The latest diplomatic coup for Pope Francis I – whose papacy has been marked by an ever-more expansive foreign policy – is the announcement of an interesting development in relations between the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox churches, relations that have been more-or-less non-existent for more than 1000 years.
On February 12, Pope Francis – who will be on his way to visit Mexico – will meet Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill at Havana Airport in Cuba. Kirill is not the formal head of the world’s estimated 200m Orthodox Christians – that is his All-Holiness Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch, whose seat is in Istanbul, not Moscow.
But the Orthodox churches are effectively independent, national units with Bartholomew enjoying only a sort of “primacy of honour” over them – rather like the archbishop of Canterbury over the world-wide Anglican Communion. The Russian Church is easily the largest of the Orthodox churches with more than 80-100m members. Consequently, the Russian Church and its Patriarch have enormous influence in the Orthodox world, arguably even more than Bartholomew himself.
The Vatican’s relations with Russian Orthodoxy have historically been poor. The papacy was at loggerheads with the Tsars over their treatment of Polish Catholics when Poland was ruled by them. And during World War I, the Vatican feared a possible Russian victory over the Ottoman Empire, leading to a reinvigorated Orthodoxy and the creation of a sort of “Vatican on the Bosphorus”.
In 1917 it thought Catholicism could profit from the collapse of Tsardom and the subsequent disestablishment of the Orthodox Church but those hopes were quickly dashed by the Soviets’ “Godless campaigns” which were aimed at all religious groups, not just the Orthodox. The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not improve relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches – on the contrary, the Russian Orthodox Church has consistently accused the Vatican of proselytism, of trying to poach its own faithful, a not entirely unjustified accusation.
Bones of contention
So what will Francis and Kirill talk about? They will seek détente, a general improvement in their relations, but this will be difficult given the highly nationalistic mood of Russian Orthodoxy at the moment. As in previous centuries, many Russian Orthodox prelates are deeply suspicious of Western Europe – Catholic, Protestant and secular – which they see as an area of religious and moral decadence.
The schism between eastern and western Christianity, which originated in the 7th and 8th centuries and centres around the dispute over the nature of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but also in the Orthodox rejection of the Bishop of Rome’s claims to universal primacy over Christians, is still unresolved despite ecumenical gestures on the part of Rome.
Another issue between Rome and Moscow is the question of Ukraine. Rome is unhappy about Putin’s annexation of the Crimea and his assistance for the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine which sections of the Orthodox Church have supported with jingoistic fervour. In the western Ukraine, the Greek Catholic Church, which – like the Orthodox – has a married clergy and shares similar liturgical practices, is nevertheless in communion with Rome. No love is lost between the Greek Catholics and the Ukrainian Orthodox.
Will Francis and Kirill talk about this thorny problem? One issue which they will certainly discuss and on which they may reach a measure of agreement is the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, though even here the situation is complicated by Putin’s foreign policy objectives in Syria.
“Old man in a hurry”
Pope Francis is 80 this December and has only one lung. He was elected on a reform ticket and so far has succeeded in sorting out the scandal-ridden Vatican Bank – and Vatican finances in general. He has started the process of reforming the Roman curia (the central government of the Catholic Church in the Vatican) and devolving power to local bishops.
He has other objectives, including re-establishing diplomatic relations with China and thereby achieving some sort of re-unification of the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association and those Chinese Catholics who lie outside the CPA and are therefore subject to occasional governmental repression. Vatican diplomacy also played an important role in bringing about the restoration of diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba last year.
He probably also nurtures hopes of an historic compromise between the Catholic and the Orthodox churches – and his meeting with Kirill may prove to be a step in that direction. It is, however, unlikely to lead to any radical change in the relationship in Francis’ lifetime. This schism runs deep.