Religion in Eastern Europe

Event for World Youth Day with Pope Francis at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in July. (Photo: Alekk03,

Where the present offers few reasons for pride, golden days of yore are dusted off to fill the void. The 1025th anniversary of medieval state Kievan Rus' baptism fits the bill. Its pompous celebration in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, took place in late July. Around the same time, Pope Francis was making his mission trip to Brazil. The two events vividly demonstrate how different from each other Orthodox and Catholic churches have become.

Though their leaders regularly say that the two churches are truly one, the gap between Orthodoxy and Catholicism grows wider. While the Roman Catholic Church becomes more liberal over time, the Orthodox Church still applies rigid archaic models to complex, ever-evolving issues of human nature, effectively turning more conservative. This happens at times when societies in the countries of Orthodox tradition lag behind in the modernization process and would benefit from changes on a number of margins.

The Orthodox Church

The official celebration in Kiev on July 27 was intended as a major propaganda event both for the Church and for the politicians in power alike. Commemoration was arranged as a formal worship service led by Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who leads the largest Christian denomination in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Even though it could have attracted many thousands of believers, ordinary people were explicitly asked not to show up, allegedly because large crowds might lead to accidents. Thus, only the top political and clerical circles with special invitations were expected at the ceremony, and the security regime was so strict that even some members of Parliament close to Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych could not gain a smooth entry. Along with special VIP treatment of religious demands of rich followers, such precedents of exclusivity and elitism undermine social coherence in the society. It discourages progress on a number of levels.

Elitism in the Orthodox Church is accompanied by the clerics' excessive material comfort. For instance, Patriarch Kirill traveled to Kiev in a luxurious "clerical train" with a "temple wagon" that some media reported to be armored. People giving money to the Church have little control over how these funds are spent, and it is too often the case that the Orthodox Church prefers to spend it on conspicuous luxury instead of helping the poor.

In Kiev, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church was joined by other Orthodox leaders as well as the presidents of Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and Serbia. It's not unusual that political leaders in Russia and Ukraine publicly show their support for the Orthodox Church. The custom of caesaropapism—the effective combination of spiritual authority and secular power—has had a lasting influence since it was inherited from Byzantium.

Ukrainian politicians across the ideological spectrum have received open and vocal endorsement of their electoral campaigns from intermediate-level Orthodox clerics, paying back the favor of arranging the transfer of public-owned real estate to the Church. Such a practice is even more prevalent in Russia, where the Russian Orthodox Church vehemently backs President Vladimir Putin's rule, and where Putin is a public devotee of the Church. When the female punk band Pussy Riot organized an anti-Putin performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 2012, essentially protesting against the undemocratic and unconstitutional amalgamation of the two powers, both institutions reacted in unison, with the Church adding spiritual condemnation to the official court's verdict of a two-year jail sentence to the dissenters.

The Church legitimizes state power, at least in the eyes of its followers, thus abating demands for reform. Some Orthodox clerics even discourage believers from taking part in local political life, advising them to leave politics to the politicians. In turn, government makes sure that the Church does not loose its status as a leading religious denomination, or the tax exemptions that come with it.

Financial ramifications of state-church symbiosis were recently demonstrated in Greece when Ephraim Kutsu, an abbot of Vatopedi monastery, was accused of real estate fraud that benefited his monastery at the expense of the state—to the tune of hundreds of millions of euros. The court trial is ongoing, but the scandal caused such a public outrage that it was an important factor in bringing down the government of Kostas Karamanlis in 2009.

The Orthodox Church's conservatism sometimes borders on obscurantism. Youth are encouraged to pursue "Orthodox occupations" such as medicine, teaching, and military or church service, while banking, law, sales or sports are considered not Orthodox enough. Both in Russia and Ukraine, many Orthodox clerics as well as ordinary believers resist the introduction of personal taxation codes, which hinders the operation of public government. All this diminishes the chances for economic success and efficient government. Members of the Church are also uncompromising in condemning homosexuals, sometimes to the extent of instigating outright violence. The attention of Orthodox societies is thus distracted from the issues of primary importance, focusing instead on various red herrings.

Catholic Church

Ten centuries ago the Orthodox and Catholic churches separated purely on formalistic rather than substantive grounds. Today the Catholic Church is responding to contemporary challenges in a way that will likely prove to be far more successful in the long run. July 28, Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, paid a visit to Brazil. Francis served Mass at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, which was free for everyone to attend and attracted as many as 3 million people.

Francis saying "Who am I to judge a gay person?" seems to have paved a way for material liberalization in the Catholic Church's view of human sexuality. Francis was in Brazil at the same time that political protests were taking place on the streets of major cities, and he endorsed the protests in his address, urging Brazilian leaders to "embrace dialogue." He also encouraged clerics to go to favelas—densely populated communities of the underprivileged—reiterating the principal challenge of his Papacy. No armored airplane for the trip. No special invitations to the Mass.

While Catholics seem to turn their faces toward the realities of modern society, Orthodox Christians prefer to stick to their Byzantine heritage and take the risk of becoming hostages of their history, taking pride in long beards and equally long rank titles. Orthodox Church leaders do not yet appreciate the drag their rigid outlook puts on the society. Eventually, this not only endangers the survival of Orthodox Christianity, but seriously undermines the chances of societies following its prescriptions to succeed in global competition.

Ivan Verstyuk is a senior editor at RBC-Ukraine, a member of the RBC business news agency that covers the Eastern European region. He holds a master's degree in philosophy. Ivan is based in Kiev and may be contacted at