When the Pussy Riot debacle happened in Moscow, I took the side of the Church against these hooligans. My position then was that I wouldn’t have cared one bit if the women had done this protest on the streets in front of the cathedral, but the fact that they profaned a holy place inside a church meant that their political protest was sacrilegious. They chose to protest in this particular way, in this particular venue, I said, and should be held accountable.

I still believe that, in the main. That said, I believe the sentences given to the women were harsh, and I am increasingly troubled, even disgusted, by the politicization of the Church by the Putin regime — something that the Pussy Riot case is bringing to light. Cathy Young, writing in Reason, makes this point by saying, in part:

Here are a few things that should offend Christians—in Russia or in America—far more than Pussy Riot’s antics:

• Patriarch Kirill, like most of the senior hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, rose through church ranks in the Soviet era as an active collaborationist with the atheistic Soviet regime, which tolerated the Church and used it for its own agenda. Among other things, he traveled regularly abroad for conferences where he promoted the Soviet government’s “struggle for peace” and denied the persecution of believers in the USSR. Any Soviet citizen who went on such jaunts almost invariably worked with the KGB; in fact, there is strong evidence that Kirill was the agent code-named “Mikhailov” in KGB files declassified after the fall of Communism. In the post-Soviet era, in 2008, then-Archbishop Kirill flew to Cuba to award dictator Fidel Castro the Order of St. Daniel of Moscow in gratitude for letting an Orthodox Church for Russian expatriates open in Havana; Castro hailed Kirill as “an ally in opposing American imperialism.”

• Besides two official residences, Kirill owns a luxury apartment in Moscow—which came to light last March, thanks to an extortionate lawsuit filed on his behalf against a neighbor whose renovation work had allegedly caused plaster dust damage to the Patriarch’s furnishings. In April, after the prelate publicly denied owning a $35,000 Breguet watch, a photo on the Moscow Patriarchate’s website was doctored to remove the timepiece from his wrist–a trick caught by sharp-eyed bloggers who spotted a reflection in the table surface.

• A priest who helped expose Church-KGB links in a 1992 parliamentary report, Father Gleb Yakunin, was quickly defrocked for “inappropriate” political activity and eventually excommunicated. Ironically, Yakunin had been first defrocked in 1965—and imprisoned from 1979 to 1985—for denouncing religious persecution in the Soviet Union.

• Another Orthodox priest, Father Sergei Taratukhin, was defrocked in 2006 for speaking against Khodorkovsky’s unjust imprisonment. And last year, three priests from the Izhevsk region in northern Russia were banned from service after they wrote an open letter to the Patriarch, criticizing the church’s close relationship with government and big business and calling on church leaders to make amends for their past ties to the KGB. (The three now serve in a parish of the semi-autonomous foreign branch of the Church but remain targets of official harassment.)

There’s more. Young’s viewpoint, by the way, is shared by at least two faithful Orthodox friends of mine, both Soviet-born, who have total contempt for the Russian hierarchy as luxury-loving dupes of state power. I haven’t talked to either about Pussy Riot, but based on our past conversations, I am sure they would find these protesters revolting, yet agree that what the hierarchy is up to in Russia, in collusion with the state, is far more troubling.

Walter Russell Mead quotes a recent Financial Times report:

Mr Putin has championed this agenda since coming to office again, with speeches about Orthodox values as the bedrock of a society. He also supported the prison terms handed down to Pussy Riot, the feminist punk rock group jailed for “religiously motivated hatred” after performing a protest song in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral. Mr Putin’s United Russia party is pushing legislation through parliament that would prohibit blasphemy.

One important signal to the political elite, according to experts, was the appointment of Vladimir Medinsky as minister of culture. Mr Medinsky is a historian and publicist who is highly regarded in nationalist and religious circles for his debunking of liberal “myths” of Russian history in his positive treatment of authoritarian rulers from Ivan the Terrible to Joseph Stalin.

“Medinski was a very positive choice, painted in very bright ideological colours and is a very clear signal to the elite,” says Yevgeny Nikiforov, head of Radio Radonezh, a radio station devoted to promoting the Orthodox Church. “Everyone knows who he is and what his appointment means.”

As regular readers know, I have been shocked and saddened by the depths of anti-religious violence and desecration to which the mobs sunk during the French Revolution. And yet, in my recent reading, it is hard to deny that the Church of the era had so thoroughly mobbed itself up with the ancien regime and its abuses — including rich abbeys and bishops grinding the faces of the poor — that the later outrages became comprehensible, if not defensible. Again, I am reminded of what Father Arseny, the Orthodox priest and political prisoner of the Bolsheviks, said of the curse of Bolshevism: that the pre-revolutionary Church, in its many faults, had much to answer for in bringing Bolshevism to Russia.

Last night, a French Orthodox friend told me he admired the wisdom of Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, the Catholic archbishop of Paris, who responded to a blasphemous theatrical production in Paris by asking outraged Christians to protest by simply laying a white rose in front of the theater, then coming to Notre Dame cathedral to pray. “That was wise,” said my friend. I agree. If the Moscow Patriarchate had insisted on clemency for Pussy Riot for their obnoxious sacrilege, it would have set an excellent example. Instead, the continuation of this case is drawing attention to the very thing that the punks wished to protest: the ongoing corruption of the Church by the State.

In a conversation about statism and the economy in France, a French friend said to me, “The state corrupts everything it touches.” So it goes with the Church, too. Pussy Riot abused the Church, yes, but these enemies of the Church are far, far less abusive than the Church’s friends in high places. Which I suppose was the point of their protest in the first place.