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An epochal meeting with epochal consequences

Meeting between Pope Francis and Moscow Patriarch Kirill
Meeting between Pope Francis and Moscow Patriarch Kirill
An epochal meeting with epochal consequences
Article by: Myroslav Marynovych
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

Anyone who remembers my article “When diplomacy prevails over principles of faith” knows that I was not very hopeful about the planned meeting between Pope Francis and the Patriarch of Moscow Kirill. However, I also did not want to write cautionary articles before the meeting. After all, Vatican diplomacy has not shown signs of recovery this year and sometimes it is better to allow the boil to form because then the illness becomes more evident.

Unfortunately, this is what happened.

The first problem was the meeting itself. It had been sought by several predecessors of Pope Francis. In particular, it had been insistently pursued by Pope John Paul II. However, the prize went to the Pope, who was the least prepared of all.

This is because Pope Francis is a pastor and not a politician, as Moscow knows very well. Of all the popes, he was the safest to deal with. Moreover, the current Pope, formed in Latin America, is not well versed in the situation in Eastern Europe and has never had direct contact with the “secrets of the Kremlin court.”

The sphere where the Pope feels at home and where he is capable of reaching spiritual heights is the human soul. However, world politics, as has become very evident, has been relegated to the politicians of the Roman Curia of the Apostolic See.

The Moscow Patriarchate has for a long time skillfully taken advantage of certain features of Vatican positions, consistently refusing meetings with popes when it found the conditions to be unfavorable. The “guilty” were always the Catholics, of course, either because of the fictitious “Catholic proselytism in Russia” or the so-called “violence of Greek Catholics over the Orthodox in Western Ukraine.”

And suddenly all these arguments vanished. The motivation here, of course, was again of utmost importance. It became necessary, apparently, to jointly protect the Christians of Syria (who, incidentally, have been eagerly bombed by Russia) and to protect human civilization from all sorts of perversions. And, in reality, to save Putin’s Russia from complete isolation and defeat.

I suspect that Vatican diplomats are celebrating this “victory”:  decades of enormous efforts that finally have given positive results. Moscow was finally “persuaded to a dialogue.” In fact, the Pope said that key word “finally” when he embraced the Patriarch.

However, to determine who really won here let us turn to the Declaration signed in Cuba.

Trusting and peace-loving people will pay attention primarily to a number of paragraphs that, if separated from the circumstances, could easily be considered as achievements of recent interchurch relations. For example, those troubled by the silence of secular Europe to the suffering of Christians from the violence in the Middle East will be glad to see that the signers of the Declaration share their concerns.

People with a more liberal inclination, for whom pluralism and tolerance are important, will be satisfied with paragraph 13 that ” Differences in the understanding of religious truths must not impede people of different faiths to live in peace and harmony.” On the other hand, people of conservative inclination will be satisfied with paragraphs 19-21, where traditional family values, the right to life, and warnings about the dangers of aggressive secularism are emphasized.

But for me, educated in the duplicity of communist ideology and shocked by the cynicism of the Russian World ideology, deeds are important, not words. So when I read in paragraph 13 that “In our current context, religious leaders have the particular responsibility to educate their faithful in a spirit which is respectful of the convictions of those belonging to other religious traditions,” I immediately remember that the Moscow Patriarch has not uttered a single word to condemn the military aggression of his country against Ukraine nor the religious persecution on the occupied territories. Therefore, he has not fulfilled the requirement that he so eloquently invokes in the quoted passage.

This is why these points in the Declaration, which primarily relate to the situation in Ukraine or which are applied to it, are for me a test that reveals the sincerity or insincerity of the Moscow Patriarch and the awareness of the Catholic side.

Paragraph 26 could be called “Balamand-like.” It repeats almost word for word the famous formula of the Balamand Agreement which made it famous, namely the distinction between:

(a) “Uniatism” as a method of achieving unity of churches and

(b) the Eastern Catholic Churches which, though they were created as a result of the union, still have a right to exist.

But there is one “minor” change in the Cuban Declaration. It no longer refers to the Eastern Catholic Churches but to church communities. To the secular ear, the difference is almost unnoticeable, but the ecclesiastical reality behind these definitions is radically different! The Vatican is well aware of this difference when, for example, it distinguishes between “Protestant Churches” and “Protestant Church communities.”

Therefore, one cannot consider this a simple omission. The document clearly speaks of “communities,” which as a result of the union “became separated from their churches.” Therefore, this entire paragraph is written on the basis of Orthodox ecclesiology according to its Moscow interpretation.

It is worth quoting paragraph 26 in full: ” We deplore the hostility in Ukraine that has already caused many victims, inflicted innumerable wounds on peaceful inhabitants, and thrown society into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis. We invite all the parties involved in the conflict to prudence, to social solidarity, and to action aimed at constructing peace. We invite our Churches in Ukraine to work towards social harmony, to refrain from taking part in the confrontation, and to not support any further development of the conflict.”

This paragraph was clearly written in the Kremlin. It literally repeats the Kremlin’s propaganda cliché about the purely domestic nature of the “conflict in Ukraine.” It contains an indirect allusion that the Russian Orthodox Church in the zone of conflict is peace-loving whereas the “Uniates” and the “raskolniki” (schismatics –Ed.) are fueling the conflict. In any case, this is how this paragraph will be used by Moscow in the future.

And finally, there is no mention in this paragraph of something that is obvious to the entire world — Russia’s involvement in this conflict. The fact that this point was proposed by the Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev (chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow – Ed.) is clear, but what is extraordinary is that the Vatican diplomats accepted it and eventually so did the Pope. While it might have been possible not to understand the nature of the “Ukrainian conflict” in the summer of 2014, the “naïve ignorance” exhibited in the beginning of 2016 is on the Vatican’s conscience.

In paragraph 27 the Declaration signatories express the “hope that the schism between the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine may be overcome through existing canonical norms.” Well, this is longtime Vatican politics — to maintain contacts in Ukraine only with the “canonical” Orthodox Church.

So it is not difficult to imagine how negatively this paragraph will be received by the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches that are not in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate. One can only deplore once again that in the Vatican’s view the principle of canon law takes on an absolute character with no regard to the distortions of truth and justice that are at its core.

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.

Myroslav Marynovych
Myroslav Marynovych

This is why it was impossible to condemn the planned meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill before it took place because the Pope had the opportunity to defend the interests of those harmed by Russian aggression. He had the opportunity but did not use it. The Cuban Declaration of the two church heads was structured is such a way that Russia is referred to as the country of the “unprecedented renewal of the Christian faith ” where there is the opportunity now to “to freely confess one’s faith” while concern arises only about other countries. It is only in other countries that “Christians are increasingly confronted by restrictions to religious freedom, to the right to witness to one’s convictions and to live in conformity with them.”

This is why I have reached the painful conclusion that on the issue of Ukraine and Russia the Catholic Church has once again avoided the truth for the benefit of an ephemeral “dialogue with Moscow.”

The Cuban Declaration of the Pope and the Moscow Patriarch is a vivid illustration of several things at once: the undeniable victory of the Kremlin and the FSB along with all their obedient subjects, to which I add the Russian Orthodox Church; the complete failure of Ukrainian state diplomacy in the Vatican and the clear inadequacy of the information service of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church there; the helpless blindness and incompetence of the Vatican diplomacy, which is so easily fooled by the vocabulary of peace; and the ominous failure of Europe’s influential circles to decode the deceitful formulas of Putin’s propaganda.

This is why it is logical to conclude that the meeting between the Roman Pope and the Moscow Patriarch was epochal. However equally epochal were the failures of the Vatican diplomats, who could not see the real world from behind their shabby textbooks on “Ostpolitik.”

Myroslav Marynovych is a vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, co-founder of Amnesty International Ukraine, a founding member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, and a former political prisoner.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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