The Development of Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church Teaching on Government Elections as a Path to Social Change

05.08.2015, 14:47
Religious studies
Free elections in a democracy are a key moment for the determination and implementation of “government of the people.” The Church as a social institution in Ukraine has enjoyed the highest level of social confidence for a long time. Thus, the exploration and explication of the positions of different denominations concerning elections and citizens’ control over state power are timely and important.

In this text, we aspire to analyze the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (hereinafter UGCC) teaching about government elections and the role of democratic elections in social change.

The UGCC position on politics in independent Ukraine, and likewise its teaching on elections, has attracted the conscientious attention of Ukrainian scholars, especially Liudmyla Fylypovych, Olha Nedavnya, Victor Yelensky, and Andriy Yurash.

The UGCC appreciates democracy as a system of government that provides an opportunity to practice and proclaim Christian values. Hence, the Church has emphasized citizens’ participation in sociopolitical life. Considering the cyclical character of political activity, the UGCC's bishops concentrate their efforts on election periods when social exertion is reaching its peak. According to UGCC teaching, voting in elections is a right and a «gift of God»; however, part of humanity still cannot attain it. At the same time, the Church explains voting as a duty «that the Fourth Commandment obligates us to fulfill». Hence, the Church has amplified the Commandment to honor one’s parents in the direction of honoring the Motherland [2, pp. 236, 604].

The UGCC has reminded Ukrainians about their duty to take part in voting in each election. Still, in 1994 the leaders of the Church explained that citizens could distinctly show their identity by their balloting. The bishops interpreted the elections as an exam for revealing social identity [2, p. 91]. An explanation that citizens declare their opinion about the advisable course of state development by their votes was enunciated in the bishops’ address before the elections to the Ukrainian parliament (“Verkhovna Rada”) on 19 March 1998 [2, p. 138]. In official documents of 24 June 2004 and 10 March 2006, religious leaders characterized elections as a key moment when citizens realize their right to choose leaders, make their own arrangements for the future, and accentuate their dignity and freedom. The same thought was expressed in an address of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (further AUCCRO) of 30 September 2009 [2, p. 315, 374].

It is significant that, as O. Nedavnia has stated, the UGCC acted in advance of the presidential elections in 2004, and its admonitions had a significant influence on society. At the least, precautions from the Church deepened the adoption of democratic values by Ukrainians [1, p. 276, 277]. We see the same line in the Ukrainian Catholic University address of 24 February 2014 [6] and in the Synod of UGCC bishops’ message of 6 May 2014 [8]. The AUCCRO message of 15 May 2014 accentuated that amenable participation in voting is an act of state defense [4].

An emphasis on the correlation between the degree of voters’ consciousness and the actions of elected authorities is the basis of the UGCC's approach to elections. Already before the presidential elections of 2004, the UGCC bishops had declared that Ukrainians would choose a President as if they were him [2, p. 305]. For example, people will vote for a candidate who is fighting against corruption only when they want to defeat corruption. Ultimately, the bishops summarized on 28 January 2004, Ukrainians did not change their lives because they did not want to change themselves [2, p. 316-317].

In accordance with its own declarations, the Church forbids agitation by the clergy because citizens must decide independently to whom they will take their votes [2, p. 136, 171, 322, 374, 603]. The Church teaches that a nation is worthy of statehood when it ceases to be a plaything for politicians, when it acknowledges its own interests and attends to the realization of those interests [2, p. 387]. All these recommendations penetrate the wide normative system of the Church's social teaching. Theological appreciation of social reality is a basis of that system.

First, the UGCC admonishes citizens to choose candidates and political parties without emotion but on the basis of analysis of their programs and foregoing activity [2, p. 91, 98, 132, 234, 236, 316-317]. The Church proposes to determine whether the program of any party or candidate considers the common good of society or is addressed to satisfy the needs of some separate group. Each constituent, as the Church requires, has to ascertain whether a program avoids populism and is directed to the strengthening and prosperity of the state. The UGCC advises voters to back those politicians who respect human dignity and work toward agreement in society. At the same time the Church admonishes them about the universal value of the traditional family, morality, and tolerance [2, p. 132-133, 135, 139, 235, 374-375; 8]. The UGCC submits that politicians have to concentrate their efforts not only on strategies but also on care about the welfare of individual humans [2, p. 386].

The Church suggests that only those politicians and political parties deserve to lead Ukrainians who defend the state independence of Ukraine [2, p. 139, 171]. On the other hand, the UGCC warns that concentration on economic problems only is not the way to decide social problems because “those directors who lack morality could not lead the people to spiritual rebirth” [2, p. 133, 139, 8]. Hence, the Church holds that Christians may not vote for those who deny the rights which every human being has from the moment of conception [2, p. 135, 374-375]. The UGCC does not accept the various declarations of candidates about their religiosity as a universal argument to support them [2, p. 242, 375].

While appealing to voters to support the state, the UGCC explains that citizens’ irresponsible ignorance about voting breaks the Fourth Commandment. For the Church, that is an incomprehensible and unjustified sin, inasmuch as “careless neglect of citizens’ rights is also an affront against God which arouses condemnation and not benediction” [2, p. 132, 138, 170, 236, 375, 517; 10].

The Synod of Bishops of the UGCC condemned the vote of 2006. The Head of the UGCC condemned the phenomenon of corruption in the following year jointly with the heads of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate), the Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine, the All-Ukrainian Union of Evangelical Christians-Pentecostals, the Ukrainian Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Ukrainian Christian Evangelical Church, the Ukrainian Lutheran Church, and the German Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Ukraine. They warned that citizens who sold their votes acceded to becoming objects of manipulation and can blame only themselves [2, p. 468]. The Greek-Catholic bishops included the same caution in their official address to Ukrainians before the extraordinary elections for president of Ukraine in 2014 [8]. Therefore, participation in voting is understood in UGCC social teaching as human beings' realization of the right to choose their own future [2, p. 132, 236, 315, 375; 8]. When a candidate who corresponds to the indicated norms is absent, the Church recommends voting for those who most approximate them [2, p. 92].

The Synod of Bishops of the Kyiv-Halych Metropolitanate of the UGCC indicated in 2002 that citizens’ distrust in a fair count of the votes was due to the absence a tradition of statehood and autonomy. In addition, the Head of the UGCC with the Synod of Bishops appealed to Ukrainians before the parliamentary elections in 2006 and after the voting, saying that they must use their opportunities to decide their future. In return, the bishops analyzed the responsibility of politicians and their keeping of their promises [2, p. 351, 383].

By exhortations to citizens’ responsibility, the Church tries to mobilize Ukrainian society. Meanwhile, the UGCC has indicated that it is not the task of the Church to propose candidates, but to pray and to assist in the creation of social conditions for clean and calm elections [2, p. 233, 236, 242, 243, 318, 472, 7, 9]. While the UGCC's social teaching appeals to citizens to preserve a clear conscience and to work for the common good, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic bishops warned of dangers during the elections. These were unilateral information, the use of “administrative resources,” the purchase of votes, and the adulteration of the results [2, p. 316, 477]. The bishops stated that avoidance of violations is the citizen's duty:

“Each member of our Church who takes part in the process of gathering and calculation of votes for elective offices or in other elective commissions must be well prepared for this responsible social function. He/she has to do well to avert possible abuses” [2, p. 322].

Thereby, the Church's condemnation of voter's ignorance of elections can be explained by the fact that the UGCC affirms that human beings have a mission to create their own future with accountability for the needs of others and the whole nation. The Church warns that dishonest people can use the ballots of those who abstained from the elections for falsification [2, p. 92, 131-132, 138, 170].

The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic bishops have explained many times that various manipulations during election periods were aimed at unsophisticated citizens. The bishops also condemned bluff and bribery as methods of working with voters [2, p. 135, 170, 234]. Later, Archbishop Lubomyr Husar, on behalf of Synod of Bishops, explained that the disposal of citizens’ votes is an amoral way to power. Such actions are “proof that a candidate, party or electoral alliance has not duly cultivated well-grounded and tested arguments for the voter's judgment” [2, p. 324]. The bishops declared that people sell their votes when they do not understand democracy and a citizen’s responsibility, and lack a moral background [2, p. 234]. Hence, in May 2014 the UGCC bishops stressed that nobody can change society without a struggle against corruption [8].

Political attempts to exploit the Church for agitation were also condemned in documents of the UGCC and in common documents with other Churches. First, the bishops spoke about attempts to gain the public support of the clergy before the voting. In fact, some priests agitated before the elections, for example in 1994 and 2002. Nevertheless, the Church condemned such acts of the clergy and politicians. Analogous admonishments were made public before the presidential elections of 2004 and 2014 [2, p. 97, 171, 234, 244, 318, 468; 7].

An analysis of the UGCC's documents permits us to state that its social teaching evolves simultaneously with changes in social reality. For instance, in an official address before the presidential elections in 1999, the bishops assumed that the absence of clear political positions in the candidates' programs was possibly a better solution for society in a transitional period [2, p. 171]. Still, already before the parliamentary elections of 2002, the Synod of Bishops explained, “The absence of constitutive differences among candidates' programs seems to attest to a lack of a deep political culture. Thus, a suspicion arises that the electoral fervor represents a «struggle for power itself» and not for ministering to the common good” [2, p. 234]. The Greek-Catholic bishops returned to this question before the parliamentary elections of 2006. They specified that different programs did not represent politicians’ genuine intentions, but rather were directed toward being more magnetic to voters. Therefore, the bishops summarized that political culture, with care for the common good of the nation, is not advanced in Ukraine [2, p. 386]. The bishops appealed to prospective candidates for the presidency to avoid abortive and deceitful slogans, and rather to present programs for concrete reforms [8].

The UGCC attempted to ensure the implementation of moral criteria in the political reality of Ukraine at the transition from the 1990s to the 2000s. The head of the Church, Myroslav Ivan Lubachivsky, retired, and Lubomyr Husar took over the leadership of the community. Before that interval, the UGCC had accepted the somewhat romanticized perception of political processes in Ukraine that allegedly, nearly all changes were progressive and led to freedom and democracy. However, the Church adjusted its social teaching about the political responsibility of citizens during the following years.

There was symbolic growth in social tension in Ukraine at the divide between the 1990s and the 2000s, especially during electoral campaigns. The UGCC routinely commented on all these processes. For example, Lubomyr Husar stated in 2002 that “the results of this year’s voting are a new starting point.” The head of the Church meant that the principle of justice had not been broken during the parliamentary elections of 2002 [2, p. 243]. The Synod of Bishops also stressed the importance of maintaining justice before the presidential elections of 2004. The bishops pointed out that citizens were attaining democracy and that voters were learning how to avoid political manipulations [2, p. 304].

Already on 11 November 2004, at the beginning of the “Orange revolution” in Ukraine, the leaders of six Ukrainian Churches stated that Ukrainians were protesting against violations in the second round of the presidential elections [2, p. 470-471]. The patriarch of the UOC (Kyiv Patriarchate) Filaret, Major Archbishop of the UGCC Lubomyr Husar, Vice-chairman of the Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops of Ukraine M. Trofymiak, Bishop of the Ukrainian Evangelical Church M. Panochko and the Head of the Council of Bishops of the Ukrainian Christian Evangelical Church L. Padun signed the document. A new document on the same subject was published on 17 November 2004. The bishop of the Ukrainian Lutheran Church V. Horpynchuk joined the above-mentioned religious leaders. The authors of that appeal repeated the same declaration of disapproval of the falsifications and noted that the Church cannot condone falsehood [2, p. 473]. The religious leaders appealed to Ukrainians to defend truth, peace, and unity by upholding the Constitution. The document reminded them also about the responsibility of state power [2, p. 473]. Experts noted that such solidarity among different denominations in Ukraine was an unprecedented ecumenical act [3].

The UGCC’s “Justice and Peace” commission reacted to the electoral falsifications and social protests on 22 November 2004 by declaring that it “cannot maintain silence in a situation of violence and insults to the image and likeness of God when human beings are deprived of their chief right – the right of free choice”. Thus, the Commission condemned “actions of state authorities who work against their people” [2, p. 324, 325]. On 23 November 2004, the Synod of Bishops of the Kyiv-Halych Metropolitanate stated that the nation had become a witness to democratic principles; however, President Leonid Kuchma promised to organize clean elections. The bishops asserted that people who came into the streets to defend their constitutional rights were not a mob. Religious leaders also recommended that the state authorities correct the situation and heed the voices of protest [2, p. 326].

The Synod's address was a clear example of the fact that the UGCC does not explain democracy as simply voting, but proposes to society its teaching about the responsibility of the state authorities. The Church also proclaims the principle of equal rights for all citizens. Lubomyr Husar stated on 26 November 2006 that state structures are accountable for their violations, and must provide their citizens with the conditions for free expression [2, p. 327, 328, 470-471].

The bishops of the UGCC interpreted peaceful opposition to totalitarianism during the “Orange revolution” not in terms of conflict, but as proof that citizens acknowledged their dignity and consolidated the nation on that basis [2, p. 328, 331, 335]. Nevertheless, after Ukrainians had elected the new president Victor Yushchenko, the same religious leaders warned about the rise of social disappointment as Ukrainians waited for officials to make the necessary changes in the country. The bishops appealed to citizens to change society only by their righteous lives and by reverence for the principle of solidarity [2, p. 332, 344, 348].

In accordance with documents of the UGCC, voters have a duty to observe politicians' actions, to help them by advice, and to compare previous arguments for supporting those politicians with their current activities. The bishops pointed out that if one adhered to these rules, he/she could gain experience for the next elections [2, p. 386].

The religious leaders of Ukraine advised politicians, too, on how to avoid the situation of 2004. They reminded them about social responsibility, because there is no goal that absolves one of lying, contempt for dignity, or violating the rights of adversaries [2, p. 477-478]. Despite this, in early April 2007, AUCCRO stated that several politicians had forgotten their promises after the elections, and were acting as if they, and not the nation, had deputized them. Therefore, the Churches appealed to all Ukrainians once again [2, p. 513, 514].

During the “Revolution of Dignity,” the Greek-Catholic bishops concentrated citizens' attention anew on the problem of politicians' ignorance of social interests:

“State authorities who allegedly do not hear the cries of their own people and try to mute their voices about human rights by means of police batons and gunshots are on a dangerous path of terror and dictatorship. Such actions contradict the authorities’ mission to safeguard national unity, to maintain state sovereignty and to work for the common good” [5].

Indeed, the protests in Ukraine started in 2013-2014 because of the authorities’ disinclination to consider citizens’ interests. Greek-Catholic priests, like the clergy of other denominations, stood together with the Ukrainians on the Maidan. The Greek-Catholic bishops again appealed for a renewal of the legitimacy of the state authorities through elections [8, 10]. The renewal began with the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014. Ukrainian society entered a new political cycle.

Thus, our analysis of the UGCC’s attitude to elections in Ukraine permits us to make the following conclusions: UGCC social teaching explains elections as a method to improve state order. Understanding the correlation between the degree of citizens’ consciousness and governmental actions is fundamental to the elaboration of the Church's conception of the electoral process. This connection is based on the affirmation that people vote for candidates with the same values they abide by. Generally, the UGCC recommendations for electoral periods constitute an integral system for the formation of responsible civic positions. The Church orients its believers to analyze the political programs of candidates and parties. The bishops admonish them to vote for those who are working for the common good of all society, not only for personal or sectional interests. It is stressed that politicians must honor the dignity and health of each human and care about social development. The Church’s stewardship extends especially to the institution of the traditional family, morality, and tolerance.

The UGCC understands citizen's ignorance (without important reasons) about voting as the sin of breaking the Fourth Commandment. The bishops’ appeal opposes discouragement, and demands responsibility from elected officials. It is evident that the UGCC condemns electoral manipulations and any attempts to falsify the results of voting. The bishops especially condemn attempts to use the Church for political agitation.

During the first twenty-five years of Ukrainian Independence, UGCC teaching on elections has evolved. Generally, at the turn of the XXth and XXIst centuries the Church changed some of its romanticized judgments about state-building in Ukraine to a position that was more critical. The structuring of the Church's requirements of citizens and politicians became defining features in that period.

Escalated political tension in the 2000s was an important trial for the Church. The UGCC answered the challenge and did not side with either of the opposing political camps. Peaceful opposition to totalitarian tendencies during 2004-2005 and 2013-2014, as leaders of the Church explained, attested to the fact that citizens recognized their dignity and united to defend it. At the same time, the Church reminded voters about their duty to work for the common good and to monitor officials after their election.


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The Ukrainian original of this paper was published in “Ukrainske religieznavstvo”, № 73, 2015, PP. 244-252.

Translated by the author.