Russian-Ukrainian Crisis Spotlights Tenuous Rome-Moscow Relationship

COMMENTARY: The current tensions bring to a head the same issues that were present in 2014, when Pope Francis refused to criticize Putin’s aggression.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, greet each other during a historic meeting in Havana on Feb. 12, 2016.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, greet each other during a historic meeting in Havana on Feb. 12, 2016. (photo: Adalberto Roque / Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Pope Francis’ worldwide day of fasting and prayer for peace in Ukraine was the straightforward part. 

Much more complicated is how to handle relations with Moscow during this latest Ukrainian crisis.

“Moscow” in this case means not only the regime of Vladimir Putin, but the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. 

For nearly 60 years Rome has pursued fraternity, reconciliation and unity with Eastern Orthodoxy. That ecumenical encounter has been principally with the Patriarch of Constantinople, “first among equals” among the various “autocephalous” Churches (independent national Churches) that make up worldwide Orthodoxy.

Those relations have been friendly for decades. Indeed, cumenical Patriarch Bartholomew meets with Pope Francis so often that what was once a historic encounter now no longer makes the news.

Bartholomew’s Church, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the historic “Second Rome” and seat of Eastern Christianity, has been reduced to a something of a paper Church. With fewer than 2,000 souls under his care, Patriarch Bartholomew’s ministry has been strangled by an aggressive Turkish state. The head of global Orthodoxy lives under the de facto control of government that, while once aggressively secularist, is now increasingly Islamic. Who is in charge? Visitors to Bartholomew’s offices in Istanbul find prominent portraits of Kemal Ataturk displayed. 

Thus any Catholic encounter with Orthodoxy in practice requires relations with the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Roughly half of all Orthodox Christians in the world are in Russia, making the Patriarch of Moscow the most influential figure in global Orthodoxy.

Relations between Rome and Moscow have been frigid to fractured. Despite repeated efforts, St. John Paul II was never able to meet the Patriarch of Moscow, who viewed Rome with suspicion over what he regarded as illegitimate Catholic ambitions in “historically Orthodox lands.”

While Roman relations with other Orthodox Churches are warmer — Pope Francis met with the Orthodox patriarchs in Athens and Cyprus on his visit last month — Moscow is the main focus of attention. The 2016 meeting of Pope Francis with Patriarch Kirill in Havana was the first meeting between Rome and Moscow in a millennium.

On his return flight from Greece last month, Francis said that another meeting with Kirill was being planned for 2022.

The challenge for the Vatican is how to improve relations with the Moscow Patriarchate when that very Church has problematic relations with so many other key figures.

 

Kirill and Putin 

Patriarch Kirill has close ties to Vladimir Putin, who has lavished praise and funds upon the Russian Orthodox Church, presenting himself as a defender of Russia’s traditional Christian identity against the secularist West. There are even Catholic voices in the West who see Putin as an ally of traditional values. 

“I find it flabbergasting to see conservative Catholics look to Putin or to Russia as a bastion of traditional values,” says Archbishop Borys Gudziak, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the United States. “Russia has the highest abortion rate in the world. Russia has an astronomical alcoholism rate. The suicides are among the highest, and so is the degree of corruption. Corruption of political lies and evil is in the fabric of society, at all levels.”

“How this kind of regime that crushes human dignity, that poisons dissidents, or has them shot in the capital of the country — how this can be a source of interest and hope or inspiration for people with traditional Christian values is completely beyond me,” he said.

Regarding Russian aggression in Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill has been supportive, looking for Russian state support to expand the territory of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine.

“That the Russian Orthodox Church walks arm in arm with an aggressive military assault on a democratic country and society is really astounding,” adds Archbishop Gudziak.

Kirill has cemented Russian Orthodoxy’s historic role as chaplain to the regime, whether it be the tsars of old, or the new aspiring tsar, Putin.

That makes it enormously difficult to criticize Putin if good relations with the Russian Orthodox Church are a priority. After the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, and the killing of thousands of Ukrainians by Russian-supported forces, the Vatican was tepid at best in its rhetorical and diplomatic support of Ukraine and Ukrainian Catholics.

Pope Francis wanted the historic meeting with Patriarch Kirill; the price to be paid was to refrain from criticism of Putin.

 

Kirill and the Patriarchs

After the invasion of Crimea in 2014, Orthodox Ukrainians increasingly wanted their own autocephalous Church, not subject to Moscow, bringing them into direct conflict with Patriarch Kirill’s support for Putin. It was a complicated process, with three patriarchs claiming jurisdiction, but eventually an independent Patriarch of Kjiv emerged who was not subordinate to Moscow. In 2019, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew recognized him over the objections of Moscow; the Russian Orthodox Church thus broke communion with Bartholomew.

At the same time, Patriarch Kirill broke communion with the Patriarch of Alexandria, the smaller of the Orthodox Churches in Egypt (the Coptic Orthodox are the larger). Kirill consequently announced the expansion of Russian Orthodox parishes and clergy in the territory of Alexandria and the poaching of clergy. This earned a fierce condemnation from Patriarch Theodore of Alexandria earlier this month.

Friendly relations with Orthodox patriarchs can earn disdain from Moscow. Indeed, the closeness between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew has earned the latter disdain from Moscow.

 

Consequences for the Holy See

The current Ukrainian crisis brings to a head the same tensions that were present in 2014, when Pope Francis refused to criticize Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, not because he approved of it but because he wished to maintain good relations with Patriarch Kirill. 

The same issue now faces the Holy See again. If another meeting with Patriarch Kirill is desired in 2022, criticism of Putin now will have to be foregone. Kirill prizes the practical benefits of Putin’s largesse far more than relations with Rome.

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

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