The perils of weak-kneed ecumenism with Russia
Imagine if the pope were invited to address a summit of Protestant leaders, and used the platform to take a swipe at Italy’s tiny Waldensian Protestant church — complaining that it tries to convert Catholics, and demanding that it shut up about the separation of church and state.
Protestants would rightly howl about how crude and arrogant the tirade was, how awful it was to try to intimidate a smaller and weaker church, and how it was especially out of line because the pope was an invited guest.
The incident would become a cause célèbre, and the Vatican would feel the heat until it coughed up an apology.
So why didn’t the same reaction ensue when Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for external relations, used a speech at the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops in the Vatican to take just such a gratuitous swipe at Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church?
Alas, the best answer is probably that when it comes to the Russians, Rome has long been locked into what we might call “weak-kneed ecumenism.”
The 5 million strong Greek Catholic Church is an important pro-democracy force in Ukraine. Speaking in the Vatican’s synod hall, Hilarion demanded that the Greek Catholics stop complaining about Russian foreign policy, and stop protesting support for Russian incursions in their country voiced by Russian Orthodox leaders.
Astonishingly, there was no protest by the Vatican, no demand for an apology, no threat to suspend or curtail dialogue.
For sure, not everyone took it lying down. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who was participating in the synod, grabbed Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church, and immediately taped a segment for his radio show protesting Hilarion’s rhetoric.
Still, the official Vatican response was deafening silence. What gives?
For the last 50 years or so, Catholicism has been committed to ecumenism, meaning the effort to unify the divided Christian family. The Orthodox are a special priority, since the split between East and West in 1054 is the primordial Christian fissure.
Almost two-thirds of the world’s 225 million Orthodox Christians are Russians, explaining why Rome is so keen about dialogue with Moscow.
Over the years, however, that “dialogue” has sometimes been defined by the Vatican as deference, meaning that no one calls out Russian clergy when they make unreasonable demands, issue claims that everyone knows to be false or exaggerated, or act as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin.
For instance, many Russian Orthodox leaders assert that the Catholic Church shouldn’t have a toehold in Ukraine because it’s part of Russia’s “canonical territory,” meaning that it belongs to the Orthodox Church centered in Moscow. It’s a way of claiming a monopoly over religious expression that flies in the face of both history and religious freedom.
Many Russian Orthodox also complain of Catholic “proselytism” in Russia, yet a study in 2002 found there were just 800 conversions in the entire decade of the 1990s. Meanwhile, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity exploded in Russia, so much so that a 2012 book referred to it as a “post-Soviet gold rush.”
In the 2000s, in another act of appeasement, the Vatican actually imposed an informal “no-growth” policy, instructing pastors to tell any Russian who wanted to become Catholic to go back to their Orthodox parish. Far from expanding, Catholicism shrunk, in part because many ethnic Germans and Poles left Russia.
The Russian Orthodox have also consistently, and churlishly, vetoed a papal trip to the country. That makes Moscow one of just a handful of places, including Beijing and Pyongyang, where the pope is not welcome, and the only one that’s majority Christian.
Yet the Vatican rarely objects to any of this, and quite often bends over backward in the opposite direction.
In 2007, for instance, Rome removed Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the leader of the Catholic community in Moscow, because he was seen as too confrontational. The pope’s ambassador also shut down a popular Catholic newspaper that didn’t parrot the Orthodox line.
At last, there are signs this weak-kneed ecumenism is beginning to give way.
In the wake of Hilarion’s blast at Greek Catholics during the synod, the papal ambassador in Ukraine, American Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, basically told Inés San Martín of Crux that enough is enough.
Too often, Gullickson said, “We humor certain types of misbehavior.”
“If my best friend starts picking on my little sister, I’m going to punch him in the nose,” Gullickson said. “We allow the neighbor kid to beat up on our little sister all the time … and it needs to stop.”
It may be understandable why neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI wanted to lay down a gauntlet, since both Poland and Germany, their home countries, have had a checkered history with Russia. Francis the Argentine brings no such baggage, so perhaps he can move the dialogue beyond the “tea and cookies” stage, in which the point is simply to be polite, onto a more substantive level.
As part of that picture, Francis could make clear that friendship doesn’t mean going weak in the knees when what your friend needs is someone to save him from himself. Certainly the Russian Orthodox aren’t bashful about objecting to perceived Catholic missteps. Maybe it’s time to return the favor.