Taking the “Long View” on Russia

Published August 5, 2015

The Catholic Difference

Queried about the Holy See’s less-than-vigorous response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, senior Vatican officials are given to saying (often with a dismissive tone, as if the question came from a dim-wit), “We take the long view.”

On the diplomatic side, that “long view” seems to be a reprise of the Ostpolitik of Agostino Casaroli, who was Paul VI’s chief diplomatic agent behind the iron curtain. As a warrant for current policy, Italian curialists continue to insist that the accommodating approach of Casaroli’s Ostpolitik made John Paul II’s role in the collapse of communism possible. (I thought I had demolished that claim, using documentation from communist secret police agencies in central and eastern Europe, in the second volume of my John Paul II biography, The End and the Beginning—which is available in an excellent Italian translation—but evidently some people were unpersuaded.)

As for the ecumenical part of the equation, the Holy See seems to accord highest priority to avoiding anything that might give offense to the Russian Orthodox Church, which it perceives to be one key to advancing a broader agenda of ecclesial reconciliation between Christian West and Christian East. On this theory, dominant in the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity for decades, keeping the peace between Rome and the Russian Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow now will make good things happen later.

But “later” never comes.

I’d like to suggest a different “long view,” better fitted to the realities of this moment and the foreseeable future, and built around these premises:

(1) Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime is an aggressive, destabilizing force in world politics. It pushes and pushes until there is pushback. It (correctly) senses weakness in the West, and it is exploiting that weakness in order to reverse what Putin called a “geopolitical catastrophe:” the collapse of the Soviet Union.

(2) The notion that Putin cares about persecuted Christians in the Middle East and wants to play the Russian czar’s old role of their protector is both ridiculous and dangerous. Why should Putin, whose goons are killing Christians next door in eastern Ukraine, care a fig for persecuted Christians hundreds of miles away in the Middle East? Putin’s entire Middle East strategy is one of destabilization, aimed at driving the West from the region and empowering Iran. That is why he has successfully blocked any serious attempt to replace the butcher Assad’s regime in Syria, and that is why Russian policy has been a serious obstacle to keeping Iran away from a nuclear weapon.

(3) The Russian Orthodox leadership, especially Patriarch Kirill and his “foreign minister,” Metropolitan Hilarion, have been allies of Putin’s aggressive foreign policy, trying to give it a spiritual veneer. This is nothing new for the Russian Orthodox leadership, which, since Stalin’s cynical rehabilitation of the Church during World War II, has been, for all practical purposes, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Kremlin.

(4) Serious ecumenical theological dialogue is impossible with men who are acting in the world as agents of Russian state power. Pretending otherwise emboldens the Russian Orthodox leadership and undercuts the genuine ecumenism being advanced by Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, whom Kirill would like to replace, de facto at least, as the first-among-equals in world Orthodoxy.

(5) The most urgent ecumenical dialogue between Russia and Rome today must focus on a new generation of Russian Orthodox thinkers: those who, having looked hard at the crisis in Ukraine and their Church leadership’s propaganda activities on behalf of the Putin regime, have concluded that Russian Orthodoxy needs a new theory of Church-and-state—and should develop one in vigorous conversation with serious scholars of Catholic social doctrine.

(6) Such a new ecumenical initiative would, over time, create the conditions for the possibility of a Russian Orthodoxy that is not in thrall to Russian state power, and that could be a partner in the re-evangelization of Europe because its leadership had rediscovered the power of the Gospel.

(7) The pretense of “common interests” between the Vatican and the Kremlin distorts reality, imperils this new ecumenism, and should be avoided.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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