As the Catholic Church reels from the surprise announcement Monday that Pope Benedict XVI will step down at the end of the month -- the first papal resignation in nearly 600 years -- the world will again watch from afar as the Cardinals prepare for the secret Conclave to pick his successor. Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church has coincidentally just published new guidelines for how it elects its supreme leader, the Russian Patriarch.
MOSCOW - For the first time in its history, the Russian Orthodox Church has adopted an official procedure outlining how the Church will select its leader – the patriarch. The procedure was adopted during the recent Bishops Council. According to experts, the procedure that was ultimately adopted was the most democratic option being discussed, showing that the Church may be becoming more democratic.
The Bishops looked at four different options for selecting a patriarch. They differed primarily in who would be allowed to vote during the selection process and who would have the right to nominate candidates for the position of patriarch. In the end, the majority of the bishops supported the fourth option, which is in fact the procedure that was in effect previously, and under which the current Patriarch Kirill was elected.
The last Bishops Council had brought up the fact that the Orthodox Church does not have a formal procedure for selecting a patriarch – this post is relatively new. Prior to 1917, the Russian Tsar was the official head of the Orthodox Church. The Russian Revolution ended that tradition, and the Church established the patriarch as the church’s leader that year. The first patriarch, Tikhon, was chosen by a drawing of lots. The following three patriarchs were elected through public elections that did not have secret ballots. The rules on ballot secrecy were first instituted in 1990, when Patriarch Aleksei II was elected through an election with secret ballots. Patriarch Kirill was elected under the same procedure.
Outside influences and pressure
From the very beginning, those drafting the patriarch selection procedure insisted on secret ballots. “Secret voting not only corresponds to the historical practice, but also clearly allows the will of God to appear through the participants of the assembly,” says an explanatory note regarding the official selection procedure document. “When voting is public, the election can be tainted by the possibility of outside influences on the decisions of the council, and of pressure on individual delegates, which is not acceptable.”
The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is officially patriarch of the Moscow region and all Russia. Under the procedures recently adopted, the local Moscow council has the final vote. The Bishops Council nominates candidates to the post, and any bishop is eligible to be considered. If the local council wishes, it can also nominate additional candidates. The members of the local council then vote on the candidates using a secret ballot.
The alternative procedures included provisions preventing the local council from nominating additional candidates, and in other versions, the selection was reverse, with the local council nominating candidates and the Bishops Council making the final selection.
“The fact that the bishops adopted the fourth version of the document shows that the Russian Orthodox Church has some inklings of democracy,” explained the editor-in-chief of the magazine Legal Religious Studies Inna Zegrebina. “I think that the council made a breakthrough, because most people expected them to choose the first option, which was a sort of compromise scenario.”