Academics Against the Church

2022-07-25
revised 2022-07-25 11:41

It is so easy for a christianizing intellectual, often unable to satisfy in a suitable manner what is normally expected of a member of the "historic" church, to identify with Martin Luther or, rather to view himself as the bringer of a new religious awareness, called not only to renew the life of the Church but also to create new forms for it, one might even say, a new religion.

-Fr. Georges Florovsky

The Orthodox Church in America's recent synodal statement, reaffirming in no uncertain terms that same sex relations and other contemporary reimaginings of sexual identity have no place within Orthodox teaching, has caused considerable consternation among a small segment of so called Orthodox academics. These academics have much to say negatively about the message from the ruling hierarchs, but in particular, seem to be concentrating their disdain to the demands arising from the following paragraph.

We call upon all clergy, theologians, teachers, and lay persons within the Orthodox Church in America never to contradict these teachings [of the union between one man and one woman in marriage] by preaching or teaching against the Church’s clear moral position; by publishing books, magazines, and articles which do the same; or producing or publishing similar content online. We reject any attempt to create a theological framework which would normalize same-sex erotic relationships or distort humanity’s God-given sexual identity. The holy apostle Paul writes that such teachings will “increase to more ungodliness,” and that such a “message will spread like gangrene” (2 Tim. 2:16-17), misleading the faithful and inquirers seeking the truth.

-Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America, "Holy Synod issues statement on same-sex relationships and sexual identity" [L] [A]

The anger of academics is couched in terms of being concerned over their academic freedom. Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, an assistant professor at Northeastern University who also works closely with members of Fordham, is one of the academics expressing alarm and has made her view of the synod's statement quite clear in a series of public posts on the social media web service Twitter.

Authoritarianism, in any form, always seeks to silence marginalized voices, and to take away academic freedom. The synod, in taking such a violent stance against scholarship and human rights, has turned Orthodoxy into a political weapon.

-Sarah Riccardi-Swartz [L] [A]
Gregory Tucker, writing for Fordham's Public Orthodoxy provided a similar critique.

It is therefore disheartening to read the latest statement of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America on same-sex relationships and sexual identity, which appears to intend to stifle genuine, faithful intellectual inquiry and cultivate a climate of fear.

-Gregory Tucker [L] [A]
The Wheel, a self proclaimed "journal of Orthodox Christian thought and culture", brings up the same concerns of academic liberty.

... fear of change, derived from a misconception that the past holds all the keys to all questions—present and future—drives rejection of freedom. Fear of change replaces authority rooted in prayer, study, and open discourse with the whole Church with tyranny. And fear of losing power drives repression, which is the source of threatening clergy and laity with disciplinary action—for what? For exercising academic freedom and affirming freedom of theological and intellectual discourse, which is the lifeblood of the Orthodox tradition.

-The Wheel Editors, "Freedom from Fear: Editorial Response to the Statement of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America" [L] [A]

How exactly is free academic inquiry being stifled though? Examining the synodal statement, the freedom to discuss these subjects is only restricted when it comes contravening the Church's own moral teaching. To see such outrage against this demand is quite revealing. For a point of comparison, consider the major heresies that the Church has encountered and dogmatically settled through ecumenical councils. Discussion of the heresiarchs, their devious teachings, and those who promoted them in history is still occurring today, both in seminary class settings and parish catechesis. What is not occurring though is the promulgation of these heresies, for to do so would place one outside what is held to be the Orthodox faith; the faith being that which the Church professes and participates in both liturgically and in within daily life.

Gregory Tucker, reveals his leanings throughout his writing as further down in the article, he continues to expound upon his disapproval of the bishops.

... frameworks for the conceptualization of sexuality, sexual relations, sex, and gender are historically conditioned and thus subject to change—and this is true for everyone, past and contemporary Christian theologians included. In historical terms, it is simply indefensible to claim either that the Christian tradition (even in the pre-modern period) is completely unanimous or that the historical meaning of key terms, concepts, and discussions is immediately available to us without considered investigation.

-Gregory Tucker [L] [A]

Sarah Riccardi-Schwartz has already made her predispositions public. In an interview with Fr. Anthony Perkins on Ancient Faith in December of 2020, she described her anthropological work in the following manner.

I work with communities that are often very homophobic, and I will ask questions that get them to think about the issues—the people rather than the issues. So for example, I will say, “Have you ever met a gay person? Do you have any members of your family who are gay? What have your interactions have been like with a queer individual?” Those are things that think more about the person rather than the issues that they’re trying to focus on, which often start to spiral if we think about the issues rather than the people. Asking those open-ended questions of each other allows people to have a conversation that perhaps they didn’t intend, and that can be really fruitful and really help us bridge those gaps that we have in these siloed arenas.

-Sarah Riccardi-Schwartz, "Christianity, Anthropology, and Truth with Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, PhD" [L] [A]

While not explicitly promoting same-sex attraction in the above statements, both academics have made it quite apparent that they are sympathetic to non-heterosexual intimate relations and discuss them as if they are to some degree compatible with the Orthodox Church. The level of compatibility is never openly expressed, but is always put forth as a question that is to remain open, leaving a point of entry into the sanctity of the Orthodox Church.

These questions posed by academics tend to gravitate to the same line of reasoning every time they arise; concerns of pastoral care or the changing culture of the society that the Church finds itself in. Perhaps mention is made of how certain passages of scripture have been mistranslated from their original language into English. Very little mention is made of the lives of the saints or to the service texts of the Orthodox Church; both of which the Church presents as complete expressions of it's theology.

If the lives of the saints are ever mentioned, it is done using a one or two saints who are then presented in a specious manner as to allow one to question the possibility they may have been favorable or engaged in same-sex relations. When weighed against the greater collective of saints who clearly affirmed that marriage exists only between one man and one woman, it becomes exceedingly apparent that any suggestion that a saint lent approval or was sanctified by same-sex attraction is in flagrant error.

The liturgical service of marriage within the Orthodox Church, bringing forth how the Church understands marriage, is filled with with references to the pairing between "The Servant of God" (the husband) and "The Handmaid of God" (the bride); no such marriage service exists anywhere within the Church, both past and present, in writing or in reference, where two "Servants of God" or two "Handmaids of God" are united into one flesh. Surely if this question of same-sex relations was as open as this small group of academics claim, such a service should exist somewhere. Instead, we find uniformity in regarding heterosexual pairing as the only expression by which the blessing of marriage can be conferred.

Believing that the Church of Christ is guided by the Holy Spirit both in past and present, the clear continuity of the Church regarding marriage and same-sex attraction can only be taken as the correct understanding. If there was some mistake, our belief dictates that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church towards correcting it. Such correction regarding same-sex attraction has not been made anywhere within the long history of the Church; from the time of the apostles to our very present moment, there has been agreement. Given the approximately 2000 years of uniformity, it seems safe to say such that such a correction will never come.


Academics should be honest with their intent; to hide attempts at innovation within the Church behind vague appeals to historical ambiguity or the pursuit of honest academic inquiry smacks of deception. Thankfully those outside of the academic intelligentsia, focused on living their life within their Church and community rather than the ivory towers, have shown that they can see through such weak facades. This is critically important, as it is in such common and seemingly unimportant people who comprise the majority of the laity that the teachings of the Church are safeguarded.

... it is the very body of the Church, that is, the people, who are the guardians of piety. They always want to keep the faith unchanged, and in harmony with that of the Fathers.

-"The Encyclical of the Patriarchs of the East, 1848"

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