Constantinople’s Moral Oversight

Andrew F. Estocin on Orthodoxy in the Public Square

“But among them all [the Greek Orthodox Christians in America], as Ecumenical Patriarch, we desire to single out one man who sums up your love for the Mother Church, for Orthodox culture, for the highest Christian ideals, Senator Paul Sarbanes. We express our fatherly pride in this accomplished son of the Mother Church; for his unwavering pursuit of righteousness and truth in both his public service to the Church and to the people of the United States of America. Well done, good and faithful servant!” In such terms was Senator Paul Sarbanes of Maryland greeted by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew during his visit to Baltimore on October 24, 1997.

As an Orthodox Christian who looks to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople with considerable filial love, this writer finds it more than slightly disconcerting to read such adulation directed toward one of the most fervent proponents of abortion rights in the entire US Senate. The Patriarch takes “fatherly pride” in a man whose voting record on abortion evinces a profound antagonism towards human life? To the spiritual leader of a church that regards abortion as infanticide Senator Sarbanes represents “the highest Christian ideals”? Can this really be?

It is precisely as an Orthodox Christian that I pose these questions. Already sharing the shame of a nation that has murdered 36 million unborn human beings since Roe v. Wade, must we Orthodox Christians also be thus embarrassed by such an accolade from the successor of St. Andrew the Apostle to one of the men responsible for the ongoing atrocity? The voting record of Senator Sarbanes, after all, with respect to the rights of the unborn, represents a sustained bashing of every Christian and humane instinct. Just what was in the mind of the Ecumenical Patriarch when he spoke, in public and on record, such manifest falsehoods?

A Useful Paradigm

The career of Senator Paul Sarbanes serves as a useful paradigm of a very serious moral and pastoral problem confronting the ministry of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the United States right now.

Paul Sarbanes is a US senator from Maryland. As an Orthodox churchman he has taken a highly visible role in the work of International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) and served as a key public figure in gaining the Congressional Gold Medal for Patriarch Bartholomew. He is also a past recipient of the Order of St. Andrew’s Patriarch Athenagoras Award for his defense of human rights and is now honored by the Orthodox Church as an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Why is this last point significant? From the official website of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, we learn the following information about the rank of Archon and what is expected of a man who holds that rank: “It is the sworn oath of the Archon to defend and promote the Greek Orthodox faith and tradition. His special concern and interest is to serve as a bulwark to protect and promote the Holy Patriarchate and its mission. . . . This honor, extended by the Church, carries with it grave responsibilities, deep commitments, and sincere dedication. Consequently, it is of utmost importance that this honor of obligation be bestowed upon individuals of proven Orthodox Christian character, who conform faithfully to the teachings of Christ, and the doctrines, canons, worship, discipline, and encyclicals of the Church.”

This is what is expected of an Archon of the ecumenical patriarchate. But what do we have in Senator Sarbanes? The facts speak for themselves:

• On May 20, 1997, and again on September 18, 1998, he was (along with Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, another Orthodox Christian) among the minority of senators who voted against a ban on partial-birth abortion.

• On September 4, 1997, he lent his support to legislation permitting medical experiments on intentionally aborted children as “fetal tissue research.” (The slippery ethical slope created by such legislation leaves open the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that children will be conceived solely for the purpose of medical experimentation.)

• His voting record (as published by Project Vote-Smart) has received a 100 percent approval rating from the pro-abortion organizations Planned Parenthood USA and Zero Population Growth.

The Pastoral Problem

There seems to be a larger problem here, however. From the perspective of proper moral direction, one may argue the case that Orthodox Christians in America who fall under the pastoral care of the Ecumenical Patriarch are not being very well shepherded right now, and perhaps the Patriarch’s lamentable greeting to Senator Sarbanes should be taken as only a more egregious symptom of a more serious illness. I suggest that it is time for Orthodox Christians in America to begin questioning the pastoral leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarchate with respect to its stewardship of Orthodox Christian Tradition in America. Put simply: the Ecumenical Patriarchate has severely neglected, and continues to neglect, pro-life and other pivotal social issues in its American ministry.

This neglect is readily noticeable if one compares the relative silence of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America on pro-life issues with the active involvement of other Orthodox hierarchies in this country. Consider, for example, the important legal brief amicus curiae filed on February 21, 1989, on behalf of Orthodox Christians in America in the famous Webster case before the Supreme Court (printed in Touchstone, Spring 1992, pp. 15–20). This was arguably the strongest and clearest statement on the evil of abortion to come from Orthodox auspices in America.

Yet Bishop (now Metropolitan) Maximos of Pittsburgh was the only Greek Orthodox bishop among the many signers of that document, in contrast to the unanimous signatures of the ranking hierarchs from the Russian (OCA, ROCOR), Antiochian, Serbian, Ukrainian, and Romanian jurisdictions. A full half of the Orthodox in America belong to the Greek Orthodox archdiocese, whose spiritual leaders were—with the exception of one bishop—completely silent on that solemn occasion.

That was a decade ago. The situation is worse today, especially since the elevation of Patriarch Bartholomew to the see of Constantinople. The new patriarch, it seems, prefers the more popular and politically correct moral concerns, like environmental awareness. Only rarely does he speak out on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and the role of the family in civil society. For this reason his voice is muted of the sorts of prophetic tones that aid in the formation of consciences.

If this is the case with Patriarch Bartholomew, what shall we say of his chief representative in the United States, Archbishop Spyridon? Does anyone remember the latter’s ever giving the slightest clear directive with regard to any major moral or social issue of the day? Last year’s twenty-fifth anniversary of Roe v. Wade came and went, without one word of notice from either man. If the Ecumenical Patriarch’s American flock is demoralized right now—and newspaper reports around the country show that it is—how could we expect otherwise when moral apathy on the part of some spiritual leaders has compromised the integrity of Orthodox Christianity’s voice in America’s public square?

A Numbing Moral Silence

Have both the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Greek archbishop of America become, to use the words of David Gelernter, “individuals who dine at Macbeth’s house while pretending not to see Banquo’s ghost”? When Archbishop Spyridon of America reminded the faithful during his February pastoral visit to Greece that to be “fully respectful of our personhood, we must respect and honor the personhood of each and every other human being,” how was it possible to take him seriously, when he remains silent on abortion and on the tragedy of documented participation in America’s abortion culture by Senator Sarbanes, one of the most prominent members of his flock?

Given the numbing moral silence from Constantinople and the latter’s representative in this country, it may indeed be time for all Orthodox Christians in America to unite their voices in addressing our growing moral crisis. It is time for Orthodox Christians to stand up to men like Paul Sarbanes and his legislative agenda and to recognize that the Patriarchate’s public and official recognition of him seriously distorts the message of the gospel in this country.

Andrew F. Estocin is a lifelong Orthodox Christian and writer who resides in Boston, Massachusetts.

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