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Reasons for skepticism about the Pope's meeting with Patriarch Kirill

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 25, 2016

“Finally!” Pope Francis said when he embraced Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. “Now things are easier,” came the reply. How much easier? Two weeks after that historic meeting in Cuba, do the prospects for warmer ties between Rome and Moscow seem much improved?

There are skeptics, certainly, on both sides of the ecumenical divide. Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the leader of the Byzantine-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church, has been forthright about his concerns. Now Patriarch Kirill has acknowledged that “powerful forces” opposed the meeting-- and almost on cue, the Georgian Orthodox Church reminded the world that there are still pockets of intransigent opposition to ecumenism in the Orthodox world.

Perhaps the ecumenical importance of the meeting in the Havana airport had always been exaggerated. In the days leading up to the meeting, the Moscow patriarchate inflated the drama, saying that it could mark the beginning of the end of 1,000 years of Catholic-Orthodox estrangement. That claim was invalid for two reasons.

  • First, the Great Schism of 1054 broke off relations between Rome and Constantinople; the Patriarchate of Moscow did not even exist at the time, and would not be formed until the 16th century.
  • Second, the healing of that painful East-West breach began in 1965, when Pope Paul VI met with Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople. For 50 years since then, relations between the Vatican and the Ecumenical Patriarchate have been growing steadily more regular, friendly, and productive. The Moscow patriarchate is arriving late to the ecumenical party.

Anyone who hoped for a dramatic ecumenical breakthrough at the Havana airport meeting should have revised his expectations after seeing schedule established in advance for this summit meeting. The encounter was to take place not in a church but in an airport meeting room. (Is there any more thoroughly secular venue than an airport?) There was no opportunity for the Pope and the Patriarch to pray together—or to be more precise, if they did pray together, they would do so behind close doors, with no witnesses. That schedule seemed to testify to the existence of those “powerful forces” the Patriarch later mentioned; the Moscow patriarchate was afraid that a joint prayer session with the Pope could touch off angry protests among recalcitrant Russian prelates.

But if the meeting was not convened to advance the ecumenical cause, what was the point of the whole exercise? That’s the question on which Western skeptics have fixed their attention.

In this case the “Western” skeptics begin in Ukraine, with Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk as their chief spokesman. With his country still suffering violence that is provoked and supported by Russian nationalists, the Ukrainian prelate fears that Patriarch Kirill was acting on behalf of President Putin, seeking to soften international opposition to Russia’s aggressive plans. Looking beyond Ukraine, Putin is also playing an increasingly active—and potentially dangerous-- role in the Middle East, where he is portraying himself as the defender of Christianity. A public-relations assist from Patriarch Kirill could advance the Kremlin’s plans in that theater, too.

With all that in mind, notice that the top priority for the Pope-Patriarch meeting was the issue of religious freedom, particularly for Christians in the Middle East. No sincere Christian could object to the support for persecuted Christians that Francis and Kirill expressed in their joint statement. At the same time, no political realist could deny that the focus on embattled Christians in Syria might serve the propaganda purposes of a Russian government intent on escalating the military conflict there.

The joint statement may have contributed a bit more toward the perception of the Kremlin as defender of Christians when it welcomed “the current unprecedented renewal of the Christian faith in Russia, as well as in many other countries of Eastern Europe, formerly dominated for decades by atheist regimes.” Again, no sincere Christian could possibly object to the statement’s applause for the renewal of Eastern Christianity. But the focus on Russia in particular was a bonus for both Patriarch Kirill and President Putin.

In reality the most spectacular rebirth of Christian faith in Eastern Europe occurred in Ukraine, where the Byzantine Catholic community, brutally repressed during the Stalin era, burst into vigorous activity with the fall of the Soviet empire. The strength of the Ukrainian Catholic Church has been a point of contention between the Vatican and Moscow for years. As Archbishop Shevchuk has observed, the Russian Orthodox Church still does not acknowledge that the Catholic-Orthodox struggles over possession of church properties began when the Stalin regime jailed Catholic priests, seized all Catholic churches, and handed the properties over to willing Orthodox collaborators. Still, the carefully worded, noncommittal paragraph on that conflict in the joint statement from Havana represented at least a de-escalation of Moscow’s hostility to the Byzantine Catholic presence.

For the Moscow patriarchate, one other source of aggravation in Ukraine is the three-way split within the country’s Orthodox community. The joint statement said that these fractures should be healed “through existing canonical norms.” But that statement, taken by itself, seems ambiguous. Whose canonical norms are to be used: those of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which has traditionally resolved disputes about the legitimate leadership of autocephalous Orthodox churches? Or those of the Moscow patriarchate, which still claims Ukraine as its own “canonical territory?”

And that question, in turn, prompts one more skeptical question about the Moscow patriarchate’s designs for the summit meeting in Cuba. Did the Russian Orthodox leadership want to burnish its credentials as the world’s leading voice of Orthodoxy, as the Eastern churches prepare for their unprecedented council in June?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: phil L - Feb. 27, 2016 8:26 AM ET USA

    No, I don't blame Putin for the trouble; he at least acknowledges the persecution of Christians. And yes, US policy has been damaging to the stability of the Middle East. Still Putin has recently been aggressive in the region and has claimed the mantle of defender of Christianity. I wasn't writing on foreign policy; I was merely pointing out that the Pope-Patriarch meeting had clear political implications. In fact the political gains (for Russia) are more apparent than any ecumenical benefits.

  • Posted by: wsw33410 - Feb. 26, 2016 8:20 PM ET USA

    Phil, please keep facts straight - violence in Ukraine (Majdan) was started by Ukrainian nationalists aiming to remove the country President they opposed (not all support them); can you name ANY political leader (Obama, Merkel, Hollande...) who claims or attempts any pro-Christian action in the Middle East? You, and many in the West, blame Putin for activities in a vacuum created by the Western failing culture and politics - e.g. Libya's Arab Spring, removal of Gaddafi strengthen World terror

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Feb. 26, 2016 7:53 PM ET USA

    Putin wants peace and the Neocons, running U.S. foreign policy, want war. The U.S. spent $5 billion dollars destabilizing the Ukraine and were behind the coup that chased out the democratically elected leader. For some reason you don't find the U.S.'s meddling in Ukraine and menacing Russia upsetting at all. You may know your theology, but your are most ignorant on foreign policy in the Middle East and Ukraine. Try reading something that contradicts the lame stream media's reporting.