The Russian Orthodox Church and the Papacy

The recent statement by the Moscow Patriarchate “on the problem of primacy” is born of desperate, and desperately sad, insecurity

Nearly three years ago now, I published a book on Orthodoxy and papal primacy and, at risk of being immodest, have since felt more and more that I had said everything that needed to be said on the topic. But the whole question, which has been at the top of the international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue for two decades now, recently roared back with a statement issued the day after Christmas by the Russian Orthodox Church, titled, “Position of the Moscow Patriarchate on the problem of primacy in the Universal Church”. The statement of the Russian Church, which is technically the largest Orthodox Church in the world (if one counts sheer numbers of people claiming to be Orthodox rather than, say, levels of sacramental practice or church attendance), may be read here, but I would also want to direct your attention to responses from individual Orthodox theologians, including my friend the Russian Orthodox historian Antoine Arjakovsky here and a semi-official Greek response here, both of which are extremely valuable and far more soundly argued than the Russian statement.

I glanced at the Russian statement in the lazy days of the Christmas break, and seeing little that is new or interesting, asked myself: Have I not said everything that needs to be said in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity? But in re-reading the statement a few days ago, I found that perhaps there are a few things to comment on. The Russian statement purports to offer an alternative Orthodox response to the 2007 Ravenna document (about which I have published elsewhere) of the official international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, a meeting from which the Russians absented themselves for reasons I have always found less than convincing.

And that is also my response to this new statement of theirs: it is less than convincing.

Let us pick up at paragraph 3 and its opening claim: “On the level of the Universal Church as a community of autocephalous Local Churches united in one family by a common confession of faith and living in sacramental communion with one another, primacy is determined in conformity with the tradition of sacred diptychs and represents primacy in honour” (emphasis in the original).

The statement, not surprisingly, never defines this “primacy in honour,” though it uses the phrase several subsequent times. I’m not surprised that this phrase is left vague because it is only useful when it is vague. What, exactly, does “honor” mean? I think the operative assumption for most people means “having no real power over anything or anyone,” rather like the Queen in my native Canada: sure, she’s officially head of state (exercised through her proxy, the Governor General), but she can do nothing except wave from her landau on ceremonial drives to open Parliament, which involves no more authoritative a task than simply reading a tedious “throne speech” in which she’s had no input whatsoever, everything having been decided by “her ministers,” right down to the commas in the text. If that’s the kind of papal primacy “honor” entails, then who won’t sign on to it? Such a pope, in other words, would be a completely toothless and indeed useless titular head of the church—a smiling, avuncular fellow we could all safely ignore when it suited us. The statement in fact admits this: “Primacy in the Universal Orthodox Church…is the primacy of honour by its very nature, rather than that of power” (no.5).

But “primacy of honor” has never meant that in the early Church, as the Jesuit historian and recent Ratzinger Prize recipient Brian Daley (himself secretary of the North American Orthodox-Catholic dialogue) demonstrated more than twenty years ago now. As I have crankily put it in the past, no person, Orthodox or otherwise, should again be permitted to open his or her mouth and utter this phrase until s/he has read and digested Daley’s article, “Position and Patronage in the Early Church: the Original Meaning of ‘Primacy of Honour’,” Journal of Theological Studies 44 (1993). There Daley demonstrates beyond all doubt that what the ancients meant by that phrase is far different from how we imagine it. Such a primate did in fact have considerable authority, and was far from being a toothless titular. The Russian statement’s failure to deal with the evidence unearthed by Daley is a fatal weakness.

The Russian statement, conveniently and not surprisingly, dodges all this and instead fixates (as the Russians are known to do) on rather arcane liturgical questions: the role of the diptychs—basically prayers for bishops used in the Byzantine liturgy—for here they can claim that “the canons on which the sacred diptychs are based do not vest the primus (such as the bishop of Rome used to be at the time of Ecumenical Councils) with any powers on the church-wide scale.” Of course they don’t: that was never their function. This is akin to saying “my Honda Civic owner’s manual doesn’t tell me how to fix my furnace.” If we are going to treat primacy through a liturgical lens, then I much prefer we do so safely in the hands of someone competent to handle the matter that way, such as my Ukrainian Orthodox friend Nicholas Denysenko, who teaches at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, in his recent article, “Primacy, Synodality, and Collegiality in Orthodoxy: A Liturgical Model” (Journal of Ecumenical Studies 48 [2013]).

The other fatal weakness in this statement is this claim, absurd even to the recent history of Russian hierarchical structures, as I demonstrated in my book: “Throughout the second millennium up to today, the Orthodox Church has preserved the administrative structure characteristic of the Eastern Church of the first millennium” (no.4). One would have expected better things from educated hierarchs and theologians at this level. This kind of romantic nonsense, which one sees with depressing regularity in the Orthodox blogosphere, patently re-writes the past to suit today’s agenda and insists that nothing has changed in Orthodoxy, and such rewriting is, as another great Jesuit historian, Fr. Robert Taft, has put it, the kind of thing that makes knowledgeable people resort to laughter, mockery, and sarcasm. Russian ecclesial structures have changed so much even since 1945 (and again in the last two decades) that the idea they have “preserved the administrative structure characteristic…of the first millennium” is, well, risible.

In the end, then, this statement advances nothing and, in fact, seems to have done more damage than good, starting with intra-Orthodox relations, as Metropolitan Elpidophoros makes clear in the first sentence of his statement: “the Church of Russia seems once again to choose its isolation both from theological dialogue with the Catholic Church and from the communion of the Orthodox Churches.” This is very sad, and totally unnecessary—as well, of course, as being theologically unsound. 

But let us be frank: we are not dealing here with theology. Theology is merely a masquerade for questions of geopolitical significance and Russian nationalism. We are dealing with a country still reeling from the collapse of its Soviet empire in 1991, still struggling to find its way, still trying to differentiate itself (as recent and ongoing events in Ukraine make plain) from its neighbors, to say nothing of Western Europe or the United States. In this light, the Russian statement makes more sense: it is an attempt to keep “far from the madding crowd” and the emerging consensus, both within the rest of Orthodoxy and between that Orthodoxy and Catholicism, on the issue of primacy. For Moscow knows that if Orthodoxy and Catholicism unite, then its claims to being some kind of centre of significance and power will be forever dashed—and just as it seems on the precipice of finally toppling Constantinople and its pitifully few remaining Orthodox Christians (as Metropolitan Elpidophoros rightly argues, the Russian statement is really about advancing a wholly novel “primacy of numbers” [2, ii]). But if united to Rome, with its 1.5 billion Catholics (and growing by hundreds of thousands every year), then Moscow will return to being—if crude numbers are what we are considering—very peripheral indeed, and continuing to sink farther and farther down the list as its demographic death-spiral deepens.

In sum, this is a statement born of desperate, and desperately sad, insecurity. And there is no reason for that: in any coming Orthodox-Catholic unity, there is no reason to doubt that Moscow would continue to be given appropriate honor (!) and respect. Like many Eastern Christians—and Western Christians for that matter—I myself love much of the Russian liturgical, musical, and architectural traditions, and many of her saints (Seraphim of Sarov, John of Krondstadt, Xenia of Petersburgh, to name just a few). There is a greatness in the soul of the Russian Church, not least through her suffering in the past century, which is not honored by this document. Let us pray it is soon trashed just as the bogus “Soviet constitution” guaranteeing free elections was rightly rubbished.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 108 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).