Both Moscow and Rome should be satisfied at the outcome of the visit on 30 May to the Vatican by a delegation of senior figures in the Russian Orthodox Church. Pope Francis made it clear that he is still seeking closer and warmer relations with Russia, even at a time of growing East-West tensions, and is hoping for real co-operation with the powerful Russian church in the humanitarian field and in helping Christians who face persecution in the Middle East. And the Russians will have been delighted that the Pope has firmly shut the door against any Catholic support for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in its quarrel with Moscow.
The talks, headed on the Russian side by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the Oxford-educated, powerful and hardline “Foreign Minister” of the Moscow Patriarchate, did not yield any real progress on the stuttering moves towards reunion between the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches. Neither side expected that – indeed, the Russians made it quite clear that they do not think the time is yet ripe.
Speaking last month on Russian television, Hilarion said that unity is impossible because even though “the foundations of our faith are the same, and the symbol of faith is almost identical, Catholics have another conception of the procession of the Holy Spirit”. He pointed out that some people considered by Catholics to be saints are considered heretics and criminals by the Orthodox. And in any case, he added, the two Churches had been separate for almost a thousand years, and “many contradictions and misunderstandings [had] accumulated”.
For his part, the Pope is still looking broadly at developing closer links between the two Churches, and is keen to build on his historic meeting in Cuba with Patriarch Kirill two years ago. But he also knows that any links will have to be confined for now to working together to achieve practical humanitarian goals. In Bari today, for example, in a day of prayer and reflection, he and several Patriarchs will be discussing the critical situation for the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East.
The Russian Church is preoccupied at the moment with the challenge from Ukraine. It wants to ensure that Rome will do nothing to encourage the Russian Orthodox Church there to seek independence from Moscow. Many Orthodox Christians in Ukraine already belong to churches independent of Moscow. If the Russian Orthodox Church in this former Soviet republic were to set up an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church with its own Patriarch it would be a major body blow to the Moscow Patriarchate.
A very large number of Russian Orthodox churches and worshippers are in Ukraine; removing them from Moscow’s jurisdiction would be like lopping off a very large branch of the tree. The separatists hope that Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), would recognise a new united and autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church. For the moment, this seems unlikely – Bartholomew, despite poor relations with Moscow, is not going to agree to a hugely controversial political move that would create friction throughout the Orthodox community of Churches.
Nevertheless, Moscow is anxious. It believes that the Ukrainian Orthodox who are seeking independence are being encouraged by anti-Russian nationalists. Kirill has accused Ukrainian mobs of surrounding Orthodox churches and bullying congregations into supporting a break with Moscow. Kirill believes that the separatists are receiving strong support from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and its leader, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk. The UGCC has a long history of rivalry with the Russian Orthodox Church and its members form the backbone of the nationalist movement in western Ukraine. These Catholics were at the centre of a bitter competition for loyalty among Ukrainians during the papacy of John Paul II, who had a strong anti-Moscow agenda.
Stopping the Vatican giving any encouragement to the Ukrainian Orthodox separatists or to their Catholic supporters lay at the heart of Hilarion’s mission when he met Pope Francis. And it seems on the face of it that he largely succeeded. The Pope issued a statement saying that Catholics “must not get involved in internal matters of the Russian Orthodox Church, or in political issues”. He did not specify whether he was talking specifically about Catholics in Russia or Catholics in Ukraine – but Moscow naturally saw his remarks as an attempt to distance the Vatican from the furious political and religious struggle now going on in Ukraine.
Some observers have seen what looks like an important concession by the Pope as part of a package of recent statements and actions that appear to take a more conservative line on doctrinal issues. Is this intended to smooth the way to closer ties with the Orthodox? Others argue that there is no attempt to “court” the Russians by moving towards Moscow’s trenchantly conservative views on eucharistic theology, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of women. They point out that ecumenical outreach is a hallmark of Pope Francis, not just with the Russians but with other Churches and other faiths. Rome always needs to maintain working relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, by far the biggest and strongest of all the Orthodox Churches.
It is true that for Rome and Moscow there are fewer obstacles in the way of closer spiritual and theological agreement between them than between either of them and the Protestant or Anglican Churches. The Moscow Patriarchate is almost contemptuous in its dismissal of what it sees as the “ultra-liberal” Protestant Churches of the West, which it accuses of having being captured by liberal secularism. Both Kirill and Hilarion pour scorn on the support for same-sex marriage and women priests, and what they call “radical feminism” endorsed by many Lutheran and Scandinavian Churches, and suggested to Archbishop Justin Welby during his visit to Moscow in November that the Anglican Churches had become captive to dangerously “liberal” tendencies.
And though some Catholics as well as Protestants may raise eyebrows at what seems like hypocrisy, given the very close identification of the Russian Orthodox Church with the policies of President Putin, Pope Francis has a record of offering an olive branch to Moscow. He is keen to enhance co-operation in humanitarian fields, especially in the care of refugees and the ending of violence in the Middle East. This suits Moscow’s agenda well, especially as most of the Christian Churches in the Arab world are closely aligned to Orthodoxy in some form or other, and Russia at the moment is overwhelmingly the dominant political force in Syria and elsewhere in the region.
The resurgent Russian Orthodox Church, which now boasts some 100 million members and has built or reopened around 30,000 churches across Russia since the fall of communism – a rate of about three a day – is determined that its weight and influence should now be felt around the Christian world, much as Putin wants global acknowledgement of Russia’s political importance. It sees itself as a bastion of the faith in the face of the attacks of postmodern secularisation. This is a position that has won it some grudging respect from conservatives in the Catholic and the Protestant and Anglican Churches.
Western Church leaders have no illusions about the Russian Church’s historical identification with the Russian state and its broadly Russian nationalist agenda. Some suspect that, just as the Russian state is accused of attempting to sway political elections in Western countries, so the Russian Orthodox Church is seeking to move opinion in Western Churches towards its own more conservative theological positions.
The Vatican respects the Russian state’s role and weight, but is wary of hasty moves towards closer relations with the Kremlin. As Cardinal Pietro Parolin said before his visit to Moscow last year: “The effort to understand each other does not mean the yielding of one to the position of the other, rather a patient, constructive, frank and at the same time, respectful dialogue. This is even more important on the questions which are at the origin of current conflicts and on those that risk provoking a further increase in tension.”
The Vatican position seems little changed since then. If anything, it is both more wary of the Russian Church but also more hopeful for an intensification of co-operation in a range of humanitarian fields. For Hilarion, what matters now is that the Russian Church does not suffer the same wrenching divisions and turmoil over Ukraine that have preoccupied the political leadership in Moscow for the past three years. He may now feel that the Pope at least will not do anything to make Patriarch Kirill’s position more difficult.
Michael Binyon has been a leader-writer, columnist and foreign correspondent for The Times since 1971, reporting from Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels.