Wednesday, June 1, 2016

On Cremation and Suicide: A Comment

In a recent issue of the Orthodox Observer, Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver commented on two controversial issues, that of cremation and suicide. I don't know exactly what prompted the thoughts of His Eminence, but from the reaction online by various laypersons and, at least, one clergyman, his comments have struck a chord.

His Eminence has found critics for his position on both issues, for various reasons.  I suspect that some of those in the "blogosphere" would find fault with whatever a clergyman stated.  The sole clergyman's comments were more appropriate, for His Eminence seems to disregard a position of the Holy Eparchial Synod taken some years ago in favor of the position of the Holy Church prior to and throughout much of His Eminence's life regarding suicide and funeral services.

When I was ordained it was the position of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (and much of the Orthodox world to my knowledge) to refrain from offering a funeral ceremony in church for persons who took their own lives.  Metropolitan Isaiah is absolutely correct in his reason for this position, despite it appearing to be a rather harsh response to a tragic and heartbreaking situation for the survivors of the person who committed suicide: the funeral service presupposes that the deceased, at least in principle and ideally aspired to live according to the teachings of the Church, no matter how short in practice they may have come in doing so (we ALL fail to some degree).  However, suicide is a form of homicide.  To offer a funeral ceremony for someone who consciously and deliberately ended their own life in this age renders the very text of the ceremony void, as His Eminence demonstrates.

The real issue is the exception that His Eminence mentions: those suffering from mental illness and cannot be held accountable for their actions have been permitted funeral ceremonies.  And in accordance with earlier practice, His Eminence notes that the ceremony would be offered if the person was professional diagnosed as mentally ill.  This means that the Church, according to that practice, presumed the person was acting "in their right mind" unless proven otherwise."

The problem is that the clergy of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America were informed some years ago that the presumption of motive for suicide would change.  Today--and this is the certain practice of the Metropolis of Chicago--the presumption is that a suicide is mentally ill unless the pastor is aware otherwise.  If Metropolitan Isaiah had written this, much of the criticism would be moot.

In fact most suicides can be attributed to some form of mental illness, either chronic (ongoing) or acute (some medications are known to result in suicidal thoughts in some patients).  Our understanding of mental disorders is far more advanced than in ancient times, or even compared to the 19th century.

However, it is also a fact that some suicides occur when people are acting "rationally" or at least are not acting out due to a mental illness or disorder.  There are suicides made for political reasons; there are suicides effected for religious reasons as the encounter with radical Islam demonstrate; and then there are suicides for reasons of hopelessness, fear and despair.  These present a more difficult challenge.

In the day of modern medicine, the phenomenon of suicide to avoid pain and suffering of a terminal illness is increasingly documented and even dramatized in the popular media.  This is a sad reality, and many medical ethicists suggest that it may be an ethical and "rational" decision.  More challenging, of course, is the mental state of someone already experiencing great pain and suffering--at what point they are acting "rationally" may be debatable.

In any case the rejection of suicide by the Church has been consistent for the same essential reason cremation is rejected: our body is not our own. It is the Lord's.  We do not have the "right" to do with it whatever we want.

Largely due to economic reasons, cremation has become more popular among Americans in recent decades for one important reason: it is cheaper.  I think there is a legitimate debate as to where the process of cremation carries the same meaning in contemporary culture than it may have in others, and whether there is a consciousness of desecration.  Be that as it may, the position of the Church on the matter is rather clear: when it is a physical option (and it usually is even if not desired), burial in the ground is the practice of the Church and always has been except in extreme and rare circumstances.  Financial reasons are probably not a good reason for the Church to change any practice, least of all that of such pastoral importance.

Indeed, the insistence of the Church on burial and rejection of cremation today probably makes the position about the dignity and care for the body in the Orthodox tradition even more clear, especially in a day when we de-sacralize the body in so many ways: treating it as a canvas for artwork (tattoos), for ornamentation and means of self-expression (piercings and various enhancements) which in the end are nothing more or less than expressions of self-concern and vanity.

In the end, it does seem somewhat paradoxical that in life we have come to pay so much attention to the body--fitness, self-expression, health--but in death, or in some cases the face of impending death, we tend to disregard the inherit dignity of this gift from our Creator. But then perhaps this is related to the relative narcissism of our age (social media postings and reality television being symptoms as well).  We are indulgent of the needs of our bodies, but can disregard those of others (cremation, euthanasia, voluntary abortion).

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Much Ado about Diaspora

As we approach the date of the planned Great and Holy Council of Orthodox Churches, it is significant that the first item on the agenda concerns the so-called "Orthodox Diaspora," a phrase that still upsets some people as somehow demeaning or disrespectful to Orthodox Christians living outside of traditionally Orthodox lands--or, more precisely, outside the physical boundaries of the autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox Churches.

There is no doubt that the word "diaspora" is used in the New Testament, in the opening verse of the First Letter of Peter ("dispersion" in translation).  It is hard to argue that Saint Peter was using an insulting epithet to name those Christians to whom he was writing.  Rather, he was writing to Christians who had moved beyond Jerusalem, the center of the Church at the time.  Of course, this is not exactly the reason why the word is used by the leaders of the autocephalous churches today, but it is also related.

When I was at seminary, during a dogmatics course, a certain Melkite Christian (a Church in the Middle East using the Byzantine liturgical rite in union with Rome) objected to the professor upon the latter's use of the word "uniate" to describe the student's church.  The word "uniate," he explained, simply refers to churches using the Byzantine rite (common to all Eastern Orthodox Churches) who are in union with the Pope of Rome.  He replied: "The Pope calls you uniates.  The Orthodox call you uniates.  So therefore, I do not call you uniates to be offensive; I call you uniates because you are uniates."  The point is that the label itself is not offensive in and of itself.  The student was offended, apparently, because of her insistence that she belonged to an Orthodox church in communion with Rome.  Yet her idiosyncratic definition contrasted that of almost everyone else in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions which are not in communion.

For Orthodox Christians born, raised and residing outside traditionally Orthodox lands, or outside the boundaries of the autocephalous churches, we are not conscious of being part of any "dispersion."  Yet it is safe to say that the reality of the Orthodox Church outside traditionally Orthodox lands and outside the boundaries of the autocephalous churches definitely is due to a dispersion of Orthodox peoples migrating to various lands, including Western Europe, the Americas, Australia and elsewhere.  From the perspective of persons living within the geographic boundaries of the autocephalous churches, the word "diaspora" simply indicates no more, and no less, than the Orthodox beyond those boundaries.  There is nothing demeaning about that; it is simply a matter of perspective.

"Diaspora" is not used to imply any moral defect among Christians, nor is it implied that Orthodox living in the so-called "diaspora" are intent on "returning" anywhere.  Indeed, the fact that the autocephalous churches have included the ecclesiological and canonical issue of Orthodox living in the "diaspora" (with overlapping "jurisdictions" contrary to the spirit--and often letter--of the Holy Canons of the Church) is a clear indication that there is a desire to address the anomalous canonical issue that many Orthodox Christians living in the cultural West (and elsewhere) have sought to correct for at least a generation, if not more.

The use of the word "diaspora" is, in this light, an effective and useful term.  The Church--as in ancient times--requires organization and order.  Following the dispersion of Orthodox Christians from the Christian East, it is time for the Church in all lands to be ordered according to the ecclesiological principles of our tradition.  Yet this task is not easy or simple. Certainly it is not as simplistic as many self-styled "reformers" among Orthodox in the United States would suggest. 

Indeed, for many years, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, and by extension the Ecumenical Patriarchate, were criticized from within and without for being the most obstinate perpetuator of a "diaspora" mentality.  Yet now, as we approach the Holy and Great Council, we find that in actuality, the loudest critics have often wavered.  The Patriarchate of Antioch, whose Metropolitan in the United States was among the most vociferous proponents of an independent Orthodox Church in this nation, has balked on an proposal to work toward canonical regularity and the departure from "ethnic" jurisdictions.  The Bulgarians, Russian Synod Abroad, Romanians, have all also suggested the time was not appropriate to order the Church in the United States (and elsewhere) based on the canonical principle of "one city, one bishop."  Each has suggested a need to continue with the status quo and the perpetuation of their jurisdictions due to the needs of their adherents' ethno-cultural needs.  Even the Moscow Patriarchate, which granted the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) autocephaly in 1970, has violated the principle in maintaining two (!) subordinate jurisdictions in the Americas.

Of course, the "ethnic" problem which is at the root of our canonical irregularity is, in fact, directly related to the rather modern (19th century) understanding of "autocephaly" in the first place.  As the planning of the Great and Holy Council illustrates, it is this issue that is the fundamental problem facing all Orthodox, for it permits--due to its ambiguity and foundation in nationalistic principles, itself a more "modern" phenomenon.  (It is often overlooked that the ancient order of churches, what may be called "autocephalies," generally resided within one political entity, the [Eastern] Roman or "Byzantine" Empire.)

Ironically, many of those who protest the label "diaspora" are adamant that the Orthodox in this nation be organized as an autocephalous Church precisely because the USA is an independent nation.  At least from an ecclesiological and historical perspective, such arguments are weak.  There may be good reasons for the Church here to be ordered in an autonomous or autocephalous manner, but not simply because the Church resides in a political entity designed by men, or because it is larger, in geographic size and in population, than some of the autocephalous churches that exist today.

The whole point and mission of the Church is to disperse: to spread everywhere throughout the world, going to "all nations" (peoples).  Indeed, the Church, being in the world but not of it, is on a sacred pilgrimage, and this also implies some sense of dispersion.  We do plan to return to our first and only permanent "residence," which is the Kingdom of God.

"Diaspora" can be perceived in a negative manner, but only with effort.  Easier it is to accept the label as a badge of honor, for those Orthodox living in the dispersion have a greater opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission of our Savior.