What is the Future of Catholic-Russian Orthodox Relations?

In practice, the Patriarchate of Moscow asked Rome not to consider political and national events, while reserving the possibility of speaking to them and commenting on them — remaining, in essence, a profoundly national Church.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, addresses Pope Francis at the Vatican, May 6, 2022.
Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, addresses Pope Francis at the Vatican, May 6, 2022. (photo: Vatican Media / VM)

ROME — With the interview granted to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on May 3, Pope Francis seemed to burn the bridges of ecumenical dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church that the Vatican had painstakingly built. 

Fortunately, members of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity met in Rome that same week, giving a renewed impulse to dialogue between Christian confessions. 

Ecumenical dialogue is now strongly influenced by the situation in Ukraine. Before the war, there was an Orthodox schism, with the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which led to a breach between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople

Moscow continued bilateral relations with Rome but abandoned intra-Orthodox dialogue events chaired by Constantinople and also launched an aggressive ecclesiastical policy which led, shortly before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, to the establishment of an exarchate in Africa in territories under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa.

The war has transformed the situation. Even the branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church linked to the Moscow Patriarchate (known as the UOC-MP) disavowed the line of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia, who justified Russian aggression. 

The only possibility for the Moscow Patriarchate to escape its isolation was the dialogue with Rome. A second meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill in Jerusalem was being explored. But then the Holy See decided to cancel the meeting.

Then came the Pope’s interview with Corriere della Sera, in which he recounted his video conference call with Patriarch Kirill on March 6 and warned the Russian Orthodox leader against becoming “Putin’s altar boy.”

If the second meeting was canceled for reasons of expediency, then Pope Francis’ words burned the bridges of dialogue with the Moscow Patriarchate. 

The patriarchate responded by saying that Pope Francis had chosen “the wrong tone” to convey the content of the conversation with Kirill, stressing that “such utterances can hardly further constructive dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, which is so necessary at the current time.”

The Moscow Patriarchate posted a summary of Kirill’s words to the Pope on its official website. The text highlighted a reported massacre of Russian speakers in the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa in 2014 and the eastward expansion of NATO, indicating them as two possible causes of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Kirill told the Pope that the present situation caused him “great pain.”

“My flock is on both sides of the conflict and most of them are Orthodox people,” he said. “Part of the opposing side are also among your flock. I would like therefore, leaving the geopolitical aspect to one side, to pose the question of how we and our Churches can influence the situation. How can we act together to bring peace to the hostile parties with the single aim of establishing peace and justice? It is very important in these conditions to avoid further escalation.”

In practice, the Patriarchate of Moscow asked Rome not to consider political and national events, while reserving the possibility of speaking to them and commenting on them  — remaining, in essence, a profoundly national Church. This is a perspective that the Pope and Holy See cannot accept: for Pope Francis, the conflict must be faced from a religious perspective, leaving politics aside.

The stance of those on the battlefield is different. A speech delivered last week by Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), shed further light on the situation.

Speaking at the plenary meeting of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity on May 5, Archbishop Shevchuk stressed that the war waged by Russia was “ideological” and aimed at “eliminating the Ukrainian people.” He pointed to instructions given to Russian soldiers about how to treat Ukrainians, saying that they amounted to a “genocide handbook.”

Archbishop Shevchuk emphasized that the war had strengthened the unity among Ukraine’s religious communities. He pointed to the Pan-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (UCCRO)​​, which includes a representative of the UOC-MP and “in 70 days was able to prepare 17 documents” concerning the war. 

In particular, Archbishop Shevchuk recalled that on the eve of the Russian attack, UCCRO proposed itself as a mediator, because “if the diplomats and politicians were unable to avoid armed confrontation, we churchmen wanted to be this body that could mediate in some sense and also prevent armed confrontation.”

UCCRO also wrote “a letter to the religious leaders of Belarus” when the Russian government forced Belarus to assist with the conflict.

The work of UCCRO and the active involvement of members of the UOC-MP indicates, according to Shevchuk, that “the primary victim of this Russian offensive was the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.” 

Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the UOC-MP, condemned the war. At the same time, Archbishop Shevchuk said, “at least 15 Russian Orthodox eparchies out of 53” in Ukraine stopped commemorating Patriarch Kirill during Divine Liturgies. 

The Catholic leader said there was also a “massive transition of parishes from the administration of the Moscow Patriarchate to that of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.” So far, more than 200 parishes have completed the move.

Archbishop Shevchuk underlined that the ecumenical reaction to the war was unanimous and one of “explicit condemnation.”

In his introductory speech at the plenary meeting, Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Swiss president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, addressed the ongoing war.

He said: “This year, in an unexpected way, ecumenism has also been exposed to serious tensions. I am thinking above all of Putin’s terrible war in Ukraine, which has not only generated new and deep divisions in the Orthodox world, but has also provoked serious ecumenical irritation.” 

“The fact that such a terrible war, with so many refugees and deaths, was also legitimized from a religious point of view must shake an ecumenical soul and deserves the name Pope Francis gave it: blasphemy.” 

“If we also consider that in the war in Ukraine Christians fought against Christians and even the Orthodox killed each other, we must recognize the gravity of the ecumenical wounds that have been inflicted and that, to heal, will require not only time but above all conversion.”

Cardinal Koch added that “Putin’s invasion has pushed Christians and Churches in Ukraine to unite.” 

“This too is a sign that God can write straight even on very crooked lines,” he said.

It is not surprising that the pope’s unexpected and not very diplomatic words provoked a reaction from the Moscow Patriarchate. The Russian Orthodox Church had seen in Pope Francis a possible way to overcome its international isolation.

The Pope appeared to burn the bridges of dialogue. But the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has somehow re-established them, while making clear that it does not agree with the war in Ukraine or the positions of the Moscow Patriarchate. 

Cardinal Koch’s reference to unity was an invitation to all Christian Churches to overcome internal divisions to help end the war. Time will tell whether his appeal is heeded.

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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