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Protecting private property: The road to sainthood?

The decision to protect private property from state control played a pivotal role in the upcoming beatification of a Catholic martyr. On June 25 in Vilnius, the Roman Catholic Church will beatify Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis. The ceremony will mark the first time the Vatican has recognized a Soviet-era martyr from Lithuania, and the first Lithuanian beatified in his native land, according to the local bishops’ conference.

Teofilius Matulionis, circa 1933. (Public domain.)
Teofilius Matulionis, circa 1933. (Public domain.)

Archbishop Teofilius was born in 1873 in the village of Kadariškiai. He was ordained in 1900 and served in Latvia before taking up a parish in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1910. He was said to have a profound devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But seven years later, the Bolshevik Revolution would change the character of the nation and put him on the path to martyrdom.

In March 1922, Lenin ordered his fellow Bolsheviks to use a severe famine as a guise to “confiscate all Church property with all the ruthless energy we can still muster.” The following year, they demanded that Abp. Teofilius – then still a priest – “voluntarily” sign over church property to the State. He refused and was sentenced to three years in prison, the first of his three prison sentences.

After his release, he was secretly ordained a bishop in 1929, promptly returning to prison. In Solovki prison, later immortalized in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, he labored by day and secretly celebrated the Mass by moonlight. After a prisoner exchange, he was released in 1933.

After gaining his freedom, he met Pope Pius XI and asked for his pontifical blessing. The pope reportedly replied, “You are a martyr! You must bless me first!” Teofilius was made bishop of Kaišiadorys, Lithuania, in 1943.

The Soviets had occupied the nation in 1940 and commanded all priests to take a loyalty oath and to spy on their parishioners for the NKVD. Refusing to do so, and issuing a defiant pastoral letter in 1945, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. After his release, he consecrated a bishop without government approval and was exiled.  

In 1962, he received word that he had been made an archbishop ad personam and was invited to attend the Second Vatican Council. Upon learning this, Communist authorities beat him and administered a lethal injection, causing his death on August 20, 1962. Pope Francis has certified that the Marxists killed him in odium fidei (out of hatred for the faith), paving the way for his beatification.

Private property exists as a hedge around other human rights, which must stand or fall together.

Obviously, the archbishop did not prize property for its own sake. He loved not his own life unto the death. But his first step to defending his faith was protecting church property from profanation, even in a clearly futile undertaking. His witness shows that private property exists as a hedge around other human rights, which must stand or fall together.

Teofilius’ followers need not look far to see the relevance of his example. Thousands in his former home of St. Petersburg have protested the government’s decision to return St. Isaac’s Cathedral – which the Bolsheviks seized and turned into a museum of atheism – to regular use by the Russian Orthodox Church.

In Ukraine, it is the Russian Orthodox Church whose property and church order may be threatened by the State. Two controversial bills, which apply only to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), would undermine church property rights (Bill 4128) and require government approval for the appointment of bishops and metropolitans (Bill 4511) – the same sequence used in Russia 90 years earlier. 

The Moscow Patriarchate worries that rival churches will send parishioners to "join" parishes en masse strictly for the purpose of seizing their property by majority vote. The leader of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Neophyte, sent a letter to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko this month calling the measures “extremely dangerous.”

“We believe that the proposed changes are blatantly discriminatory,” the patriarch wrote. “They obviously violate the equality of religious organizations of Ukraine before the law and give parishes’ fates into the hands of strangers, creating a legal basis for the seizure of the churches of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church by schismatics and extremists.” In his message is the implicit warning that, if the government can shuffle church buildings between Orthodox jurisdictions, it can as easily transfer property from the Church to the State.

The Ukrainian government defends these laws, saying the state of hostilities requires greater scrutiny of Russian Church appointees (who are not devoid of government influence themselves) and that Bill 4128 simply allows parishioners to vote on whether they belong to the Moscow Patriarchate or a (not currently canonically recognized) patriarchate based in Kiev. “The change lies in the fact that if a majority decide to change jurisdiction, they also receive any religious property,” said MP Victor Yelensky, who sponsored the bill.

But that’s not the way the Orthodox canon law or property rights work.

Private property assures that, in the words of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, “The holy things are for the holy.”

In churches with an episcopal/hierarchical church government, such as the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, congregations use their property under the guidance of the diocese, which is its custodian. If its members wish to leave the denomination, they may do so – but they may not take Church property with them. U.S. courts have upheld this principle in numerous cases: Parishioners may not use the courts to evade ecclesiastical laws they had once accepted as binding.

The matter is relatively simple in the West due to the norms of private property, enforceable contracts, and the rule of law. It is infinitely more complicated when the churches are state property, as is the case in many Orthodox countries.

The archbishop of Athens and All Greece, Abp. Ieronymos, recently lamented this aspect of Church-State relations. “The Church must be free and financially independent,” he said on May 28. Churches desiring the independence to serve the Lord must first seek self-sufficiency apart from the treasury of Caesar.

Private property gives force to religious liberty. Property rights assure that the government cannot expropriate and redistribute “religious property” at will. It assures that, in the words of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, “The holy things are for the holy.”

In the way Archbishop Teofilius Matulionis handled government assaults on the church’s private property, Christians of all backgrounds may find an example worthy of imitation.

(Photo credit: Vilensija. This photo has been cropped and modified for size. CC BY-SA 3.0.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.