Inter-Orthodox Relations, Orthodoxy and Modernity, Religion and Politics

The OCA Holy Synod on the Russian War in UkraineOn the Dubious Silence of the Shepherds

Published on: June 3, 2022
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American Orthodox leaders, inevitably on one or other side of the widening Greek–Slavic divide in world Orthodoxy, typically echo the voice of the peculiar foreign “Mother–Church” to which each hierarch is canonically bound. So Archbishop Elpidophoros, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA) in the USA, although expressing his sympathy for the hapless Russians being “deceived and victimized by their leaders . . . both civil and religious,” clearly echoed Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s decisive condemnation of “Moscow’s obsessive ethnophyletism and promotion of its Russkiy Mir agenda.”[i] No less pointedly, Archbishop Elpidophoros placed the “responsibility for condoning such unrighteousness . . . squarely on the leadership of the Russian Church and clearly on Patriarch Kirill.” By comparison, the overall transparency of the two statements posted on the website of the “only autocephalous American Orthodox Church”—to repeat the usual mantra of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA)—falls somewhere between the obscurity of the first statement (from OCA Metropolitan Tikhon [Mollard]) and the half–clarity of the second statement (from the bishops of the OCA Holy Synod).

In his statement of 24 February 2022, Metropolitan Tikhon refers ethereally to “the distressing developments in Ukraine” and repeats the exact verbal subterfuge which the Russian Federation used to announce their invasion: he asks, using the first person, that “President Putin put an end to “the [not his] military operations.”[ii] Within twenty–four hours after this anodyne request was publicly criticized,[iii] the OCA Holy Synod posted a more politically robust statement which correctly identifies the “military operations” as “the war of aggression waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine.” An informed reader can discern and a prudent not to say sympathetic one can appreciate the ecclesiastical menace which, one can reasonably conjecture, obstructed the OCA’s public progression from obfuscation to half–clarity: the possible annulment or, more likely, effective neutralization of the fifty–year–old ROC tomos granting the (always contested in “Greek” world Orthodoxy) “Russian autocephaly” of the OCA.

Now no one can predict with certitude how the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) would react and what negative consequences there might ensue for the OCA if its Holy Synod were to speak forthrightly and honestly about Patriarch Kirill’s ceaseless and theologically dubious propagandizing on behalf of Russia’s invasion and atrocious war in Ukraine. This uncertainty creates a genuine and grave predicament for the OCA Holy Synod, whose first duty, admittedly, is not to harm the Church that they have solemnly pledged to protect.

Nonetheless, Patriarch Kirill’s symbiotic relationship to President Putin is not, as an OCA cleric ingenuously remarked, primarily a “political not a religious issue” and, therefore, not an issue about which the OCA hierarchs properly need to be concerned.  On the contrary, the ROC altar–throne atavism is a morally ambiguous and deeply troubling spiritual issue, resuscitating the oldest moral compromise of the Orthodox Church, its spiritually detrimental metamorphosis into a quasi–civil institution politically beholden to and dependent upon the patronage of Emperor Constantine. Both OCA statements posted on the Church’s website are “Constantinian”; for reasons that can be labelled Realpolitik, they intentionally stop short of moral “transparency” or “adequate disclosure” of the truth in and for the Church.  

Of course, we can and must leave “full disclosure” of the Truth to the Last Judgment. Nonetheless, the obliquity of the two OCA statements is painfully apparent. On the OCA website, it is as though neither Commander–in–chief Putin nor ecclesiastical Propagandist–in–chief Kirill existed or that either official was actively involved in the devastating Russian war. Consequently, unanswered questions about Russian patronage of the OCA abound, especially since St. Vladimir’s Seminary so unhesitatingly accepted money to endow a chair in honor of Patriarch Kirill.

What does the deliberate silence of the OCA Holy Synod reveal about the moral methodology of its decision making and the spiritual character of its members? What does it reveal about the real not the publicity–packaged story about the state of the OCA’s “Russian autocephaly?” What spiritual lesson about “truth–telling” does it convey to the OCA faithful, many of whom are not tranquillized but considerably disturbed by these kinds of hierarchical dodges?

To Patriarch Kirill, Metropolitan Tikhon sent a private letter, one that the OCA Holy Synod thought necessary, curiously, to reaffirm publicly but without revealing its contents. The Holy Synod’s confirmation vaguely describes Metropolitan Tikhon’s letter to Patriarch Kirill as “imploring His Holiness to do whatever possible to end the war in Ukraine.”[vi] “Implore” connotes urgency and desperation, but was Metropolitan Tikhon’s urgent and perhaps desperate imploration precisely targeted? Not Patriarch Kirill but only President Putin who started can actually stop the Russian war in Ukraine. Every Christian believes, however, that it remains spiritually possible (albeit improbable) for the Moscow Patriarch to repent and terminate his own egregious propagandizing for President Putin’s war. Is that what Metropolitan Tikhon implored Patriarch Kirill to do out of love for Christ—cease and desist, at whatever personal or political cost, his scandalous propagandizing for the Russian war against Ukraine?

Unfortunately, this information is unavailable, although it is directly relevant to understanding the moral character of the privately enacted and not just publicly advertised “canonical relationship” of the OCA to the ROC.  The OCA Holy Synod has not and likely will not explain their decision to remain silent about Putin and Kirill’s religiously saturated warmongering which, as the secular media have repeatedly detailed, feeds on a ROC religious ideology: Russkiy Mir. Patriarch Kirill’s concoction and propagation of a premodern, trans–national “Russian World,” more a justificatory propaganda myth than an academically plausible historical or geographical notion, have provoked sharp ecclesiastical and theological criticism, repudiating it as a spurious ethnocentrism, a contemporary version of nineteenth century “phyletism,” a heresy contrary to and explicitly condemned by Orthodox doctrine.

These deleterious facts and their negative impact on the OCA are certainly known to the members of its Holy Synod. Yet, the OCA shepherds refrain from providing to their American flock any kind of focused theological or moral critique of the actions, policies, and propaganda of the ROC and its patriarch: they refuse to identify and condemn a theological heterodoxy and a blatant moral evil in the ROC, no matter the evident impact, temptations, and dangers it poses for OCA believers. Instead, the members of the OCA Holy Synod continue to act as though their primary duty is not to Truth but to be adroit practitioners of ecclesiastical Realpolitik.  Alas: this is the only term which fits their visible actions. They appear, voluntarily or involuntarily, to be pragmatically attuned, realistically focused, episcopal politicians (die bischöfliche Realpolitiker, to use a pertinently resonant German phrase), who have pragmatically “calculated” in ad hoc utilitarian fashion, that keeping silent will bring more institutional benefits to the OCA than speaking out.

Perhaps the silence of the OCA Holy Synod will preserve or at least not put at risk the OCA’s “Russian autocephaly.”But perhaps not. In the moral perils and ethical dilemmas of the present crisis in Ukraine, the OCA’s autocephaly, such as it is, should not be considered the highest and overriding good to be preserved. Ecclesiastical Realpolitik inevitably requires expediently subordinating to so–called “realistic goals” the Gospel’s own incalculable moral norms and spiritual values. Such expediency violates and damages the Church’s basic moral and spiritual commitments, which urgently need to be reaffirmed. Ecclesial communion requires, first of all, communion in the Truth not just mutually recognized canonical propriety.

The OCA Holy Synod’s silence jeopardizes and, probably to its eventual shame, erodes the universal Orthodox Church’s perceived commitment to Truth. It is complicit with and reinforces the public mendacity and inauthenticity of ROC officialdom, indirectly by omission (morally indefensible silence about a pressing and enticing moral evil) not directly by commission (bald–faced lying). Their bad example, however, directly undermines a morally fragile OCA, a Church hardly recovered from its own past scandals and cover–ups. The war in Ukraine has exposed that, as in the Communist and Tsarist periods, the ROC is a compliant organ of the Russian State and that the OCA presently is at grave risk of becoming a compliant ancillary organ of the ROC.

At the Liturgy, every Orthodox bishop and priest prays that God will grant us “in the present age [en to paronti aioni] the knowledge of Thy truth.” The challenge for every Orthodox Christian always and everywhere, but especially here and now for every beleaguered OCA bishop, anxious priest, and troubled layperson is to believe, trust in, act upon, and not just routinely mouth the prayer for the divinely promised and liberating knowledge of God’s Truth. The spiritually distressed condition of more than one Orthodox Church in this present agedemands nothing less. Relying on ecclesiastical Realpolitik to determine when to seek or speak the truth is not the great spiritual good for which the Liturgy teaches us to pray. Realpolitik can never set the Church free.

[i] Patriarch Bartholomew, 20 March 2022, 2nd Sunday of Lent, I.N. Agioi Theodoroi of the Community of Vlag; website of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

[ii] In his statement of 24 February 2022, Metropolitan Tikhon extends his prayers by name solely to Metropolitan Onufriy, the primate of the UOC–MP, and leaves anonymous “the other religious leaders serving in Ukraine” for whom, under that title, he also promises to pray. Eleven days later, in Metropolitan Tikhon’s Archpastoral Message (7 March 2022), “Beginning of Great Lent 2022,” the “military operations” have morphed into “war in Ukraine”; the war, however, is described grotesquely as one of the things that we OCA congregants not the Ukrainians, must “endure” in order to become “ever-brighter beacons of Christ’s light in this darkening world.” Cf. beginning-great-lent-2022.

[iii] See “Open Letter to the Synod of the Orthodox Church in America on the War in Ukraine,” Public Orthodoxy, 26 March 2022. The “Open Letter” was addressed to his Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon and the Holy Synod of Bishops of the OCA; the statement was posted on the internet by 5.00 PM the afternoon of 25 March 2022, but pre–dated 26 March 2022.

Archpriest Denis J.M. Bradley is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


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