Jesuits Contend with Russian Law on Religion

The Christian Century, May 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

Jesuits Contend with Russian Law on Religion


A letter written in 1800 by Russia's Czar Paul I may become a vital piece of evidence in an appeal following the refusal of the Russian authorities to register the Society of Jesus, one of the Catholic Church's most prestigious orders of priests. Last month the Jesuits, as the priests and brothers of the Society of Jesus are known, became the first major Roman Catholic body to be denied the right to function as an independent organization with branches across Russia.

Under Russia's new religion law, all religious groups have been required to re-register with the Russian authorities. The controversial law, approved by President Boris Yeltsin on September 26, 1997, has drawn sharp criticism from minority churches in Russia and from Protestant and Catholic churches abroad because it makes a distinction between religious "groups" which are relatively new in Russia and therefore have only limited rights, and religious "organizations" which have been in Russia for at least 15 years and therefore have more extensive rights.

For "centralized" religious organizations which, like the Society of Jesus, wish to operate throughout Russia, the requirement is an official presence in Russia of at least 50 years' standing. Stanislaw Opiela, regional superior for the Jesuits, said that the ministry of justice refused to re-register his organization, claiming that it could only be a "representative office" of a "foreign" religious organization, since, the Russians claimed, the order is ruled from the Vatican.

Opiela rejected a recommendation by the ministry of justice that the Society of Jesus be registered as a branch of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia, whose Apostolic Administration is already registered as a "centralized" body. This would contradict Catholic canon law and the statutes of the Society of Jesus, because Jesuits are outside the canonical jurisdiction of the local bishop, Opiela said. "This is interference in the [order's] internal structure," Opiela said. "But this [1997] law states that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations. This law contradicts itself."

Among the documents the Jesuits submitted to the government to prove that the order of priests has functioned in Russia for more than 50 years is a copy of a letter written in November 1800 by czar Paul to the then Russian principal of the Society of Jesus. …

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