National Security & Defense

Testing ‘Brotherhood’: Next Steps for the Vatican and Russian Orthodoxy

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Havana, February 12, 2016. (Alejandro Ernesto/AFP/Getty)

Editor’s Note: The following is an open letter to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Dear Colleagues:

I write in the spirit of canon 212.3 in the Code of Canon Law, which states that “[Christ’s faithful] have the right, indeed at times, the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence, and position, to manifest to [the Church’s leaders] their views on matters which concern the good of the Church. They have the right also to make their views known to others.”

Permit me a word at the outset about my “competence.” I have spent almost four decades working for religious freedom in the lands that formerly comprised the Soviet Union and its external empire, the Warsaw Pact countries of Central and Eastern Europe. During these years, I have been privileged to work with leading scholars of Soviet and post-Soviet religious policy. In 1988, I organized An Appeal for Religious Freedom in the Soviet Union on the Occasion of the Millennium of Christianity in Kievan Rus’, which was signed by virtually every major religious leader in the United States and presented to President Reagan at the White House prior to his visit to Moscow that year. In the course of my professional activities I have also spent some time with both Patriarch Kirill, when he was Russian Orthodoxy’s “foreign minister,” and more recently with his successor in that role, Metropolitan Hilarion.

During 15 years of work on the two volumes of my biography of Pope St. John Paul II, Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning, I came into possession of what were once highly classified materials from the archives of the secret police agencies of the Warsaw Pact, and came to understand in some detail the efforts (not without effect) of Warsaw Pact intelligence services to penetrate the Vatican. This research also taught me how the Soviet authorities subordinated the Russian Orthodox Church to their political ends and used the Church’s principal leaders as instruments of state power. In those same years, I came to know many of the senior officials of your office, who were most gracious with their time as I sought to understand the ecumenical strategies of the Vatican. In his last years, I shared with John Paul II his bitter disappointment at not being permitted to enter post-Soviet Russia, even to return the priceless icon of Our Lady of Kazan, which he wanted to take back to its proper home, as a sign of his profound respect for the theological and spiritual riches of the Russian Orthodox tradition.

With that as background for what follows, I should like to suggest to you, and for public discussion, the following “next steps” for the dialogue between the Holy See and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), in the wake of the historic meeting in Havana between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill. My suggestions are based on the assumption that the unity that is being sought between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy, like all other serious ecumenical endeavors, is a unity in truth, which can only be pursued in truth.

Why Havana Happened

In pursuing a new dialogue with Russian Orthodoxy, it seems to me that the first requisite for Vatican ecumenists is a clear understanding of why the Havana meeting happened, and what that means.

The ROC refused such a meeting for decades, during a period when it became routine for the pope to meet with other leaders of world Orthodoxy, including the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople. The reason typically given, as you know, was that the very existence of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), and its revival in post-Soviet Ukraine, was deemed an insuperable obstacle to a meeting between the bishop of Rome and the patriarch of Moscow. That this once-“insuperable” obstacle evidently no longer exists, and that the joint declaration signed by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Havana acknowledges the UGCC’s “right to exist and to undertake all that is necessary to meet the spiritual needs of [its] faithful” is a welcome step forward: It will be very difficult in the future for the ROC to cite the UGCC as an excuse for not pursuing the full range of ecumenical engagements with the Catholic Church. But a question remains: Why was this step taken now, when it could have been taken at any time in the past 35 years or more?

That the Moscow patriarchate backed down and agreed that its leader would meet with the pope suggests that the ROC and the Putin regime (with which the ROC leadership is deeply entangled) needed this meeting, and for several reasons. First, to take a step beyond the isolation of Russia in world affairs that Vladimir Putin’s policies have caused. Second, to provide a veneer of legitimacy for Putin’s intervention in Syria, cast in terms of a common concern for persecuted Christians in the Middle East. And third, to bring the Moscow patriarchate to world attention, and to the attention of the world’s many Orthodox Churches, four months before an unprecedented pan-Orthodox council meets on the Greek island of Crete. Dealing with the second of these reasons is going to require exceptionally shrewd diplomacy on the part of the Holy See so that the Vatican does not find itself acting as a de facto chaplain for Vladimir Putin’s imperial adventures in the Levant.

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Recognize the Asymmetries in the Relationship for What They Are

It would be ecumenical bad manners to make the point publicly, but Holy See ecumenists involved in the post-Havana dialogue with the ROC must recognize that the relationship between the bishop of Rome and the patriarch of Moscow is quite asymmetrical. This was evident in Havana, when, at their joint public meeting, Patriarch Kirill spoke the language of the world and Pope Francis spoke the language of the Gospel. This asymmetry reflects the long subordination of the Moscow patriarchate to state power, be that Soviet power, czarist power, or Putin-power. In dealing with this challenging asymmetry, it is essential to recall the teaching of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, that “there can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without interior conversion,” and that “this change of heart and holiness of life . . .  should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement.”

Patriarch Kirill spoke the language of the world and Pope Francis spoke the language of the Gospel.

Thus future ecumenical encounters between Catholic and Russian Orthodox leaders cannot be subject, as the Havana meeting seems to have been, to a Russian veto over common prayer and theological dialogue. In retrospect, perhaps the oddest thing about the Havana meeting was that Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill did not say the Lord’s Prayer together before the world. This is not Christian “brotherhood,” and that pattern should not be allowed to continue. Thus the Vatican should insist that future meetings between senior ecumenical officials of both communities (and, of course, future meetings between the bishop of Rome and the patriarch of Moscow) must include prayer together as well as serious theological conversation, all conducted in a genuinely ecclesial environment — no more airport meeting rooms, in other words.

These steps are important in themselves, for the reasons Vatican II cited: They are essential to real conversion of heart and to the authentic renewal of the churches that is indispensable to their journey toward a fuller unity. But there is more at stake here. The manner in which these encounters are conducted ought to illustrate and underscore the Catholic Church’s conviction that these are religious encounters, which is a crucial barrier against the relationship’s being politicized for Russian state purposes. The ROC and its colleagues in the Kremlin are perfectly capable of exploiting the humility and piety of Pope Francis for ends other than religious; future meetings should be organized in such a way that that isn’t allowed to happen.

Calling Things by Their Right Names

In the future, it would be well to describe certain religious and political realities with precision and accuracy, qualities that were sometimes missing from the Havana Declaration.

Every serious Christian welcomes the reclamation and renovation of many Russian churches seized by the Communists and applauds the building of new churches in post-Soviet Russia. But these acts do not amount to the “unprecedented renewal of the Christian faith in Russia” of which the joint declaration speaks. There is no empirical evidence for that, especially in Russia’s major cities, where regular church attendance is in the range of 1 to 2 percent.

What is happening in Ukraine is not an internal ‘conflict,’ as the joint declaration implies.

What is happening in Ukraine is not an internal “conflict,” as the joint declaration implies. What has happened in Ukraine is that Russia has invaded and annexed Crimea and invaded significant parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, where it is conducting a sometimes hot, sometimes tepid war that has caused thousands of casualties and displaced well over a million persons. This is properly described as “aggressive war,” and describing it as some sort of generic “conflict” adds further toxicity to the moral atmosphere of world politics, which is bad enough already.

Nor are the “tensions . . . between Greek Catholics and Orthodox” in Ukraine as symmetrical as the language of the joint declaration suggests. Those “tensions” have been caused by a steady campaign of Moscow-orchestrated assaults on the integrity and activity of the UGCC, which in fact has worked with other Ukrainian religious communities in an unprecedented way since the Maidan Revolution of Dignity began in November 2013. Further cooperation among Christian communities in Ukraine is not aided when Muscovite misrepresentations of the sources of inter-church “tensions” are allowed to stand.

And then there is the question of accurate theological or ecclesial terminology. The joint declaration refers to the UGCC as an “ecclesial community” (a term Catholic ecumenism uses of Protestants), when in fact the UGCC is fully a church as the Catholic Church understands that term: The UGCC is as much a “church” as the Latin-rite Catholic Church is. If this elision into the language of “ecclesial communities” was adopted on the theory that it wouldn’t be noticed, that theory has been thoroughly falsified since the Havana meeting; lots of people noticed, and many of them are justifiably quite unhappy. If the language of “ecclesial community” was used of the UGCC because the ROC could not swallow the description of the UGCC as a “church” (even as the ROC conceded the UGCC’s right to exist and to care for its people), then that is unworthy of the Holy See. The UGCC became a martyr church in the 20th century out of fidelity to Peter and his successors, and the blood of those martyrs demands the respect signified by an accurate description of their church as, precisely, a “church.” A lack of Catholic self-respect in calling fellow Catholics by their proper name is not going to assuage Russian Orthodoxy’s alleged grievances but will rather encourage the kind of intransigence that made a meeting between pope and Russian patriarch impossible for decades.

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Getting Down to Business, Theologically

While press reports emphasized the longstanding differences between Rome and the Orthodox churches in the matter of papal primacy, the immediate theological issue between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy — the issue on whose resolution the opening created at Havana depends — is something a bit less exalted: It involves the question of church-and-state.

One of the more encouraging signs to come out of Russian Orthodoxy’s struggle to revitalize itself in the post-Soviet space is the recognition among some younger Russian Orthodox thinkers that the old Eastern Christian theory of church–state “symphony” hasn’t worked for a long time, and isn’t likely to work in the future, given the nature of the modern state. How, they ask, will Russian Orthodoxy liberate itself from its historic position as “chaplain to the czar,” whether the czar be a Romanov, a Communist Politburo chairman, or a dubiously elected president?

How, they ask, will Russian Orthodoxy liberate itself from its historic position as ‘chaplain to the czar’?

Now that’s a subject for serious theological encounter. As Pope Benedict XVI freely conceded at Regensburg in 2006, it took the Catholic Church several hundred years to disentangle itself from altar-and-throne alliances; one of the byproducts of that disentanglement was modern Catholic social doctrine and its stress on religious freedom and the limited, constitutional state; the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has shown the power of Catholic social doctrine to help build civil society under exceptionally difficult circumstances. Surely this history provides rich material for common theological reflection between Catholics and Russian Orthodox. And perhaps that reflection might include Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the UGCC, a member of your Pontifical Council, as an interlocutor with Russian Orthodox leaders and theologians. He has a lot to offer such a conversation; it was striking that his expertise was not utilized in preparing the Havana meeting, and that deficiency should be remedied in the future.

It would also be useful to have a conversation with Russian Orthodox leaders about their continued claim that their “canonical territory,” from which the evangelical efforts of other Christian communities are excluded, includes all of the lands that are heirs of the baptism of the Eastern Slavs in 988: for practical purposes, today’s Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Perhaps a small step away from this strange notion — what is a “canonical territory” and what canon law are we talking about here? — was taken in the Havana Declaration. But the further question is whether this terminology provides religious cover for President Putin’s notion of a Russkiy mir, a “Russian world” that is by rights ruled from Moscow. Here, again, the church–state question rears its head, and cannot be avoided.

Reining in Metropolitan Hilarion

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev was by all accounts instrumental in drafting the joint declaration signed in Havana, in his role as head of the ROC’s “external affairs” department. I spent several hours at the Library of Congress with Metropolitan Hilarion in 2011 and found him very intelligent, often charming, and deeply troubling. When I asked him whether the “Lviv Sobor” of 1946 (at which the Greek Catholics of Ukraine, historically dismissed as “Uniates” by the ROC, were “reunited” with the Russian Orthodox Church at gunpoint) was a “legitimate ecclesial act,” he brusquely shot back, “Yes!” When I asked how a “reunification” orchestrated by the NKVD, successor to the Cheka and predecessor to the KGB, could be a truly ecclesial act of authentically recomposed unity, he just as brusquely said that “when Uniates return to their home, it is legitimate.” “No matter what the method involved?” I responded. “Yes,” he said. You will understand that I found this exchange . . . instructive.

Over the ensuing five years, Metropolitan Hilarion has played bad cop to Patriarch Kirill’s sometimes-good cop, laying down a barrage of criticism against “Ukrainian schismatics and Uniates,” whom he has come within an inch of accusing of precipitating the war in eastern Ukraine. He blasted the UGCC in front of the entire synod of Bishops, whose guest he was in Rome in 2014; he behaved rather better at synod 2015 but then blasted the UGCC and its leaders within two days of his return to Moscow.

#related#This must end. If Hilarion is going to be the chief ROC interlocutor in the follow-up to the Havana meeting, it should be made clear to the ROC that, if its ecumenical officer continues to function as an extension of the Soviet foreign ministry, the future of the conversation is going to be bleak — and not only on theological matters, but in making headway on the ROC’s expressed interest in “common work” on the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world, on combating aggressive secularism, and on the renewal of the moral life of society as a whole. Moral renewal is not empowered by historical falsification or ecclesial aggression.

An occasion to make this point is right on the horizon. The 70th anniversary of the notorious so-called Lviv Sobor comes on March 8–10. Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion must understand that the new relationship of “brotherhood” proclaimed at Havana cannot include any ROC celebration of that event whatsoever. It may be too much to hope for an act of repentance from the ROC for what happened in Lviv seven decades ago, when Russian churchmen worked hand-in-glove with NKVD thugs to deprive a Christian community of its identity and independence. But it ought not be too much to ask for, and get, a show of restraint on the anniversary.

Helping the Brethren

Russian Orthodoxy is the heir of a rich spiritual and theological tradition. That tradition could contribute to the rescue of Russia, a dying society ruled by a kleptocratic mafia composed primarily of exKGB officers. Yet the renewal of the Russian Church, which may be the only candidate for leadership in the resuscitation of Russian civil society, is being impeded today by the corruptions of the oligarchic Russian Orthodox leadership and its deference to Russian state power. No one expects the Vatican to publicly chastise the Russian Orthodox leadership for its evangelical and moral failures. But unless a frank recognition of the situation guides the future dialogue, any possible help that Catholics might be to Russian Orthodox reformers in advancing the “interior conversion” that is the beginning of Church renewal and the prerequisite for serious ecumenism is going to be frustrated. Worse, were the Kremlin-inspired political agendas of the patriarchate of Moscow to continue to dominate the post-Havana discussion, the Holy See’s credibility as a moral measuring rod in world politics is likely to be eroded.

It was good that the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill took place. As hard as it was to arrange, however, the really hard work lies ahead. Be assured of my solidarity in prayer as you pursue that work.

George Weigel — George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His many books include the two-volume ...

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