As expected, the Department of External Church relations of the Moscow Patriarchate has started the process of spinning the February 12, 2016 Havana Joint Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill. In a February 17 interview with Aleksei Sosiedov, on the website Interfax-religion.ru, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev (who heads the department) mixes uplifting descriptions of the achievements of the Havana encounter and its Joint Declaration with comments that, upon analysis, can only be seen as provocative assertions.
It is very indicative of Moscow’s bifurcation of messaging that the whole interview is not provided in English translation. It is therefore important to note which portions are translated into English, and which portions are highlighted in Russian only. For example, Metropolitan Hilarion’s scathing criticism of Ukrainian Greco-Catholics appears in both languages, while his re-assuring message for those within his Church who fear Catholicism appear only in Russian. Indeed, Interfax deemed these two issues worthy of separate sub-features. The titles themselves are fascinating. On the Russian-language version of the website we read: “In the Russian church, the flock is urged to reject fears of the merger of the Orthodox and Catholic churches after the encounter in Cuba”.
Both the Russian and the English versions include a story with the title: “Ukrainian Greek-Catholics have aggressive rhetoric, even pope not an authority to them – Russian Church”. Of course, outsiders not need to know that fears about the merger of Churches exists, but the world must be informed of the supposed “aggressive rhetoric” of the Uniates.
The latter requires further explication. The article states: “The Moscow Patriarchate regrets that Ukrainian Greek-Catholics (Uniates) are denying the reconciliation proposed by Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis.” That is a very loaded statement. Many Ukrainian Greco-Catholics have welcomed the encounter and much of the document. When the planned meeting was announced, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church, made the following statement: “I do not expect that the meeting of Pope Francis with Patriarch Kirill, planned for February 12, will bring any particular changes. Although it is good that the meeting will take place and I am happy that finally there is an understanding on the part of the Russian Orthodox Church that meetings are necessary.”
Bishop Borys Gudziak, responsible for External Relations for the UGCC spoke in similarly positive terms in a First Things essay posted on the eve of the meeting in Cuba. Fr. Peter Galadza on behalf of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, the prime theological center of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church outside of Ukraine, welcomed the occasion, stating “we shall indeed be praying for God’s blessing on this historic meeting between the Pope and Patriarch. We ask that the Spirit of Truth guide all those involved in this meeting and those reporting on it. May that Heavenly King indeed come and dwell within us and purify all our intentions and actions.” I myself have written in First Things in very positive terms about the fact that the two leaders were finally able to meet, after decades of delay by the Moscow Patriarchate.
Paragraph #25 of the Joint Declaration signed by the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow speaks eloquently of reconciliation between Orthodox and Greco-Catholics:
It is our hope that our meeting may also contribute to reconciliation wherever tensions exist between Greek Catholics and Orthodox. It is today clear that the past method of “uniatism”, understood as the union of one community to the other, separating it from its Church, is not the way to re–establish unity. Nonetheless, the ecclesial communities which emerged in these historical circumstances have the right to exist and to undertake all that is necessary to meet the spiritual needs of their faithful, while seeking to live in peace with their neighbours. Orthodox and Greek Catholics are in need of reconciliation and of mutually acceptable forms of co–existence.
The talk of reconciliation and co-existence is nice on paper, but the reality of the matter is that the head of external relations for Russian Orthodox Church claims, “They [Ukrainian Greco-Catholics] have their own politicized agenda, their own clients, they are fulfilling these orders, and even the pope is not an authority to them.” With whom, then, do the Russian Orthodox hope to reconcile if in fact Ukrainian Greco-Catholics are so crassly political as to think only of fulfilling the orders of some un-named “clients”? And who could these “clients” possibly be? One would think that for the Joint Declaration not to be considered a sham agreement from the start, some of this language would need to be toned down. Metropolitan Hilarion accuses His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk of insulting the Pope with his criticism of certain parts of the Havana Declaration.
The attempt by a hierarch who is not in communion with Rome (and takes pains to emphasize to his co-religionists that such communion is not even on the table) to judge the head of the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches on his docility to papal leadership must strike observers as simply outrageous.
It is all the more shocking in light of the video and transcripts of the conversation of Pope Francis with press during his return flight from Mexico. In the interview session the pontiff takes pains to make it clear that he has great respect for His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC). Emphasizing that he has read the same interview that Alfeyev decried, Pope Francis says that there is no problem between him and the Ukrainian Catholic leader, and that the interview in question shows Sviatoslav to be “a son of the Church, in communion with the Bishop of Rome, with the Church; he speaks of the Pope and closeness with the Pope, and of him, of his faith, and also of the orthodox faith. No problem with the dogmatic part, it’s orthodox in the best sense of the word, that is, Catholic belief.” Pope Francis continues, “Then, as in every interview, as in this one for example, everyone has the right to add their thoughts. And he did not question the meeting [with Kirill], because about the meeting he said: “It is a good thing and we must move forward…”
It is at this point that Pope Francis reminds the press: “And thus [Sviatoslav] also has his personal ideas that are his opinion, and he has the right to have them. All of his comments are about the Declaration. About the meeting itself, he said: ‘This the Lord’s work, the Spirit that moves forward, the embrace…’: this is all good. And the Declaration? The Declaration is debatable.”
This in itself is a bit of a bombshell in light of the accusations of disrespect towards the Pope against His Beatitude Sviatoslav by high officials of the Russian Orthodox Church. What they do not seem to understand is that obedience in the Catholic Church is a matter of assent to doctrinal and moral teachings, not a blind obedience to the Pope in absolutely everything. Perhaps in the Moscow Patriarchate—which, incidentally, chafes at what it imagines the idea of Papal Primacy to be—obedience to the leadership of the Church requires total passivity and submission, as if to a dictator. In the Catholic Church, until something is defined, either by the ordinary or extraordinary teaching office of the Church, one is free to have an opinion. Pope Francis not only defends the right of head of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church to have an opinion and express it regarding the non-doctrinal portions of the Joint Declaration, the pontiff explicitly calls the document debatable.
Of course, this does not refer to the sections of the document that express the necessity of working towards the unity of the Churches. One must be ecumenically disposed to be Catholic. What is debatable is whether the three paragraphs explicitly about the situation in Ukraine are felicitous, whether they indeed foster ecumenical progress, or whether they might have a less than desirable effect despite the best intentions of its signatories. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the UGCC very critical of the remaining 27 paragraphs, which emphasize the need to work towards unity, the necessity of defending Christians persecuted for the faith, the centrality of life issues and traditional morality, and religious liberty in the face of aggressive secularism.
Going even further, Pope Francis explains that it is understandable that many faithful in Ukraine feel hurt and betrayed by Rome, since they are living in the existential context of war, which is not just something for historians to discuss but rather felt at the personal level. Paragraph 26 of the Joint Declaration is the source of these hard feelings because it makes no reference to the aggression of Russia in the occupation of Crimea and the Russian-led war in Ukraine. This paragraph has indeed been met with great disappointment by most Ukrainians, whatever their religious affiliation. Ukrainians are hardly the only ones to voice their suspicions. For just one critical Orthodox appraisal from a non-Ukrainian, see Brandon Gallaher’s “The Road from Rome to Moscow” in yesterday’s edition of The Tablet.
Pope Francis maintains his commitment to working for peace, but he adds the following clarification: “The Declaration is an opinion, it’s an opinion on this question of Ukraine, but it also says that the war should stop and an agreement should be reached. Personally, I also said that the Minsk Accords should be put into practice and not cancelled.” At this point the pontiff states that he received both presidents [of Ukraine and Russia], thus publicly acknowledging for the first time that the war in Ukraine is not an internal matter, some sort of civil war, as Moscow continually claims, but that it involves two separate countries.
Pope Francis realizes that the glowing phrases of the Havana Declaration can be meant for peace and reconciliation, but that they can also be used in order to try to drive a wedge between him and his flock in Ukraine. From the looks of it, he is not taking the bait that Metr. Hilarion Alfeyev and the Russian Orthodox Church have set out for him.