Occupy the Greek Orthodox Church

As the debate about IMF- and EU-imposed austerity measures and the possibility of a Greek government default continues, there is one important piece of the puzzle that has not been widely reported outside of Greece. And it involves the Orthodox Church.

What has been reported is important, to be sure. The IMF’s and EU’s motives to date have been limited to ensuring that the troubled European banks most heavily implicated in bad Greek debt get repaid. Their shocking austerity measures—pensions cut in half, retirement age increased, huge cuts in social programs, education and health care, and crushing unemployment as the inevitable result—have been designed to help Northern European banks, no matter the cost to the Greek people.

More recently, street protests, nationwide strikes organized by the unions, and targeted work slowdowns by air traffic controllers among others, have been designed to insist that the people are paying more than their fair share, whereas the banks are not paying anything at all. Whether you prefer the word ‘default’ or the phrase ‘debt restructuring,’ a more just outcome would be one in which the banks absorb some of this pain as well, by agreeing to be repaid fifty cents on the euro for all the bad loans that they made. That is what’s in the works this week.

But something new and unprecedented is in the works in Greece itself: for the first time, the Orthodox Church has been identified as the corporation it is, and the suggestion is that it should pay its fair share as well. The Greek Orthodox Church pays very low taxes on its vast real estate holdings and its clerics are paid by the state. That hand-in-glove relationship may be about to change.

In an amazing development, the Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreiou, went to Mount Athos two days ago to meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomaios, to discuss the decidedly un-spiritual matter of the Orthodox Church’s responsibilities in this time of Greek crisis. 

Even more interesting is that the Church seems to be moving toward a deal. It has already signaled its willingness to use its vast real estate holdings to help finance the government’s debt, though it insists on doing anything on its own timetable and in its own way.

This is remarkable, and we shall see what comes of it. Depending on what we see, it might signal a radical new strategy for recovering money from corporations that do not pay their fair share, and a radical new view of churches as corporations.

While the situations are very different, to be sure, what if Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi were to meet with Pope Benedict XVI as Italy careens further into its own Greek-style fiscal tragedy? What if a cash-strapped Congress were to take a hard look at the books of churches here in the US?

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