The face of Christianity has changed in recent years. This revolution has already secularized the face of Protestantism, and it is currently having a drastic effect on the Catholic Church, especially in Germany, where thousands of people leave the Church every year. (Some 221,390 people left the Catholic Church in Germany in 2020.)
The mass exodus of German Catholics began before the implantation of the German Bishops Synodal Path, the name given to a series of conferences (2019 to 2023) where hundreds of Catholics gather to discuss contemporary theological and organizational questions concerning the Catholic Church, including possible reactions to the sexual abuse crisis.
The Synodal Path in many ways is a reset or neo-Reformation, focusing on the following issues:
- The call that women be granted access to all Church responsibilities, including the priesthood.
- The end of compulsory celibacy.
- The resolve that traditional Catholic attitudes towards sexual morality be changed.
One talking point listed above — the end of compulsory celibacy — may not seem all that revolutionary, since celibacy was not required of priests in the early Church. That tradition (married priests) has been maintained in Eastern Orthodoxy, where men can marry before ordination but not afterwards. In the Orthodox Church, only monks are celibate. Bishops and patriarchs are chosen from among monks, not among married clergy.
In the years following the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics became Orthodox largely because of the stripping away of liturgical traditions in Catholicism. It’s ironic, but even in liberal-progressive Germany, Orthodoxy is viewed as the keeper of Patristic traditions. As Priest Alexey Veselow, head priest of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Great-Martyr Barbara in the North Rhone town Krefeld, has noted:
Germans view the Orthodox Church as the keeper of Patristic traditions. That’s not an exaggeration. They see that, contrary to local Catholics and Protestants, we strive to live piously and take the Bible seriously. We keep fasts, pray and don’t let ourselves be led by modern values. In the Western denominations today, everything is blurry—there is no substance.
For centuries, the common belief was that Christian Orthodoxy was so rooted in tradition that it was immune to the heresies of modernization. The West, by contrast, has proven itself to be the great innovator and change-maker. A small example of this is the making of the Sign of the Cross. The original Sign was the Orthodox way, right-to-left, but Rome changed it in the West to left-to-right for no other reason than the attraction of novelty.
Creeping modernist trends, however, have been buzzing outside the walls of Orthodoxy for some time now. The modernists are not outside invaders, however, but Trojan Horse insiders (so-called Orthodox), and they hail mainly from the world of academia.
NPR recently tapped into this reality when it published an article declaring that “Orthodox Christian Churches are drawing in far-right American converts.” The article came as a shock to me, an Orthodox convert from Roman Catholicism, because it was based on the research work of a young Orthodox academic, Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, a doctor of philosophy and anthropology and self-proclaimed “fan of theology.”
Riccardi-Swartz’s work, a study of a Russian Orthodox parish in Appalachia, became the basis of her book, Between Heaven and Russia: Religious Conversion and Political Apostasy in Appalachia, published in April 2022. Swartz, who describes herself as a documentary filmmaker, wife, and mom to a special needs toddler, writes that she converted to the Orthodox Church in 2011 during a research project she was engaged in with an Orthodox community in SW Missouri.
I continue to focus my research within U.S. Orthodox communities. My first book looks at conversion in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) communities in Appalachia. My next book project will explore the lives and experiences of women in contemporary Orthodox settings.
After winning the trust of the Appalachian congregation, Swartz conducted interviews with the convert members of the parish, probing them about their fears and concerns regarding the modern world. While doing her work, she writes that she discovered that many of the converts held right-wing views that she terms “almost alt. right.” In the NPR interview, Swartz claims that the series of interviews was “about culture and not theology.”
Swartz’s dividing of culture and theology into two separate parts borders on the simplistic if only because the relation between culture and religion is an old and still ongoing debate.
Swartz criticized the Orthodox converts in the parish as having “an ideological rigorism.” Then she lambasted them as a community for being much too interested in what she terms “authoritanism and monarchial systems.” She also reported an admiration among the congregation for Vladimir Putin, and was quick to tell NPR that “there was an Orthodox priest at the January 6 insurrection.”
“We cannot let far right radicalism infect the faith,” she says. “If we want a sustainable plan for the future of Orthodoxy, we have to do something about the far right.”
In other words, we have to make the far right more like the far left: Get that January 6 Orthodox priest to march with BLM or Antifa–yes, that would be fine–or get him to relax his views on abortion or even to infuse a little critical race theory into those parish Sunday school lessons. Oh yes, and let’s not forget to get him to praise the humanity and righteousness of a transgender woman athlete who wants to compete in the Olympics.
The interview, as you can imagine, was a marriage made in Heaven for NPR. As NPR noted,
The case study that Riccardi-Swartz provides adds detail and color to a trend that a handful of historians and journalists have documented for nearly a decade. In publications mostly targeted toward an Orthodox Christian audience, they have raised the alarm about a growing nativist element within the church. Despite Orthodoxy’s relatively small imprint in the U.S., they warn that, unchecked, these adherents could fundamentally alter the faith tradition in the United States. They also warn that these individuals are evangelizing hate in the name of Orthodoxy in ways that could attract more who share those views.
“Evangelizing hate” is a harsh and suspect criticism created within a left-wing political prism.
The Orthodox far-right in the United States are caught up in the global Culture Wars; whatever political ideology they align themselves with—fascism, populism, monarchism, and many of the other isms—they are typically homophobic, transphobic, anti-intellectual, and, more often than not, white supremacists—whether avowed or in spirit.
In one online interview conducted by the Orthodox Studies Center at Fordham University, Swartz recalls her conversations with the Appalachian parishioners — most of whom are educated, she admits — and says that she asked them whether or not they have ever met an actual queer person, or had a queer person in their families.
The choice of the word ‘queer’ here is significant, as it suggests a definite left-wing mindset, the result of the researcher’s academic influence where the word queer has been in vogue for quite some time. (Dear Ms. Swartz, do you know that even many gay people hate the word queer?) A theologically sound Orthodox researcher would not use left-wing catch words like queer, as that word lends credibility to esoteric left-wing gender philosophies and hardcore transgender doctrines like gender reassignment surgery for children. Queer venerates a left-wing political narrative.
The Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham, a Catholic university, is a left-progressive Jesuit stronghold. This can be clearly seen in the interview in which Riccardi-Swartz is never challenged or questioned about certain statements she makes which would seem to run counter to Orthodox theological beliefs. The Orthodox OCSC interviewer is careful never to challenge any of Swartz’s views or assumptions, which seems to indicate a possible fear of university disapproval (Swartz’s book is published by Fordham University Press).
A quick Fordham University Google check will reveal widespread complaints about the university’s treatment of conservative students and their viewpoints. Visitors to the website can even sign an online petition protesting the university’s censorship of conservative views.
In short, Fordham, like so many other Catholic universities, has become a left-wing think tank posing as a university.
Riccardi-Swartz never mentions the name of the particular ROCAR parish where she conducted her study, nor does she ever name the famous Russian Orthodox monastery near the parish (Holy Trinity Monastery in Wayne, West Virginia). She does, however, admit that the parish she examined so harshly under a microscope was not happy with her classification of them as alt right lunatics who would welcome a Putin invasion of the United States.
Father Fr John Whitford, a ROCOR priest, writes that Swartz is currently not affiliated with ROCOR:
She began her study not long after the election of Donald Trump, and it is clear that her analysis of ROCOR converts is entirely viewed through a political lens that is colored by her own left-wing politics. Her observations are entirely improbable — and I speak as someone who is a ROCOR convert, and after having been in ROCOR for most of my life at this point.
Swartz’s label for right wing Orthodoxy is “Reactive Orthodoxy.” Like many on the Left, she throws around labels like “white supremacy” with Johnny Appleseed-like abandon. She’s big on all the Left’s major buzz words (like transphobic), then admits she has a special affinity for Eugene Dennis Rose, or Father Seraphim Rose, the great ROCOR acetic monk who co-founded a monastery in northern California.
Rose, who grew up Methodist but became atheist when he studied Nietzsche at Berkley, was later involved with Buddhism when he studied under Alan Watts. He was part of the early San Francisco Beat scene in the 1950s. He led an active gay sex life until his conversion to Orthodoxy in 1962. After becoming a monk, he co-founded a ROCOR monastery in Platina, California.
Swartz makes the claim that were Fr. Seraphim alive today he would be shocked at the extreme right-wing views of many in the parish that she writes about. While voicing an affinity for Seraphim Rose — she also reports that many of the male convert parishioners at the parish came to Orthodoxy through Fr. Seraphim’s writings — she seems to be suffering a disconnect where the great monk is concerned.
Fr. Seraphim Rose would certainly not be saying any of the things that flow so easily from Swartz’s pen, such as: Have you ever met a queer or transgender person? Are you a white supremacist? And, by the way, what are your views on critical race theory?
The monk’s reaction to her work would be quite the opposite, as I can easily imagine him looking at Swartz in astonishment, and then advising her to shut up and read the writings of St. Paul, which have nothing to do with the norms of contemporary culture.
In his book, The Kingdom of Man and the Kingdom of God, Fr. Seraphim, wrote:
…The goal of the Revolution, originally the hallucination of a few fevered minds, has now become the goal of humanity itself. Men have become weary; the Kingdom of God is too distant, the Orthodox Christian way too narrow and arduous. The Revolution has captured the ‘spirit of the age,’ and to go against this powerful current is more than modern man can do, for it requires precisely the two things most thoroughly annihilated by Nihilism, Truth and faith.
Put another way — or as one online reviewer commented on Swartz’s NPR interview:
“Wow, this young girl wrote a dissertation on a topic and she actually believes she has figured the whole Orthodox thing out and how it is ‘nationalist’, ‘Putinist’, monarchism, ‘far-right’, and ‘Trumpism’.
“But she is way less smart than she thinks she is.”
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He is the author of fifteen books, including Philadelphia Architecture (2005); Literary Philadelphia and Philadelphia Mansions: Stories and Characters Behind the Walls.