By Dennis Menos,
Despite their unwavering love for Orthodoxy, the vast majority of Orthodox faithful are only vaguely acquainted with the structure of their Church, its major components, and the issues that separate it from other Christian Churches and denominations. It is for this reason that the study on “Orthodox Christianity in the 21st Century,” released recently by the renowned American think tank, the Pew Research Center, makes for interesting reading.
The Pew Research study is replete with statistical and other information concerning the Orthodox Church, some auspicious and promising, but others less so.
The study estimates the current worldwide Orthodox population to be about 260 million, double the number it was a century ago. Of these, one hundred million are members of the Church of Russia, a notable achievement considering the anti-religious governments that ruled that nation during its Soviet era. These impressive numbers notwithstanding, Orthodoxy has been declining over the past century as a share of overall Christian population, with merely 12% of Christians around the world being Orthodox, compared to an estimated 20% a century ago.
Church membership is important, of course, but so is the degree of religious observance on the part of its members. Within Orthodoxy, reports Pew, the most religiously observant of all, are the thirty-six million members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. In contrast, religious observance in Russia is quite low, with only 6% of the Orthodox adults claiming to attend church services weekly. In the United States, Orthodox religious observance is generally higher than that in most European countries, but only 31% of the U.S. Orthodox report attending church services weekly.
Orthodox faithful, according to the findings of the Pew Research Center, hold socially conservative views on a number of issues. They believe, for instance, that homosexuality should be discouraged by society and are opposed to same sex marriage. They are also opposed to the ordination of women as priests. But unlike Roman Catholics, the Orthodox faithful favor their Church’s positions on divorce and allowing married men to become priests.
Occupying a pivotal position in the Pew Study is the all-important issue of the reconciliation between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Based on the findings of its study, the majority of Orthodox faithful agree that the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches “have a lot in common,” but surprisingly are lukewarm to any effort to bring about the reconciliation of the two churches.
Overall, fewer than 40% of the Orthodox Christians surveyed favor the reconciliation of their Church with the Roman Catholic Church. In Russia, the number is smaller with only 17% favoring communion between the two Churches. In Georgia, the applicable number is 19%, and in Greece 35%. Romania is a notable exception, with the majority of its respondents expressing support for reunification. Needless to say, the figures will come as a major disappointment to the leadership of the two Churches and the millions of Christians worldwide who favor the reconciliation of East with West.
One may wonder what the reasons are for the bleak view that prevails among many Orthodox faithful on this issue. Perhaps it relates to the fact that for over a thousand years, Orthodox and Roman Catholics, though sharing the same general faith- Christianity, have led separate religious lives and refrained from visiting each other’s houses of worship. Lack of familiarity with the events that caused the Great Schism, the East-West split a thousand years ago, the uncertainty of what communion between the two Churches would entail, and how the divisive issues of filioque and Papal authority will ultimately be resolved, are additional considerations.
The Pew Research study, highlights of which only have been included in this brief article, should provide the basis for thought, not only for the leadership of the Orthodox Church but for the individual Orthodox faithful as well. Orthodoxy’s role in the world must be enhanced, to enable it to confront more effectively the evils that confront it in today’s society such as atheism, materialism, and hostility from other faiths. It should also enable it to address more effectively many of today’s world issues, such as combatting poverty and protecting the environment. Maintaining the status quo should not be an option.
Dennis Menos is the author of several books and a writer on Orthodox and Hellenic issues.