His Holiness Patriarch Kirill answers questions put to him by Forbes France.
His Holiness the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill gives interview to Forbes France.
Your Holiness, as is well known, you took an active and direct part in producing the document entitled The Foundations of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox, which was adopted at the Jubilee Episcopal Council in 2000. This document formulated and systematized the Church’s position on a wide spectrum of issues that concern the life of society and, in particular, emphasized the importance of charity and social work in a world where there is ever greater inequality. In this way you anticipated pope Francis and his famous statement on a Church which is poor and for the poor. Unlike both of you, economics postulates man’s natural egoism which strives solely for the maximalization of individual gratification, often through sinful means. In what way can altruistic kindness propose a third way between hyper-materialistic capitalism and revolutionary Marxism?
The striving for self-enrichment as the loftiest goal in life, as self-satisfied social egoism, goes against the Christian worldview. This striving is stimulated, I believe, not by economic science, for which the absolutization of particular factors would go against its nature. Rather, this role is played by financial and economic elites and transnational corporations. The reason for encouraging the consumerist instinct is obvious – it is the maximalization of profit without regard for social or individual consequences. But is not moral degradation of a godless society which has generated the unconstrained striving to obtain material wealth, for enrichment by any means, including deceit, corruption, criminal activities, the unjust distribution of the excess of profit – the source of the crisis that has struck painfully millions of vulnerable people? This is the price which we pay for agreeing to elevate the Golden Calf on the pedestal of social and personal life.
The transformation of both capitalism and Marxism into a sort of quasi-religion is equally unacceptable. Those of us who lived through the communist period know fine well that the notion of social justice transformed into an aggressive ideology which destroyed everything around it. Hundreds of people executed for their faith, the creation of a social ghetto for enemy classes – this is the reality of the ‘communist paradise on earth.’
No less dangerous is the ‘capitalist gospel’, which views the fall of communism as evidence that it is infallible and has no alternative. We can already see how Christians in the West, in following the Gospel ideals of moderation in acquiring material wealth and sacrificial ministry to neighbour, are rarer and rarer included in the ideal picture of a consumerist world.
It is the Church’s duty to call upon those in whose hands are the levers of economic power to be aware of their responsibility before God and his creation and before people, and to testify to this through a genuine concern for the welfare of working people. As befits the human person, everyone has the right to live with dignity. It is evident that the creation of a harmonious world is impossible without a clear understanding by people of the need to structure all activity – including economic activity – on a sound moral basis. For Christians this foundation has always been Scripture and the tradition of the Church, which has always had her own unique models of building up economic relationships and their links with the life of society – for example, the experience of Orthodox monasteries. Many cities of Old Russia began as a monastery, which in turn laid down a strong foundation for the bases of social being where Christian morality, charity, lending of a helping hand and sacrifice were embedded as the integral elements of healthy relationships between people.
The Church appeals to people, whether they are businessmen, bankers, workers or peasants, by using not a politico-economic platform, but with recourse to the Gospels. There is only one sure way of overcoming the contemporary social and economic dead end, and that is to be guided by the word of God, where one has a choice and where one is obliged to vindicate it. Yet this is countered by powerful forces which are prepared to use any means whatsoever in order to prevent the dominance of divine ideas in the minds of our contemporaries, for people who are enlightened by God become free and independent, and not the unfree fulfillers of their passions imposed by the modern-day consumerist ‘culture’.
Christian leaders are not professional economists, yet theologians have studied the problem of the production of material wealth. The great Catholic theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, in no uncertain terms condemned moneylending as going against nature as something that exists only because human greed compels people to steal time fr om God. You have often analyzed Russia’s economic evolution, for example, on 8th February 2012 you called the restoration of Russia’s economy in the 2000s a ‘miracle of God with the active participation of the country’s leadership.’ Would you say that the economic and social chaos of Russia in the 1990s was caused by the excessive greed of Russian oligarchs (who robbed the Russian state) and Western bankers (who led it to bankruptcy)?
Russia has managed in many ways to overcome the consequences of the economic and social collapse of the 1990s, and I believe that this would have been impossible without God’s mercy towards the Russian people who had lived though times of persecution for their faith. Indeed, the destruction of the way of life that had arose in the Soviet period which, although far fr om perfect, did guarantee ordinary people bread, work and a roof over their heads, happened in parallel with the building up of Church life, of a return to spiritual traditions. It is my conviction that the spiritual rebirth of our nation, which matured in the 1990s, laid the foundation of the positive phenomena in the economy and social life in the 2000s. Far be it for me to idealize the situation of that time. Material success for many people became a temptation, an excuse for them to think that, by attaining a certain level of material comfort, faith is an unnecessary ‘option’. Such people, thank God, are a minority.
Yes, in Russia the 1990s were a time of unbridled passions, including that of unbounded greed. Enrichment became the sole value for the attainment of which all means were good. This ideology of gain was a manifestation of the poverty of a changing society. It would be wrong to say that there is a list of oligarchs which, had they not come into this world, would mean that things would have turned out differently. The spiritual sickness of greed can affect all layers of society. Fr om the perspective of morality, the one who steals one ruble is just as guilty of the same sin as the one who steals billions, although of course the social consequences are incomparable.
At the same time, human passions know no state borders. The oligarch who has no thought other than lining his pockets is equally vile wherever he lives, whether it is in Russia, Germany or France. The Russian Church carries out her ministry throughout many countries of the world, both within the expanse of the Commonwealth of Independent States and beyond its confines. And our flock there encounters similar challenges prompted by the changes in national economies.
The levying of a percentage by banks does not have, of course, the same negative social effects as medieval moneylending did at the time of Thomas Aquinas. But today we have come across in Russia and in other countries to which the canonical territory of our Church extends the activities of microfinance companies which simply rob trusting people. The Church is calling upon the authorities to put an end to this outrage and to protect people from the arbitrariness of these so-called collection agencies.
The Orthodox Church has a reputation as a massive, monolithic organization that lacks the flexibility of, say, the Protestants. Protestants, especially American evangelicals, really are far more enterprising and far more inventive. Recently, some young French Catholics wanted to partly resolve this problem by inventing an application for smartphones which would allow people to make donations through their phones during mass. Many priests during lockdown in France started to conduct virtual masses, which Protestant televangelists having been doing for many years. Would you encourage such initiatives in the Orthodox Church, which, as we know, is quite conservative in liturgical matters? What is needed for the creation of a truly Orthodox entrepreneurship? Can we reconcile tradition and innovation?
During the most difficult time of the pandemic when church buildings were closed there were held transmissions of services so that people would have the chance to pray, if only by their computer or TV screens. A movement to support one’s church arose whereby parishioners, who could not go to their own church physically, sent in their donations via the internet. This practice caught on in a big way.
But this was quite an unusual situation caused by the unusual circumstances in which we found ourselves. As soon as it became possible, people returned to their parish churches. It is the Church’s mission in the world to preserve and proclaim the Truth and to celebrate the sacraments instituted by the Saviour.
For us a ‘virtual church’ is a surrogate which cannot embrace the fullness of human and divine communion in much the same way as taste additives cannot be a substitute for the proper taste of a food product. As regards other areas of the Christian life and ministry, then innovations are perfectly acceptable here. The Church has always enthusiastically used new technologies in the realm of book-printing or architecture, and today she uses electronic technologies for preaching the word of God, the community of priest-bloggers is growing enormously and mobile applications for missionary activities are being created.
Orthodox entrepreneurship in the broad sense of the word is a separate issue. It is a joy for me to see how the community of Orthodox entrepreneurs is growing, how the number of charitable and educational projects financed by the call of the heart is increasing. I know many Orthodox entrepreneurs who take their faith very seriously and attentively and who strive to understand how the moral principles of Orthodoxy ought to be reflected in their business activities. Communication between the faithful among themselves plays a big role here. And there has been set up a Union of Orthodox Entrepreneurs which has adopted a code of ethics. It helps believing business people to establish moral boundaries in their work.
As the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, you lead an ascetic way of life and observe strict discipline. At the meeting of global leaders at the World Economic Forum you said that “Lent begins with self-discipline, when we lim it ourselves and lim it our needs.” And that “everything that is happening to the climate and with people shows that we are not developing in the right way.” What type of asceticism or discipline would you advise to the Russian Orthodox entrepreneur who is ready to serve society?
Christian asceticism is the art of combining an inner lofty harnessing of one’s self inspired by the striving to fulfill Christ’s commandments with the realities of contemporary everyday life. Therefore, we ought to begin by acquainting ourselves at a deep level with Church tradition, that is to say, by studying the ways by which holiness is attained. Of course, everything begins with inner discipline when the desire to live according to God and to observe the commandments replaces by act of will the all-seeking ‘I’. This process is never without its painful moments as the ‘old person’ resists in every manner possible, he or she tries to defend their habits and customs. Faith is needed to open up to God the opportunity to help us directly as by ourselves we cannot contend with the dark forces of the soul, but God through his energy – which we call grace – cooperates in this struggle.
Asceticism is above all directed at the struggle with the passions. Passion is a problem in that it can engulf us and make us its slave. The unquenched thirst for power, for certain material things or money are destructive examples of the passions from which many people suffer today. In its turn, the accomplishment of good possesses no less power that addiction to the passions; it is merely directed at the attainment of good. The holy fathers say that the passions are a parasite on the human person at the expense of the virtues he has not embodied.
We know of examples of those for whom personal asceticism becomes a goal in itself, an expression of pride. We have to remember that asceticism is merely a means which inculcates within us love of neighbour. If asceticism is present, while love and the desire to help our neighbour are absent, then self-limitation becomes meaningless. As Saint Paul wrote: “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13.3).
Today every business person and entrepreneur has to understand clearly that as soon as people cease to pay meaning to morality in their lives, then their will is taken over by evil powers which manipulate the choices they make, making them to be merely an illusion of freedom, and which bring them unhappiness and suffering which bear no correspondence to the amount of money they have in their bank account.
Every journey begins with the first step. May this first step for the entrepreneur become conscious aid to the nearest church, children’s home, almshouse, centre for help for young mothers and other people who find themselves in an abnormal life situation. The accomplishment of good is the fuel which sustains the fire of belief in the hearts of those who know how to reduce their customary needs to a rational degree and to put to good use the excess that that has come their way.
If before the 1970s Western capitalism manufactured products for family consumption, such as movies for families, apartments for families, table games for families, then over the past forty years a new consumer culture has arisen with more individualized models of consumption. There are fewer apartments, dating sites exist for occasionally single women, while smartphones (the symbol of the past decade) have become the most essential personal item. This tendency has become ever more aggravated in post-communist Russia, especially as this evolution has taken place over the past twenty years. Is this growth inevitable? How can we reconcile capitalism and the family?
There was a time when capitalism took the family as its starting point as the collective consumer of goods and services. But at some point, people who lacked a sound moral foundation were talked into believing that personalized goods and services better tailored for personal consumption better gratify their egotistical needs.
Family cars, family apartments and films for the family always involve compromise. We always have to make room for others around us, we have to make sacrifices and concessions. But what is the point of compromise if the moral sense, the desire to serve our neighbour and educate our children, has been suppressed or hasn’t been imparted to us?
Corporations have taken advantage of this. The market encourages the path of least resistance in offering people instant gratification at an affordable price. The habit of having everything also instantly undermines the ability to show patience and to wait awhile, to make an effort and to make sacrifices.
But for capitalism there is one ‘small’ problem: egotists are not increasing in number. They have no need to do so. The number of consumers is steadily declining; indeed, even if we enjoy the highest standard of living, we are still mortal. Thus, capitalism, which cannot ‘produce people’ by encouraging family values, has to come up with new consumers from without. From those regions wh ere other models of behaviour obtain, if only to gather profit from them. This is a descending spiral which will inevitably end in collapse.
Until recently Russia followed this path, but now within society and within the authorities there is a realization that the family is a basic value, and not a good or service. Resources have to be poured into it – material and moral resources – and it has to be protected and supported. More and more people are coming to this conclusion also in the West in realizing that without the traditional family there can be no future for humankind.