WHEN Pope Francis met the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia in Cuba, last Friday (News, 12 February), the event was heralded as a significant new step on the road to Christian unity. And yet their joint declaration has provoked misgivings. If it does bring the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches closer, Anglicans and other denominations might well be wary.
The 30-point document praises the communist-ruled Cuba as a “symbol of the hopes” of a “New World”. Speaking afterwards, Pope Francis insisted that the text was “pastoral” rather than “political or sociological”. But it makes no mention of human rights and democracy, nor of the theological and ecclesiological issues that have divided the Churches for so long, notably over papal primacy.
Instead, it urges international action to prevent the expulsion of Christians from the Middle East, and deplores the “grave threat to religious freedom” caused by the advance of “secularised societies” in Europe. Meanwhile, it deplores the threats posed by cohabitation, same-sex unions, abortion, euthanasia, and biomedical technology.
CLAIMS in the media that this was the first such meeting “for a thousand years” are mistaken, since the Russian Orthodox patriarchate was founded only in the 16th century. Pope Paul VI met the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I, during and after the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, and agreed in 1965 to “erase from memory” the mutual excommunications imposed at the Great Schism in 1054.
All three popes since then have also met the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, and enjoyed friendly ties with several of Orthodoxy’s eight other patriarchates and 21 Churches and archbishoprics.
No such links proved possible, however, with the Russian Orthodox Church, which nominally claims the loyalty of about half the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians. Although there was intermittent talk of a top-level meeting under the late John Paul II and Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, this was prevented by Russian complaints that Roman Catholics were “proselytising” in traditionally Orthodox areas after the collapse of Communist rule; these reached a head when John Paul II created four Roman Catholic dioceses for Russia in 2002.
Contacts improved after the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, when an interchurch working group was set up. A few years later, however, Patriarch Kirill’s conspicuous closeness to the regime of President Vladimir Putin caused Western church leaders to back off, especially when the Patriarch said nothing against the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014 (News, 21 March 2014).
The Kremlin is known to be dissatisfied at Kirill’s loss of standing at home and abroad, and President Putin may well have pressured the Patriarch to agree to the meeting, hoping to bolster Russia’s image. Patriarch Kirill may have counted on the event to strengthen his position at a council of Orthodox leaders which is to convene in Crete in June.
The Russian side will have been delighted with the wording of the joint declaration. The document laments the millions “left without a home or means of sustenance” in Syria, but makes no mention of Russia’s continued bombing campaign.
The Moscow Patriarchate still objects to the revival of the banned Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, whose members are known contemptuously as “uniates” by Russian Orthodox leaders. Far from offering words of consolation, the Havana declaration reiterates that “uniatism” cannot be viewed as “the way to re-establish unity”, and offers little more than a grudging acknowledgement of the Greek Catholics’ “right to exist”.
It makes no mention of Roman Catholic rights in Russia, which are still heavily restricted, nor of the effective banning of non-Orthodox worship in occupied eastern Ukraine.
THE reactions have been predictable. The Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said on Sunday that the declaration’s “half-truth nature” had left many Ukrainians feeling “betrayed by the Vatican”. He noted that his Church had not even been asked its views, making it a document “about us without us”.
Other Roman Catholic leaders have been wrong-footed as well, notably in Poland, whose Church-run Catholic Information Agency, KAI, recently regretted that Kirill had “ceased to be any different from the secular eulogists of Putin’s regime”.
Anglicans and other denominations should note the declaration’s repeated emphasis on a reforged Roman Catholic-Orthodox closeness, and its call for a new “compelling Christian witness” in all areas of life.
ALMOST a decade has passed since the then Bishop Hilarion, who is now Kirill’s deputy, called for a Catholic-Orthodox “strategic alliance” to defend Europe’s “traditional Christian values” — a phrase whose “militaristic overtones” and implied hostility to Protestants were rejected by Cardinal Koch and other Roman Catholic leaders.
But the notion that Roman Catholic and Orthodox bishops can stand together in saving the wayward continent of Europe remains popular in some church circles. If some new Roman Catholic movement follows in tandem with Russian Orthodoxy, it can reasonably be asked which “traditional Christian values” are being defended — and whether the Pope’s appeals to fraternity are not at risk of becoming naïve and dangerous platitudes.
Jonathan Luxmoore is a writer who reports on religious affairs from Warsaw and Oxford.