Orthodoxy at the Brink, With Constantinople and Moscow Divided Over Ukrainian Church

Schism is threatened, but the Catholic-Orthodox ecumenical dialogue may nevertheless find new avenues following the formation of the self-governing Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

The tomos that established the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine is carried during the Christmas Liturgy at St. Sophia's Cathedral Jan. 7 in Kiev, Ukraine. The independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which previously fell under the authority of Moscow, was granted official recognition in a decree signed Jan. 6 in Istanbul by Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I in a move with deep historical roots but fueled by contemporary political conflict between Ukraine and Russia.
The tomos that established the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine is carried during the Christmas Liturgy at St. Sophia's Cathedral Jan. 7 in Kiev, Ukraine. The independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which previously fell under the authority of Moscow, was granted official recognition in a decree signed Jan. 6 in Istanbul by Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I in a move with deep historical roots but fueled by contemporary political conflict between Ukraine and Russia. (photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

The birth of a new Orthodox Church in Ukraine has widened the divisions between the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and the Russian Orthodox Church, pushing global Eastern Orthodoxy up to the brink of schism.

The division over Ukraine puts pressure on the Orthodox and Catholic Churches to take sides in the dispute, but may open up new opportunities for ecumenical dialogue so long as true schism is avoided.

On Jan. 6, the day before Orthodox Christmas, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I signed the tomos for the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), recognizing it as autocephalous (self-governing) and authorized to establish parishes within Ukraine. The OCU united two non-canonical Orthodox Churches in Ukraine that had split from the Moscow Patriarchate’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church during the 20th century, as well as a small portion of Moscow Patriarchate’s Ukrainian Orthodox parishes and clergy.

“The winter is past for schisms and divisions. The rain is over and gone for ecclesiastical isolation. The flower of unity appears on the earth, and the time has come for the glorious Holy Metropolis of Kiev to acquire its ecclesiastical independence,” Bartholomew told the new OCU Metropolitan Epifaniy at a ceremony granting the recognition of the OCU’s canonical independence.

But the Russian winter of discontent shows signs of intensifying rather than abating, following the ecumenical patriarch’s decision. Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who had severed communion with Bartholomew in October, denounced Ukraine’s new Orthodox Church as the unification of schismatics. Metropolitan Antony of Boryspil and Brovary, the chancellor of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, also compared the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine to the RMS Titanic, and a Moscow Patriarchate spokesman went so far as to accuse Bartholomew of trying to ruin Christmas.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s move creates a 15th member of the Eastern Orthodox communion, but the other primates and synods of the other 13 autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches will have to decide whether to recognize the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

The Russian Orthodox Church, which has been striving for leadership of global Orthodoxy as by far the biggest and wealthiest of the Orthodox Churches, has been putting pressure on the other Orthodox Churches to reject the ecumenical patriarch’s decision.

“The schism is not upon us yet, but the threat of schism is powerful,” Nicholas Denysenko, professor of theology at Valparaiso University and a deacon in the Orthodox Church of America, told the Register.

Denysenko said most Orthodox are alarmed over the situation, but a true schism has been avoided because the ecumenical patriarch has not reciprocated Patriarch Kirill’s decision to cut off communion.

Both the ecumenical patriarch and the OCU Metropolitan Epifaniy, he said, continue to commemorate the Russian patriarch in the liturgy “despite the obvious differences.”


Strange Calm in Ukraine

Ukraine is a country of 45 million people, where approximately 70% identify as Orthodox. But political tensions between Ukraine and Russia have seen a majority of Orthodox Ukrainians flock to the noncanonical Ukrainian Orthodox Churches that broke away from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate.

Anatoliy Babynskyi, a research fellow at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies in Toronto, told the Register that the current religious situation in Ukraine is “calm and a little bit strange.” Contrary to the Moscow Patriarchate’s predictions, Ukraine has not seen violence following the Jan. 6 grant of tomos.

Babynskyi said the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s intervention in Ukraine is purely pastoral. The exodus from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate accelerated with the ongoing Russian fighting in the country and the Moscow Patriarchate’s refusal to denounce the Russian-backed aggression in Ukraine or the forcible annexation of Crimea, which led to 1.5 million persons displaced and more than 10,000 dead.

Presently, Babynskyi said, the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine has approximately 7,000 parishes while the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate has approximately 12,000 parishes. However, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate is currently under pressure from a national law that would require it to identify itself officially under the aegis of the Moscow patriarch, or as the Russian Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

If the law passes muster before Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, Babyinskyi said there would likely be a flood of parishes from the Moscow Patriarchate into the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). In the last couple of weeks, he said, another 40 to 50 parishes moved from the Moscow Patriarchate to the OCU.

The Russian Orthodox Church, Babynskyi added, is likely hoping they can “turn back the clock” after Ukraine’s March presidential elections.

President Petro Poroshenko, who has strongly supported the OCU’s creation, is currently behind in the polls, but Babynskyi said the Russian Orthodox Church is underestimating the popular support for the new autocephalous church in Ukraine.

“No one who will be elected as president in March will change the policy in the religious field,” he said. And he predicted the Moscow Patriarchate will eventually come to an agreement and seek to “preserve what can be preserved” of its parishes in Ukraine.

However, papal biographer George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow at the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, told the Register that a worst-case scenario resulting from the OCU’s creation is Russian President Vladimir Putin taking advantage of tensions to launch further aggression against Ukraine.

In January, Putin called the Orthodox Church of Ukraine “an entirely political secular project.” He stated the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is undergoing a “persecution” aimed at depriving it of its monasteries and churches and sowing discord in Ukrainian society.

“That’s one reason why it’s important that the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church should act and be seen as a civil society institution rather than a department of the Ukrainian government,” said Weigel.


Competing Considerations

For Ukrainians, the establishment of an Orthodox Church independent of Moscow represents an important step in the “decolonization” of Ukraine, explained Denysenko. While political considerations also are in play for the Moscow Patriarchate, Denysenko said the ideological narrative of the Russian Church is primarily at stake.

Denysenko explained the Russian Church identifies itself with the medieval federation Kievan-Rus, and so Kiev, which Moscow has had jurisdiction over since 1686, is considered “the mother of Russian cities.” But autocephaly makes Kiev the heart of the Ukrainian Church instead.

“For Russia, Kiev and Moscow are inseparable — this is why they are fighting so hard to retain their influence,” he said.

The showdown between Moscow and Constantinople over Ukraine is putting pressure on the 12 other Orthodox Churches to take sides. But none so far have followed Moscow’s lead in severing communion.

Denysenko said his own sense was that the other Orthodox Churches would prefer to “remain in communion with everyone.”

The other Orthodox Churches may opt for delay to give time for the new status quo to settle in Ukraine. The Georgian Orthodox Church faces pressure from the Moscow Patriarchate to not recognize the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and political leaders have warned Moscow could retaliate by granting a tomos to the breakaway Abkhaz Church.

“It took Constantinople 1,500 years to recognize the autocephaly of the Georgian Orthodox Church,” Metropolitan Nikoloz of Akhalkalaki and Kumurdo, Georgia, said, according to Interfax. “If the Ukrainian church has to wait a little, there will be nothing special in that.” 

George Demacopoulos, the co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, told the Register that since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the Orthodox world has seen the growth of autocephalous (self-governing) churches — such as the Church of Greece and the Church of Albania. Autocephaly helps the Church adapt to geopolitical realities, but carries the risk that Orthodox Christians will look at ethnic identity trumping Orthodox faith. In the case of Ukraine, Demacopoulos said, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has tried to pre-empt this error by stressing the universal character of the Church through its name — the “Orthodox Church of Ukraine.”

But the ecumenical patriarch’s decision raises concerns from other Orthodox Churches whose jurisdiction overlaps national boundaries, such as the Church of Serbia, which has jurisdiction over Montenegro and Kosovo, even though these territories are located outside Serbia’s current boundaries.

Demacopoulos added the Russian Orthodox leaders are attempting to delegitimize the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s leadership of global Orthodoxy by claiming he is abusing his primacy and acting like a pope. In the Orthodox view, the degree of papal power in the Catholic Church exceeds the legitimate exercise of primacy.

But while some of the Orthodox Churches do not like the ecumenical patriarch’s decision, he said, “None of them are going to follow Moscow’s lead.”

What may happen over the next 10 to 20 years, Demacopoulos explained, is what happened when the ecumenical patriarch recognized the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Estonia over the Moscow Patriarchate’s objections. Gradually, after initial objections, the Orthodox Churches began to recognize the canonical status of the Orthodox Church of Estonia, and the Moscow Patriarchate came to accept the situation and set up its own diocese for orthodox parishes that wanted to remain under its jurisdiction.


What Does This Mean for Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue?

The creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine may move Orthodox-Catholic dialogue forward in some ways and stall it in others.

At the global level, the Russian Orthodox Church has withdrawn from any ecumenical dialogues with representatives from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The reality of the new Orthodox Ukrainian Church therefore puts the Holy See in the uncomfortable position of figuring out how to continue the dialogue without alienating either side.

Paulist Father Ron Roberson, the associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register that global dialogue is likely stalled at this junction. But he expected the North American dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox to continue since there are no representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate in those discussions.

The Holy See may seek to try to dialogue separately with the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Roberson explained. He added the Holy See faces a near-impossible situation regarding what to do regarding the Orthodox Church of Ukraine: To do nothing would be to take sides with the Russian patriarch, but to recognize the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine in international ecumenical dialogues would be to side with the ecumenical patriarch.

“It is really going to be walking on eggshells with respect to both sides,” he said.

Weigel told the Register the Holy See will have to “recalibrate its ecumenical strategy” toward Eastern Orthodoxy.

“That recalibration must begin with a recognition that the leaders of Russian Orthodoxy act as agents of Russian state power, not as free Churchmen,” he said.


Another Way Forward

But the creation of the new Orthodox Church may actually allow a more intensive dialogue to take place on the ground between local Orthodox and Catholics. Babynskyi said the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church is the largest Eastern Catholic Church and has good relations with the leaders of the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

“Today in Ukraine, there is a new kind of dialogue between Greco-Catholics and Orthodox people,” he said.

“Before this process we could not have official relations,” he said, because the non-canonical churches were not recognized by Constantinople. But now that they are, the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine will eventually be able to bring to the ecumenical dialogue a new voice of Orthodoxy from Eastern Europe.

Denysenko agreed, saying there is an opportunity for ecumenism to move forward in multiconfessional countries, like Ukraine and Romania, where Catholics and Orthodox live side by side.

“I think that Catholics have an opportunity to get to know Orthodoxy better,” he said, “and perhaps they can persist in encouraging the Russians to engage in dialogue despite the disputes disrupting intra-Orthodox relations.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.


Editor's note: Anatoliy Babynskyi is a former, not current fellow of the Institute of Religion and Society at the Ukrainian Catholic University of Lviv as previously reported. This report is updated to reflect Babynskyi's present status as a research fellow at the Sheptytsky Institute in Toronto.  

Eastern Orthodox Churches

Each of these autocephalous (self-governing) Eastern Orthodox Churches are considered equal to each other and recognized as canonical by the Church of Constantinople led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is held to be “first among equals.” All these churches, except the Russian Orthodox Church, maintain communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Church of Constantinople (or Ecumenical Patriarchate), led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I

Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa, led by Patriarch Theodore II

Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, led by Patriarch John X

Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, led by Theophilos III

Russian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all Russia

Serbian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Irinej

Bulgarian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Neophyte of all Bulgaria

Romanian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Daniel

Georgian Orthodox Church, led by Ilia II, Catholicos-patriarch of all Georgia

Church of Greece, led by Ieronymos II, archbishop of Athens and all Greece

Church of Cyprus, led by Chrysostomos II, archbishop of Nova Justiniana and all Cyprus

Orthodox Church of Albania, led by Archbishop Anastasios of Albania

Orthodox Church of the Czech lands and Slovakia, led by Archbishop Rastislav of Prešov

Orthodox Church of Poland, led by Metropolitan Sawa of Warsaw and all Poland

Orthodox Church of Ukraine, led by Metropolitan Epifaniy

The Orthodox Church in America has partial recognition of the autocephaly granted by the Russian Orthodox Church, but lacks full recognition by most Eastern Orthodox Churches, since its autocephalous status lacks confirmation by the ecumenical patriarch.