporary Islamic world as a result of attempts in the West to impose its worldview and behavioral standards on it.

So long as the secularized West continues to lay claim to a worldwide monopoly on worldviews, propagating its standards as being without alternative and obligatory for all nations, the sword of Damocles of terrorism will continue to hang above the whole of Western civilization.

Another variation on the religious response to the challenge of secularism is the attempt that is being made to adapt religion itself, including its doctrine and morals, to modern liberal standards.

Some Protestant communities have already gone down this path by having instilled liberal standards into their teaching and church practice over the course of several decades. The result of this process has been an erosion of the dogmatic and moral foundations of Christianity, with priests being allowed to justify or conduct "same-sex marriages," members of the clergy themselves entering into such liaisons, and theologians rewriting the Bible and creating countless versions of politically correct Christianity oriented toward liberal values.

Finally, the third variation on the religious response to secularism is the attempt to enter into a peaceful, non-aggressive dialogue with it, with the aim of achieving a balance between the liberal-democratic model of Western societal structure and the religious way of life. Such a path has been chosen by Christian Churches that have remained faithful to tradition, namely the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Today both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches have the capability to conduct dialogue with secularized society at a high intellectual level. In the social doctrines of both Churches, the problems concerning dialogue with secular humanism on the matter of values have been profoundly examined from all angles.

The Roman Catholic Church has dealt with these questions in many documents of the magisterium, the most recent of which being the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, compiled by the Pontifical Commission "Justitia et Pax" and published in 2004.

In the Orthodox tradition the most significant document of this kind is the "Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church," published in 2000.

Both documents promote the priority of religious values over the interests of secular life. In opposing atheist humanism, they foster instead a humanism guided by spiritual values.

By this is meant a humanism "that is up to the standards of God's plan of love in history," an "integral humanism capable of creating a new social, economic and political order, founded on the dignity and freedom of every human person, to be brought about in peace, justice and solidarity."

Comparison between the two documents reveals striking similarities in the social doctrines of the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. If our understanding of social issues is so similar, why can we not join forces in order to defend it?

I believe the time has come for all Christians who choose to follow the traditional line, notably the Catholics and the Orthodox, to form a common front in order to combat secularism and relativism, to conduct responsible dialogue with Islam and the other major world religions, and to defend Christian values against all challenges of modernity. In 20, 30 or 40 years it may simply be too late.

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Russian, Orthodox, Papacy, Alfeyev, Catholic

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