10 April 2006

Russian church takes on liberalism

Igor Torbakov reports on the Tenth World Council of Russian People, and particularly on the role of the Russian Orthodox Church: RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH CHALLENGES "WESTERN" CONCEPT OF HUMAN RIGHTS. Torbakov charges the church with reviving the old threefold creed of Tsar Nicholas I: Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality. This is from his report:

The Council's participants forcefully denounced a "distorted vision of human rights" that they claim has become prevalent in the West. Two aspects of the Western liberal concept seem to be particularly alien to Orthodox beliefs. First, the Council blasted the idea of "moral autonomy." The modern understanding of human rights postulates that an individual's moral autonomy can be limited only by the autonomy of other individuals: there is no supreme authority that can help distinguish between good and evil. Such a vision is unacceptable to the Russian Orthodox Church, which holds that turning the sovereignty and rights of a separate individual into an absolute value without the counterbalance of moral responsibility will lead to the demise of modern civilization.

The second controversial aspect of the European liberal model, according to Russian Orthodoxy, is its assertion that an individual's rights are superior to the interests of any collectivity. "There are values that are no less important than human rights," defiantly declares the statement adopted by the Council. "These are faith, ethics, [national] sacraments, Fatherland."

Not having seen a translation of the new Declaration of Human Dignity and Rights adopted by the Council, I cannot say whether Torbakov's fears are justified. However, if this report is at all accurate in its account of the two points mentioned above, then I admit to agreeing with these points, at least on the surface. On "moral autonomy," there are plenty of westerners who would resonate with the Council's expressed opposition, including Christians, observant Jews and professed communitarians. Neocalvinists would be numbered amongst the Christians in this group.

As for the second point, I too would oppose the notion that individual rights automatically trump the rights of communities. This is the crux of my disagreement with Michael Ignatieff's professed individualism. However, I would want to know whether the Declaration understands that in a healthy society the responsible agents, including communities, are always pluriform and ought not to be viewed as so many arms of the "Fatherland" or the national state. I would also wish to determine whether it makes a place for a legitimate sphere of individual responsibility. If it does not, then it may be guilty of tossing out the good with the bad in its efforts to combat liberalism.

Indeed, because the Russian Orthodox Church is well known to favour official restrictions on the work of Catholic and protestant churches within its "canonical territory," there is reason to suspect that the Declaration does not make a ringing endorsement of religious freedom. But until an English translation is published, we will not know this for certain.

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