Interview With Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Kyrill 'The Bible Calls it a Sin'

Metropolitan Kyrill, foreign minister of the Russian Orthodox Church, discusses Christian values in the post-communist era, his relationship with the pope in Rome, Vladimir Putin the churchgoer -- and wrangles with SPIEGEL about homosexuality.

SPIEGEL: Your Eminence, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church seemed to have prevailed over the godless communists. But has it been able to fill the spiritual vacuum that followed?

Kyrill: I wouldn't call it a vacuum. In communism, the church had no direct way of influencing society, but it did influence Russian culture and people's awareness. I remember a tour guide in a monastery in Vologda in the early 1970s. She talked about architecture and painting as if she were giving a sermon. There was no talk of Christianity, but her speech depended on a Christian system of values. This woman was not alone. Writers and artists spoke the same way. Or, someone would see a destroyed church and discover another world beyond the gloomy prefabricated high-rises where people lived. Christian values were always kept alive among the people. They ultimately brought about the fall of communism.

SPIEGEL: Crime and corruption were rampant after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Murder, robbery and fraud became mass phenomena. Wasn't this a defeat for the church?

Kyrill: Reviving morality is a long process. We also see high crime rates in other countries. Besides, Russia faced massive social changes. Our economy was in ruins, foreign influence was growing and so was the consumption mentality, the focus on performance, all of these postmodern ideas which treat everything as relative and no longer require us to distinguish between truth and lies.

SPIEGEL: It sounds as if the present is no better than the past, in your opinion.

Kyrill: The church should have taken time to regenerate. We were weakened by atheism, and then we were faced with a double burden. We were like a boxer who walks around for months with his arm in a cast and is then abruptly shoved into the ring, accompanied by shouts of encouragement. But there we encountered a well-trained opponent, in the form of a wide variety of missionaries from America and South Korea who tried to convert the Russian people to other faiths. Religion was also marginalized by a secular way of thinking.

SPIEGEL: Is capitalism ultimately worse than communism?

Kyrill: The free market economy has certainly proved to be more effective than the planned economy. Unlike corporate executives, however, the church also believes in justice. As far as that's concerned, we have no fewer problems today, perhaps even more, than in the Soviet era. The gap between rich and poor in Russia is scandalous. That's an issue we are addressing.

SPIEGEL: You must find it obscene, the way the Russian oligarchs, with their palaces and yachts, show off their wealth.

Kyrill: It isn't the church's place to point to someone and say: He owns yachts and airplanes, so let's take away his riches and redistribute them. That happened in the 1917 revolution. At the time, they were saying that paradise was the next step after expropriation. But what we got instead was hell. May God protect Russia from repeating the same mistake. However, the government must ensure that the gap doesn't become too wide. Russia's future depends on it.

SPIEGEL: What should it do?

Kyrill: Our church called for a progressive income tax even before the political parties did. And we want to see a tax imposed on luxury goods. But this tax cannot be used to clip the wings of the newly created middle class. Our country needs an environment that encourages the rich to live simple lives. Many of them are already doing good things today. Wealthy private citizens already pay for almost all of the church's social programs. It would be wrong to claim that all wealthy people are bad and all poor people are good.

SPIEGEL: It's clear to see that many Russians have adopted a liberal Western lifestyle. Sex before marriage is normal for many people, and only a small minority attends church services regularly. How firmly established are Christian values in Russia?

Kyrill: Spirituality can't be measured with statistics. Nevertheless, we aren't afraid of comparisons. Less than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the number of churches has quadrupled, we now have twice as many dioceses, and the number of monasteries has grown by a factor of 32 -- to 700 -- today. Fifteen thousand young people are studying theology. On the other hand, even though 80 percent of newborns are baptized in Russia, only 60 percent of Russians call themselves Orthodox Christians, and less than 10 percent attend church regularly -- even fewer in some provinces. In other words, we don't have to build any new churches, but what we must do is help our people understand how important it is to adhere to Christian values. Whether we succeed also depends on whether we can rid ourselves of outside influences.

SPIEGEL: You are referring to the liberal West. What troubles you, for example, about homosexuals marching through the streets of Moscow in a parade, just as they do in Berlin or Amsterdam?

Kyrill: It distorts the boundary between good and evil, between sin and sanctity. Even adultery is apparently no longer considered a sin, despite the fact that every adulterer senses that he has done something wrong. But human beings have a conscience. That's something even the Marxists were unable to eliminate. They had an explanation for everything, a self-contained philosophy in which being determined consciousness -- just as your philosophers in Germany say, the conscience is the result of cultural development. But whether you are in Papua New Guinea, Munich or Novosibirsk in Siberia, the principles are the same everywhere: Thou shall not steal, though shall not kill…

SPIEGEL: … but not everyone says: Thou shall not be gay. Why should people have to conceal their homosexuality?

Kyrill: The Bible calls it a sin. But we do not condemn these people. The church is opposed to these people being persecuted or offended. But why should sin be propagated? The gay parade is a blatant display of sodomy. In that case, we might as well promote other sins, as has long been the case on television. This degenerates public morality. It is the church's job to call a sin a sin. Otherwise it no longer serves a purpose. Unfortunately, the tendency in today's world is to champion the freedom of choice, while freedom from evil is virtually forgotten.

SPIEGEL: It's human for a person to be homosexual. How can something that is human be a sin?

Kyrill: And what, in your opinion, is adultery -- something good or something bad?

SPIEGEL: This decision lies within the conscience of every individual.

Kyrill: We aren't talking about just any decision. We are talking about morals. They want us to believe that morality is relative. But that's completely untrue. The communists said that good is what is good for the working class. That was relative morality -- and 60 million people were exterminated. Hitler claimed that what is good is what is good for greater Germany. That too cost millions of lives. Morality is either absolute or it doesn't exist at all. If you can justify homosexuality, why not pedophilia?

SPIEGEL: But that's an enormous difference! Sexuality relates to adults who can decide for themselves. Pedophilia involves children being abused and has nothing to do with human freedom.

Kyrill: In a few years, they'll tell you that 12-year-old girls used to be children, but that they are now much further developed. Twenty years ago, no one would have dreamed that Germany would pass a law one day that recognizes homosexual marriages. But now that too has been accepted. We are talking about preserving the principle. There is something we call a general moral nature.

SPIEGEL: And it depends on time and region. There are ethnic groups that allow polygamy, for instance.

Kyrill: Dostoyevsky wrote that God and the devil are fighting for control in the heart of man. Nowadays many pursue the logic that everything they want ought to be good and justified. We are too quick to treat emotions that ultimately harm us as natural needs. When moral foundations are shaken, we unleash our instincts. But released instincts belong in the animal world. What I am saying is something that the liberal SPIEGEL will never print: You undoubtedly think that this Metropolitan Kyrill is out of his mind and that what he is saying is complete nonsense.

'Men Can Control Their Drives'

SPIEGEL: We like to argue. But you can't possibly characterize homosexuality as an animal instinct?

Kyrill: Instinct is not a term with negative connotations. Take hunger, thirst, the sex drive, for example. If God had not given us these instincts, man would not exist. The difference between men and animals is that men can control their drives.

SPIEGEL: Most Russian politicians apparently share your views on homosexuality. Which form of government does the Orthodox Church consider appropriate in Russia? Some of your officials are attracted to czardom, that is, a monarchy.

Kyrill: Supporting one form of government over another is not our main concern. Saving the soul is fundamentally possible in any form of government. Various peoples and religions have coexisted peacefully in Russia for hundreds of years. We can only have a future as a unified nation if we resist regionalism and separatism. Russia is unimaginable without Orthodoxy.

SPIEGEL: Vladimir Putin says that he often reads the Bible on the presidential plane during long trips. He and his ministers and his officials like to be seen attending church services, despite the fact that many of them were staunch supporters of atheism during the Soviet era. Does this make you happy or angry?

Kyrill: Most of the believers we encounter in church today were atheists yesterday. If an engineer can undergo this transformation, why shouldn't it work for a politician? Unfortunately, they rarely attend church. I would like to see the president and the ministers go to church every Sunday and not just one or two times a year.

SPIEGEL: Conversely, it is our impression that the Orthodox Church is quite well-disposed toward President Putin -- and that it hopes to enlist his help in solving some of its problems.

Kyrill: I understand the gist of your question quite clearly, but we have forbidden our priests from joining political parties. Some ran for parliament in the 1990s. This cannot be. The church is there for everyone. When our parliament came under attack in 1993 and we faced the threat of civil war, this monastery where we are sitting today was the only place where the opposing sides could meet. It was because everyone understood that the church supports neither the one side nor the other. In a multiparty state, it cannot have any political adversaries or allies. No one should be able to stand in front of a church and say: I refuse to go inside, because that's where my political opponents feel at home. And politicians, for their part, cannot enlist the church in a trite attempt to gain popularity.

SPIEGEL: But your church has just clearly taken sides. It effusively welcomed Putin's Byzantine decision to name Dmitry Medvedev  as his successor. And it also called upon Putin to continue as prime minister.

Kyrill: We didn't react positively because Vladimir Putin supports him, but because Medvedev is an experienced politician. And the idea of Putin becoming the head of the government does not contradict our constitution. Putin heads the party that captured 64 percent of votes in the Duma election -- it has the moral right to put forward the head of the government.

SPIEGEL: That's certainly true, but you have nevertheless chosen a side. May we remind you of Metropolitan Sergey, who decided to support the Bolsheviks 10 years after they came into power? Back then your church chose to cooperate with the communist leadership -- including the KGB -- even though it was severely oppressed. Its actions haven't been forgotten to this day.

Kyrill: After the Bolshevik Revolution, when a persecution of the church that was unparalleled in Russian history began, some members of the clergy believed it was necessary to choose the path of compromise with powers that were hostile to the church. They did this simply to preserve the possibility of holding services and preaching to the people without having to hide. Others rejected this approach, and their so-called catacomb church was almost completely destroyed. We do not have the right to condemn either group. All of them experienced brutal repression.

SPIEGEL: Meanwhile, the church's influence is so strong again that Russian Nobel prize winners recently wrote a letter to President Putin warning against the growing clericalization of society.

Kyrill: These gentlemen want to see a return to the Soviet Union. Did they raise their voices to protect the church back then? No. It didn't bother them that many churches were destroyed. Besides, the rumors of a fusion of church and state in Russia are heavily exaggerated, to put it mildly. I would like to see us come as far as Germany in this respect. To this day, we have no ministers in the army or in hospitals.

SPIEGEL: But you have no qualms about blessing all kinds of weapons: tanks, ships and guns.

Kyrill: Priests do that when they are asked.

SPIEGEL: Many Russians are upset about the fact that you recently tried to introduce your religion as a mandatory subject in schools.

Kyrill: We want to teach the fundamental aspects of the culture of traditional religions, and we now propose that students be given the choice of choosing Orthodox, Islamic, Jewish or Buddhist religion as a subject in school. It will begin in 2009 as a subject called "Spiritual-Moral Culture." A subject will also have to be offered for children from non-religious families; it could be called "Secular Ethics." Germany is a role model for us in this respect.

SPIEGEL: How do you feel about Orthodox priests who want to remove Darwin's theory of evolution from the curriculum, because it contradicts the story of creation in the Bible?

Kyrill: The study of the physical world should not be the subject of religion, and for this reason the church should not misappropriate any scientific theories. The Catholic Church made this mistake when it preached geocentrism. When scientists later discovered that it was not the earth but the sun that was at the center of our system, they were considered heretics. Copernicus was also a priest, and the Catholic Church of the day also saw itself as a community of science. The Orthodox Church never did this.

SPIEGEL: How would you approach Darwin's theories if you were a teacher?

Kyrill: I would say that the theory has many adherents, but also a few unanswered questions. For instance, no one has provided precise proof of the transition from one species to another. It would be wrong to treat Darwin's theory as the only correct one. It is the leading theory today, but it could be replaced by another theory tomorrow. There was also a time when Marxism considered itself the only correct and scientifically justified theory…

SPIEGEL: But you cannot equate these two theories. Besides, Darwin's theory is now largely undisputed.

Kyrill: For the sake of objectivity, allow me to add that Darwin was a devout man…

SPIEGEL: The fact of the matter is that Darwin, as a scientist, questioned his faith.

Kyrill: Under no circumstances should Darwin's theory be misused to fight religion. On the other hand, the Bible is not a textbook on cosmology.

SPIEGEL: But apparently it is a manual for how to proceed in foreign policy. In an essay, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has invoked the New Testament to criticize a unipolar world dominated by the United States.

Kyrill: Christ's commandment from the Gospel of St. Luke -- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" -- also applies in international relations. Arrogance is as dangerous in politics as it is in interpersonal relations. We, as the Orthodox Church, are opposed to all attempts to establish a unipolar world. It would constitute the introduction of a forced entity that would level the differences among religions, cultures and civilizations.

SPIEGEL: Could you envision a reunification of the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church, which have now been separated for close to 1,000 years?

Kyrill: The division is a consequence of human sin. In this respect it resembles a divorce. The Christian West and the Christian East parted ways because they believed that they didn't need each other anymore. Reunification can only be achieved through spiritual rapprochement. It doesn't matter how many documents we sign. Unless we have the feeling that we love each other, that we are one family, and that each member needs the other, it will not materialize.

SPIEGEL: When will the long-awaited meeting between Pope Benedict and the head of your church, Patriarch Alexy II, take place?

Kyrill: Our relations have improved since Benedict became pope. He has removed the issue of a visit to Moscow from the agenda. This sort of visit would not have solved any problems, but it would have provoked new ones. Many of the faithful in Russia mistrust Catholics. This is a legacy of the wars and of proselytization efforts in the 17th and 18th centuries.

SPIEGEL: Could you imagine the pope and the patriarch meeting in a third country, essentially on neutral ground?

Kyrill: It's certainly possible. The entire development in bilateral relations is moving in the direction of such a meeting coming about.

SPIEGEL: The fact that the pope is no longer Polish ought to make him more palatable to the Russians.

Kyrill: In this case, I would like to give you an official response: Nationality is unimportant.

SPIEGEL: Your Eminence, thank you for this interview.

The interview was conducted by Martin Doerry, Christian Neef and Matthias Schepp in Moscow.

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