The Russian Orthodox Church is an important part of religious life in Russia. For the past two decades, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the church a cornerstone of public life. As the church grew in power, it also grew closer to Russia’s military. That meant public rituals blessing weapons. Lots of them, including nuclear weapons. Now, officials in the Russian Orthodox Church are looking to stop the practice of blessing weapons of mass destruction.
“The blessing of military weapons is not reflected in the tradition of the Orthodox Church and does not correspond to the content of the Rite,” said a proposal on the Orthodx Church’s website, according to Reuters. The proposal, which will be discussed at a meeting on June 1, goes on to say that sanctifying weapons that can kill massive amounts of people isn’t a godly practice.
For the change to happen, Patriarch Kirill—the head of the Russian Orthodox Church—would have to approve the proposal. It’s hard to know if this will happen, but Kirill’s public comments on nuclear weapons have been positive. “We should remember all those who labored on the creation of Russia’s nuclear shield,” he said during a 2007 consecration of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. “Because it prevented a third world war and spared mankind nuclear catastrophe.”
This isn’t the first time the Orthodox Church has pushed back on blessing nuclear weapons. It attempted a similar reform in 2019. “Weapons of mass destruction and non-personal weapons in general should not be ‘sanctified,’” Bishop Savva of Zelenograd said on Telegram in 2019. “This is where the commission’s position is at odds with practices of recent years.”
Blessing is a major part of the Russian Orthodox Church’s public practice. It blesses buildings, people, and events as well as tanks, guns, submarines and nukes. The Church is not a monolith and the pull away from blessing nuclear weapons represents an internal schism at odds with its public face in recent years.
Since growing in influence after Putin came to power, the Church has pushed to become a bigger part of Moscow’s military. “The Russian Orthodox Church has greatly increased its physical presence among the military and the nuclear scientific communities,” the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—the folks in charge of the Doomsday Clock—said in a 2019 review of Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy, a book about Russia’s Orthodox Church getting close to the nuclear community.
“The priests even go beyond the old Soviet military kommissars, reassuring recruits that there is nothing immoral about following orders to launch nuclear missiles and protect the sacred motherland,” the Bulletin said.
There’s a tension in the church one this proposal highlights. Some among the clergy have been trying, unsuccessfully, for a few years to change the practice. But it remains, and influential priests are against it. “Only nuclear weapons protect Russia from enslavement by the West,” Vsevolod Chaplin, a former spokesperson for the patriarch told Russian newspaper Vzglyad in 2019. He called Russia’s nuclear weapons guardian angels that protected Orthodox Civilization.