By Christos Yannaras
After the Schism, certain Greek Fathers saw clearly where the “innovations” of Western Christianity were leading. Centuries later Dostoyevsky drew the same conclusions about the West:
“Roman Catholicism is no longer Christianity (1) … Catholicism is a non-Christian faith … The Catholicism of Rome is worse than atheism … Atheism teaches nothingness, but Catholicism goes further; it teaches a distorted Christ who is Christ’s opposite. It proclaims the anti-Christ” (2).
Dostoyevsky is widely admired in the West, but most readers ignore this passage, regarding it as a typical piece of Russian hyperbole. (3) They prefer to see this as an incidental criticism or “confessional” comparison. But it is the crux of Dostoyevsky’s analysis. He is making a positive point that sheds a relentless light on the Western distortions. His work as a whole attempts to set the Church’s Christ against the distorted version of Christ prevalent in the West.
“That is where atheism comes from, from Catholicism. Atheism began in the first place with the Roman Catholics themselves: could they ever have taken themselves seriously? It took root through the abhorrence people felt for them (4) … Rome has proclaimed a Christ who has fallen for Satan’s third temptation … It has proclaimed that Christ cannot reign without an earthly Kingdom. It is as if Catholicism had proclaimed the Antichrist, and that is what has destroyed the West (5). The pope has seized territory, sitting on an earthly throne and with a sword in his hand. Nothing has changed; there are only more lies, deceit, fanaticism … They have manipulated the people’s honest, most just, most pure, most ardent feelings. They have betrayed everything for worthless earthly power. Is this not a teaching of the Antichrist? Atheism was inevitable after this … and socialism is the offspring and essence of Catholicism. Atheism, its brother, came from disappointment, usurping the lost moral authority of religion to save humanity, not through Christ but by force. Socialism is also freedom through force and union through blood and the sword (6) … In the West there is no Church at all, only clergy and magnificent church architecture. Denominations try to aspire to the virtues of the state that swallows them up. This is what I think has happened to the Lutheran countries. But in Rome the state replaced the Church a thousand years ago….” (7)
Dostoyevsky’s novels reflect the historical experience of his age, the experience of Western expansion into the Orthodox East. The most celebrated expression of this is in Ivan Karamazov’s fable, the “Grand Inquisitor”, (8) which exposes the inner logic of the Western innovations.
Dostoyevsky remains the best guide to the experiential differences between Orthodoxy and the West.
1. Dostoyevsky, The Posessed II.1.8.
2. Dostoyevsky, The Idiot IV.8.
3. See e.g. Guardini (1964) 177ff.
4. Dostoyevsky, The Idiot IV.8.
5. Dostoyevsky, The Possessed II.1.8.
6. Dostoyevsky, The Idiot IV.8.
7. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov II.5.
8. Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov V.5.
From Orthodoxy and the West, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, pp. 43-44.
Mark Veldt says
I appreciate the stories of others’ journeys to Orthodoxy and the insights form the past (like today’s notes on Dostoevsky. I am an ordained Reformed minister, but have had a few close friends who are Orthodox, and have done graduate academic work in eastern Christianity. A few of my church history heroes include John Chrysostom, Basil, John of Damascus, and Maximus the Confessor. I am drawn to the continuity between our Christian past and contemporary Orthodoxy, and appreciate the Orthodox emphasis on the majesty of God. I look forward to each of the JTO posts as I receive them. Thanks.
Hmm, if Atheism began “with the Roman Catholics themselves”, then I wonder how Dostoyevsky would have explained the Atheism of Soviet communism in his own dear Orthodox country of Russia during the twentieth century? I am not a Roman Catholic, and actually believe that the Orthodox Church is the Church that Christ established. But while reading this piece, I could not help but think of this. His explanation for Atheism’s prevailing presence in the west is, I believe, way too simplistic. I would imagine that Atheism is more rampant and evident in countries where reformed, Protestant Christianity is the norm, rather than the Catholic countries. Does anyone have statistics on this?
Paul Lekander says
What has happened to “print friendly”? A few months ago, I reported that when printing an article with more than one page, three or four lines of writing would be missing on each page. Now there is no “print friendly” icon to click onto to print an article.
Adam James Gadomski says
Of course, there was that one time when there were lots of atheists in Russian and stuff, which has been for, like, the past 100+ years…
David, I think it ironic that the humanism of communism was brought to us by Dostevski’s Russia too. My father was Russian Orthodox and converted to Catholicism to marry my Irish mother. The big differences between Rome and Moscow appear to be political. Personally I go to Church (RC) and try to pray and participate with all my heart and believe that the Holy Ghost is running the show for both of our Churches (RC & Orthodox) despite the fact that my eyes and ears would sometimes lead me to think otherwise. I am a big fan of Dostoevski, but like everyone else important in my life, like church leaders, my wife, our own children, Feodor isn’t perfect, but I still love him (them).
lana kokayeff says
Atheism in the Soviet Union was GOVERNMENT mandated, not a grass roots belief. Please check into the recognized martyrs who were exiled, tortured, and mudered for Christ in those 70 years. The Soviet government put into mental hospitals those who persisted in their belief in God. Christianity–Orthodoxy– was never eradicated from the country, and quickly bounced back as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed: the faith was there all the time, ingrained in people who never abandoned it.
Fr. John says
True, but the majority jumped on the bandwagon with almost no prompting.
Deacon Youil says
Iana Kokayeff duly noted:)
D Garc says
The author of this post is being quite misleading. Dostoevsky never said these comments. The speakers are different characters from his novels. In the case of the Legend (Parable) of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov, it is Ivan the atheist who is relating the story. So are you saying that Dostoevesky is an atheist too? I won’t comment on the author’s motive, but the impression made on this occidental Christian is that the selective sampling above is uncharitable, self-serving, and (worse yet) intellectually sloppy.
The argument that Catholicism was the progenitor of atheism and socialism is strange and tortured, given that Russia (Soviet Union) end up promoting a worldwide revolution of communism and atheism, which was imposed on eastern Europe. How does the author reconcile this against the writings of Pope Pio Nono and Leo XIII? How does it even begin to make sene in light of the heroic underground Church in Poland? That Dostoevsky probably had some anti-catholic beliefs, I don’t doubt. But I think the message, at least from the Grand Inquisitor account, are more nuanced than suggested on this page. I could venture my own interpretation, but given that this is a very old post, it is likely that I am reflectively kicking a dead hose.
Matt M says
A late-comer response: I cannot comment on the veracity of Dostoevsky’s views, but I would like to comment on the issue of communism and religion. Atheism was implicit in the French Revolution in Western Europe as it was a reaction to the long relationship between Catholicism and the divine right of kings. The French Revolution overthrew both church and state only to have Napoleon reinstate the Church in some limited utilitarian sense as a means of bringing stability through moral instruction and influence in the French Republic. So atheism in the West manipulated the Church, just as communism did to Orthodoxy differing only in a matter of degree of dominance and resistance to it. I suspect that atheism in Russia in the form of Communism was also a reaction to the relationship between Orthodoxy and the Czars. When a political order is deemed by revolutionists as the obstacle to progress and liberty (regardless of how ill conceived both may be by revolutionists), it is found that the prevailing forms of institutional religion also support the order that is to be overthrown. The Popes mentioned above opposing atheism are best broadly understood as reactions to the anti-religious spirit of European countries becoming increasingly secular as an evolution of political realities due to the impact of the French Revolution(s). So those popes and the plight of Orthodoxy under communism are not really that dissimilar with the Vatican in the west being more astute about becoming independent of any state, but still maintaining the principle of its existence and success in becoming an independent state among all states that is nothing but the church as the state (somewhat of an evolution as well). Orthodoxy has never had such political aspirations, and that is why I suspect Dostoevsky has disguised his views in his novels.
As a Catholic, I testify that what Dostoevsky thought about Catholicism was completely inaccurate. Catholicism does not teach that Christ needs an “earthly kingdom” to reign. We simply teach that Christ elected a head among the apostles, and that head is Peter’s successor – not your five patriarchs. The pope has the responsibility of being the ultimate defender of the Faith and scriptural interpretation. We also teach that it is appropriate for the Pope to have a sovereign State, to avoid his being influenced by power the way your patriarchs do (like Putin).
Fr. John says
While Dostoyevksy’s opinions of Catholicism may be his own, we can definitively state that Peter’s successors include the entire Antiochian Church, which Peter founded BEFORE the Roman church, and who never claimed any special Petrine privilege. Also, Putin is, obviously, not a patriarch, and it is the very height of ignorance to pretend or claim that the Bishop of Rome, as sovereign over the Vatican State, has avoided influence by political forces. He is the poster child for it, despite what the current Russophobia group think may invent.
No, the Orthodox Church is far freer of political pressure than Rome is. And as the ‘ultimate defender of the faith and scriptural interpretation’ it is clear that the Bishop of Rome is a reed in the wind.