Shifting tectonic plates in Eastern Christianity

George Weigel

ROME. While Synod-2018 was trying to grasp the polyhedron-like character of “synodality” and wrestling with the differences among sexual inclination, sexual orientation, and sexual attraction, tectonic plates were shifting beneath the surface of world Christianity. Like similar shifts in geology, which can produce tsunamis and earthquakes, dramatic movement in the underlying structures of ecclesiastical life can lead to great historical consequences. The recent decision by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to grant autocephaly to a unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church — which would mean its independence from the Russian Orthodox Moscow patriarchate — would be precisely such a dramatic, tectonic shift; perhaps the greatest in Eastern Christianity since Constantinople and Rome formally severed full communion in 1054.

This is, then, a Very Big Deal. That it got virtually no attention during Synod-2018, either inside the Synod hall or in the Synod’s “Off-Broadway” conversations, says something (not altogether edifying) about the self-absorption of Catholicism as it continues its seemingly endless wrestling with the ethics of human love, the exercise of authority in the Church, and a raft of sexual and financial scandals. But one Synod father was paying close attention to what was afoot 2,300 kilometers northeast of here, and that was the ever-more-impressive Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major-Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches that are Byzantine in liturgy and polity but in full communion with Rome.

Many commentators, including your scribe, have looked at what may be the impending independence of Ukrainian Orthodoxy in terms of its potential to derail Vladimir Putin’s attempts to re-create a simulacrum of the old Soviet Union in the name of a historic “Russian space” (Russkie mir). Others, your scribe again included, have speculated on what Ukrainian Orthodox autocephaly would mean for ecumenical relations. Vatican ecumenists have bet most if not all their chips on Russian Orthodoxy as the “lead Church” in Eastern Christianity. That position would become even more untenable if Russian Orthodoxy loses a considerable proportion of its parishes and congregants to an independent Ukrainian Orthodoxy recognized as such by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, first among equals in the Orthodox world.

It was Major-Archbishop Shevchuk, however, who put all this in its most appropriate context when, during the Synod, he gave an interview to my friends John Allen and Ines San Martin of Crux. There, he described any impending Ukrainian Orthodoxy autocephaly as a matter of a people reclaiming its spiritual and historical heritage, which had been hijacked for centuries by Muscovite claims to be the sole heir of that legacy. What was happening, the major-archbishop said, was the exercise of a people’s right to “have its own interpretation of its religious past, present, and future…the right to have its own voice.”

Shevchuk also foresaw major ecumenical implications, as a reunited Ukrainian Orthodoxy might enter into a more fruitful, if challenging, dialogue with both the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and with the center of the Catholic Church’s unity in Rome. As the major-archbishop put it, a realized autocephaly for Ukrainian Orthodoxy would “mark a new period in the history of the Universal Church. I don’t believe it will be an easy period, but definitely interesting and also an impulse of the Holy Spirit.

Major-Archbishop Shevchuk was appropriately concerned about Moscow’s immediate response to an independent Ukrainian Orthodoxy, for Russian Orthodoxy “thinks in geopolitical categories” and speaks “the language of threats, blackmail, and…ultimatums.” That is simply realism, given the vitriol that has recently poured out of the Patriarchate of Moscow, which has broken communion with Constantinople, refuses to pray for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in its liturgy, and blames the move toward Ukrainian autocephaly on the White House, the Vatican, the Greek Catholics of Ukraine, and other bogeymen. I do wonder, however, if the major-archbishop might not agree that, in the long view, this will be good for Russian Orthodoxy.

Why? Because it could help liberate that Church from its historic role of chaplain to the czar-of-the-day. Because such a liberation might encourage a recovery of the vast spiritual riches of Russian Orthodoxy piety and theology, now being suffocated by political games and power plays. And because it might, over time, accelerate what we should all be praying and working for: the genuine reconversion of Russia, which could be a spiritual powerhouse but won’t be, so long as the Gospel is mortgaged to state power.

COMING UP: An Orthodox fracture with serious consequences

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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.