Tag Archives: Orthodoxy

Difficult Questions on Unused Embryos

A really fascinating article in the New York Times this morning about the perhaps one million embryos currently in storage in medical facilities across the United States. Most of these embryos have been created through IVF treatments, on which increasing numbers of Americans rely. IVF allows many couples to bring new life into the world and experience the great gift of children. Given the current state of the technology, though, parents who use IVF must typically create several extra embryos in order to increase the odds of conception. This means that many unused embryos remain. The Times  reports that perhaps a million such embryos now exist. What will become of them?

Of course, for many Americans, this question raises important religious issues. The Catholic Church teaches that IVF is immoral in principle, even for married couples, because it violates human dignity and degrades the marital act–though of course children created through IVF are to honored and cherished, just like any others. Evangelical Christians, however, in principle accept the practice for married couples, as do Orthodox Christians. The fate of any unused embryos raises very difficult questions, however. To destroy them seems tantamount to abortion, which both Evangelical and Orthodox Christianity condemn. And all Christians, I think, would have moral concerns about the commodification of embryos that seems the logical outcome of our market society. The Times reports that one California company is already in the business of creating embryos from third parties for would-be parents to purchase, for $12,500, plus a money-back guarantee.

But back to married couples. What should a couple with religious scruples do about extra embryos created by IVF? Some Evangelicals have come up with a good solution. They donate the embryos to other infertile couples. It’s analogous to adoption:

For example, the National Embryo Donation Center in Tennessee, which is endorsed by the Christian Medical Association, places embryos only with heterosexual couples married at least three years — and only after a home study exploring their readiness to be parents, as is required for families adopting a living child.

“We think the embryos deserve the same level of protections as children who are being adopted,” said Stephanie Wood-Moyers, marketing director of the center, where the Watts embryos were stored.

Where does the civil law stand in all this? Unlike many countries, the US does not regulate assisted reproduction technologies, including IVF. And so, as with respect to so many aspects of American life, it becomes a matter of contract law. In my first-year contracts class, in fact, our casebook has two relatively recent cases, one from Massachusetts and one from New York, on the enforceability of parties’ agreements with respect to the disposal of unwanted embryos after IVF. In the Massachusetts case, the court declined to enforce the agreement, in large part because the agreement was ambiguous.

The New York court, by contrast, ruled in favor of enforcement. “Explicit agreements avoid costly litigation in business transactions,” Chief Judge Kaye wrote. She continued:

They are all the more necessary and desirable in personal matters of reproductive choice, where the intangible costs of any litigation are simply incalculable. Advance directives … both minimize misunderstandings and maximize procreative liberty by reserving to the progenitors the authority to make what is in the first instances a quintessentially personal, private decision. Written agreements also provide the certainty needed for effective operation of IVF programs.

Now, you might wonder whether questions as complicated and wrenching for people as these should be handled by contract law, as if they were equivalent to particularly difficult business transactions. (“How do we divide up the inventory if the partnership dissolves?”). Surely there is a more humane way to address these issues. But that seems to be the way our culture is heading. If there’s one thing we still believe in, apparently, it’s liberty of contract–at least when it comes to bearing children.

Putin and the Pope

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How have you been?

From Crux’s John Allen, here is an interesting and provocative article on today’s scheduled meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis. Surprisingly, Allen writes, on some issues, the two men have “forged an improbably strong partnership.”

One of those issues is the persecution of Mideast Christians. While Western nations have temporized, refusing even to acknowledge the sectarian dimension of the crisis–ISIS’s actions have nothing to do with religion, apparently–Putin has made himself the champion of the region’s Christians:

“As regards the Middle East and its Christians, their situation is dire,” Putin said in April. “The international community is not doing enough … this is the motherland of Christians. Christians have lived there from time immemorial, for thousands of years.”

In some corners of the Middle East, such as the Syrian region of Qualamun, Russia actually has floated the idea of granting citizenship to pockets of Orthodox Christians, effectively offering them a security blanket.

Now, talk is cheap. And Putin’s motivations are not wholly humanitarian. By offering itself as the protector of Mideast Christians, most of whom are Orthodox, Russia can exert influence in the region. (France has traditionally put itself forward in the same role, although France tends to focus on Catholics). Speaking out for Christian minorities also increases Putin’s credibility as the representative of traditional Christianity, which no doubt wins him admirers in the developing world, where Christianity is expanding, often in conflict with a rising Islam. And, of course, championing the cause of Orthodox Christians increases his political appeal in Russia itself.

Still, whatever his motives, Putin has focused on the suffering of Christians as Christians, and that is something many leaders in the West are apparently reluctant to do. It is also a stance, Allen writes, that appeals to Pope Francis:

Since Francis’ election in March 2013, meanwhile, no social or political issue has engaged the pontiff like the plight of persecuted Christians, especially in the Middle East.

In March, he demanded that the world stop trying to “hide” the reality of anti-Christian violence, and he’s also argued that the shared suffering of Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants alike is the basis for a contemporary “ecumenism of blood.”

Allen notes that the conflict in Ukraine will pose obstacles for any real partnership between Russia and the Vatican. Ukrainian Catholics believe that Pope Francis has taken too soft a line in that particular crisis. Francis has described the conflict as an unfortunate disagreement between Christians, while Ukrainian Catholics tend to see it as the result of Russian provocation, which they wish Francis would denounce. In particular, Ukrainian Catholics resent what they see as bullying and duplicity on the part of the Russian Orthodox Church, particularly the Moscow Patriarchate.

As I say, an interesting and provocative piece.

Destivelle, “The Moscow Council (1917–1918): The Creation of the Conciliar Institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church”

In May, the University of Notre Dame Press will release “The Moscow Council (1917–1918): The Creation of the Conciliar Institutions of the Russian Orthodox Church” by Hyacinthe Destivelle, O.P. (Oriental Section of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the Vatican). The publisher’s description follows:

By the early twentieth century, a genuine renaissance of religious thought and a desire for ecclesial reform were emerging in the Russian Orthodox Church. With the end of tsarist rule and widespread dissatisfaction with government control of all aspects of church life, conditions were ripe for the Moscow Council of 1917-1918 to come into being.

The council was a major event in the history of the Orthodox Church. After years of struggle for reform against political and ecclesiastical resistance, the bishops, clergy, monastics, and laity who formed the Moscow Council were able to listen to one other and make sweeping decisions intended to renew the Russian Orthodox Church. Council members sought change in every imaginable area—from seminaries and monasteries, to parishes and schools, to the place of women in church life and governance. Like Vatican II, the Moscow Council emphasized the mission of the church in and to the world.

Destivelle’s study not only discusses the council and its resolutions but also provides the historical, political, social, and cultural context that preceded the council. In the only comprehensive and probing account of the council, he discusses its procedures and achievements, augmented by substantial appendices of translated conciliar documents.

Tragically, due to the Revolution, the council’s decisions could not be implemented to the extent its members hoped. Despite current trends in the Russian church away from the Moscow Council’s vision, the council’s accomplishments remain as models for renewal in the Eastern churches.

 

The Newest Doctor of the Church

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This week, Pope Francis did something unprecedented. (One could perhaps write that sentence every week). He named, as a Doctor of the Universal Church, a tenth-century Armenian mystic called Gregory of Narek. Now, as the Catholic Church already recognizes 35 other Doctors of the Church, a designation that indicates saints who have made particular contributions to theological learning, you might wonder what’s so unprecedented about it. I’ll tell you.

(Readers who find theology, church history, and canon law boring should stop reading this post right now. You know who you are. We’ll get back to our regularly scheduled posting presently).

Gregory was a priest in the Armenian Apostolic Church. As a formal matter, the Armenian Church and the Roman Catholic Church have been out of communion since the fifth century. By the time Gregory was born, the two churches had already been divided for about 500 years. So Pope Francis has named, as a saint of particular theological distinction, someone from a separated church–someone who was not, in fact, a Catholic at all.

The churches separated over Christology. The Armenian Church declines to accept the Council of Chalcedon (451), which declares that Christ is one person with two separate, but conjoined, natures, human and divine, a position known as diophysitism. Like her sister Oriental Orthodox Churches, including the Coptic and Syriac churches, the Armenian Church holds instead that Christ has one combined human-divine nature, in which the human and divine nonetheless remain distinct, a position known as miaphysitism.

The disagreement does seem a rather technical one. Much turns on the proper fifth-century translation of Greek words like “physis” and “hypostasis.” For centuries, however, the two sides condemned each other as heretical. Chalcedonian Christians, including Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants, dismissed Orientals as “monophysites.” That designation has been dropped in our lifetimes, though, both because it is incorrect (unlike miaphysitism, monophysitism is indeed a heresy, but not one Orientals espouse) and because it is rather insulting. Indeed, in 1996, Pope St. John Paul II signed a declaration with Catholicos Karekin I, the patriarch of the Armenian Church, that attributed the centuries of division to semantic and other misunderstandings and explained that, whatever the other differences, Christological controversies should no longer separate the two churches. In fact, current Catholic canon law allows Orientals to receive communion in a Catholic church.

Now, the Armenian Church–my own church, in case you are wondering–has long considered Gregory of Narek, who wrote a beautiful set of reflections called the Lamentations, a saint. Indeed, he’s a very prominent saint, whose prayers are included in our Lenten vigils. But he was not a Catholic. I imagine he himself would have been a bit surprised to find that Rome had declared him a Doctor of the Church, a saint whose theological writings bear special distinction. What’s the explanation?

As far as I can make out, it’s this. When Rome receives part of an Eastern church into full communion, it accepts all of the Eastern church’s saints, as long as they did not explicitly contradict Catholic doctrine. So, when part of the Armenian Church united with Rome in the 18th century to form the Armenian-rite Catholic Church, Rome accepted the Armenian saints, including Gregory of Narek. He was, as it were, grandfathered, and has been a Catholic saint ever since. That’s how, in light of his great contributions, he can be declared a Doctor of the Church today.

Pretty much everyone in the Catholic world seems happy, or at least not unhappy, about this turn of events (though not everybody), including the traditionalists at Rorate Coeli:

It is interesting to note that Gregory lived at a time when the Armenian Church, to which he belonged, was not formally in communion with Rome and Constantinople. However, as those interested in the extremely tangled history of Christianity in the first millennium are well aware, one cannot always speak straightforwardly of “schism” and “heresy” when dealing with the theological and ecclesiastical divisions of Christendom in that era.

Just so. Armenian Apostolic Christians, too, are genuinely pleased. Indeed, Pope Francis’s action is particularly welcome this year, the centennial of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, in which 600,000 to 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, including many Christian martyrs, lost their lives. The monastery of Narek on the shore of Lake Van, where Gregory once lived and taught, was itself a victim of the purge. The monks abandoned it during the genocide, a hundred years ago, never to return. Today, a mosque stands on the site.

Colloquium: “Orthodox Christianity & Humanitarianism: Ideas & Action in the World”

On May 7-8, 2015, the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical & Interfaith Relations (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America) will host a colloquium entitled “Orthodox Christianity & Humanitarianism: Ideas & Action in the World.”

Orthodox Christians worldwide are integrally involved in the faith-humanitarianism nexus, both as providers of humanitarian services through development and emergency relief and as part of those populations suffering from some of the world’s most urgent humanitarian crises and longstanding humanitarian challenges.

This colloquium is being sponsored by the Office of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical & Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and will explore how Orthodox Christianity conceives of and practices humanitarianism.  The focus of our inquiry is the contemporary context, but we will necessarily consider historical examples, adaptations, and evolution in Orthodox teachings and practice regarding humanitarianism.

The colloquium is designed to encourage analysis, debate, and prescription.  The aim is to encourage conversation and dialogue that can facilitate networks of cooperation and action that will allow for the rich resources of Orthodox Christianity—its teachings, its institutions and organizations, its communicants—to become fully engaged in the urgent humanitarian needs of our time.

Details can be found here.

Engelhardt, “Singing the Right Way”

This past December, Oxford University Press released “Singing the Right Way: Orthodox Christians and Secular Enchantment in Estonia” by Jeffers Engelhardt (Amherst College).  The publisher’s description follows:

Singing the Right WaySinging the Right Way enters the world of Orthodox Christianity in Estonia to explore musical style in worship, cultural identity, and social imagination. Through both ethnographic and historical chapters, author Jeffers Engelhardt reveals how Orthodox Estonians give voice to the religious absolute in secular society. Based on a decade of fieldwork, Singing the Right Way traces the sounds of Orthodoxy in Estonia through the Russian Empire, interwar national independence, the Soviet-era, and post-Soviet integration into the European Union. Approaching Orthodoxy through local understandings of correct practice and correct belief, Engelhardt shows how religious knowledge, national identity, and social transformation illuminate how to “sing the right way” and thereby realize the fullness of Estonians’ Orthodox Christian faith in context of everyday, secular surroundings. Singing the Right Way is an innovative model of how the musical poetics of contemporary religious forms are rooted in both consistent sacred tradition and contingent secular experience. This landmark study is sure to be an essential text for scholars studying the ethnomusicology of religion.

Movsesian at American Historical Association Meeting

For readers attending the American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting in New York this weekend, I’ll be on a Sunday panel, “Contemporary Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights.” The panel, sponsored by the American Society of Church History, is chaired by Penn’s Sally Gordon, who participated in our Joint Colloquium this past spring. Details are here. Please stop by and say hello!

Kalkandjieva, “The Russian Orthodox Church: From Decline to Resurrection”

Last month, Routledge released “The Russian Orthodox Church, 1917-1948: 9781138788480From Decline to Resurrection,” by Daniela Kalkandjieva (University of Sofia, Bulgaria). The publisher’s description follows:

This book tells the remarkable story of the decline and revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in the first half of the twentieth century and the astonishing U-turn in the attitude of the Soviet Union’s leaders towards the church. In the years after 1917 the Bolsheviks’ anti-religious policies, the loss of the former western territories of the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union’s isolation from the rest of the world and the consequent separation of Russian emigrés from the church were disastrous for the church, which declined very significantly in the 1920s and 1930s. However, when Poland was partitioned in 1939 between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Stalin allowed the Patriarch of Moscow, Sergei, jurisdiction over orthodox congregations in the conquered territories and went on, later, to encourage the church to promote patriotic activities as part of the resistance to the Nazi invasion. He agreed a Concordat with the church in 1943, and continued to encourage the church, especially its claims to jurisdiction over émigré Russian orthodox churches, in the immediate postwar period. Based on extensive original research, the book puts forward a great deal of new information and overturns established thinking on many key points.

“Armenian Christianity Today: Identity Politics and Popular Practice” (Agadjanian, ed.)

Last month, Ashgate Publishing released Armenian Christianity Today: Identity Politics and Popular Practice, edited by Alexander Agadjanian (Russian State University for the Humanities). The publisher’s description follows:

Armenian Christianity Today examines contemporary religious life and the social, political, and cultural functions of religion in the post-Soviet Republic of Armenia and in the Armenian Diaspora worldwide. Scholars from a range of countries and disciplines explore current trends and everyday religiosity, particularly within the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC), and amongst Armenian Catholics, Protestants and vernacular religions.

Themes examined include: Armenian grass-roots religiosity; the changing forms of regular worship and devotion; various types of congregational life; and the dynamics of social composition of both the clergy and lay believers. Exploring through the lens of Armenia, this book considers wider implications of ‘postsecular’ trends in the role of global religion.

 

Wagschal, “Law and Legality in the Greek East: The Byzantine Canonical Tradition, 381-883″

In January, Oxford University Press will release “Law and Legality in the Greek East: The Byzantine Canonical Tradition, 381-883” by David Wagschal (University of Toronto). The publisher’s description follows:

Byzantine church law remains terra incognita to most scholars in the western academy. In this work, David Wagschal provides a fresh examination of this neglected but fascinating world. Confronting the traditional narratives of decline and primitivism that have long discouraged study of the subject, Wagschal argues that a close reading of the central monuments of Byzantine canon law c. 381-883 reveals a much more sophisticated and coherent legal culture than is generally assumed. Engaging in innovative examinations of the physical shape and growth of the canonical corpus, the content of the canonical prologues, the discursive strategies of the canons, and the nature of the earliest forays into systematization, Wagschal invites his readers to reassess their own legal-cultural assumptions as he advances an innovative methodology for understanding this ancient law. Law and Legality in the Greek East explores topics such as compilation, jurisprudence, professionalization, definitions of law, the language of the canons, and the relationship between the civil and ecclesiastical laws. It challenges conventional assumptions about Byzantine law while suggesting many new avenues of research in both late antique and early medieval law, secular and ecclesiastical.