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Did “powerful forces” try to stop the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 24, 2016

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has stated that “there are powerful forces that did not really want” the recent meeting between himself and Pope Francis to take place. While Kirill refused to name names, we do not need to look very far in the same news cycle to guess the name of at least one of Kirill’s culprits. Could it be Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church?

This all sounds so quintessentially Russian! The first thing Catholics must understand about the quest for the reunion of the Orthodox with Rome is that Orthodoxy is distinctively territorial. What we might call “religious pluralism”, while perhaps taken in stride far too comfortably in the West, is regarded as a direct assault by the Orthodox. For them, the Church of Christ is divided into territorial regions administered by traditional patriarchs. The existence of any other Christian body in an Orthodox Patriarch’s territory—including the Catholic Church—is a source of severe tension. The Orthodox regard this as a kind of cancer—a powerful and sinister force seeking to destroy the order established by God.

This territorialism is also characterized by a strong fusion of the interests of Church and State in the territories where Orthodoxy is strong. It was, in fact, just this spiritually enervating fusion which historically precipitated the errors of Orthodoxy, leading to the break with Rome and various mutations of Christian doctrine and discipline over the centuries. A prime example is found in the errors concerning divorce and remarriage which were so recently held up as a potential model for Catholics by Cardinal Kasper at the two synods on the Family. These slippages from genuine orthodoxy (that is, from Catholicism) were introduced in the effort to match Orthodox law with Imperial law.

There is, of course, no longer an emperor in Constantinople. The historical consequences have made Russian Orthodoxy the single largest branch of Orthodoxy, and the second largest Christian body in the world. True to its territorial form, the Orthodox Church was too often a bed-fellow of the State under Communism. And now, Patriarch Kirill strongly identifies the cause of Russian Orthodoxy with the cause of Mother Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to retake territory for both Church and State. One can scarcely understand any Russian Orthodox statement without appreciating this innate territorial interest.

So no, for all the nuances layered into Archbishop Shevchuk’s fairly reserved criticisms of the joint statement issued by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the Ukrainian Catholic Church is not happy about the meeting, especially since the Pope failed to challenge Russia’s view of the war there. Ukraine’s Catholics feel abandoned by Rome in their hour of special need. I grant that it is often the case that Catholics struggling to uphold their Faith feel ignored when major attention is given to ecumenical efforts, which so often seem to minimize the importance of the contested truths which Catholics are bound to hold dear. But in the present instance, this is a matter involving both freedom and bloodshed.

I make no judgment on the proper balance among these competing needs; nobody can know with certainty what course is best, and Archbishop Shevchuk certainly gives Pope Francis the benefit of every doubt in his statements. It should go without saying that any progress will involve sacrifice; it will be hard-won. But to understand all that is at stake in overtures to the Orthodox, we must understand that in Orthodoxy the universal has been variously corrupted by the territorial. And for Russian Orthodoxy in particular, the territorial imperative colors everything.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 28, 2016 1:28 PM ET USA

    Minnesota Mary: Actually, I have never written a word about Putin. But as far as attempting to go beyond typical post-Cold War rhetoric, taking one side or the other, it has always seemed wise to me to listen to the Catholics on the ground. The Catholics in Ukraine are our most likely source of a fair and balanced view. In any case, there is no question that territorialism is a driving force in Russian Orthodoxy. It really is part of that religion.

  • Posted by: Bronco Pete - Feb. 28, 2016 9:52 AM ET USA

    An interesting thought Loumiamo; No, based on my study of Russia and the East I do not believe there is any scriptural interpretation that could justify the territorial sense of Orthodoxy. I believe it is a cultural phenomenon, based on what gave rise to Orthodoxy. I believe it has been the constant "under siege" mentality, from the rise of islam, the crusades, the nomadic wars through the defensive mind-set of the East which gives rise to this defensive territorial min set.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Feb. 27, 2016 4:28 PM ET USA

    This is a more complicated situation as Dr. Mirus points out...especially if the concept of territorialism goes back to Constantine. Certainly, there is scriptural basis for Territory with the Jews and "The Nations"; clearly a part of the Jewish world view during the time of the New Testament. This may not be the basis for the current Orthodox understanding. But one does not need to look too deep to find support even if in error. Thankfully, we have the teaching authority of the Church.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 27, 2016 1:48 PM ET USA

    Having known persons who are Ukrainian Catholics, I understand Shevchuk’s position on the matter. After all, the Ukrainian people were subjected to persecution including starvation in the 1930's

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Feb. 26, 2016 7:44 PM ET USA

    Apparently Phil Lawler and Jeff Mirus get their foreign policy information from only one source when it comes to Putin, the Ukraine, and Russia. If you never read anything that contradicts your world view you have no credibility and are incapable of being independent thinkers. I am sick of the Putin bashing. Take a look at the map of the world where U.S. bases are and where Russian bases are. It is very obvious that the U.S. is menacing Russia according to the Neocons' hegemonic plans.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Feb. 26, 2016 12:54 PM ET USA

    Non Catholic believers always find Scriptures to justify their non Catholicism. Do the Orthodox have their favorites too? None come to my mind that could be used to support their territoriality.