Seeking an End to the ‘Scandalous Disunity’ Between East and West

Robert Moynihan was inspired by St. John Paul II to create the Urbi et Orbi Foundation.

Robert Moynihan, founder of the Urbi et Orbi Foundation and editor in chief of Inside the Vatican magazine.
Robert Moynihan, founder of the Urbi et Orbi Foundation and editor in chief of Inside the Vatican magazine. (photo: EWTN)

Robert Moynihan, Ph.D., founded the Urbi et Orbi Foundation two years ago to deepen relationships between Catholic and Orthodox Christians. He is also editor in chief of Inside the Vatican, a magazine he founded in 1993, and has provided commentary on the Church for many media outlets, including CNN and Fox News. Moynihan divides his time between Rome and Annapolis, Md.

Register correspondent Victor Gaetan interviewed Moynihan during a recent foundation-sponsored retreat in Washington, D.C., attended by Catholic and Orthodox clergy and laypeople, including representatives from Rome, Ukraine and Russia.


You have been working toward the creation of this foundation for 15 years, especially timely now with tensions growing between Ukraine and Russia, between Ukrainian Byzantine-rite Catholics and Orthodox. What inspired you?

I was deeply influenced by St. John Paul II, who spoke of the need for Christianity to “breathe with two lungs,” meaning East and West, Constantinople and Rome, Orthodox and Catholic. At the center of John Paul’s hope was overcoming differences between East and West with the hope of eventual reunion.

Even in the 1980s as a graduate student at Yale, I felt this scandalous disunity should end. My adviser, Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan, the great historian of the development of Christian doctrine, an ordained Lutheran pastor who became Greek Orthodox at the end of his life, told me this explicitly. He said if this schism were not overcome, Western Christianity would not have sufficient strength and depth to withstand the new, modernizing culture we call “post-Christian secular humanism.” We needed to join forces.


When was the first time you went to Russia?

In December of 1999. I traveled to St. Petersburg, then Moscow, to attend a ceremony of re-consecration of the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The cathedral had been closed for decades. The communists built three floors of offices in the nave.

During the 1990s, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz restored the cathedral. The day of the re-consecration, I went into the sacristy and saw Cardinal Angelo Sodano, John Paul’s secretary of state at the time. I realized John Paul would not have sent Sodano if this were not an important, symbolic event. And I began to reflect on the Fatima prophecy, the Blessed Mary’s reference to the consecration and eventual “conversion” of Russia.

What would it mean if this very secular, militantly atheistic society rediscovered its Christian roots? The question fascinated me.

The Russian Orthodox Church also sent two representatives to the consecration. I met Archimandrite Hilarion Alfeyev, a young composer, 33, and a young layman, Igor Vyzhanov, who later became a prominent priest in the Russian Orthodox Church.

By chance, they were sitting next to me during the Mass of re-consecration. Later, we spoke at some length.

It became clear to me that, despite the decades and centuries of suspicion and distrust between our Churches, it might be possible to make friends with the Orthodox. Today, Metropolitan Hilarion serves as the Russian Orthodox “foreign minister,” in effect, and Father Igor is in Naples, Italy, after serving for some years in Moscow, then in Rome, in key roles for relations between our two Churches.

So, clearly, we do have the heavy burden of history, a terrible burden, but I think we must try to overcome it.


Since then, you’ve been to Russia 15 times, developing successful collaborations. I understand you played a role arranging the return of the Icon of Kazan.

I visited the city of Kazan in 2000 and heard a fascinating story of a precious 16th-century icon, a wonder-working icon, of Mary and the Child Jesus. The Czar also heard of the miracles brought about by the icon, and said, “Bring this icon to Moscow.” And it was brought. And, over the centuries, a cathedral was built to house it. Whenever the Russians were in dire straits, the Czar would call for the icon, and pray before it. In 1918, the Bolsheviks broke into the Basilica and stole it to sell, supposedly for the Revolution. And in 2000, after the fall of communism, the people in Kazan wanted to get the icon back. I said I would look into it.

 Back in Rome, I told the story to a group of friends. Standing with us was Jesus Colina who founded Zenit news agency. He said, “I know where it is,” and pointed to the apostolic palace. “The icon is in the pope’s apartment.” Apparently, the icon had been bought by a British nobleman, then, in the 1960s, sold to the Blue Army of our Lady of Fatima, which put it in a small chapel at Fatima where it stayed during 1970s and 1980s. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Pope John Paul II ordered the nuncio of Portugal to request the icon be brought to Rome. And it was brought to his apartment in 1992.

So I went and talked to the pope’s secretary. We ended up in the pope’s study and I saw the icon. The face of Our Lady was splendidly beautiful. I felt she was speaking to me. The secretary said, “Mary is saying that she wants to return to Russia, but we aren’t sure how.” The pope had wanted to deliver the icon personally, but it was not looking likely. The secretary said, “You do all you can do, try to make contact to see if there is a channel.” So I went to Russia and I started talking to officials I had known for two or three years in the External Affairs Department. It was 2001, 2002, and 2003.

At one point an Orthodox bishop, Bishop Mark, said, “We know all about the icon, we don’t want it to come. We believe it is a forgery, not authentic, and we aren’t interested.” He opened the door, and I took a few steps out, then he called me back. He said, “Sit down again. We do care, very much. But we can’t beg for it. It is against our sense of dignity to beg for the icon from Rome. If they give it to us freely and generously, we would be generous in return, but we can’t exchange a papal visit for the icon.”

I visited Pope John Paul II’s secretary and told him the story. He said, “Trust is difficult. We have so often been in tension with the Russians and we sense they are competing, not cooperating, with us.” But in the end, John Paul II decided to give the icon of Kazan freely to the Russians. It was entrusted to Cardinal Kasper and in August of 2004, he carried back to Moscow and handed it to Patriarch Alexey II. It was then transferred to Kazan.


Pope Benedict continued the dialogue with the Orthodox Church. How did your work proceed under his papacy?

Pope Benedict is a theologian, interested in the theological issues dividing the Churches. St. John Paul II was more of a philosopher, interested in human dignity and anthropology. He had confronted the Soviet Union. Benedict is more receptive in some ways to the way the Catholic and Orthodox Church must work together to confront secularism.

 Soon after Benedict was elected, Metropolitan Hilarion contacted me to say he thought we needed a “strategic alliance” between the Churches, despite the theological issues still dividing us. “Let’s concentrate on ideas around values and morality,” he said, “and make this the basis for better relations.” I agreed with him, and put it into Inside the Vatican. Thinking about this idea, I was part of a group that went to Turkey when Pope Benedict went in 2006 to see Patriarch Bartholomew. Witnessing their embrace, I felt my path was being directed, that I could assist in some small way.

The next night, an email came from Hilarion, who was then posted in Vienna. He said he had been driving his car toward Budapest and started hearing melodies in his head. He described how he rapidly completed a composition and wrote, “I want to offer it as a sign of mutual love of Christ. Would you be willing to present it in March 2007, just before Easter in Rome?” Working with his best friend, Alexi Puzakov, a choral director in Moscow, we secured the very last night available in the March 2007 calendar at the Santa Cecilia Auditorium near St. Peter’s Square. I didn’t have enough money in the account of the magazine, so I put a deposit down for the hall on a personal credit card. And the concert, Hilarion’s Passion According to St. Matthew, was magnificent.


Yet Metropolitan Hilarion has said he thinks Greek Catholics in Ukraine are promoting war in Ukraine. How do you see the crisis in Ukraine?

I am sorry for the loss of even one life in Ukraine. The situation has grown more tense and worrisome with each passing month. The United States and Russia had no direct confrontation of this type during the Soviet time, and in the past 23 years since the end of the Soviet Union, it seemed that we were increasingly collaborating, meeting, talking, working together. We even now depend on the Russians for the rockets, which bring astronauts to the international space station. Yet events in Ukraine have now brought us to the brink of war. There are already economic sanctions, already soldiers are engaged and dying, and the threat of an escalation is very real.

The situation in Ukraine is enormously complex. It involves national aspirations, ethnic tensions, linguistic rivalries, and all of this right on the border of Russia, in a country which Russia regards as intimately connected with her own history.

What is happening is literally a tragedy. During the 20th century, powerful ideological movements, like Nazism and communism, emerged and came to dominate large sections of the earth. But in our own lifetimes, as recently as 1945 and 1991, these ideologies disappeared.

Many thought, after 1991, that Christians and the Christian faith could flourish, that Eastern and Western Christians could flourish together. But what has happened? In the West, not a religious renewal, but an increasing “de-Christianization.”

The Christian garments that clothed our culture have been rejected and removed in public life, in education, in media, in the universities. It is a rejection of the historical Christ and the Church, but also of the Hellenistic idea of logos, of reason, as Pope Benedict repeatedly warned; and in the East, in Russia. 


The Russian Orthodox today and President Putin make reference to Alexander Solzhenitsyn and say, like Solzhenitsyn, they are defending Russia against “Western secular aggression.”

Well, that’s the point. Yes, I heard Solzhenitsyn deliver the Harvard commencement in 1978. I was there that day. Part of his message was disappointment with the West. He felt we had all the freedom and opportunity to seek the deepest things in life, but instead we went after the glitter, the superficial, the made-up, the shallow.

Solzhenitsyn told us that he was saddened by what he found in the West, when he hoped for so much, and I felt that deeply. I felt that whatever there was of the “ancient West,” whatever there was that our forefathers fought for when they fought for freedom but also for faith, still needed to be fought for. I was moved by what Solzhenitsyn said that day.

In the East, in Russia, the Russians have had a different path to travel. This is not the place to try to explain or interpret all of Russian history, with its authoritarianism, its tsars, its anarchists, its vast spaces. Suffice it to say that the Russians passed through decades of Bolshevism, after 1918. And the Soviet regime created a philosophy of life and politics in which the individual and the Church, the Christian faith, were viewed in a much different way than in the West. All that came to an abrupt end in 1990, but it left its mark.

So what am I trying to say? I am saying that, reflecting on Solzhenitsyn, reflecting on the Soviet experience, and reflecting on the end of the Soviet Union, I came to believe that we in the West might learn something from the East. That was the point.

I went to the East to learn something from the East. Even today, I think the Byzantine tradition, the Russian and Greek traditions of Christian faith, tempered and tested by all sorts of historical vicissitudes, can teach us very much.

But the Ukraine crisis complicates all this. And part of the complication is that the basic facts are quite difficult to apprehend.

For instance, there is no doubt that President Viktor Yanukovych was extremely corrupt. That seems clear. Change was necessary. Even Putin made some joking remarks about this fact, before Maidan Square became violent. I think Yanukovych had more than $1 billion squirreled away abroad. So his hands were not clean.

But then, what suddenly replaced him was a government that is also very imperfect, and Ukraine, with its ethnic tensions and the linguistic tensions between eastern Ukraine, where Russian is spoken, and the rest of the country, with the complexity of the country’s history — this complex situation cries out for thoughtful negotiation, not bloodshed.


Americans are told this is all Russia’s fault. The Russian Orthodox Church is also blamed, indirectly. From your experiences in Russia, do you think the Russian Orthodox Church is a manifestation of aggressive nationalism?

You’ve asked two different questions: Is Russia to blame for what is happening in Ukraine, and is the Russian Orthodox Church simply a manifestation of aggressive nationalism. I would say No, and No.

What is happening in Ukraine is not entirely due to Russia. There is plenty of blame to go around. And the Russian Orthodox Church is not simply a tool of the Russian state. No. It is a real Church.

In Russia, I have met many believers who, in the past, gave up their personal advantage to hold to the Orthodox faith. And they still seek to do the honest thing, the good thing, to be fair. They are quick to say that human beings are sinful and they are aware that even members of their Church can be sinful. Of course. But the fact that Russians remember Jesus Christ after 2,000 years and after 70 years of atheism — this matters. It is a moving witness of faith. And the fact that some Christians use the faith as a protective cloak for mafia-like dealings, or that people use the cloak of the moral code to engage in profitable political and economic activity, does not invalidate the witness of the Russian Orthodox. Such false believers, or sinful believers, are present everywhere.

So, what is the “bottom line”? It is this: that I believe that the Russian believers, Russian Orthodox believers, have preserved and borne witness to a profoundly Christian understanding of the human predicament, to the fact that human beings must be oriented to the eternal if they are to achieve a certain measure of earthly happiness and social justice. Human beings need this orientation toward the eternal, in the sense of Christ’s words that “man does not live by bread alone…” And this orientation is presented in Russia and defended in Russia by the Orthodox Church, as entrusted to that Church 2,000 years ago by Jesus Christ.

I know there are some Catholics who believe, with Western (and Russian) secularists, that the Orthodox faith is a nationalist faith and not an authentic, deeply held faith, merely a form of national identity. This is certainly the position of many secular critics of the Russian Church. But this position does not take into account the sanctity of Christian life in so many families and so many individuals in Russia.


In Ukraine, how do you read the tension between the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, based largely in the West, and the Russian Orthodox Church?

I shake my head in sadness. My birthday is Nov. 12, the Feast Day of St. Josaphat, an Eastern-rite bishop in the late 1500s and early 1600s who spent his life trying to reconcile the Orthodox Church with Rome. His vision and work led to his death. The Orthodox killed him.

We are all suffering from the effects of many sins committed centuries ago. Once the unity of Christians was broken, it was certain that it could only be restored by heroism and sacrifice. We all recognize the profound wounds Christianity has suffered due to the actions of believers on both sides — mutual excommunications, the sack of Constantinople by the Venetians in 1204, the use of faith for political purposes so many times over the centuries.

We are, all of us in history, on a Via Dolorosa, a path with the wounds of the past centuries on our backs and in our faces, the slaps, the spitting, the whippings, the executions.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholics were a persecuted Church, illegal under communism after 1946. It was legalized again in the early 1990s. And members of this Church -– our Church, because they are Catholics — were very active in the Maidan protests.

Most of the Catholics in Ukraine celebrate according to the Byzantine liturgy, and belong to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. They represent, from the Catholic perspective, a sign of the possible unity of Eastern liturgy and Petrine office.

But as long as the rest of the Orthodox world is not prepared to accept unity with the Pope of Rome, the successor of Peter, then these Byzantine-rite Catholics, might seem like a provocation. And that is the position the Russian Orthodox have taken.

So what do I think should be done? Not to denounce and condemn. No. How will that lead to anything good? We need to talk. Maybe is some way to find an unexpected solution. And this is the underlying goal of everything I’ve done: to meet together, Catholics and Orthodox, to attend a concert together, to think about the human effort that goes into expressing beauty and faith.

Perhaps we could put that same effort into creating a certain friendship between our divided Churches. I’ve always thought full reunion would only occur far in the future. But this simply persuaded me all the more of the necessity now to create personal friendships and connections so that, over time, over decades, perhaps unity might be reached.


The Ukrainian-Russian conflict has extended to the Catholic-Orthodox relationship as seen in the escalating rhetoric between two charismatic, profound believers, and young leaders of their respective churches: Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of the ROC and Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. You know them both. What would you do to alleviate what could be misunderstandings?

I am not sure. Perhaps we could bring them together under circumstances where a conversation might occur. I can imagine inviting them both to Rome or to Washington, so that they could meet and talk, listen to music, pray, walk in a place like Rock Creek Park together with people like you. Then talk more, pray more, and thus allow their faith to join with reason. Perhaps that seems too unrealistic. But sometimes only “on the way,” as it was for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, can we see Christ.


When you look at recent history, where did this clash between the U.S. and Russia come from?

A few years ago, President Bush met with Vladimir Putin, looked into his eyes and said he could see his soul, that he was a good man. That was not that long ago. … And there was a moment, it was in March of 2012, when President Obama was caught on an open microphone telling Dmitri Medvedev he could be “more flexible” after his re-election.

In those cases, it did not seem the two countries would slide toward confrontation. And in recent years in America you could go into an ice cream shop in many cities and the girl or boy scooping ice cream was from Russia. So I’d say that for 23 of the last 24 years, it seemed the U.S. and Russia could be close friends. Was that all for show?

What happened, apparently, is that Putin during the past decade began to consolidate a certain authority or power in Russia that turned this relationship toward conflict. But it isn’t clear where the blame lies, precisely. Was it due to Russian paranoia or was it due to Western actions, as Patrick Buchanan has argued, extending the NATO border closer and closer to Russia, despite pledges not to do so?

We have to ask, in any case, what is the reason for this ratcheting up of war in Ukraine, in whose interest is it? Is it what Russia wants, or what the U.S. wants?

There is something odd in this entire situation. It is as if people have suffered complete amnesia. Two years ago, Russia was preparing to host the Olympics. The world was no longer in two camps. Now, a war is escalating, the ruble has crashed, Putin is depicted as the new Hitler.

The pieces on the chessboard are in place. The world’s financial markets are extended to the extreme. The U.S. debt is colossal. The EU is monetizing its debt. The Swiss just detached from the Euro. Ukraine’s national finances are in total disarray, near bankruptcy.

In such a troubled economic situation, political events can often be motivated by hidden economic reasons. But whatever the deep reasons for these political tensions, for these battles in eastern Ukraine, for these accusations and counter-accusations, there ought to be a way to call a halt to the escalating madness and create the basis for a concert of countries to work together. But such a result does not seem to be in the cards. Rather, there seems to be a drive toward war.


Is there any hope Pope Francis could step in?

I think the Pope is concerned about all of these matters. I believe he is informed about the tragic situation, the corruption, the shootings in Maidan Square, the desire for peace of ordinary people, and I think he would like to meet with people of the stature of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a man Putin would listen to.

Being religious leaders, not political leaders, if the Pope and Kirill could get together, there might be an “off ramp” from Armageddon. I think it might be possible, through the grace of God, perhaps with help from Pope Francis. I still hope the drums of war will not lead to a devastating direct conflict, something we avoided throughout the entire Cold War.


Do you expect the Holy Father will do something, make a surprising move, regarding Ukraine?

I know it is a subject being evaluated by Vatican diplomacy daily, and they are aware of all of these elements. Pope Francis is not going to be easily tricked or fall into some easy PR ploy from either side. He is aware political regimes can become oppressive; he experienced that himself in Argentina. He also knows revolutionary regimes — and Ukraine is looking like an example of revolution — become infatuated with their own rhetoric. 

Pope Francis deeply loves the “little people” who are rolled over by the tanks of the powerful. If he can find a way to do something more dramatic than anything he has done up until now, he’ll do it.

Victor Gaetan is an international correspondent

and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.