LEO TOLSTOY AND THE CATHOLIC CHURCH

By JAMES LIKOUDIS


In the present Catholic/Orthodox theological dialogues taking place as part of the contemporary ecumenical scene, the Primacy of supreme authority and universal jurisdiction possessed by the Bishop of Rome as Successor of Peter is regarded on both sides as indisputably the greatest dogmatic obstacle to the long-hoped for Reunion of the Churches. Among the Russians and other Slav Orthodox the "Sobornost" ecclesiology of the philosopher and theologian Alexei Stepanovich Khomiakov (1804-1860) has been looked upon as a powerful weapon for the refutation of Catholic doctrine concerning the infallibility of the Pope and the role of the Papacy as the Church’s center of visible unity. In Khomiakov’s classic Essay "The Church is One" (probably written before 1850 but first published in 1864, four years after his death) he treated the question of the Church’s infallibility in an original manner, and his own provocative view would soon become influential in the leading Russian theological academies. The great Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev would expose serious defects in Khomiakov’s ecclesiology in his "Russia and the Universal Church", but he was not the only literary giant to do so. Another critic was the unbeliever Leo Tolstoy.

Few will question that the world’s greatest novelist is Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) noted for such classic masterpieces as "War and Peace", "Anna Karenina", and "Resurrection". The great Russian composer Tchaikovsky had no hesitation to state, "Tolstoy, in my opinion is the greatest of all the writers the world has ever known." As a moral philosopher Tolstoy is famous for his ideas on pacifism, anarchism, and non-violent resistance which were especially expressed in his work "The Kingdom of God is Within You" (1893) – ideas which would influence such 20th century leaders as the famous Indian lawyer Mahatma Gandhi, the American minister Martin Luther King, and the Catholic Dorothy Day who read Tolstoy in her youth and was attracted by "the idealism of non-violent anarchism" (See "The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins" by Mark and Louise Zwick – Paulist Press, 2005). Interestingly, a sad feature of Tolstoy’s life (he had written so much on marriage and family life including a work on "Family Happiness") was his own marriage. The English writer A.N. Wilson would declare Tolstoy’s married life (he had married Sonya Behrs who bore him 13 children, six of whom died young) as one of the unhappiest in the history of great literary figures. It was inevitable that his radical religious and social views as well as mundane conflicts over his will, property and book rights would cause dissension with his wife and children.

His apostasy from historical traditional Christianity may be traced in a series of works: "My Confession" (1879); "Critique of Dogmatic Theology" (1880); his own 1881 translation of the Gospels wherein he (like the American Thomas Jefferson) eliminated all Christ’s miracles; "What I Believe" (1883-1884); and "The Kingdom of God is Within You" (1894). When he was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901, he replied with his 1902 "Appeal to the Clergy', excoriating them. Already in 1855 he had written in his diary:

"A conversation about divinity has suggested to me a great idea... the founding of a new religion... the religion of Christianity but purged of dogmatics and mysticism; a practical religion not promising future bliss, but giving bliss on earth."

Tolstoy’s adogmatism (rejection of all Christian dogmas to be replaced by naturalistic humanism) led to a religious nihilism which was to influence a large number of Russian poets, critics, novelists and philosophers constituting a new "intelligentsia" who in their condemnation of the entire Russian political and socioeconomic system prepared the way for the radical Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Writing at the beginning of the Revolution the Italian Catholic theologian Aurelio Palmieri who was well versed in Russian theological literature and Tolstoyism wrote:

"Count Leo Tolstoy became the legislator, the torchbearer, or rather of the irreligion of adogmatism. He devoted the last years of his life to a ruthless war against Christianity. By terms he strove to deform the content and the teaching of the Gospels, to sneer at and repudiate the fundamental theses of Christian dogmatics; to launch the most violent invective against the clergy; to nullify or deny the supernatural and moral influence of the Sacraments of Christian life. The religion of Tolstoy effaces all the characteristic features of Christian revelation. Under the pen of Tolstoy and his disciples Christianity was stripped of its supernatural brilliancy. [ Giving expression to] the anarchical and mystical tendencies of the Russian soul, ...the sacrilegious work of Tolstoy was continued by a small legion of brilliant men who believed that their facile pens gave them the right of passing judgment, as censors and critics, on the divine wisdom of the Crucified Lord... Tolstoy and his school promoted a radical socialism with mystical anarchistic tendencies and imbued with a hatred against historical Christianity."
("The Church and the Russian Revolution",
The Catholic World, August 1917; p. 580
).

It was his literary rival Dostoyevsky who rightly saw that Tolstoy was promoting, in effect, a Christianity without Christ. Tolstoy’s religious thought, moreover, is not without signifcance in our post-modern world which is deeply infected with the view of non-resistance to evil. Needless to say, the Catholic Church was condemned equally with the churches of Byzantine Greek and Russian Orthodoxy for their superstitions and "idolatry". Excepting papal authority and infallibility, he observed:

"Does Catholicism preach anything different from the Russian Church?".

He regarded both as "institutions not only alien to, but directly hostile towards Christ’s teaching". For Tolstoy, as for many Protestants and neo-Modernists today, Christ...

"could certainly not have established the Church, that is, the institution we now call by that name, for nothing resembling our present conception of the Church – with its sacraments, its hierarchy, and especially the claim to infallibility – is to be found either in Christ’s words or in the conceptions of the men of his time... The Trinity, the Mother of God, the Sacraments, Grace, and so forth... have no meaning for men of our day... The Sermon on the Mount, or the Creeds. It is impossible to believe them both."
(in his "The Kingdom of God Is Within You")

However, in his rationalistic polemics against the divinity of Christ and in his denial that Christ had founded an "institutional Church" there can also be found a remarkable testimony by Tolstoy which would actually favor the Catholic view of Church Authority against the "new theologians" who were followers of the famed Russian lay-theologian Alexei Khomiakov. These Slavophiles (the party of fervent Russian nationalists who were anti-Western and anti-Latin) were adamant in maintaining what Vladimir Soloviev would call their "anti-Catholic Orthodoxy". With their fierce rejection of the supreme and universal authority of the Pope, they followed Khomiakov in vainly attempting to safeguard the infallibility of the Church by diffusing it in the "totality of the Church." Khomiakov’s "definition of the Church" was grounded in his "Sobornost" ecclesiology emphasizing the Church as a communion of love based on the conciliarity (or collegiality) of all its members. Tolstoy perceived this ecclesiology to be novel, vague, obscure, and frankly incoherent, and scored Khomiakov and his school for their sharp deviation from the traditional understanding of the Church’s infallibility that had been held by both Catholics and the Greek and Russian Orthodox.

"Astonishing are the attempts of the new theologians... In order to find some new supports for the doctrine of the Church, Khomiakov and his disciples ground the definition of the Church not on the hierarchy but on the union of all believers, on the flock... The Catholic Church acknowledges as the chief of the hierarchy the Pope and its development involved necessarily the infallibility of the Pope. The Greek Church was able not to recognize the infallibility of the Pope, but she had to recognize the infallibility of the hierarchy itself. All these Churches maintain themselves only by the avowal of the infallibility of their hierarchy... It is the only impregnable foundation. And behold these new theologians who wish to destroy this unique foundation, thinking to replace it by a better.

The new theologians say that the divine truth is not in the infallibility of the hierarchy, but in the union of all believers, united by love; that divine truth is accessible only to men united by love, and that such a Church is defined only by faith and union in love, and the accord of its members. This reasoning is excellent in itself. Unfortunately, one can not deduce any of the dogmas which theology professes. These theologians forget that in order to accept any dogma whatever, it is necessary to recognize holy tradition which is clearly explained in the decrees of an infallible hierarchy. If one renounces the infallibility of the hierarchy, one can no longer affirm any dogma and there is not left a single proposition which can unite all believers. The affirmation of these theologians who pretend to recognize decrees which express the faith of all non-divided Christians but deny the decrees of dissident Christians — is quite inexact, for there has never been the complete union of all Christians... The union of believers in love is a general conception on which no belief or dogma common to all Christians can be based. The result is that the work of the "new theologians", if they are truly logical, results in destroying the unique and fundamental foundation of the Church, the infallibility of the hierarchy. And in its place is left only a mystical conception from which can spring no belief, much less a religion."
("Critique of Dogmatic Theology" French edition, 1909).

Tolstoy perceived that the revision of the doctrine of Church infallibility by Russian Slavophiles who in their polemics against Catholics sought to diffuse the teaching authority (and therefore the infallibility) of the Church among all believers only made a mockery of Church authority itself. He had the insight to observe that every Christian dogma ultimately depended on the infallibility of the Church, and that the undivided unity of the Episcopate acclaimed by the Fathers of the Church was unintelligible without the Papacy. In addition, if Christ had indeed founded an infallible Church, that Church must bear external signs identifying the one historical Church which possessed the infallibility of its Divine Founder. In Tolstoy’s words:

"Khomiakov’s definition of the Church, which has had some vogue among Russians, does not improve matters, if we recognize with Khomiakov that the Orthodox is the one true Church... If we admit the idea of a Church in Khomiakov’s sense – that is, as an assembly of people united in love and truth – then all that any man can say of this assembly is that it is very desirable to be a member of it if it exists, that is, to dwell in love and in truth; but that there are no external signs by which one could account oneself or anyone else, a member of, or excluded from this holy assembly, since no external institution can correspond to that conception."
(in his "The Kingdom of God Is Within You")

Tolstoy rejected the very concept of an infallible visible Church but those Orthodox seeking to preserve the infallibility of the Church’s episcopate were astute enough to appreciate the organic coherence and logical consistency of the Catholic position that it was the Church’s possession of the Petrine ministry of the Pope which provided an external sign or visible mark serving to identify clearly the unique hierarchy of bishops which transmitted unerringly across the centuries the orthodox Faith by the power of the Holy Spirit [the Spirit’s gift of infallibility].

It is ironic that Leo Tolstoy, a rationalist unbeliever, noted the Achilles’ heel of Khomiakhov’s protestantizing and democratist Sobornost theology which rendered null the infallibility of the teaching Church. In doing so, he echoed the thought of those Russians (like Vladimir Soloviev and Princess Elizabeth Volkonskaya) and other Orthodox seeking union with Rome who quickly realized that the positive elements of "Sobornost" (conciliarity/ collegiality) were not only reconcilable with Papacy but indeed demanded the supreme authority of the Pope for its effectiveness in the life of the Church. As the Second Vatican Council would teach so clearly, there is no such thing as the collegiality of bishops without the latter’s hierarchical union with the Roman Pontiff, the visible head of the Church as established by Christ (See "Lumen Gentium", #21-23; and its Explanatory Note, #3).


The above article appeared in the "Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly", Vol. 30, no. 1, Spring 2007.


Well-known Catholic writer James Likoudis has written a trilogy of works dealing with Eastern Orthodoxy: "Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism"; also "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church"; and his latest "Eastern Orthodoxy and the See of Peter" which details his own spiritual journey to the Catholic Church ($24.95 includes S&H). Each is available from the author: P.O.Box 852, Montour Falls, NY 14865.

Also visit his Website for other articles of interest at:  James Likoudis' Homepage