Zosima has been absent from his cell for about twenty-five minutes. Dmitri still hasn’t arrived. When the monk reenters, he finds that his guests are engaged in lively conversation, led mainly by Ivan and the two hieromonks (monks who are also priests), Father Iosif and Father Paissy. Fyodor asks Pyotr Alexandrovich why he’s consented to remain in what Pyotr calls “unseemly company.” He suspects that Pyotr is only staying so that he can display his intelligence. Fyodor picks at Pyotr until the elder’s return. As Zosima sits, Alexei notices how tired and pale the old monk looks. Father Iosif tells Zosima that they’ve been talking about Ivan’s article about ecclesiastical courts and “the scope of their rights.” Zosima has heard about the article.
Fyodor enjoys poking fun at Pyotr Alexandrovich’s pretensions. Part of this may come from Fyodor’s enjoyment of baiting another member of Adelaida Ivanovna’s family who disapproved of his marriage to her due to his relative lack of refinement. The subject of ecclesiastical courts was popular in Russia at the time and addresses a more general debate over the separation of church and state and what the scope of religious power ought to be.
Father Iosif says that Ivan “completely rejects the separation of Church and state,” which the hieromonk finds “curious.” Ivan explains that a compromise “between the state and the Church on such questions as courts” is “impossible.” Ivan thinks, therefore, that the Church should contain the whole state. Father Paissy agrees, but Pyotr Alexandrovich doesn’t. Father Paissy goes on to say that “the Church ought to be transforming itself into the state…so as to disappear eventually, making way for science, the spirit of the age, and civilization.” Yet, according to the Russian view, the state “should end by being accounted worthy of becoming only the Church alone, and nothing else but that.”
In saying that the Church should become the whole state, both Ivan and Father Paissy seem to want the state to mimic the Church’s attention to traditional rituals and a firm code of conduct. However, Father Paissy makes it clear that he doesn’t want the state to adopt the Church’s more backward-looking tendencies. On the contrary, the Church as the state should embrace progress. In this regard, Father Paissy seems to think that the Church should work more in the service of the people and civilization than for its own self-interest.
Ivan says that, if the Church takes over completely, it would “excommunicate the criminal and the disobedient and cut off their heads.” The excommunicated man would then have to not only go away from men but also from Christ. Zosima says that the Church is the only entity that can exact “real punishment” on the criminal. Hard labor and floggings don’t reform anyone. Also, after a criminal is cut off, another one takes his place. It is, therefore, only “Christ’s law” that forces one to acknowledge one’s own conscience. The criminal is capable of acknowledging guilt only before the Church, not the state. However, the Church now has “no active jurisdiction,” only the power of moral condemnation.
Ivan and Zosima have very different concepts of the kind of punishment that the Church could exact. Ivan imagines the kind of brutal punishments that would more likely be performed by the state (the cutting off of heads conjures up the guillotine). Zosima’s idea of “real punishment” has nothing to do with physical pain but rather the pain of social alienation and being condemned in God’s eyes, which means that one’s soul will never be at peace.
Zosima contemplates what would happen to the criminal if the Church turned on him, too. Excommunicated, the criminal would be “in despair.” Society, in league with the Church, would also turn on the criminal. So, “if the whole of society turned into the Church alone,” it’s likely, the monk thinks, that crimes would starkly diminish. The Church could even bring those it excommunicated back into its fold.
The “despair” that Zosima describes would come from ostracism. Zosima believes that people fear being cast out of society more than they fear any physical judgment. The Church’s power over the devout would ensure this. However, Zosima holds that the Church could also be forgiving to those who atone.
Pyotr Alexandrovich is outraged, prompting Father Paissy to remind him, sternly, that it’s not the Church that turns into the state but the state that “rises up to the Church and becomes the Church over all the earth.” The notion of the Church turning into the state is the dream of those in Rome. However, the state rising to the Church is “the great destiny of Orthodoxy on earth.” Father Paissy thinks that the “star will show forth from the East.”
Pyotr Alexandrovich is outraged because he is a secularist who wishes to separate religious institutions from social and political ones. He may also find it hypocritical of religious institutions, like the monastery, to possess vast tracts of land, like that which he shares with them, without being taxed.
In response, Pyotr Alexandrovich relates a story that a man told him in Paris, after the December revolution. They were talking about socialist revolutionaries who were being prosecuted. The man said that the people weren’t afraid of “socialists, anarchists, atheists, and revolutionaries” but of socialist Christians who are “terrible people” and “more dangerous” than socialist atheists. Father Paissy asks if Pyotr sees them as socialists. Before he replies, the door opens and Dmitri enters.
The idea that socialist Christians are more “dangerous” or “terrible” likely comes from their tendency to support their ideology with righteous Biblical talk. Whereas atheists would base their arguments in material conditions that could be refuted or complicated, the Christians would use the incontrovertible “proof” of the Bible as their justification.