Pope Francis and the Russian Patriarch Will Meet, as Ukrainian Catholics Watch and Wait

Published February 5, 2016

National Review Online

The announcement that Pope Francis will meet with Kirill, Russian Orthodox patriarch of Moscow, in Cuba on February 12 is, paradoxically, both a Big Deal and something that ought to have become routine by now. It’s a big deal, in that the Bishop of Rome has never met before with the leader of Russian Orthodoxy (who, like his predecessors, thinks of himself as the patriarch of the “Third Rome”). At the same time, this first meeting should have happened long ago, such that meetings between the pope and the Russian patriarch would be routine: important but regular exchanges of views on questions of mutual interest, like those the pope regularly conducts with other Christian leaders.

Why has it taken so long for a meeting between the pope and the Russian Orthodox patriarch to take place? Popes have met regularly with other Orthodox prelates, including the first-among-equals Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, since the mid-1960s; so why not the patriarch of Moscow? That’s the essential, first question to be explored, in order to set the Francis–Kirill meeting in proper perspective. It’s a complicated tale, full of noble intentions, naïveté and shrewdness, and low politics. Yet understanding why this encounter has been so difficult to arrange is crucial for understanding the stakes involved in the February 12 meeting and what follows from it: for Francis and his relationship with both world Orthodoxy and the Eastern Catholic Churches (Byzantine in ritual and governance but in full communion with Rome); for Kirill, his close relationship with Vladimir Putin, and Russian Orthodoxy’s quest for preeminence in the Orthodox world; for Ukraine; for the future of the 21st-century dialogue between Catholicism and Orthodoxy throughout the world; and indeed for Russia itself.

So a look back is the necessary prerequisite to looking ahead with a clear, realistic eye.

Lenin, who famously said that “there can be nothing more abominable than religion,” did everything in his power to extinguish the flame of Christian faith and to destroy Christian culture in the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; his wife, Krupskaya, did her part by ensuring that the anti-religious articles in the Soviet criminal code were placed between the articles banning prostitution and pornography. Under the Bolsheviks, Russian Orthodoxy became a martyr Church, its magnificent structures dynamited and its clergy murdered or dispatched to anonymous death in the Gulag — all in the name of creating Homo sovieticus. During this period of concentrated, Communist assault on Christian communities, all Vatican attempts to provide minimal pastoral care for the small number of Catholics in what had become the USSR were rebuffed; efforts to send underground priests into the USSR to care for Catholics there usually ended in the priests’ martyrdom.

Changes in the official Soviet attitude toward Russian Orthodoxy began in the weeks after the German invasion of Russia in June 1941. As the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht ground its way toward Moscow, Lenin’s heir, Stalin, first froze in psychic paralysis before reemerging to christen the battle against Hitler the “Great Patriotic War”: a struggle in which he would appeal to every possible source of traditional Russian patriotism in order to stem the Teutonic onslaught. Thus the Russian Orthodox Church was resurrected from beneath the Communist rubble and deployed to rally Russian support for the death struggle with the Third Reich. But having brought Russian Orthodoxy back into governmental favor, Stalin, a former seminarian, was not about to let the Church off the Communist leash. So the leadership of post-war Russian Orthodoxy became an adjunct to the Soviet regime, in a return to a national political-cultural pattern that had been established under the czars.

One of the first things the Russian Orthodox leadership did in the immediate post-war period was to work closely with the NKVD, the Stalinist secret police, to stage-manage a fake Church “council,” the 1946 Lviv Sobor, in Soviet Ukraine. There, the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church [UGCC], “abrogated” (at gunpoint) the 1596 Union of Brest, which had restored it to full communion with Rome, and was thereby “reunited” with Russian Orthodoxy. The UGCC’s bishops and those of its clergy who refused to accept their “reunion” with Moscow were murdered or shipped off to the Gulag, where the majority died; the UGCC’s institutions (which had been safe-deposit boxes of Ukrainian national identity and aspiration) were destroyed or turned over to the Russian Orthodox; and for the next four and a half decades, the UGCC was the largest underground religious body in the world, conducting religious services in forests and educating its priests clandestinely.

Pope John XXIII, seeking to open a conversation that would permit Russian Orthodox observers to attend the Second Vatican Council, received Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s son-in-law in private audience, exchanged greetings with Khrushchev himself on the pope’s eightieth birthday in 1961, and ended the anti-Communist rhetoric that had characterized Vatican commentary on world affairs during the pontificates of Pius XI and Pius XII. Russian Orthodox observers were indeed allowed out of the USSR and were cordially received at Vatican II (1962–65). But their presence in Rome also marked the first wave in what became a determined attempt by the KGB to penetrate the Vatican — a campaign of infiltration and blackmail that intensified (and became more successful) in the pontificate of John XXIII’s successor, Paul VI, who through his Ostpolitik reached out to Communist-bloc countries throughout the Warsaw Pact.

While Vatican diplomacy was seeking a new relationship with Warsaw Pact states, on the assumption that these countries would remain under Communist control well into the 21st century, three default positions were being set at the Vatican’s ecumenical shop, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity: the key to the quest for Christian unity is the relationship between Catholicism and Orthodoxy; the key to the complex Orthodox world is Russian Orthodoxy; therefore, every effort must be bent to maintain cordial relations with the Moscow Patriarchate.

These three defaults remain in place today. They help explain why Vatican diplomacy has been, in the main, reticent to the point of quiescence about the return to brutal authoritarianism in Putin’s Russia; about Russia’s illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea; and about Russia’s role in the chronic, low-grade warfare in the Donbas region of southern and eastern Ukraine. These defaults also help explain why the Vatican has not reached out to the largest and liveliest of the four contending Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kyivan Patriarchate, for the Vatican insists on maintaining its links to the Ukrainian jurisdiction linked to Russia, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate.

And while Pope Francis has assured the bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of his support for their independence and his admiration for their vital role in building civil society in Ukraine, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State too often seem to regard the UGCC as a complicating factor in Catholic–Russian Orthodox relations. Why? Two reasons suggest themselves. First, the very existence, and indeed the enormous religious and institutional vitality, of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is a living reminder of the wickedness of the Lviv Sobor of 1946 and Russian Orthodoxy’s complicity in this act of repression: and that reminder “complicates” Vatican relations with the Russian Orthodox leadership, which continues to insist, often quite aggressively, that what was done in 1946 was the return of a wayward church to the Orthodox fold. And second, because the UGCC, which has worked cooperatively with several of the Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine since the Maidan revolution of dignity in 2013–14, challenges the Moscow Patriarchate’s claim to be the sole, legitimate expression of Christianity in the Russkii mir, the “Russian world,” which, by the reckoning of both Patriarch Kirill and President Putin, includes Ukraine.

As it happens, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the UGCC, and Bishop Borys Gudziak, who chairs the UGCC’s external-affairs department, welcome the Francis–Kirill meeting. Meetings between Rome and Moscow ought to be “routine,” Bishop Gudziak told me. Both he and Major Archbishop Shevchuk would be “delighted,” he said, if this first meeting would lead to a regular exchange between the pope and the patriarch of Moscow, of the sort that takes place with other Orthodox leaders. But both men are also quite aware that, among the many reasons why Russian Orthodox leaders refused to invite John Paul II to Russia was the late pope’s strong support for the UGCC and his veneration for its Stalin-era martyrs, both of which were expressions of John Paul’s commitment to religious freedom. Shevchuk and Gudziak are also fully aware that the Moscow Patriarchate has been putting intense pressure on the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and the Vatican Secretariat of State to temper any robust Vatican commentary on Ukraine, so as not to create what the Moscow Patriarchate would regard as an obstacle to a Francis–Kirill meeting, to a normalized relationship between the leaders of Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy, and to what the patriarchate’s “foreign minister,” Metropolitan Hilarion, describes as common efforts to help persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

Both the historical situation facing Pope Francis, which touches on issues more than four centuries old, and the current points of tension in relations between the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate are thus complicated in the extreme. Today, the Catholic Church’s activities are severely circumscribed in Russia; Catholicism is on the way to being extinguished in Crimea; yet some brave and intelligent Russian Orthodox thinkers are calling for their Church to learn something from Catholic social doctrine and reexamine Orthodoxy’s theory of Church–state “symphony” — which seems in practice to mean the subservience of the Church to the reigning czar, commissar, or president. Despite these challenges and this intellectual ferment, though, Francis’s efforts to shake up the Roman Curia have not yet succeeded in changing the default positions that have governed Vatican ecumenical encounters with Russian Orthodoxy, and Vatican “foreign policy” toward Russia, for more than 40 years.

Pope Francis will meet Patriarch Kirill fully aware of the Russian patriarch’s close relationship with Vladimir Putin, whom the pope knows to be a man of power rather than principle, and a ruthless ruler who does not cavil to use the Russian Church as an instrument to advance his political ends — including his aims in the Middle East, where Putin would like to cloak his strategic ambitions in the guise of a defender of persecuted Christians. The pope will be aware of the fragility of Russian Orthodoxy in Russia, where church attendance on Sunday in the cities is minuscule, despite Putin’s considerable investment in re-creating Russian Orthodox structures damaged or destroyed under Communism. The pope will also know that, should the communiqué he and Kirill will issue in Havana include anything that can be portrayed as acknowledging the Russian claim that the Lviv Sobor of 1946 was legitimate (which means that today’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is illegitimate), the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches will be deeply offended and its capacity to maintain its independence in today’s Ukraine will be undercut, at a moment in Ukraine’s turbulent contemporary history when President Petro Poroshenko may be tempted, once again, to press for a single Ukrainian Orthodox jurisdiction as a kind of “national” church. The pope will also have to deal with Kirill in such a way that he does not seem to be weakening the position of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who has show himself far more friendly to Catholicism than the recent and present Russian Orthodox leadership.

And yet, while avoiding those landmines, Francis will want to create an atmosphere in which this first meeting with Kirill doesn’t turn into a one-off affair but is, rather, the beginning of a regularization of contacts between pope and patriarch. It’s a very tall order.

Patriarch Kirill will come to his meeting with Pope Francis holding what is, objectively, a weaker hand than the pope’s. Yet those Vatican default positions toward Russian Orthodoxy, combined with Kirill’s likely strategic goals for the Havana meeting and for a new relationship with the Vatican, make his task somewhat simpler than Francis’s.

It is virtually certain that Kirill is far more interested in the upcoming “great and holy council” of world Orthodoxy (which, on present plans, is to meet in Crete in June) than in a new, religiously serious, and theologically deepened encounter with Catholicism. The very term “Third Rome” suggests that Kirill, like his predecessors, thinks that Constantinople (the “Second Rome”) is a spent force, and that Russian Orthodoxy by right ought to be the leader of world Orthodoxy. That he is meeting with Francis at all will help him drive that point home: He, like his Muscovite predecessors, is the one who played hard-to-get with the Vatican; he won, and he got the pope to meet with him in a place of his choosing; he is now, therefore, the de facto first-among-equals in Orthodoxy.

Then there is Ukraine. Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion must know that, at the moment, they are losing Ukraine. The most active, vital parts of Ukrainian Orthodoxy are those that have broken their communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, not least because of the patriarchate’s acquiescence to Putin’s aggression in Crimea and the Donbas. Yet Kirill, like Putin, is a veteran of the KGB; and as such, he plays a long game. By meeting with the pope and thereby underscoring his claim to the leadership of the Orthodox world (his prime imperative), Kirill may well think that he is taking a step that advances two other strategic goals: postponing a final rupture between the Moscow Patriarchate and Ukrainian Orthodoxy, and further complicating the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s relationship with Rome.

From Metropolitan Hilarion’s comments on the Francis–Kirill meeting, it also seems likely that Kirill will press the Vatican to work cooperatively on aid to Christians facing genocide in Iraq and Syria. The pope and his diplomats are fully cognizant of the mortal peril Christian communities now face from ISIS; answering this Russian Orthodox call for cooperation in aiding Levantine Christians without becoming a de facto partner in Putin’s push to restore a major Russian role in the Middle East is going to require considerable Vatican dexterity.

Russia remains deeply wounded by more than 70 years of Communism. Its present, sad condition — a kleptocratic, mafia-like state perched atop a crumbling civil society with vast demographic and public-health problems — is an expression of the damage done by Lenin and his Bolsheviks to a once-great spiritual culture. The path to a 21st-century Russia that honors the dignity of its own people and that is no longer a threat to its neighbors or to world order is not going to be a matter of political and economic reform alone. The path to a nobler, more humane Russian future is going to involve a recovery of the spiritual riches of the Russian Orthodox past. And reclaiming that patrimony in today’s circumstances will require Russian Orthodoxy to disentangle itself from the lethal embrace of state power, which crippled its evangelical vitality in the past and continues to do so today.

Thus one hopes that Pope Francis, in his private conversations with Patriarch Kirill, will insist that religious freedom is a prerequisite to the rebuilding of Christian culture in societies deeply wounded by the hyper-secularist Communist past, and to meeting the challenges posed today by the siren songs of a secular, libertine, materialist future. On this front, Francis could both defend his own and suggest a pathway toward a better Russian 21st century by citing the example of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church: a vibrant religious community, formed and sustained by the spiritual treasures of the Christian East, that has embraced religious freedom and is all the stronger for having done so, both spiritually and in its impact on society.

That the meeting between pope and patriarch will take place in Cuba will strike many as a not entirely propitious augury that significant progress will be made along these lines on February 12. But as Pope Benedict XVI reminded Christians in his second encyclical, Spe Salvi, we are “saved by hope” (Romans 8:24). The Francis–Kirill encounter could open the way to a better ecumenical future, if what follows in its wake is a genuine dialogue between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy about Christian witness in the 21st-century world: a dialogue that will require, on the Roman side, a root-and-branch reexamination of the Vatican default positions on Russian Orthodoxy, and on the Muscovite side, an abandonment of the hardball politics and subservience to the Kremlin that have long driven the Moscow Patriarchate’s relations with the Vatican, with other Orthodox churches, and with Russian Orthodoxy’s neighbors in Ukraine.

— 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. 

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