Mainstream discussions over the future of liberalism rose once again ahead of the G20 Summit in Osaka, when Russian President Vladimir Putin told the Financial Times in a much publicized interview that “liberalism is obsolete.” This viewpoint is especially appreciated by those united in a variety of traditionalist movements, philosophical and religious, that remain displeased with the increasingly liberal direction taken by the global community and speak of a perceived culture war.
Putin’s statements on Catholicism during the interview went largely unnoticed, but they are equally intriguing. The Russian president stated that “Sometimes, I get the feeling that these liberal circles are beginning to use certain elements and problems of the Catholic Church as a tool for destroying the Church itself. This is what I consider to be incorrect and dangerous.” Religion is a delicate topic to discuss, especially in the context of geopolitics.
However, Putin’s comments set the stage for his meeting with Pope Francis on July 4 that provoked an increased interest in the Great Schism of 1054 — the official break of the communion between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy over ecclesiastical differences. It seems that almost 1,000 years of theological and political disunity between East and West is apparent in some degree today. The meeting also contributed additional food for thought in the philosophical debates between conservative traditionalist views and modern liberalism.
Contemporary liberal political philosophy has come to represent a mishmash of competing ideologies on the left of the political spectrum. It focuses heavily on cosmopolitan ideals of civil and human rights, gender politics, multiculturalism and secularism. Western liberal democracies pass legislation that mirrors this philosophy: legalization of same-sex marriage, guaranteeing reproductive rights, acceptance of refugees and calls for open borders, removal of religious symbolism in public spaces and promotion of individual rights. Adherents believe such legislation not only develops an inclusive society, but rights the wrongs of past generations.
This liberal position views traditional beliefs as outdated and backward. Even Catholicism has been accused of losing its reverence in favor of liberal aspects, a focus on feel-good mantras and the odd clown attending mass.
On the other hand, members of the multifaceted Traditionalist School of thought or those who strongly shun liberal influences, challenge contemporary society’s need to consider all viewpoints as equally relevant. Thinkers such as Julius Evola, Alain de Benoist and Alexander Dugin may not be household names, but they are often discussed in these circles. This movement consequently gains followers from those critical of the effects of liberal policymaking in modern societies and considers past norms — related to common culture, religion and gender roles — as integral to the longevity of civilizations. Traditionalists contend that major world religions already provide primordial and religious truths that need not be manipulated by political forces, as they remain at the core of human development. Further, they argue that a focus on individualism, related intersectionality and legalization of all aspects of minority rights, neglects the perennial wisdom that keeps cultures intact.
In the European sphere, Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity operate in this role. Both religions were fundamental to their respective regional developments and history. Christian morality consequently shaped prior eras of European society, and certain aspects of human behavior became taboo. It is easy to see why traditionalist philosophies, such as paleoconservatism and integralism, often find supporters among the alt-right, new conservative movements or particular streams of religious belief. Although each can exist on its own without the other, they come together in the realm of political theater.
The Defender of Christian Faith
Vladimir Putin’s comments in regard to Catholicism are relevant at this point, and they provide effective messaging in the perceived culture wars. His views are not new or alarming but, rather, those often discussed within traditionalist circles and a source of their apprehension. In order to construct an inclusive society that promotes individual freedoms, the frameworks instituted by former key powers such as the Vatican must be eschewed.
At the Vatican meeting between Putin and Pope Francis, two divergent worldviews — yet still linked through the common bond of Christianity — faced each other. Vladimir Putin has come to symbolize those who hold on to traditionalist ideas in regard to religion and civilization, while Pope Francis represents a more liberal view of the international community, with his progressive views on issues like climate change, migration and LGBTQ rights. Traditionalists seek representatives who will strongly defend their values, and to some it may be perplexing that it comes in the form of the Russian president rather than the pontiff.
Russia underwent a religious rediscovery during the unpredictable period following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was a time when communist ideology transitioned into liberalization and experimentation — the so-called “wild ’90s.” Under Boris Yeltsin, the government was mainly preoccupied with economic and political reforms in constructing a new Russia, leaving social transformation to proceed organically.
Among these rapid changes, the historical influence of the church on Russian politics and culture started to come back after decades of banishment under Communist Party rule. In 1997, despite controversy and pressure from Western powers such as the United States, Yeltsin signed a law that denoted the Russian Orthodox Church as the most privileged religious institution in the country. The church was ready to step in as a unifying force in a period of instability. Under Putin, who succeeded Yeltsin in 1999, the influence of the Moscow Patriarchate continued to grow.
As an official church document notes, “Relationships between state and the followers of genuine religion have continuously changed in the course of history.” This became especially apparent during Putin’s time in office. The Russian president signaled the importance of the church with Patriarch Aleksey II’s highly visible presence at his inauguration in 2000, suggesting an affinity for a traditionalist worldview.
The Russian president is often touted as a “defender of Christianity” and the strongest voice for the counterculture against modern liberal philosophy. Embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stated as much during an interview, saying that “When I look at the present state of things in the world I realize that Vladimir Putin is the sole defender of Christian civilization one can rely on.” Evangelical Christians in the United States, conservative Catholics and proponents of traditional social norms follow suit with similar conclusions.
The mutually beneficial relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin contributes to domestic policies that prioritize traditional family values. Initiatives such as the Maternity Capital program — in which mothers receive financial bonuses for having children — are typical agents in the promotion of the nuclear family. Some legislation reflective of conservative Christian beliefs receives criticism, both domestically and abroad. By far the most infamous Russian federal law passed in 2013 prohibits “gay propaganda” or any manifestations where homosexuality — seen as contrary to traditional family values — to be presented as “normal” to youths.
In 2017, Russia’s State Duma decriminalized forms of domestic violence, as such instances are considered to be family matters. Critics argue that these moves were practically and politically motivated in an attempt to turn around Russia’s depopulation crisis. Nevertheless, evangelical Christians look at Russia’s efforts to curtail gay rights with considerable envy.
In the Financial Times interview, Putin notes: “All right, have we forgotten that all of us live in a world based on Biblical values? … However, deep inside, there must be some fundamental human rules and moral values. In this sense, traditional values are more stable and more important for millions of people.” This firmly establishes Putin as the most significant voice in the global community willing to defend conservative ideals and ties in neatly with the Traditionalist School of thought. It sits well with those political movements focused on nationalism and, therefore, provides a vehicle for similar rhetoric to reach an expanded audience. The optics are impressive as well.
The Modern Pope
In this juxtaposition of worldviews, Pope Francis represents the zeitgeist of contemporary liberal ideas. On pressing matters that concern the global community, he has publically offered relative support for members of the LGBTQ community and acceptance of migrants entering Europe. This is connected to his positive views of cultural integration, in which the pope stated that “multiculturalism is not a threat but an opportunity.” Further, the pontiff acknowledges women’s “legitimate claims to equality and justice” but stopped short of expanding women’s liturgical roles.
He promotes interreligious dialogue, such as fostering better relations with leaders of the Islamic faith, to the chagrin of those who say the two systems of belief are theologically incompatible. His acceptance of climate change, such as in the encyclical “Laudato Si’” (“Praise Be”), along with activism to raise awareness of the crisis, align with progressive thought in the Western world.
In regard to Catholic Church doctrine, Pope Francis is viewed as a modernist, rather than a traditionalist in any sense. His encyclical, “Amoris Laetitia” (“Joy of Love”), focused on the institution of the family, and it generated considerable criticism from conservative Catholics. Some clerics and believers contend that the pope went against Catholic doctrine by raising future opportunities for divorced and remarried couples to receive the Eucharist — a centuries-old barrier.
Pope Francis also stirred additional controversy when he said that “good Catholics” need not “breed like rabbits” and should embrace “responsible parenthood.” These statements could be construed as support for artificial means of birth control — one of the core conservative Catholic believes. Traditional Catholics consequently allege that the pope purposely uses vague language rather than a forceful defense of Catholic beliefs to shroud his liberal tendencies. Some contend that liberal Catholics do not care about doctrine because they have been poorly catechized, and therefore unaware about religious tenets. Traditionalists want a strong voice in the Vatican to wholeheartedly endorse Catholic doctrine amidst the ongoing liberalization of Western culture.
Mainstream media often portrays Pope Francis as highly popular for his willingness to move Catholic teachings into modernity, but this is a complicated assessment. His pontificate has been strongly criticized by traditionalist Catholics — those believers more attuned to the teachings that came prior to the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 and accordingly prefer the Tridentine Mass.
Yet Pope Francis’ hands are tied by Catholic theology, and so positions commonly acceptable in liberal democracies such as officially sanctioning same-sex marriage and abortion remain forbidden. Adherents of liberalism view this as unacceptable and will continue to criticize the church at its most basic elements, as President Putin has noted.
Conversely, the pope’s intellectual conclusions in regard to theological interpretation and ecumenism do not sit well with those hoping for spiritual leadership that defends their values in a shifting global order. Some have gone so far as to label the bishop of Rome a “heretic” for his liberalization of Catholic belief. There is certainly something paradoxical in the fact that the pope is deemed a heretic while the Russian president is praised as a defender of Christianity. Two sets of clashing values — often referred to as a culture war — are symbolized by these two men. One embraces broad modernist attitudes; the other looks to past nationalist norms.
A return to traditionalism is presented as the antidote to the general acceptance of liberal principles. It is not so simple. Neither purest traditionalism nor modern liberalism espouses precepts that are entirely attractive to the vast majority in any given country. As Putin pointed out in his interview, “You know, it seems to me that purely liberal or purely traditional ideas have never existed. Probably, they did once exist in the history of humankind, but everything very quickly ends in a deadlock if there is no diversity. Everything starts to become extreme one way or another.”
The modern schism between proponents of contemporary liberalism and those in favor of traditional matters remains a pressing issue not only in religious communities but in domestic politics as well. Layers of politicization prevent unbiased profound discussions on this matter. Advocates on each side identify the leaders who typically represent their views through their use of strong optics and clear definitive messaging. It is a novel twist that a Russian president, rather than the bishop of Rome, currently represents the values of Christianity to a global audience. The future path of the international community will reveal which faction emerged on the right side of history.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.