An Orthodox fracture with serious consequences

While Catholicism has been embroiled in a crisis of sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance reaching to the highest levels of the Church, Eastern Orthodoxy may be on the verge of an epic crack-up with major ecumenical and geopolitical consequences.

There are three competing Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine today. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate is in full communion with, and subordinate to, the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow. Then there are two breakaways from Moscow: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. This tripartite fracture is a scandal, an obstacle to re-evangelizing a broken culture, and an impediment to ecumenism.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople has indicated that it is considering a proposal to recognize the autocephaly, or independence from Moscow, of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, should the contending Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine restore unity. The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has responded with fury, dropping references to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople from its liturgy. And its international mouthpiece, Metropolitan Hilarion, issued an overwrought statement contending that “the war of the Patriarchate of Constantinople against Moscow [has continued] for almost a hundred years.” Hilarion also charged that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is first-among-equals in Orthodox Christianity, didn’t support the Moscow Patriarchate during decades of Soviet persecution — an ironic allegation, given that the man to whom Hilarion reports, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, was an old KGB hand back in the day.

What’s going on here? Several things.

First, the Moscow Patriarchate is terrified. Should a reunited Ukrainian Orthodoxy be recognized by Constantinople as “autocephalous” and therefore not subordinate to Russian Orthodoxy, Moscow’s claim to be the “third Rome” would be gravely imperiled. Russian Orthodoxy would shrink drastically by the loss of the large Orthodox population in Ukraine, and the Moscow Patriarchate’s claim to a kind of de facto hegemony in the Orthodox world would be badly damaged.

Second, Russian Orthodoxy, continuing a long, unhappy tradition of playing chaplain-to-the-czar (whatever form he takes), has provided putatively religious buttressing for Vladimir Putin’s claim that there is a single Russkiy mir (“Russian world” or “Russian space”), which includes Ukraine and Belarus. And in that “space,” Ukrainians and Belarussians are little brothers of the Russians, the true inheritors of the baptism of the eastern Slavs in 988. That is a falsification of history. Yet it has underwritten Russian imperial claims for centuries, and it continues to do so today.

A reunited and independent Ukrainian Orthodoxy centered on Kyiv (site in 988 of the baptism of Prince Vladimir and the tribes that eventually became Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarussians) would empirically falsify what serious historians have long known is a dishonest narrative. Moscow and Russia are not the sole inheritors of the baptism of the eastern Slavs, and Russian imperial claims (like those that have underwritten the invasion and annexation of Crimea and the Russian-sponsored war in eastern Ukraine) rest on a false story. Thus both Russian Orthodoxy and President Putin would be major losers, should Ukrainian Orthodoxy reunite and be recognized as independent by Constantinople. That is why Metropolitan Hilarion is taking a harsh line with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. That is also why Putin is likely encouraging his new friend, President Erdogan of Turkey, to turns the screws on Bartholomew, whose presence in Istanbul (the former Constantinople) depends on Turkish governmental goodwill. For Putin knows that his attempt to recreate something like the old Soviet Union, which has battened on the “Russian world” ideology,” could implode.

Russian Orthodox clergy have charged that efforts to reunite Ukrainian Orthodoxy and grant it autocephaly are a Roman plot. That should concentrate some minds at the Vatican. The 2016 Havana Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill was supposed to inaugurate a new era of ecumenical cooperation between Rome and Moscow. Yet as soon as Moscow feels pressured, the Vatican bogeyman is trotted out and vilified. Those of us who judged the Moscow Declaration ill-advised two years ago ought not take any satisfaction from having been right; but those who wouldn’t listen then should think again about making deals with agents of Russian state power.

Nothing is certain in this Ukrainian drama, given Ukrainian Orthodox fractiousness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s relatively weak position, and the unhelpful involvement of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. The stakes, however, are high indeed.

COMING UP: Russian Orthodoxy’s aggressive obsessions

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What does the Lord’s injunction to turn the other cheek in Matthew 5:39 require when it comes to ecumenical dialogue? The question regularly poses itself to those familiar with the website of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church (

There, on September 17, the chief ecumenical officer of the ROC, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, complained about the “aggressive rhetoric” of the Greek Catholics in Ukraine” (a theme he has belabored for years), before laying down another gauntlet: “the Unia” (meaning the full communion of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and other Eastern Catholic local churches with Rome) “remains a bleeding wound on the body of Christendom and the main stumbling [bloc] in Orthodox-Catholic dialogue.” Three days later, on September 20, the site reported that Metropolitan Hilarion said essentially the same things to Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Vatican’s chief ecumenist, during a meeting of the Catholic-Orthodox Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue in Chieti, Italy. In that instance, and after his now-routine attack on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Hilarion said that “the issue of Unia needs to be revisited” by the Joint Commission.

It would be inappropriate to slap back, even at such provocations and lies. But surely a calm, forthright response is fully in keeping with the Lord’s command, the self-respect of the Catholic Church, and the settled conviction in true ecumenical and interreligious dialogue that the only dialogue worthy of the name is dialogue in truth.

So with that in mind, here is what ought to be said to Metropolitan Hilarion the next time he tries these gambits.

1. The full communion of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and other Eastern Catholic Churches with the Bishop of Rome and the bishops in communion with him is not a matter for negotiation. It is a settled fact of ecclesiastical life in the third millennium. Attempts to suggest otherwise are a form of aggression that has no place in genuine ecumenism.

2. What needs to be “revisited” before anything else is a real “bleeding wound”: the Lviv pseudo-Sobor (synod) of 1946. There, an effort was made, virtually at gun-point (the guns being in the hands of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD), to liquidate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church by forcing its “reunion” with the Russian Orthodox Church. Until this act of political, imperial, ethnic, and ecclesiastical aggression is acknowledged for what it was by 21st-century Russian Orthodox leaders, and forgiveness asked for the untold suffering it caused Ukrainian Greek Catholics who remained faithful to the bond with Rome during four decades of life as the world’s largest illegal underground religious community, no genuine progress is possible in Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations.

3. In the future, and absent the distraction caused by Metropolitan Hilarion’s polemics, the Catholic-ROC dialogue should focus on the search for a sound theology of Church-state relations. That exploration should include the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which has been a model of the kind of “public Church” that is not a “partisan” Church envisioned by the Second Vatican Council and St. John Paul II. Moreover, the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine has embodied the evangelical independence from state power – and the prophetic willingness to hold state power to account for its crimes – that is notably lacking in the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin (and previous czars). Thus the question of a theological development beyond the classic Eastern Christian “symphony” theory of Church-and-state should be high on the ecumenical agenda, as that “symphony” has never worked itself out in anything other than the subordination of Church to state, which is a grave impediment to evangelization.

4. And while everyone is welcome to his own bureaucratic nomenclature, might the implications of the title “Department of External Church Relations” be discussed? Is Catholicism (including the Eastern Catholic Churches) completely “external” to Russian Orthodoxy? Do we not share the same Baptism?

These points need not be raised aggressively. But unless they are raised, and then satisfactorily addressed by the ROC, the transformation of important ecumenical meetings into forums for Putinesque propaganda and the Stalinist rewriting of history will continue – as will the self-degradation of the Catholic Church implied by a failure to say, quietly but firmly, “Enough of this is quite enough.”