In that haunting exchange in John’s Gospel, Philip poses what seems a simple request: “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” To this Jesus responds plaintively: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
In early June, the Russian Greek Catholic Church (RGCC) held an historic congress in San Felice del Benaco at an old Carmelite monastery to make a similar seemingly simple request: give us a father! Give us a bishop who, in turn, can “father” other priests to allow our parishes around the world to be able to thrive.
For the RGCC currently exist as fatherless foundling in a kind of ecclesial no-man’s land: it is the smallest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches but unlike the others the RGCC has no hierarchical structure, being usually subject instead to vague supervision from the local Latin ordinary where they live—whether in Russia proper or in other communities in America, Australia, Argentina, France, and elsewhere. Thus they have no leadership who understands them, speaks their own language, and can provide for their future survival. They are, in short—to use one of the favorite terms of Pope Francis—very much on the peripheries everywhere.
In my keynote lecture to the congress I noted that, in normal times, being on the peripheries in this pontificate might arouse a great deal of sympathy from the pope and other Catholic leaders. Strangely, however, it does not seem to have done so, leading one, reluctantly, to suspect that the RGCC remains deliberately on the peripheries because most Catholic leaders prefer it there. How else to explain the fact that the RGCC has, going back several pontificates, made requests to Rome for the most basic things that all other Catholics the world over take for granted: for fathers, that is, for a bishop; and for regularized seminary training to ensure future priests and thus the survival of RGCC parishes? These requests, made regularly by patient and long-suffering priests and laity over the past several decades, with perfect theological and canonical propriety, have been met not even with the courtesy of an acknowledgement of the request, let alone any kind of answer to it.
What makes this situation more hurtful still is that many other groups in very similar situations—small communities scattered throughout the world, across all national and diocesan boundaries—have in the meantime been generously granted what the RGCC has been seeking for decades. Thus episcopal leadership and continuity have been provided for: Opus Dei via the creation of its personal prelature in the 1982; various military ordinariates in 1986; the personal apostolic administration of Saint John Mary Vianney in 2002 for “traditionalist” clergy in Campos, Brazil; and the Anglican ordinariates in 2009 in Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia. In all these situations, Rome has generously and creatively conceived of new configurations of ecclesial structures to accommodate unique situations, showing admirable flexibility in service to real pastoral needs.
So why, in this instance, is Rome so inflexibly opposed to meeting the pastoral needs of Russian Greek Catholics? The answer to that is at once theological and political. In some ways we follow our own noble theological impulses too far, even when they begin to be counter-productive, if not actively harmful. By that I mean that since Vatican II’s decrees on the Eastern Churches and on ecumenism, Rome has been fully and zealously pursuing Christian unity on all fronts, but especially with the Eastern Orthodox. The cost of doing so has been paid largely by Eastern Catholics as Rome willingly sacrifices their good in search of an ecumenical good.
In dialogue with the Orthodox, a particular bone of contention has been “uniatism,” not merely as a 16th-century model of unity, but as a present reality. Many Orthodox—above all the Russians—have been unhappy with retroactively rubbishing the past: they want Rome to denounce and dismantle the currently existing “uniate” Eastern Catholic Churches, which most Orthodox disdain as traitors and sell-outs. While Rome has not been willing to go quite that far, she has, in the case of the RGCC, opted for the next-worst thing which is to hope that a policy of total neglect will eventually render them extinct.
The simple fact is that all Eastern Catholics are an embarrassment and an inconvenience to the “great power politics” played between Moscow and Rome for more than fifty years, but the East-Slavic Catholics (both the RGCC and my own Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church) are an especial vexation to the players of these games. Politics in the more conventional sense is also at play insofar as the ROC, in collusion with the Russian state, continues to make life difficult for the RGCC and most other Christian groups in Russia. The massive, wealthy, and powerful Russian Orthodox Church notoriously functions largely as an adjunct of the Russian government under Putin’s control. In this context, to have an Orthodox church (for that is what the RGCC is not just in her past, but also in her life today) show it is possible to be faithful to the splendid traditions of Russian Christianity while being free of governmental control is a rebuke to the Russian government and Orthodox Church whose rage leads them to pressure Rome to do something. Rome responds by doing nothing, hoping that a few more decades deprived of a father and fathers (that is, of those who give life) will wipe out the problematic RGCC.
Continuing to do this is not just a sin, but—as the French might say—something worse: a mistake, a massive strategic error on the part of Rome. For Rome has a real opportunity to be able to do at least four things here, all of which would both be good and make her look good. The first two goods are ad intra. In the first and most obvious instance, she can right decades of neglect of the RGCC by granting the requests made in the congressional resolutions and thereby allowing an Eastern Catholic Church a chance at flourishing anew. Second, in finally extending real pastoral solicitude for the RGCC, Rome regains credibility not just in the eyes of Eastern Catholics, but also of Eastern Orthodox, many of whom have been saying for decades that they keep an eye on Rome’s shabby treatment of Eastern Catholics and until and unless that changes, they, the Orthodox, will not for a moment contemplate unity with the Catholic Church lest they also be forced to swallow Rome’s uniquely appalling cocktail of neglect and micromanagement.
Ad extra, the Church will, third, offer to people in Russia (and elsewhere) longing for the gospel the possibility of being faithful to the Russian Orthodox tradition while not subject to the Orthodox Church’s overlord, Vladimir Putin. This is a real evangelical opportunity, and not to be taken lightly. For when the current order collapses in Russia, as it eventually will when Putin passes from the scene, the Russian Orthodox Church’s collusion with him is going to emerge even more clearly, severely damaging the ROC’s credibility. Precisely insofar as the RGCC remains removed from such collusion, she stands to earn a great deal of credibility and to attract souls who want access to God without Caesar’s interference.
Fourth and finally, the last good to be achieved will also be the costliest: Rome needs to not just care for, but actively cultivate the widest possible flourishing of the RGCC precisely in and for Russia and perforce the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). By helping the RGCC flourish as an Orthodox community, Rome can show the ROC that it is possible to be fully Russian, fully faithful to Orthodox tradition, while not being an adjunct of the government. In my lecture in San Felice del Benaco, I quoted the great Catholic moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s warning from more than fifty years ago in his book on Marxism and Christianity: “Those who make the conquest of state power their aim are always in the end conquered by it.” Rome, having painfully learned this lesson only slowly herself as in (e.g., the Investiture Crisis), can help the ROC realize this truth before it is too late, and assisting the RGCC is one way of doing so.
But doing so will come at a short-term cost to gain a long-term good. This is where we must pray that beneath their genteel and gracious exteriors, our churchmen are modestly hiding their spines of steel, which will be necessary to withstand the inevitable and invariable Russian reaction. Roman churchmen, cultivating the flourishing of the RGCC, can fully expect the Russian Orthodox Church to erupt with outrage, perhaps threatening to pull out from official dialogues, perhaps even calling on Putin for various shenanigans. They will also try to get their Orthodox allies to start complaining about an apparent revival of “uniatism.” But the response to bullies is and must always be the same: a polite but unmistakably adamantine “Mind your own business” in the hopes that the ROC will eventually do that, freeing herself from doing the state’s business on the gospel’s expense account.