Orthodoxy’s Divisions Offer Glimmers of Hope for Healing With Catholicism

COMMENTARY: Despite the lamentable developments in Ukraine and beyond in 2022, it’s possible 2023 could herald long-desired ecumenical breakthroughs.

Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and Pope Francis hold a prayer service for peace at Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral in Awali, south of the Bahraini capital Manama, Nov. 4.
Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and Pope Francis hold a prayer service for peace at Our Lady of Arabia Cathedral in Awali, south of the Bahraini capital Manama, Nov. 4. (photo: Marco Bertorello / AFP via Getty Images)

Just as the disruption of war can create new circumstances favorable to peace — consider how the first Iraq war led to the Oslo peace process — so, too, can ecclesial conflicts create new circumstances for unity. At the end of 2022, divisions in global Orthodoxy have rarely been so deep. That paradoxically offers new possibilities for ecumenical progress. 

The Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, is widely considered a compromised figure, held in exceedingly low esteem both in the Christian Church and the world for his support of Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. He has been formally sanctioned by several states, an astonishing development for the most important patriarch by population in Orthodoxy; some half of all Orthodox Christians are in Russia. And yet their patriarch is now persona non grata in much of Europe and North America.

Patriarch Kirill, even before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, was a man of fractured communion. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople — styled primus sine paribus (first without equals) amongst the patriarchs — had recognized in 2019 an “autocephalous” (independent) Orthodox Church in Ukraine, no longer subject to Moscow. In response, Kirill broke off communion with Bartholomew, in effect excommunicating him.

Even prior to that, in 2016 Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church boycotted the Pan-Orthodox Council — a meeting akin to an ecumenical council for Catholics — that had been in preparation for decades.

What unfolded in 2022 was thus an aggravation of an already inflamed situation in the Orthodoxy. The outrage at Kirill — called by Pope Francis “Putin’s altar boy” — includes even his own Orthodox faithful in Ukraine. While he claims such Ukrainians as part of his flock, they are facing lethal attacks from Moscow, with Kirill’s support.

All this is lamentable and a scandal for the Christian proclamation of the gospel. Yet, should Rome have the wit, imagination, courage and diplomatic skill for it, the shifting plates of 2022 could lead to long-desired ecumenical breakthroughs in 2023. 

The historic marginalization of Russian Orthodoxy removes the principal obstacle to greater Catholic-Orthodox rapprochement. Because Moscow is the populous center of Orthodoxy, it is fair to view Catholic-Orthodox relations as a whole through that relationship. Yet that perspective gives a false reading. 

Since 1964, when Pope St. Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople met in Jerusalem, relations between the Vatican and the Phanar (seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul) have become very warm. Pope St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have all visited the Phanar personally, and Bartholomew has been many times to Rome. Indeed, his meetings with Pope Francis are so frequent as to no longer make news. 

Russia, all the while, has remained cool, even hostile. After John Paul’s triumph in the Cold War, the Holy Father sought to visit the eastern parts of Europe and the former Soviet republics in central Asia. He made visits all around Russia: Czechoslovakia (and then later both Czech Republic and Slovakia), Hungary, Albania, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Romania, Greece, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Bulgaria. It was a tour of former Soviet satellites and majority Orthodox countries. 

Despite an ardent desire to visit Russia — and willing presidents in both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin — John Paul would not go without an invitation from Russian Orthodoxy. His visits to other Orthodox countries, particularly Greece, were meant to demonstrate that it could be done. The patriarch of Moscow was not moved.

The ecumenical upshot was that if reconciliation with Orthodoxy had to go through Moscow, then reconciliation would not proceed. And due to the sheer size of Russian Orthodoxy, the other Orthodox patriarchs were reluctant to move significantly on their own.

That is no longer true.

Perhaps the most important religious address of the year was given earlier this month in Abu Dhabi, where Bartholomew excoriated the Moscow partriarchate for nearly six centuries of false claims to leadership in Orthodoxy. 

“The [Russian] imperial power wanted to submit the Church to its will in its effort to instrumentalize the religious feeling for its political and military ends,” Bartholomew said. “Thus, from the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, Moscow aspired to replace the Ecumenical Patriarchate by proclaiming that Moscow represented ‘the third Rome.’ This long-lasting policy of Moscow constitutes a fundamental factor of division of the Orthodox world.”

Not mincing words, Bartholomew considers the Ukraine invasion as just the latest example of Russian “Pan-Slavism,” which he condemns as “the heresy of ethnophyletism, a form of ecclesial racism.” The head of Orthodoxy views Kirill as a political ideologue who has broken communion and is guilty of heresy, not to mention approving of violence against his Orthodox in Ukraine.

What can Rome do in the face of such developments?

The Holy Father’s Russia policy throughout 2022 was fixated on obtaining a meeting with Patriarch Kirill, which Bartholomew could have told him was both impossible and unwise. 

When it finally became clear that Kirill would not meet Pope Francis, the Holy Father unleashed fearsome rhetoric against Putin’s invasion, calling it “barbaric,” the “martyrdom” of Ukraine, and likening it the “genocidal” Holodomor and the Holocaust. Indeed, papal rhetoric swung so widely that it exceeded by year-end anything any other world leader had said in condemnation.

With Pope Francis having finally broken with Kirill rhetorically, he can now turn to strengthening ties with the Orthodox patriarchs who are allied against Kirill, beginning with Bartholomew. Practical initiatives that Moscow would have blocked, or would have been hard to pursue for fear of Moscow’s displeasure, can proceed.

In 2023, the various patriarchs could be invited to visit Rome. Perhaps the annual delegation from Constantinople for the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in June might be expanded to include representatives from other patriarchates. At a time of upheaval, Catholic-Orthodox relations can be put on a better footing.

There is a great ecumenical prize that might be within reach — a joint date for the celebration of Easter, the high point of the liturgical year. 

In recent years, favorable noises have been made about that possibility from both Vatican and Orthodox officials. Notably, Bartholomew himself indicated the possibility in November, perhaps in time for the 1700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea in 2025.

That possibility had been thought near-impossible because of a lack of unity among the Orthodox. But now it is quite possible to imagine Constantinople and other patriarchates moving ahead without Russia. Indeed, some Orthodox Christians in Ukraine moved their celebration of Christmas this year from Jan. 7 to Dec. 25 — precisely to indicate a break with Moscow. 

The Moscow patriarchate revealed in 2022 what it has been for a long time — an instrument of Russian state power masquerading as historic heir to Rome and Constantinople. Bartholomew has called them out. 

Francis, after much delay, seems to have reluctantly accepted that view. That leaves both of them newly free to pursue unity together without the anchor of Moscow dragging behind them. The very dark cloud of the war against Ukraine may have an ecumenical silver lining.