National Catholic Register


Orthodox-Catholic Relations Teeter At Critical Juncture

Outcome of disputes will shape Christianity in Eastern Europe

BY Jonathan Luxmoore

July 5-11, 1998 Issue | Posted 7/5/98 at 1:00 PM


Eastern Europe Correspondent

WARSAW, Poland-When a new leader was enthroned May 31 for Poland's minority Orthodox Church, he took care to stress his commitment to ecumenical co-operation. Putting this into practice, however, will be no easy thing.

At 60, Metropolitan Sawa of Warsaw and all Poland heads a community of 750,000 in a predominantly Catholic country. Though dwarfed by others around Europe, it's by no means the smallest

Orthodox Church, but like them, it'll be facing tough choices in the months ahead.

Since mid-1997, Catholic-Orthodox ties have slumped, amid acerbic disputes over the very sense and purpose of ecumenism. Just what will emerge from today's inter- Church disputes remains to be seen, but it seems certain to have a key impact on the future of European and world Christianity.

Ironically, the decline in relations became public at the time of the Second European Ecumenical Assembly at Graz in June 1997. There had been talk that this would be marked by a sensational encounter between the Pope and Patriarchs Bartholomew of Constantinople and Alexei of Moscow.

But Bartholomew pulled out of the Assembly, declaring he didn't want to be drawn into “a tug of war over superiority.” Alexei went to Graz, but devoted his speech to an attack on foreign missionaries in Russia.

The slump has had feedback locally.


Russia's new religious law, enacted last September, was supported by Orthodox leaders as a way of restricting the spread of sects. But it has created complications for the country's minority Catholic Church too. Though the law's 27 articles promise all religious groups “legal protection,” they require local Church members to have been legally active for at least 15 years before conducting any religious activities.

A Catholic archdiocese was created in Russia as early as 1783, but the Church's two present apostolic administrations weren't set up until 1991, since Catholic activities were suppressed by the Soviet rulers.

On June 4, Russia's Catholic leader, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, confirmed he had received a justice ministry certificate re-registering his Church as a “centralized Russian religious organization.” Yet ambiguities in the law have opened the door to arbitrary local government restrictions.

These haven't prevented Catholics from strengthening their presence. This year alone, two new bishops have been appointed, along with an 11-member clergy council. Meanwhile, Catholic baptisms and marriages are on the rise. In May, the first Russian-trained deacons were ordained in St. Petersburg's newly reopened Catholic cathedral.

But the Russian press has reported a growing anti-ecumenical climate. Local Catholics criticized the secrecy surrounding the last round of talks between Vatican and Moscow Patriarchate representatives in January. The pledges of cooperation and reconciliation, they pointed out, weren't matched by local gestures.


Catholic-Orthodox conflicts are reverberating elsewhere too. Romania's Orthodox leaders, who claim the loyalty of 87% of their country's 23 million citizens, are angry about a draft June 1997 law. If finally enacted, this would require Orthodox parishes to give back some of the 2,000 churches they took over when Romania's minority Eastern-rite Greek Catholic Church was outlawed by the ruling communists in 1948.

New Vatican data suggest the Greek Catholic Church, which combines loyalty to Rome with the eastern liturgy, has tripled in the past five years, raising it to a healthy 6% of the population. So far, however, fewer than 100 Eastern-rite churches have been handed back.

In March, fist-fights broke out when Greek Catholics tried to reclaim possession of Cluj's Transfiguration Cathedral. Romania's Orthodox leader, Patriarch Teoctist, blamed Catholics for rejecting his Church's “call to dialogue.” But the Greek Catholic bishop of Cluj-Gherla said its ownership of the cathedral had been recognized by a court order, and accused Orthodox objectors of “manifestly disregarding the laws and authority of the state.”

Up to 2,500 Orthodox priests protested the cathedral incident at a Cluj rally a week later. However, a Greek Catholic senator who was present at the cathedral clash warned that “Orthodox injustices” had created similarly explosive situations in 200 other communities.


In predominantly Orthodox Bulgaria, where the Catholic Church's 100 parishes account for 3% of the population of 9 million, the reformist President Petur Stojanov promised help in tackling tax and property restitution problems during his first meeting with the country's three Catholic bishops in March.

The Vatican's Prefect for Eastern Churches, Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, visited Bulgaria the same month after the Rome beatification of Bulgarian Bishop Eugen Bossilkov. But Bishop Christo Projkov, who chairs the country's episcopal conference, has accused Stojanov of merely exploiting his Church contacts to foster links with Europe.


In neighboring Greece, where Orthodox Christians traditionally make up 97% of inhabitants, non-Orthodox denominations are technically illegal. Late last year, the European Court of Human Rights declared Greece guilty of discrimination for denying rights to its Catholic minority.

Article 3 of the constitution of Greece, a European Union and NATO memberstate, declares Orthodoxy the country's “dominant religion,” and even prohibits Bible translations without Orthodox Church consent. There is pressure for constitutional reform. In May, government and state leaders said they would avoid the coronation of Greece's new Orthodox Patriarch, Chrystodulos Paraskevaides, as a way of signaling the need for a clearer separation of Church and state.


Meanwhile, in nearby Yugoslavia, where Catholics form just 5% of the population, plans for a Russian-style religious law were announced this spring. In an April letter, Archbishop Franc Perko of Belgrade promised his bishops ’conference would “maintain good contacts” with the government's religious affairs minister, a member of the nationalist Radical Party. However, the government hasn't responded to requests for citizenship and visa rules to be clarified for Catholic priests and nuns. Nor has Serbia's predominant Orthodox Church answered a separate letter proposing an inter-Church commission. Three-quarters of Archbishop Perko's Church members fled Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

The situation isn't universally bad. In Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, small Orthodox minorities coexist peacefully with other faiths, while even in war-torn Bosnia and Croatia, steps have been taken to patch up relations.

Nor is the tension confined only to Catholic-Orthodox ties. Throughout the Orthodox world, pressure is growing against ecumenical involvements generally.

In May 1997, the Georgian Orthodox Church became the first to announce its formal withdrawal from the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC). The WCC's 332 member- Churches are to stage a “recommitment service” when they meet at Harare next December, but several other Orthodox Churches may have followed Georgia's lead by then.

“We joyfully accept the positive things Western culture is offering us, but it contains elements which endanger our nation,” Patriarch Ilia, whose Church claims the spiritual loyalty of 80% of ex- Soviet Georgia's 5.4 million citizens, told a Polish newspaper this May.

“A nation can survive the pressure of a bad or phony culture when it can distinguish this from a true culture, but this needs faith, appropriate spiritual progress, intellect, formation, and knowledge. “

Orthodox leaders say the WCC and Conference of European Churches (CEC) are dominated by Protestant denominations, whose pet agendas — women pastors, sexual minorities, “inclusive language” — reflect narrow Western preoccupations.

Calls for a boycott of the WCC's Harare Assembly were voted down when 15 Orthodox Church delegations met at Thessaloniki and Damascus last month, but it was agreed Orthodox participants should “express their concerns” by staying away from services and voting sessions.

An Orthodox Vatican II?

Some observers think the latest anti-ecumenical climate reflects internal Orthodox tensions. The world's Orthodox population, currently 200 million, is growing thanks to a revival in post-communist countries and increase in diaspora conversions. Several Orthodox leaders have conceded they need something like the Catholic Church's Vatican II, to introduce universal reforms and standardize rules and structures.

But who would have the authority to summon it?

Unlike Catholicism, Orthodoxy's nine patriarchates and 15 self-governing Churches lack a unitary authority. Although Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is traditionally recognized as “first among equals,” his own Istanbul-based patriarchy wields direct jurisdiction over just 3.5 million, compared to the mighty Russian Church's 60 million members.

After the collapse of communism, several Orthodox communities from Estonia to Moldavia attempted to wrest free of Moscow's control by appealing to Constantinople. In 1996, the resulting feud come close to a full-scale rift.

Parallel conflicts of jurisdiction have occurred in other countries.

Ukraine's Orthodox Church has been divided into three rival communities for five years. Bulgaria's is in full-scale schism after the July excommunication of an alternative patriarch. Russia's Orthodox Church faces competition from old believers and foreign-based Orthodox groups, while Churches in Belarus and Serbia are trying to stop regional communities from breaking away.

Other Countries

Attitudes to Catholics have exacerbated the feuding. Publicly at least, all Orthodox patriarchs would like to patch up ties with the Pope — particularly Patriarch Bartholomew, who paid a historic week-long visit to Rome in June 1995. But they're answerable to their local synods, who reflect domestic pressures and claim to have serious grievances against the Catholic Church.

The most important concerns the Pope's primacy. Although most Orthodox admit the Bishop of Rome should exercise a “unifying office,” they insist this cannot be done at the cost of their own apostolic authority.

Some say the progress achieved in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue since Vatican II has been reversed under John Paul II. Instead of recognizing the Orthodox as separated “sister-Churches,” endowed with the Holy Spirit, the Vatican has made allegiance to Rome a criterion for all “true Churches.”

Claims of Proselytizing

Some Orthodox objections are closer to home.

Having seen 200,000 of its priests, monks, and nuns slaughtered under communism, and its hierarchy crushed into subservience, Russia's Orthodox Church thinks Catholics are exploiting its weaknesses by setting up parishes and dioceses in new areas. Some say Rome is pursuing an age-old dream of “reuniting Christendom” and violating canonical rules by proselytizing.

In June 1993, an agreement was reached at Balamand in Lebanon by negotiators from the Vatican and nine Orthodox Churches that Eastern-rite Catholicism couldn't be viewed “as a method of searching for unity,” and stressed that all Christians should be free to decide their church affiliations “without pressure from outside.”

But Orthodox leaders accuse the Greek Catholics of reclaiming far more churches than their present numbers merit — especially in Ukraine, where the Church was outlawed in 1946 and formally re-legalized only in 1990.

“This Church's suppression was an illegal decision by an atheist Soviet government: it's absolutely clear it must be corrected,” Father Ilarion Alfiev, the Moscow patriarchate's external relations secretary, said in a recent interview.

“But you can't correct one historical injustice with the help of a second — 50 years have passed since 1946, and three new generations have grown up in Ukraine for whom the Orthodox Church is a spiritual mother.”

Many Orthodox Christians fear their Eastern spirituality will be eroded by the inrush of Western junk culture. They fear Catholicism will gain ground by default, as a better organized “Western” faith.

Father Aleksander Hauke-Ligowski, a Polish Dominican who heads Kiev's Catholic academy, thinks this explains why hostility to Catholics forms an important part of the growing “non-ecumenical option.”

“This isn't an anti-Catholic option as such, but an anti-Western one,” the priest said.

“It's rather a question of living out the Greek-Byzantine identity, in a way which is opposed to Greek-Roman tradition and civilization. The Catholic Church is viewed here as the fullest expression of this.”

Yet the Catholic Church has arguments too.

As the millennium approaches, Catholics say, it's vital that Christians make a show of unity, and set an example for the world around them. Top-level meetings are warranted, even if disagreements remain. Rather than just complain about decadent Western influences, Christians should unite to combat them.

As for papal primacy, the Catholic side says it's ready for dialogue. Far from reversing the progress of recent decades, the Pope has merely corrected the hasty steps taken by his predecessors, showing unity can't be achieved at the cost of Church order.

Catholics also reject Orthodox charges of proselytism. The Catholic Church hasn't set up dioceses in Russia, they point out, only provisional “apostolic administrations.” Nor has it tried to “convert” Orthodox Christians. Parishes have been formed where Catholics live. Since many were deported under communism, it's hardly surprising the parishes are often in new areas.

In April 1998, the Catholic Church had 93 registered parishes and 112 mostly foreign priests in western Russia. How can these be seen as a threat to the Orthodox Church, which had 16,000 parishes and 14,000 priests?

Meanwhile, although Orthodox Churches claim the loyalty of two-thirds of Ukraine's 53 million citizens, only 20% called themselves Orthodox in a 1996 survey. That figure could be closer to 10% in Russia. Against this background, can any Church claim exclusive “canonical rights” at the cost of others?

As for the revival of the Eastern-rite Greek Catholic communities, the Catholic side insists this is a simple matter of justice. Churches that belonged to Greek Catholics when their communist-era persecution began should be given back — at least when this is requested.

Some Catholics say Orthodoxy's traditional subservience to the state restricts its freedom to witness. Most national Churches needed reforms and a personnel shakeup after the collapse of communism, but the hierarchies resisted this — often in tacit alliance with political antireform forces.

At the same time, the importance of ecumenism has never been greater — and not only as a gesture to the third millennium.

Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are expected to join NATO in April 1999, while formal negotiations on their accession to the European Union opened March 31.

Quite apart from their geopolitical significance, both steps could have confessional implications. Since the three countries are predominantly Catholic, their priority treatment could suggest a new division in the heart of Europe — between a more secure and advanced Catholic West, and a poorer, less stable Orthodox East.

After the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, particular dangers may exist where this border runs internally, such as in Belarus and Ukraine, and perhaps in Poland too. Hence the pressing need for Church leaders to foster tolerance and coexistence more than ever.

This may explain why it's governments in these countries that have taken the initiative in fostering inter-Church ties, independent of the wider international problems.

When President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine met the Vatican's secretary of state, Angelo Cardinal Sodano, in Kiev June 3, he told him it was “too early” to plan a visit by the Pope, but Kuchma didn't dismiss a future papal pilgrimage.

John Paul II holds state invitations from predominantly Orthodox Romania, Bulgaria and Georgia too, while President Yeltsin hinted during his February Vatican stopover that a Russian invitation was pending as well.

Yet this depends on many things — above all, the ebb and flow of Catholic- Orthodox ties.

Speaking before his May 31 installation in Warsaw's St. Mary Magdalene Cathedral, Poland's new Orthodox leader, Metropolitan Sawa, insisted inter- Church ties were “not bad” in his country, adding that he'd be working hard to ensure a “spirit of unity and understanding.”

But he studiously avoided commenting on disputes with Catholics and his view of future ecumenical involvements. For now at least, Metropolitan Sawa concluded, those subjects were best avoided.

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Warsaw, Poland