Wednesday, March 09, 2011

George Weigel: Rome and Moscow

In Russian Federation president Dmitri Medvedev’s recent visit to the Vatican, which included an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, is being trumpeted in some quarters as further evidence of a dramatic breakthrough in relations between the Holy See and Russia, and between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. While I wish that were the case, several recent experiences prompt a certain skepticism.

In what were called “elections” in December 2010, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko was returned to office. Virtually all international observers regarded the “elections” as fraudulent and condemned Lukashenko’s post-election arrest and jailing of candidates who had dared oppose him. Yet shortly after the results were announced, Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of Russian Orthodoxy, sent a congratulatory message to Lukashenko, whom he praised for having “honestly served the whole country and its citizens”; “the results of the elections,” he wrote, “show the large amount of trust that the nation has for you.”

Coddling autocrats is not, unfortunately, unknown in Christian history. What is new, however, is the Moscow patriarchate’s repeated claims that Russian Orthodoxy is the sole repository of the religious identity of the peoples of ancient “Rus’” (Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians) and their principal cultural guarantor today. That close identification of ethnicity and Russian Orthodoxy raises serious theological questions, even as it crudely simplifies a complex history involving multiple cultural and religious currents.

More disturbing still were remarks made in Washington in February by Metropolitan Hilarion, the Moscow patriarchate’s “external affairs” officer—Russian Orthodoxy’s chief ecumenist. Hilarion is an impressive personality in many ways: he is entirely at home in English, he displays a nice sense of humor, and his curriculum vitae includes a large number of publications and musical compositions. Yet when I asked him whether the L’viv Sobor (Council) of 1946—which forcibly reincorporated the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine into Russian Orthodoxy, turning the Greek Catholics into the world’s largest illegal religious body—was a “theologically legitimate ecclesial act,” Hilarion unhesitatingly responded “Yes.” I then noted that serious historians describe the L’viv Sobor as an act of the Stalinist state, carried out by the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB); Hilarion responded that the “modalities” of history are always complicated. In any event, he continued, it was always legitimate for straying members of the Russian Orthodox flock (as he regarded the Ukrainian Greek Catholics) to return to their true home (i.e., Russian Orthodoxy).

Throughout the meeting, Hilarion smoothly but unmistakably tried to drive a wedge between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II (whom two patriarchs of Moscow, both KGB-connected, refused to invite to Russia). He also suggested that Benedict’s calls for a “new evangelization” in Europe, including a recovery of classic Christian morality, could be addressed by joint Catholic-Russian Orthodoxy initiatives. Yet, in what seemed a strange lack of reciprocity, Hilarion also spoke as if the entirety of the former “Soviet space” is the exclusive ecclesial turf of the Russian Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow.

Some clarifications are thus in order.
Read the rest here.

I concede the point about the L’viv synod. No serious historian regards that as a legitimate act untainted by gross coercion. Beyond which I just see a lot of regrettable polemics. All of which aside there is no serious possibility of restoration of communion between Rome and Orthodoxy. The theological gulf between Rome and Orthodoxy is unbridgeable without one or the other ceasing to be. The question is the nature and scope of cooperation on issues of common interest such as combating the rising tide of radical Islam and secualrism and also joint charitable works.


Anonymous said...

I think its also true that "Greek Catholicism" has an ugly history as well, if we are splitting hairs. In any case, Rome is outside the Church so treating her position in the west as equivalent to an Orthodox position in Russia isn't what I'd expect from any Orthodox Patriarch or Synod. At this point in history, missions to the west is the main activity Russians should be considering, and those need to be untainted by Russian or 'Rus'ian identity - from that perspective the article ought to give us something to chew on.

Chris Jones said...

What strikes me about this article is that Mr Weigel, like many (most?) Catholics, has no idea of the Orthodox notion of a territorial Church. That is why he sees Moscow's exercise of jurisdiction over Ukraine and Belarus as a relic of the Soviet period -- some sort of ecclesiastical echo of the structure of the Soviet state -- when in reality it is simply the extent of the jurisdiction that the Patriarchate of Moscow has had ever since there has been such a thing as the Patriarchate of Moscow.

There is often a sort of tone-deafness in the attitude of Catholics towards Orthodoxy, as if they were saying "Why aren't you like us? And if you are not like us, you are incoherent."

Anonymous said...

Weigel is an ideologue and a ultra-modernist. What he has to say about Roman Catholicism should be of little interest, but what he has to say about Orthodoxy is of no interest outside of an example of where unbridled ignorance leads.

Jon Marc said...

Wasn't there a movement within the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Austria-Hungary towards Russian Orthodox liturgical norms and piety in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? I agree that the L'vov Council was organized by the Soviets, but it's possible that a minority there had actually wanted reunion with Orthodoxy beforehand and had been kept back by the various cultural and social pressures that have kept many of us from changing faith. Again, not to defend the L'vov Council, but perhaps the view of the Moscow Patriarchate is formed by experience with such a minority (that genuinely embraced reconcilation)?