Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Vladimir Soloviev
By John Janaro (’85)
He has been called “the Russian Newman.” Like Newman, the great 19th century Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev discovered the path to full union with the Catholic Church through study, fidelity to conscience, and finally by a singular personal journey. His circumstances were different from Newman’s, however, and his story is embedded within the particular challenges of life in Tsarist Russia and the particular character of the Russian Orthodox tradition.
The whole of Soloviev’s story can be classified as an ever-deeper conversion to Christ and, indeed, as growth on a path of holiness that was nourished by Russian spirituality. At the same time, he continually identified his own journey with the vocation of the whole Russian Christian people, seeing himself as a prophetic witness calling them to them fulfillment of their won providential role in history.
Born in 1853, Soloviev was a kind of philosophical “child prodigy” and a prolific reader from his earliest years. Western rationalism led the teenage Soloviev to abandon all religion and declare himself an atheist and materialist. This was more than adolescent rebellion; his rare intellectual powers were determined to grapple with the modern philosophical tradition. Interestingly, it was Spinoza who led him beyond the positivists to the rediscovery of God. He then quickly moved beyond Spinoza’s pantheism to recognition of the divine transcendence and a position akin to classical philosophical realism. As a young adult, he experienced a mature and committed conversion to Christianity.
As a popular young professor, Soloviev favored Western-style social reforms, but in the context of a unity of love between all Christians that would express itself in society. He gave his sensational “Lectures on Divine Humanity” in Saint Petersburg in 1878, where he instated that the Incarnation should inform both spiritual and temporal social life. The unity of Christ’s person also entailed a real unity among Christian people that transcends national differences. This would respond to the West’s loss of faith, and to the weakness of the East, where the Churches were defined by national boundaries.
Soloviev was impelled by his vision of unity to consider the claims of the papacy. He plunged into the study of the Church Fathers and ecumenical councils and found those claims vindicated. Christ’s commission to Saint Peter was the essential visible foundation for the communion of all the Christian Churches.
As a result of these pro-papal views, Soloviev became an outcast from Russian academia and was perceived as an enemy of the Tsarist state. Unable to publish in Russia, he found a friend in the Croatian Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmeyer, who encouraged him to write in French his famous book Russia and the Universal Church. In this text, Soloviev declares—in unity with the great Fathers and Doctors of the Eastern Church in the first millennium—his recognition of the pope “as supreme judge in matters of religion.”
Soloviev did not believe that he should become a Latin-rite Catholic, however, and the Eastern-rite Catholic churches were illegal in Russia. But a Russian priest, Nicolay Tolstoy, who had become Catholic and was quietly (illegally) ministering in the Melkite rite in Moscow, secretly received Soloviev’s profession of faith and gave him Communion on February 18, 1896 (after which the priest informed pope Leo XIII). Unfortunately, the great philosopher—his health wore out by harassment and overwork—died four years later. His hope for Christian unity, however, remains and grows, and by God’s grace will one day bear immense fruit.