When the dad in question is the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA), and the children are the millions of Orthodox Christians in the United States, the neglect becomes a catastrophe. Yet this is precisely what SCOBA has done to its spiritual children across America.
Consider the words of John Catsimatidis, then vice chairman of the Archdiocesan Council of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America. In defense of President Clinton's behavior during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Mr. Catsimatidis remarked in the September 14, 1998 issue of the New York Daily News that "Sex is sex: It happens--and it's been happening for a million years.... I don't know anyone who's committed adultery who hasn't lied about it."
Now, I am a young, single Orthodox Christian, and if there is anyone who should rejoice in such a "party" mentality it should be me. However, there is little cause for celebration in the idea that "sex is sex" when one considers the emotional and physical damage that casual sex inflicts on young people and families. That a church leader would voice this poisonous idea is scary.
Where are Orthodox bishops to help correct such risky thinking?
Sadly, in the last tumultuous decade Orthodox bishops in America have placed virtually no emphasis on issues of sexual morality. The result is that American Orthodoxy has no voice in shaping the culture it finds itself in.
Compare our ecclesiastical silence with the public ministry of Cardinal Joseph Bernadin on life issues, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on human rights. No American Orthodox bishop has assumed a similar role of public moral leadership in recent times.
A few decades ago, Orthodox Christians across America rejoiced when now-retired Archbishop Iakovos marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in support of civil rights. But this model of leadership has become the exception, not the norm. While the Orthodox Church in America issued a promising synodal document on human life issues and sexuality in 1992, it failed to generate a continuing conversation on moral concerns. The document offered no local parish strategies for helping men and women incorporate the church's wisdom into their lives.
As the member bishops of SCOBA prepare to meet in 2001, it is urgent that moral issues be given priority over administrative issues. SCOBA can do this by publicly focusing its energies on the young men, women, and families who will make up the future of Orthodoxy in America. They could, for example, issue a series of accessible pastoral teachings on concerns such as chastity, dating, marriage, and the single life.
But we also have to remember that throughout history, God has moved people to speak out in public on issues of life and death and general morality. From Moses' bold challenge to Pharaoh, through Paul's epistles instructing the Body of Christ in specific moral laws, to the martyrs who died valiantly speaking truth to the Soviet Empire, people of faith have always maintained a public dimension to their witness.
In fact, the recent council of the world's largest Orthodox Church--the Year 2000 Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church--confirms this. These bishops not only released a thorough statement on social and moral issues, but also announced the glorification of thousands of martyrs as saints. The hierarchy of the Church of Greece has also become active in the public square over the issue of religious identity. As these efforts show, the Orthodox Church does indeed have an aspect that includes appropriate action in civil life. So why can't U.S. bishops talk about sexuality outside the confessional?
The challenge before SCOBA for the next decade is great. It should follow the example of its sister church in Russia and bear witness to moral truths. Without that unity, mere administrative unity would be meaningless. Though the church currently lives in a morally unhealthy culture, the situation in the end is not hopeless. Orthodoxy has historically survived, and even borne glorious fruit, under the most horrible of cultural circumstances. All the united false humanism of the Soviet empire could not destroy Orthodox Christianity. In our own time, a morally united Orthodox Church can overcome the false humanism of the sexual revolution with similar success. And despite their corporate silence, SCOBA is blessed with bishops who are quite capable of providing leadership on issues of morality.
The young St. Augustine of Hippo once prayed, "Lord give mechastity--but not yet." He demonstrated the profound difference between knowing the good and doing the good, and he knew well the spiritual struggle it entails. American Orthodox hierarchs understand this dilemma as well. They have the church's good teachings on human sexuality, but face a powerfully resistant culture. Like the church of the first seven ecumenical councils, today's leaders should pray toward developing a creative response that can be persuasive and bring healing. The fathers of these councils embraced the gift of human reason in order to understand and express truth revealed in Jesus Christ. Such bold and articulate thinking has always been a part of Orthodox Christian tradition, and we need it more than ever today.
Will it take a modern Ecumenical Council to renew such thinking? In the meantime, Orthodox Christians should remind their spiritual fathers in the episcopacy that the time for "the talk" is long overdue.