There has been so much excellent commentary on the recently concluded meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow that it seems unnecessary to add too much more to the pile. Clearly an event like this—and the Joint Declaration which emerged from it—wasn’t going to sit the same with all people. Although Eastern Orthodox commentary has been fairly sparse thus far (at least in English), there appears to be a fair amount of discontent floating around traditionalist Orthodox circles (the “pan-heresy of ecumenism” and all that jazz), prompting some to either declare that the sky is falling or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, that neither the meeting nor the Joint Declaration mean a whole heck of a lot. To some extent the latter view is correct. The meeting, in and of itself, won’t amount to a hill of beans unless the Moscow Patriarchate is committed to ongoing theological dialogue and rapprochement. However, as numerous commentators have already highlighted, the Russian state under Vladimir Putin has a definite geopolitical interest in keeping close ties with the Vatican, which may have had more to do with the meeting taking place than any desire to mend the Great Schism.
On the Catholic side of things, I think it is fair to characterize the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s (UGCC) response as less-than-thrilled. (You can find a roundup of commentary here.) Ukrainian Catholic emotions right now range from disappointed to angry, and rightly so. A recent article by Myroslav Marynovych—Vice Rector of the Catholic University in Lviv—sums this up well. An excerpt:
The desire to avoid irritating Moscow has become the starting point for any steps in the Vatican for relations with other churches. For Ukrainian Christians this could be a reason for outrage if not for the fact that, fortunately, the Gospel says nothing about canonical law but quite a lot about truth and the necessary caution that Christians need to exhibit in the face of the evil one. The impression of evil is only amplified when you read paragraph 28, which contains many beautiful and accurate words on the need for cooperation between the Orthodox and the Catholics and about the evangelical basis of this cooperation. However, as soon as one comes across the words about the need ” to testify together to the moral dignity and authentic freedom of the person,” the mind immediately sees the massive violations of human rights in the occupied territories controlled by Russia, which have now become the preserve of the “Russian World.”
The issue is the persecution of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the physical destruction of Protestant pastors, the arbitrary arrests and “disappearances” of the activists of the Crimean Tatar movement and so on. There is not a single word about all this in the Declaration. It is as if the suffering of the “non-canonicals” and those of other “religious affiliations” are less worthy of compassion than the Christians in Syria.
In the past, Roman popes repeatedly used meetings with political or religious leaders to defend religious freedom and human rights. It is enough to remember the release of Patriarch Yosyf Slipyi from Siberian imprisonment, which we owe to Pope John XXIII, or the legalization of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which we owe to Pope John Paul II.
Traditional Catholics, who often look down on Orthodox/Catholic get-togethers despite a tendency to fawn over Putin’s Russia, haven’t had too much to say so far. One exception is the popular web-log Unam Sanctam Catholicam where “Boniface” (its pseudonymous author) has written-up the usual menu of traditionalist complaints against Catholics cozying-up to the “schismatic Orthodox.” Unfortunately, the post is a mess, what with its degrading implications concerning the “Uniates” as apparent sub-species Catholics who have been “allowed . . . to retain some degree of cultural distinction in return for their recognition of the supremacy of the Roman Pontiff.” It is exactly this type of Latin-style chauvinism which has made the Orthodox (Eastern and Oriental) leery of drawing closer to Rome in the hopes of reestablishing full communion. Unfortunately, “Boniface”, like too many traditional Catholics, is caught in the mindset that cherry-picking individual converts is the best method for bringing about unity—a mindset that betrays a belief that Latin Catholicism is normative and everything else merely “tolerable.”
But life goes on. The question which should be on everyone’s mind is, “What’s next?” Will we see another meeting between Francis and Kirill in the next year? Does closer ties with the Vatican have any implications for Moscow’s position at the (potentially) upcoming Pan-Orthodox Council? Will the Vatican begin putting pressure on the UGCC to relent from any “bad behavior” which may irk the geopolitical interests of the Russian state and the Moscow Patriarchate? Or might Catholics hope and pray that the Holy Father uses the meeting as a step toward bringing about real healing between Catholics and Orthodox, particularly in Ukraine and Russia, while also protecting the rights of the UGCC? As of right now it is fair to say that Francis has left many Ukrainian Catholics feeling like abandoned stepchildren, but that needn’t be the case. Francis has an opportunity to reach out to Patriarch Sviatoslav and his flock, affirming them in their faith and standing with them in solidarity rather than submitting to political forces. Patriarch Sviatoslav said it best in his statement on the Joint Declaration when he offered up this passage from the Gospel of Luke 22:31: “Simon, Simon! Satan would sift you like wheat, but I prayed for you, so that your faith is not weakened, and when you are converted, strengthen your brethren.”