Russian Orthodox Projections and Catholic Corrections

In the aftermath of the Havana meeting, one can spot at least three examples of Russian projection, accusing Catholics of behaviors the Russians themselves engage in, but are too afraid to admit.

Among the many interpretive tools that Sigmund Freud gave us for understanding human behavior, the concept of “projection” is among the most useful. Projection can come in several forms, but its classic example consists of my overlooking some undesired part or fault in myself, which is then split off and repressed while I accuse someone else of that very fault. The jealous adulterer is forever demanding to know his wife’s whereabouts; the angry person interrogates others: “Why are you mad at me?”

Projection is what Freud called a “defense mechanism.” We defend against those practices and parts of ourselves we would rather not admit to ourselves because they are unseemly or because they remind us of others from whom we wish to differentiate ourselves sharply. Projection often consists in “seeing” an exaggerated version of our own faults and flaws in someone else and lashing out at them rather than dealing with our own faults.

Jesus knew of projection long before Freud did. That’s why he sarcastically asked: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3-4).

In the Havana declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill and its aftermath, I spy at least three examples in which the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev has been engaging in projection, accusing Catholics of behaviors the Russians themselves engage in, but are too afraid to admit. Let us work backwards toward two odd phrases in the declaration that, I think, have allowed Alfeyev in recent interviews to project onto Catholic practice and structures an expectation that reflects more of Russian practices than Catholic ones.

In an interview after the Cuba meeting, Alfeyev gave vent, as he always does, to his tedious accusations against the “uniates” in Ukraine, charging that “they have their own politicized agenda, their own clients, they are fulfilling these orders, and even the pope is not an authority to them.” A moment later in the same interview he returned to accusing the UGCC of being “not ready to hear not only the voice of our patriarch, but even the voice of their pope” (my emphasis in both cases).

What is instructive here is the language and the clearly implied expectation that the pope of Rome has the right and the power to censor people who disagree with him on prudential and non-doctrinal matters. The Havana declaration was not, let it be clearly understood, a binding dogmatic decree from an ecumenical council! Nor was it solemnly issued in any of the usual and customary forms of papal-magisterial teaching—an apostolic constitution, say, or an encyclical.

What we have here, I would suggest, is a clear example of Alfeyev projecting Russian notions of hierarchical authority onto a Catholic archbishop and a Catholic Eastern Church because this is precisely how the Russians operate. Moscow makes the decisions, and everyone is expected to follow suit; the Russian patriarch is boss and the rest of the bishops toe the line without public demur. (If you doubt this, watch the video of the Russian bishops lined up at the airport to see Patriarch Kirill leave for Havana. They all stood dutifully in line with rictus looks waving like little school boys as the plane taxied away.) Alfeyev has projected the Russian practice of listening to their patriarch as to a super-dictator onto the papacy in the clear belief that this must be how Catholics are to obey the pope.

But there is a second instance of projection at work here, and it involves the location: Alfeyev clearly seethes with disgust that not only a Catholic archbishop but a Ukrainian one has the impertinence to challenge the pope. Such insolence from a Ukrainian bishop would never be tolerated by a Russian patriarch, for most Russians have historically regarded Ukrainians as a bunch of peasants and brigands having no culture and deserving no freedom. Here we see Alfeyev projecting onto Archbishop Sviatoslav longstanding Russian chauvinism and outright colonialism towards Ukraine, a country to which the Russians have never really conceded the right to exist. (And they certainly have not conceded the right to independence of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine either!)

None of this is new. The Orthodox Church in Ukraine currently under Moscow’s thumb operates by doing Moscow’s bidding. Indeed, it is no exaggeration (except geographically) to say that Russian structures are more “ultramontane” than Catholic ones. So Alfeyev expecting Ukrainian Catholics to toe the line is a very understandable projection on his part of Russian practices.

Alfeyev’s expectations of subservience and unquestioning obedience are supported by Russian ecclesiastical statutes, canon law, and regular practice going back to the Second World War. As I showed (in Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy) in enough detail to bore anyone into a condition of coma, Russian ecclesial structures have long been super-centralized because this made it much easier for czars, Stalin, and Putin to control—pull the strings of the omnipotent patriarch, and you make the entire synod of bishops (and lower clergy) dance to your tune. 

But if you do not take my word—some armchair psychoanalysis by a wretched uniate—for it, then listen to the excellent study published by the Orthodox theologian Vitali Petrenko, The Development of Authority Within the Russian Orthodox Church: A Theological and Historical Inquiry (Peter Lang, 2011). There, Petrenko quotes the greatest Russian theologian of the 20th century, Sergius Bulgakov, who rightly observed that the Russian Church suffers “from ‘actual and psychological papalism.’” This was encouraged by Stalin, who wanted to create a “Moscow Vatican” and also supported the calling, in 1948, of an “eighth ecumenical council” as a means of asserting Russian supremacy in global Orthodoxy.

Now, Russian ecclesial statutes and structures were revised in 2000. My own analysis of them was that they were not nearly as centralized as the 1945 statutes and returned to some limited practice of synodality. But Petrenko and others do not share that view, and instead see the revised statutes as backwards steps that have “suppressed the principle of sobornost” (248) and in so doing have “transferred ‘the fullness of authority within the Russian Orthodox Church from the Local Sobor to the Arkhiereiskii Sobor’” (that is, from the local synod to the arch-hierarchical synod under patriarchal control).

So in a super-centralized Russian Church, it makes rather a lot of sense that Alfeyev would, from that experience, project onto Catholic ecclesial structures Russian expectations of heel-clicking obedience to patriarchal-papal authority. And, to be fair, there are at least two phrases in the Havana declaration that clearly led him to believe these things.

The first phrase is actually the very last: at the bottom, under the signatures, Francis signed as both “Bishop of Rome” and then right underneath that, “Pope of the Catholic Church.” I think it was put there for several reasons, including conveying the impression of symmetry between the two leaders. Look at it schematically:

Name:                           Francis                                              Kirill

“Local” title:                Bishop of Rome                                Patriarch of Moscow

“Universal” title:         Pope of the Catholic Church            And All Russia

“Pope of the Catholic Church” is a bizarre and studiously ambiguous title that I have never encountered in any official document before. (So is “all Russia” or “of All Rus’” as one sometimes sees—the ancient notion of Rus’ conveniently covering Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and anywhere else Moscow wants). But to test my shaky memory, I undertook a quick unscientific survey. This revealed that “pope of the Catholic Church” has never before been used by this pope—nor, as far as I can see, by his predecessors.  

My unscientific sampling was of (i) all major types of documents on the Vatican website, (ii) in Latin (still the Church’s official language), and (iii) from Francis’ assumption of the papacy in 2013 (though I did also glance at the title page of the Annuario Pontificio under Benedict XVI and there is no “pope of the Catholic Church” used there). In the 15 apostolic constitutions (some canonists argue this is the most solemn and authoritative type of papal document) posted on the Vatican website and signed by him, this title never appears. In his encyclicals it never appears. In other documents (e.g., apostolic letters, regular letters, decretals), it never appears. Instead, in these documents, we usually see “Francis, Bishop of Rome, Servant of the Servants of God,” or, more simply, just “Francis.”

But in no case, after a representative sampling, have I found “pope of the Catholic Church” being used. This very odd phrasing struck me at the time as blatant overkill, put there to reassure anxious Russian demands that the pope was bringing down the hammer to keep the uniates in line just as the patriarch “of all Russia” does in Ukraine and elsewhere. Subsequent interviews from Alfeyev have of course confirmed precisely this analysis.

The second phrase was the use of “ecclesial communities,” presumably to describe Ukrainian Catholics. However, as I argued earlier on CWR, that phrase is ambivalent and equivocal, and could be applied just as much to Orthodox Christians in Ukraine.

This phrase was left in the Havana declaration because it downgrades not just Uniates, but Ukrainians, including the Orthodox. Once again it strikes me as a clear Russian projection onto Ukrainian Orthodox Christians in Ukraine, who are divided into three different churches, only one of which is recognized by Moscow and under its control. The other two are regularly dismissed by Moscow as “uncanonical” and “schismatic,” while Ukrainian Catholics, of course, come in for even more tedious and unimaginative denunciations. If you ask some Orthodox, they will say that “uncanonical” groups lack the grace of sacraments and thus, as with Catholic teaching, are not really “church” but just “ecclesial communities.”

What is the answer to all this? It is the same for both Catholics and Orthodox. Indeed, the more Catholics do this, the more we reassure other Orthodox Christians outside Russia: Catholics must continue to show that the papacy is not possessed of dictatorial powers of micro-management such that every word falling from papal lips is unquestioningly obeyed.

And we do that in two ways: by voicing legitimate disagreement openly and honestly (as Ukrainian Catholics have done in the aftermath of Havana), and by insisting again and again (as I have argued before) that the papacy is not an oracle spouting divine revelation on Twitter, airlines, and elsewhere. The pope today—like the analyst sitting behind the couch in silence while the patient projects all kinds of fantasies—must ever more recede into the background, saying with John the Baptist, “He must increase, while I must decrease.”


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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 71 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).