Orthodox leaders headed for a showdown over Ukraine

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 24, 2018

If you care about ecumenism—if you care about the restoration of Christian unity—you should be aware of a current dispute about the status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Most Catholic Americans, I realize, rarely pay attention to the debates among the world’s Orthodox believers. Those debates are constant, and we Catholics have enough problems of our own. But the future of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church could have enormous implications for the cause of Christian unity.

The question, stated simply, is whether the Ukrainian Orthodox Church should be recognized as autocephalous—that is, self-governing—rather than as a province of the Russian Orthodox Church. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko says that it should. The Patriarchate of Moscow strongly disagrees. And the Ukrainian Orthodox Church itself? That’s a complicated matter.

The Eastern churches

Let’s put the issue in context.

When they hear the word “ecumenism,” most American Catholics think of dialogue with Protestant groups. But if the goal is restored unity, the Eastern churches offer much better prospects; they are far closer to Catholicism in both doctrinal belief and sacramental practice.

Among the Orthodox churches, the largest by far is the Russian Orthodox Church. And within the broad reach of the Moscow patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox—currently claimed by the Russian Orthodox Church as part of its “canonical jurisdiction”—is the largest and most active element.

In Ukraine, about 70% of the population identifies with the Orthodox Church. The faith is a crucial part of the nation’s identity, and the churches are often full. In Russia, on the other hand, while the Moscow patriarchate claims the allegiance of the nation’s people, attendance at religious services is quite sparse; millions of Russians who are formally classified as Orthodox have never seen the inside of a church. If the Ukrainian Orthodox Church were detached from Moscow, it would no longer be clear that the Russian Orthodox Church could claim the greatest number of Orthodox believers. In terms of actual practice, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church might be larger.

Adding a spicy element to the controversy is the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the largest of the Eastern churches in full communion with Rome. Brutally suppressed during the Stalin era, the Ukrainian Catholic Church came roaring back into activity with the fall of Communism. Although relations between Eastern Catholics and their Orthodox neighbors have often been tense—particularly because of disputes over the ownership of parish properties confiscated by the Communists—the Eastern Catholic Church is also strongly tied to the Ukrainian national identity.

And speaking of Ukrainian identity, bear in mind that Ukraine is now engaged in a struggle to preserve its independence from Russia—a struggle with obvious implications here.

The Ukrainian Orthodox split

For most of recent history (see more below), the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been recognized as a branch of the Moscow patriarchate. Thus in the early 1990s the Orthodox Church in Ukraine was governed by Metropolitan Filaret, who had been appointed by the Patriarch of Moscow. But as Ukraine won its political independence, with the collapse of the Soviet empire, Filaret sought to establish the independence of the Ukrainian Church. When Moscow refused to grant autocephalous rule to Kiev, Filaret in effect declared his independence, establishing the Orthodox Patriarchate of Kiev.

Most of Ukraine’s Orthodox bishops remained in union with Moscow, however. So the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Kiev Patriarchate became a rival of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Moscow Patriarchate. To complicate matters further, another group, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, won the allegiance of a smaller number of parishes.

This year, however, the quest for autocephaly took on new importance, with the country’s government appealing to the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople—traditionally the “first among equals” of the world’s Orthodox leaders—to recognize the Ukrainian Church’s independence. Moscow lodged a heated objection, with Metropolitan Hilarion—the chief Russian Orthodox spokesman on ecumenical affairs—saying that if Constantinople recognized an autonomous Ukrainian Church, it would cause “a schism, similar to the schism of 1054.”

Significantly, the leadership of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Moscow Patriarchate has been quiet about the question of autocephaly. The bishops subject to Moscow are in a delicate position, obviously: caught between the demands of loyalty to their nation and to their current religious superiors.

Moscow vs. Constantinople

Ukraine’s appeal to the Patriarch of Constantinople for recognition has thrown the spotlight onto another source of tension among the Eastern churches: the rivalry between Constantinople and Moscow for leadership of the Orthodox world. There is no question that the Russian Orthodox Church is a much larger body; in fact the Constantinople patriarchate, located in Turkey where Islam is dominant, exercises direct control over a very small number of followers. But the traditional primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is also beyond question.

In this case, Patriarch Bartholomew has indicated that he does consider it his responsibility to resolve the status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. That claim to authority does not sit well with the Moscow patriarchate, which regards Ukraine as part of its own direct command.

For weeks now, the Patriarch of Constantinople has been consulting with other Orthodox leaders, polling them about the wisdom of recognizing an autocephalous Orthodox Church in Kiev. Just this week, the Ecumenical Patriarchate announced that these consultations would continue through the month of August before a decision would be announced. Needless to say, some heavy politicking is going on among the world’s Orthodox leaders, with both proponents and opponents of autocephaly canvassing for support.

But perhaps the most significant statement made on the question this summer has emerged from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which—in defense of its authority to settle the issue—remarked that the Church in Kiev was established, and recognized by Constantinople, before the Patriarchate of Moscow was established. After all it was at Kiev, in 988, that the “Baptism of the Rus’” established Christianity in the Slavic lands.

In fact, the Ecumenical Patriarchate observed, Constantinople only recognized the transfer of the patriarchate from Kiev to Moscow in the 17th century, and “never ceded the territory of Ukraine to anyone.” In other words, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is not an offspring of the Russian Orthodox Church; quite the contrary, it would be more accurate to say that the Patriarchate of Moscow is the offspring of Ukrainian Orthodoxy!

That statement from Constantinople appears to be a flat rejection of Moscow’s claim that Ukraine lies within its “canonical jurisdiction,” and therefore a warning that the Ecumenical Patriarchate may be ready to recognize an autocephalous Ukrainian Church. Would that decision trigger a serious split between the world’s most influential Orthodox leaders, as Metropolitan Hilarion warned it could? Would Constantinople back away from that conflict, despite the apparent logic of the case for autonomy? Those questions should be answered within a few weeks.

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.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Bronco Pete - Jul. 30, 2018 1:00 PM ET USA

    The status of the Orthodox churches is very interesting and important. Please continue your coverage

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Jul. 24, 2018 6:10 PM ET USA

    A sticky wicket to be sure but I for one am pulling for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kiev Patriarchate's independence. The less entanglement with Moscow the better. Pray for the unity of the churches - the original subject of ecumenism.