The accelerating dispute in Ukraine between two Orthodox Churches — the Church of Constantinople, a historic Church with spiritual prestige, and the 140-million-member Russian Orthodox Church, a powerhouse in terms of membership muscle, political clout and wealth — is ominous because it forecasts conflict in a country already suffering a “fratricidal” war, to use Pope Francis’ term.
The Russian Orthodox Church broke Eucharistic communion with the Church of Constantinople Oct. 15 in response to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople’s Oct. 11 decision to recognize a new, independent (“autocephalous”) Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which Russia doesn’t think Constantinople has the right to engineer, based on canon law.
The schism reminds Catholic faithful how consistently our last five popes have prioritized improved relations with our Orthodox brethren.
Recovering Catholic-Orthodox Unity
Pope St. Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras’ landmark meeting in the Holy Land in 1964 started a new era between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. A year later, in a breathtaking act of historical revision, the two men canceled reciprocal excommunications that ruptured the one faith into East and West in 1054.
Every pope since has advanced the goal of Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation.
Not only has Pope Francis developed a friendship with Bartholomew, the Holy Father expanded outreach to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) when he met Patriarch Kirill two years ago.
Francis was the first pope to meet a Russian patriarch in the Moscow Patriarchate’s 1,030-year history, a reunion prayerfully sought since Pope St. John Paul II.
In May, Pope Francis warned Catholics — including Ukrainian Greek Catholics, living mainly in western Ukraine — not to “meddle” in Orthodox affairs when he met with Metropolitan Hilarion, ROC chairman for external church relations, having met Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew days before.
The 14 autocephalous (self-governing) Churches that comprise the Eastern Orthodox Church take pride in being peers, united in faith and sacraments, without a central administration. Instead, consultation among bishops, typically in synods, is the locus of Church power.
“There is in Orthodoxy no one with an equivalent position to the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church,” writes Metropolitan Kallistos Ware in his classic, The Orthodox Church (Penguin Books, 1963). “The Patriarch of Constantinople … has enjoyed a position of special honor … but he does not have the right to interfere in the internal affairs of other Churches.”
The patriarch’s “special honor” is derived from Constantinople’s historic status as the see created when Emperor Constantine moved the Roman Empire’s capital to the banks of the Bosporus in 324 A.D., on a site where the Greek city of Byzantium once stood.
Today, Istanbul is the metropolis where Patriarch Bartholomew holds on to a wedge of land, the Phanar, and governs the Church of Constantinople, with fewer than 3,000 Orthodox Christians in all of Turkey. Diaspora communities over which it has jurisdiction, especially Greek and Ukrainian Orthodox in North America, Western Europe and Australia, uphold the Church of Constantinople financially.
Greek vs. Slavic Tensions
From the history of Constantinople also comes a legacy of convening councils, or synods. Constantine convened the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. to establish Church teachings. A total of seven councils (325-787) continued clarifying the faith over time.
In June 2016, Patriarch Bartholomew convened a pan-Orthodox synod of all 14 autocephalous Churches on the island of Crete. Planning had been in the works for decades.
But in the month leading up to the meeting, four Churches dropped out for different, albeit related, reasons: the ancient Church of Antioch and three national churches, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Russia. Together, they represented at least two-thirds of the faithful.
That event clearly showed the tensions between the Greek and Russian poles of the Eastern Orthodox family. And by moving forward in the absence of several major Orthodox Churches, it also showed a move to position Constantinople as more than “first among equals,” (primus inter pares) with a stronger decision-making role, befitting a global Church.
The Russian Orthodox Church was founded in 988 A.D. by St. Vladimir the Great in Kievan Rus, on the banks of the Dnieper River. Kiev is now the capital of Ukraine.
The Mongols laid siege to Kiev in 1240, destroying many churches and monasteries. Orthodox authority eventually developed a new center of power in Moscow in 1322 — a major reason for the growth of that city.
Kiev remains the birthplace of Russian Orthodox identity, and the ROC’s canonical authority extends throughout contemporary Ukraine — or it did, until Constantinople challenged the status quo this year with recognition of an independent Ukraine Orthodox Church. As the ROC’s recent statements assert, Kiev has been part of the Russian Orthodox Church since 1686.
Following Soviet Collapse
Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), originally created in 1921 when the country enjoyed short-lived independence, re-established itself in Ukraine in 1990. It remains a small community today, led by Metropolitan Makariy, 74.
Ukraine declared its independence in 1991. The ROC’s senior authority in Kiev then was Metropolitan Filaret, 89, who leads the self-designated Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP), a Church called schismatic by the ROC, which excommunicated Metropolitan Filaret 21 years ago. (Patriarch Bartholomew reversed the excommunication last month, although in 1992 and 1997 he condemned him.) The UOC-KP has some 5,000 churches and 60 monasteries.
About 12,000 churches and 200 monasteries are affiliated with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), in full communion with the Russian Orthodox Church, headed by Metropolitan Onufriy, 73. This Church, which is committed to remain under the authority of the ROC, is particularly strong in central, eastern and southern Ukraine.
Thus there are three branches of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, UOAC, UOC-KP and UOC-MP, which all participated in the 2013-2014 Maidan demonstrations seeking an end to political corruption and more democratic accountability from elected leaders.
Process Done by Year’s End
Speaking to the Register by phone, Metropolitan Elpidophoros of Bursa, 50, considered the Church of Constantinople’s “second in command,” offered a confident defense of his Church’s logic regarding Ukraine: “We are creating this new Church to create unity. We don’t want to justify division” for the Ukrainian faithful.
He continued, “Every independent country, sometime in its history, has its own independent Church. That is normal. It’s an evolution.”
The metropolitan said the two requirements for autocephaly have been fulfilled: requests from an independent nation and an independent Church.
Metropolitan Elpidophoros confirmed Constantinople has appointed two exarchs (administrator bishops), from the U.S. and Canada, to guide the process of convening a Church Council in Kiev, where bishops as well as parish priests or parish councils can ask to belong. The council will elect a new leader — not necessarily Metropolitan Filaret, said Metropolitan Elpidophoros.
But Metropolitan Filaret has repeated his expectation to head the autocephalous Ukrainian Church with the title “patriarch.”
And in another indication of a lack of consensus between the UAOC and UOC-KP, Metropolitan Makariy recently said he is unwilling to be pressured into decisions about a unification council that seems to be rushed. He also expressed doubts the initiative would succeed, given that fundamental elements, including the proposed new Church’s name, statues and model, haven’t been defined.
Nevertheless, Metropolitan Elpidophoros expects the autocephaly process to be concluded by the end of this year.
“I want to underline the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarch has no political agenda. The other side has a political agenda and is directed by political interests,” he said, adding, “We have to act like Christians, not just politicians.”
Sharply Differing Perspective
Throughout Church history, decades (in some cases, centuries) typically separate the creation of a new church and the award of autocephaly.
For example, the Russian Orthodox Church was born in 988, but it wasn’t recognized by Constantinople as autocephalous until 1596. The Macedonian Orthodox Church was founded in 1967, but because the Serbian Orthodox Church opposes it, Constantinople has never recognized it as autocephalous.
The Russian Orthodox Church seems stunned at Constantinople’s alacrity. Bishop Nicolas Olhovsky of the U.S.-based Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), which reunited with the ROC in 2007, told the Register ROCOR “fully supports Metropolitan Onufriy” and the UOC-MP, which in September condemned the ecumenical patriarchate’s intervention in Ukraine as “a gross interference in the internal affairs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the violation of its canonical territory.”
Bishop Olhovsky confirmed the ROC’s “profound sorrow” regarding Constantinople’s “illicit actions,” based on “false and alien teachings about primacy and universal authority, contrary to the ancient Orthodox faith.”
In an Oct. 28 interview, Metropolitan Hilarion sharply contrasted the actions of Bartholomew with the practice of Pope Francis.
The ecumenical patriarch “positions himself as the head of the Orthodox Church, as a sort of pope of Rome for the Orthodox Churches. The Pope of Rome, however, is not engaged in predation; he is not engaged in robbery. Setting off for a country (for instance, he has recently been to the Baltics visiting Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), the Pope comes to support the faithful, to pray with them. He does not come to take something away from one and hand it over to another. That would be unthinkable. But Patriarch Bartholomew is engaged today in exactly this kind of predation.”
In the same interview, Hilarion said the Russian Orthodox Church considers the U.S. government as the “principal customer” of Constantinople’s initiative.
The response from other Orthodox Churches has not been supportive of Constantinople either.
Seven other patriarchates (Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Serbia, Bulgaria, Poland, the Czech Lands and Slovakia) have expressed grave concerns over Bartholomew’s actions.
Pushed by Politics?
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement Oct. 19 urging “tolerance, restraint and understanding … in connection with the move toward the establishment of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko claimed in September that the U.S. government has provided “active support” for his efforts to establish an autocephalous Church.
Professor Nicolai Petro, Silvia-Chandley Professor of Peace Studies and Nonviolence at the University of Rhode Island, is an astute analyst of the Orthodox world who spent the summer doing research in Odessa, Ukraine.
Petro believes Poroshenko is trying to link his political future — presidential elections are scheduled for March 31, 2019, and he is running again, despite low popularity — to the creation of this new Ukrainian Church.
Petro told the Register, “There is sympathy for the nationalist agenda in Ukraine,” which is seen in the president’s positions.
“The Ukrainian government is indeed trying to separate what I will call the canonical Church from its relationship with Moscow, then reconstitute it” via laws passed by the Rada, the country’s unicameral parliament, he said.
Another example of “Ukrainian-ness” being privileged in a multiethnic society is an education law passed last year, which prevents Ukrainian minorities from learning their languages in school, including Bulgarian, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish and Russian. The home governments of the ethnic minorities have complained to the Council of Europe and Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) against this initiative.
Petro reports that Metropolitan Onufriy says the government is trying to turn religious communities into political parties — which tends not to work.
“How can you get people to recant their affiliation with one bishop and move to another bishop?” the scholar asked. “That will not happen.”
In mid-October, the UOC-MP metropolitan of Odessa convened 413 clergy and bishops. They heard presentations and then held a secret ballot on whether to support a new autocephalous Church, but 406 voted “not to have anything to do with the ecumenical patriarch’s initiative,” reported Petro.
Meanwhile, several Orthodox Church communities have filed lawsuits challenging the Ukrainian Parliament’s right to ask the ecumenical patriarch to establish a new Church, as it did in April.
Lawsuits might be the least of Ukraine’s problems related to this ecclesiastical crisis: In mid-October, The Associated Press documented efforts by vigilantes to forcibly take over UOC-MP properties — of which there are at least 12,000.
Glimmer of Hope?
Patriarch Kirill told journalists this week, “Today we are dealing with a gross violation of the canons. … But I am ready to go on foot anywhere, just to prevent the development of events we are facing today.”
Perhaps Pope Francis, in his style, is discreetly at work preparing a mediation effort between his two “brothers,” Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Patriarch Kirill.
Register senior correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning international