Monday, May 26, 2014

The Church and the "Civil Society"

By His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos 
of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

It is known from various studies that the European Union in its final functional form, either as a federation or as an Intergovernmental Union of States or in any other form, will necessarily have to assign new roles to the State, the regions and the European Union. The combination of these three factors is what will determine future developments.

However, meanwhile, due to several temptations and problems and in order to prevent the creation of a superstate, there is continuous debate on the development of "civil society". It is argued that the citizen of the European Union must be active and that there must develop "civil societies" with a set of obligations and rights. Through the "civil society" they see the manifestation of modern volunteerism, which may not be expressed individually but collectively.

Professor Panagiotis Ioakeimidis in a relevant study analyzes the institution of the "civil society" and specifies its value for modern European developments.

First, in defining the term "civil society", he refers to Gellne’s view, according to which "civil society" is "a set of various nongovernmental institutions, strong enough to counterbalance the state, which do not obstruct the state in fulfilling its role as a guarantor of peace and arbitrator between great interests, but are able to prevent it from dominating and overwhelming the rest of society".

This definition shows the great value of the "civil society". Indeed, the State may play the role of guarantor of peace and arbitrator between great interests. However, due to the danger that the State, moving between these great interests, might dominate over the citizens, it is imperative that "civil societies" are developed. These are various nongovernmental organizations, associations, I would even say cultural organizations, which will constitute a brake in the State’s attempt for complete domination over the weak masses. The European Union might be accused by many on some aspects, but it does promote the growth of "civil society", for otherwise the very future of Europe is at stake.

In the book I mentioned above, the view of Professor Nikos Mouzelis is cited according to which in Greece there is no developed "civil society", and as a result an arbitrary despotic state has appeared. He writes:

"… a basic weakness of our democratic polity is that because of various reasons – mostly historical reasons – civil society is extremely skinny. This skinniness takes the form of an arbitrary despotic state and of a party-dominated political system, in which narrow bureaucratic interests take systematic precedence over the universal citizen interests."

Despite these, recently there is a great turn towards the development of a "civil society" in Greece. So, it seems that what Legg and Roberts argue about Greece being "condemned to remain a peripheral country" in the framework of the European Union due to "the perpetuating imbalance between the state and civil society" might not be correct after all. This is so because, as Professor Ioakeimidis, who knows well all problems related to the European Union, observes, everyday citizens’ movements which boost the "civil society" are multiplied. Contributing to this are "the consolidation of democracy", the "institutional, political conditions for the 'civil society'", and "the establishment of new rights for citizens".

For the sake of history, it has to be observed that in the place we live, even during the period of the Turkish rule, there existed a developed, at least in some regions, "civil society". This comprised the guilds and other administrative structures, but unfortunately this situation was brought to an end because the organizers of the Greek State, influenced by the enlightened and romantic principles of that time, copied the French overly centralized system of administrative organization for the formation of the new state" and as a consequence this led to "the destruction of the endogenous communities that had developed during the Ottoman empire".

It's a fact that lately in Greece there is a great rejuvenation of this subject. Within our democratic institutions, various associations are established, interested in the culture, the tradition, the customs and mores of the people, and these associations do a great job in preserving our cultural heritage. It should be remembered that the term "civil society" is mostly used to denote groups engaged in the production of politics and in restraining the power of the State on social and political issues, but I think that the development of these cultural associations constitutes the basic axis for the preservation of cultural tradition, which is the catalyst of our nation’s alienation. In this perspective they, too, produce politics, because civilization creates correct politics but also checks wrong politics. It is the seawall of every leveling catastrophe.

In this context, I claim that the Church, the way it is organized especially here in Orthodox Greece where the ancient Greek system of cities as a way of administration is maintained in the Bishoprics, the Parishes, and the Monasteries, is a well-organized "civil society". In order not to be misunderstood, I would like to emphasize that the Church is not a human association but the God-human body of Christ and a communion of deification. As such, it neither identifies with any human organization nor occupies itself with politics, and in this sense it is not a political "civil society". Nevertheless, in its way of administration and because its members are simultaneously members of a specific State, it is a transforming institution which renews society and the whole life and affects deeply all developments.

The Orthodox Church is not like other religious communities, because it does not cultivate a simple sentimentalism and a simple external sentimental relationship with God. Instead, by employing the therapeutic method, which is the psychotherapeutic method per se, it cures man, helps him overcome the problem of death, which is the greatest social problem and causes family and social problems, cultivates love, selfless love, develops genuine volunteerism, and also preserves the civilization known as Greek Orthodox, with the music, religious painting, church architecture, and it even renews the entire life of the Christians outside the church buildings, etc.

Indeed, the Church in our place is a special "civil society", interested not in politics but in the whole way of life and man’s rejuvenation, so that he then becomes a wise citizen. The Church has survived over time and hardships, and no one can ignore it. Of course, this special "civil society" should stay within its borders and not become a political organization nor get involved in political-party activities. It will affect, though, all developments indirectly through the cure and renewal of man. The Church as the Body of Christ and a communion of deification, as well as an organization and "civil society" with a clear rebirth and deifying character, is able to give meaning to man and through him renew society and the creation.

Source: Ecclesiastiki Paremvasi, March 2002.