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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Church To Tackle Thorniest Questions

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Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church will meet in Moscow this Sunday for an ambitious and far-reaching weeklong discussion on a host of morally thorny issues, many of which have never been officially considered by the church from sainthood to genetic engineering to homosexuality to even sports and the mass media.

The Council of Bishops, the churchs second-highest ranking body, will meet in the newly reconstructed Cathedral of Christ the Savior as part of celebrations of 2000 years since the birth of Christ. Those celebrations will continue through next Saturday, when the cathedral will be consecrated.

The council has been asked by the Holy Synod the churchs permanent 12-member ruling body to rule on the canonization of an unprecedented several hundred modern-day saints who died at the hands of Soviet power, including Tsar Nicholas II and his family.

The bishops have also been asked to discuss and to vote upon two major documents: The churchs first-ever "social doctrine" and a concept for relations with non-Orthodox churches.

Both documents have been prepared by narrow groups of experts and remain secret no doubt from the controversial nature of the subject matter and the hierarchys desire not to expose them to critics before the vote.

But the decisions expected to be taken by the Council of Bishops will address some of the most controversial debates within the church over the past decade and are likely to contribute substantially to church policies for years to come.

"Of course, one can avoid speaking on all difficult issues," said Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, in an interview published this week in the NG-Religii newspaper. "But only our enemies would have liked that as a confirmation of their accusations that the Orthodox Church is unable to have a dialogue with the modern man on issues which concern him."

Metropolitan Kirill, who heads the churchs department of external relations, was in charge of the commission that drafted the social doctrine. He said his group had been working on it since 1994, and that it represented six years of internal debate and disagreement.

The doctrine addresses many issues that have never been officially considered by the Orthodox Church, either in Russia or abroad: genetic engineering, contraception, organ transplantation, transsexualism, homosexuality, reproductive technologies and attitudes toward public education, mass media and sports.

The doctrine also deals with attitudes toward private property and the social role of the church.

Exactly what it advocates remains a closely guarded secret.

But in his interview, Metropolitan Kirill suggested that the church, in the face of its strong monarchist tradition, will declare once again that it "does not tie itself to any state or public regime, nor to any political force."

At the same time, it will refuse to endorse the principle of "freedom of conscience" Metropolitan Kirill said that to do so formally would be to accept "the spiritual degradation of society, mass apostasy and de facto indifference to the cause of the church" even while tolerating and recognizing its usefulness in practice.

The other major document the Council of Bishops is to vote upon is a statement of the churchs approach to other religions. The 20-page document, which has been approved already by the Holy Synod, seeks to regulate some of the angrier debates of the 1990s.

"The subject of inter-Christian relations is used by various groups within the church as a bugaboo in partisan wars," said Hieromonk Hilarion Alfeyev, the Moscow Patriarchates senior official in charge of relations with non-Orthodox churches, in an interview last week.

"In particular, it is used to criticize the top leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is well-known to have taken part in ecumenical activities for many years."

The subject of church-to-church relations is also exploited by breakaway groups, such as the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad or Greek Old-Calendarists, to undermine peoples trust in the church, said Alfeyev.

In response, Alfeyev said, the church has created "a clear document which will outline the theological basis of the Russian Orthodox Churchs attitude towards heterodoxy which will raise the questions of why we need and if we need a dialogue with non-Orthodox confessions, what form this dialogue should take, and so on."

The document is expected to specify that the Orthodox Church will not deal with "sects" but will have various forms of dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church, the Oriental Orthodox churches and Protestant churches.

At first, the Moscow Patriarchate had planned to mark the important year of 2000 by convening the churchs top body, the Local Council that includes not only bishops but elected members of clergy and laity. Contrary to the churchs own bylaws, the Local Council has not been called since Patriarch Alexy II was elected in 1990.

Instead, citing a lack of funds, the Synod decided to convene only the bishops. Critics have suggested the hierarchy fears it would not be able to control the Local Council but even so, the bishops could also present a challenge to the top leadership during the discussions. The last gathering of the Council of Bishops took place in 1997.

After next weeks votes are over and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior has been consecrated, hundreds of Soviet-era saints known as the New Martyrs of Russia will be formally proclaimed at a church service next Sunday.

The canonization of such saints has been an ongoing process. But this years act will be unprecedented for the sheer number of people who will be sainted.

Canonization of the imperial family was a particularly controversial issue because of its political connotation and because of the variety of opinions about the role of Nicholas in history.

But while many Russians already recognize the family as saints, the Synod carefully selected a formula for their canonization to finesse much of the politics ruling that they were saintly only for the way in which they did not rebel against their Bolshevik captivity and accepted their deaths with Christian humility.

Given multiple divisions within the Russian Orthodox Church following the death of Patriarch Tikhon in 1925, canonization of bishops and priests from the era of persecution in the 1920s and 1930s was also an uneasy question: There was always the danger of canonizing a breakaway clergyman (there is an Orthodox formula that "the sin of schism is not washed away even with the blood of martyrdom").

The commission on canonizations that has carried out widespread research including in the archives of the former KGB eventually found its criterion: New saints must have been faithful in their day to Patriarch Tikhons immediate successor, Metropolitan Pyotr Polyansky; but it is permissible for them to have turned away from Polyanksys successor, Metropolitan Sergy Stragorodsky, who declared loyalty to the Bolshevik regime in 1927 and in 1943 became the first Soviet-era patriarch.