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Justice and War in Ukraine—Part III: The crucial religious dimension

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 01, 2022

In recent columns I have suggested that in order to form a balanced moral perspective on the war in Ukraine, we should understand:

  1. the sober moral reasoning demanded by the just-war tradition, and the need to think dispassionately about the issues at stake; and
  2. the Russian view of the issues—since even if we condemn the invasion we must understand what provoked it.

In this third and final installment, I want to explore a dimension of the conflict that too many analysts have overlooked: the religious dimension.

“The Russian Orthodox Church has taken an active role in forging the ideology that undergirds Mr. Putin’s geopolitical ambitions,” reported the Wall Street Journal, in one of the rare media examinations of this key issue. “It is a worldview that holds the Kremlin to be the defender of Russia’s Christian civilization…” That Journal analysis went on to quote Vladimir Putin saying, just a few days before he launched his offensive, that Ukraine “is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space.”

The Russian Orthodox Church sees Ukraine as part of its “canonical territory,” and the Moscow patriarchate vehemently resisted first the development of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and then the formal recognition of that Church by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople as an autocephalous (that is, self-governing) body. From the perspective of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, the loss of Ukrainian parishes has enormous consequences.

Ukraine is a religious society, and after being suppressed during the Stalin era, the country’s churches have grown vigorously since the collapse of the Soviet regime. The population is mostly Orthodox—particularly in the eastern regions, which are the main focus of Putin’s territorial ambitions. When Ukraine won its independence, the leading Orthodox prelate, Metropolitan Filaret, broke from Moscow and proclaimed himself the head of a new Kiev Patriarchate. Most of the country’s Orthodox parishes retained their allegiance to Moscow, however, and the Russian Orthodox Church rejected Filaret’s claim.

In 2016, however, the Orthodox prelates who had separated from Moscow petitioned the Ecumenical Patriarch—the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world—for formal recognition. Their petition was strongly endorsed by the Ukrainian government, and in 2018 it was accepted by Patriarch Bartholomew, over the bitter protests of the Moscow patriarchate. The Ecumenical Patriarch’s decision caused a major split between Moscow and Constantinople, precipitating a crisis of leadership in the Orthodox world.

For years the Moscow patriarchate has challenged Constantinople’s leadership, calling attention to the fact that it represents by far the largest of the world’s Orthodox bodies. However, while official statistics have certainly confirmed the Russian Orthodox predominance in numbers, the actual number of practicing Orthodox believers in Russia is nowhere near the census figures. The country’s churches are mostly empty; millions of Russians who are officially counted as “Orthodox” never see the inside of a church. Moreover, Orthodox leaders in other countries are inclined to view the Moscow patriarchate with suspicion, in light of the long, proven record of collaboration between the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and the Soviet leadership and in particular the notorious KGB.

These two factors—the number of active worshippers and the history of deference to the Kremlin—come powerfully into play in the relationship between the Moscow patriarchate and the Orthodox communities of Ukraine.

Ukrainian Orthodox churches, unlike their counterparts in Russia, tend to be full. On paper the number of Ukrainian Orthodox believers is perhaps one-third that of Russian Orthodox. But in practice the numbers are much closer, and in fact the Ukrainian Orthodox churches may have more active believers—a possibility that would badly damage Moscow’s claim to pre-eminence. True, the Russian Orthodox Church can trace its patrimony back to the “Baptism of the Rus’” in 988 AD. But since that historic event took place in Kiev, the Ukrainian Orthodox can just as plausibly make the same claim.

Thus the potential loss of the Ukrainian Orthodox churches would be a disaster for Moscow. And while the Russian Orthodox leadership has been quietly supportive of Putin’s offensive, the Orthodox leaders of Ukraine—including many who had remained loyal to the Moscow patriarchate—have condemned the invasion. Patriotic Ukrainians are switching their allegiance from the Moscow patriarchate to the autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church. So the consequences of Putin’s war may shatter Moscow’s claims to the “canonical territory” of Ukraine, and even Russia’s claim to be the defender of Christian civilization.

One more fascinating factor: The Ukrainian prelate who has spoken out most forcefully against the Russian invasion, and emerged as the main representative of Ukrainian Christianity, is Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Byzantine-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church. His leadership has made the Byzantine Catholic community—which is virtually indistinguishable from the Orthodox churches in its liturgy and culture—a focus of national unity.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church, which is by far the largest of the Eastern churches in communion with Rome, was brutally suppressed during the Stalin era. Bishops were murdered, priests imprisoned, thousands of the faithful martyred, parish churches turned over to Orthodox clerics who would be more docile to the Kremlin. But somehow the Ukrainian Catholic Church endured, and burst into new vigor after the country gained independence. For generations the Byzantine-rite Catholics of Ukraine have urged the Holy See to recognize their leader as a Patriarch. To date the Vatican has resisted, apparently anxious to avoid offending the Moscow patriarchate.

But now if Moscow’s claim to the “canonical territory” of Ukraine is thoroughly discredited, might the Vatican recognize a Ukrainian Catholic patriarch? And if Rome grants that status, could the Byzantine faithful of Ukraine, Catholic and Orthodox, unite in a single patriarchate—fulfilling a dream that Archbishop Shevchuk has expressed?

Pope John Paul II frequently expressed the fond hope that the Church could “breathe with both lungs,” uniting Eastern and Western traditions. That ambition is not easy to realize; old quarrels and animosities must first be overcome. But put active Catholic and Orthodox communities together in a pressure-cooker environment, and who knows what might happen? And for Byzantine Christians, today’s Ukraine is a pressure cooker.

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 See full bio.

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