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An Orthodox fracture with serious consequences

Moscow and Russia are not the sole inheritors of the baptism of the eastern Slavs, and Russian imperial claims rest on a false story.

While Catholicism has been embroiled in a crisis of sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance reaching to the highest levels of the Church, Eastern Orthodoxy may be on the verge of an epic crack-up with major ecumenical and geopolitical consequences.

There are three competing Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine today. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate is in full communion with, and subordinate to, the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow. Then there are two breakaways from Moscow: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. This tripartite fracture is a scandal, an obstacle to re-evangelizing a broken culture, and an impediment to ecumenism.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople has indicated that it is considering a proposal to recognize the autocephaly, or independence from Moscow, of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, should the contending Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine restore unity. The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has responded with fury, dropping references to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople from its liturgy. And its international mouthpiece, Metropolitan Hilarion, issued an overwrought statement contending that “the war of the Patriarchate of Constantinople against Moscow [has continued] for almost a hundred years.” Hilarion also charged that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is first-among-equals in Orthodox Christianity, didn’t support the Moscow Patriarchate during decades of Soviet persecution — an ironic allegation, given that the man to whom Hilarion reports, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, was an old KGB hand back in the day.

What’s going on here? Several things.

First, the Moscow Patriarchate is terrified. Should a reunited Ukrainian Orthodoxy be recognized by Constantinople as “autocephalous” and therefore not subordinate to Russian Orthodoxy, Moscow’s claim to be the “third Rome” would be gravely imperiled. Russian Orthodoxy would shrink drastically by the loss of the large Orthodox population in Ukraine, and the Moscow Patriarchate’s claim to a kind of de facto hegemony in the Orthodox world would be badly damaged.

Second, Russian Orthodoxy, continuing a long, unhappy tradition of playing chaplain-to-the-czar (whatever form he takes), has provided putatively religious buttressing for Vladimir Putin’s claim that there is a single Russkiy mir (“Russian world” or “Russian space”), which includes Ukraine and Belarus. And in that “space,” Ukrainians and Belarussians are little brothers of the Russians, the true inheritors of the baptism of the eastern Slavs in 988. That is a falsification of history. Yet it has underwritten Russian imperial claims for centuries, and it continues to do so today.

A reunited and independent Ukrainian Orthodoxy centered on Kyiv (site in 988 of the baptism of Prince Vladimir and the tribes that eventually became Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarussians) would empirically falsify what serious historians have long known is a dishonest narrative. Moscow and Russia are not the sole inheritors of the baptism of the eastern Slavs, and Russian imperial claims (like those that have underwritten the invasion and annexation of Crimea and the Russian-sponsored war in eastern Ukraine) rest on a false story. Thus both Russian Orthodoxy and President Putin would be major losers, should Ukrainian Orthodoxy reunite and be recognized as independent by Constantinople. That is why Metropolitan Hilarion is taking a harsh line with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. That is also why Putin is likely encouraging his new friend, President Erdogan of Turkey, to turns the screws on Bartholomew, whose presence in Istanbul (the former Constantinople) depends on Turkish governmental goodwill. For Putin knows that his attempt to recreate something like the old Soviet Union, which has battened on the “Russian world” ideology, could implode.

Russian Orthodox clergy have charged that efforts to reunite Ukrainian Orthodoxy and grant it autocephaly are a Roman plot. That should concentrate some minds at the Vatican. The 2016 Havana Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill was supposed to inaugurate a new era of ecumenical cooperation between Rome and Moscow. Yet as soon as Moscow feels pressured, the Vatican bogeyman is trotted out and vilified. Those of us who judged the Havana Declaration ill-advised two years ago ought not take any satisfaction from having been right; but those who wouldn’t listen then should think again about making deals with agents of Russian state power.

Nothing is certain in this Ukrainian drama, given Ukrainian Orthodox fractiousness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s relatively weak position, and the unhelpful involvement of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. The stakes, however, are high indeed.


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About George Weigel 191 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). Mr. Weigel received a B.A. from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore and an M.A. from the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto. He is the recipient of eighteen honorary doctorates in fields including divinity, philosophy, law, and social science.

10 Comments

  1. Just another reason and demonstration of the futility of hoping for unification of Christendom. The political, harsh rivalry between Orthodox factions is scandalous, and has been for eons!

  2. This shows the “rosy” future for the Catholic Church giving more authority to “national conferences” – doesn’t it?

    When that move gets played, the Bishops will be able to keep a lid on the sex abuse without having to distract from the pontiff’s hectic “plastics” and “climate change” schedule.

  3. A) I’d rather deal with this political drama than the endless clergy sexual abuse scandals that deeply harm children and vulnerable adults in our Church.

    B) The Orthodox are divided politically and jurisdictionally but not in terms of the Faith. Catholics on the other hand are united jurisdictionally, but are divided doctrinally.

    So let’s dispense with the illusion of Catholic unity under the Pope (for example, does anyone really think Cardinal Burke and Pope Francis believe the same things). The Catholic Church has been in an internal state of schism for decades. Liberals vs. conservatives vs. Trads (i.e. how can Catholic World Report and National Catholic Reporter both claim to be Catholic and exist in the same Church). Both Orthodoxy and Catholicism have serious problems, but I think, if I have to choose, I’d prefer the problems of the Orthodox. I can deal with political squabbles. I cannot deal with sex abuse and division in the essentials of the Faith.

  4. As Crimea was in 2014 65% ethnic Russian, Russia may be entitled to consider the territory as rightfully theirs. Nikita Khrushchev handed Crimea and and the city of Sevastopol over to the then Ukrainian SSR without consultation. The Kiev government, hardly a model of democracy, has shown little care for the territory, attempting Ukrainization with little success. Putin on a visit prior to re-incorporation was appalled at the region’s neglect.
    The divisions in Orthodoxy might well be attributed to post-soviet US emigré activity. Then there’s the messy Greek Catholic situation. Religion, nationalism and America’s Russophobic foreign policy, what an explosive concoction in a region littered with ethno-cultural dynamite.

  5. Has the Vatican publicity and wholeheartedly come out in favor of this new “autocephalous” Ukraine? Of course it hasn’t! They fear the loss of faithful (and revenue) that would ensue should their “Eastern Brethren” unite with the other defrocked criminals who will make up this new “church.” Those about to receive this “independence” from Constantinople worship not the Holy Trinity…but an idol. And this idol is called: the Ukraine. They are pathetic nationalists and schismatics who have pridefully rejected repentance for their sin of fomenting schism; a sin which the great St. John Chrysostom declared could…”not be washed away even with the blood of martyrdom.”
    Speaking of the KGB, the canonically defrocked Michael Denysenko (aka “Patriarch Filaret”) worked for the Soviet authorities for decades. He lived with a woman who bore him three children AFTER TAKING MONASTIC VOWS, and who is nothing more than a useful idiot for the Globo Homo plot to bring the Ukraine into the EU and NATO. Kiev proudly hosted their first “Pride Parade” this past summer.
    The canonical Metropolitan of the Ukraine, Metropolitan Onufry, has been placed on a special internet list of “enemies of the Ukrainian people” and is at this moment receiving death threats.
    Patriarch Bartholomew is preparing something unprecedented, uncanonical and immoral. Ukrainian blood will be shed. It will be on his hands.

  6. “Patriarch Bartholomew is preparing something unprecedented, uncanonical and immoral. Ukrainian blood will be shed. It will be on his hands.”

    I know very little about this situation, but if Ukrainian blood is shed it will be on the hands of whoever sheds it.

    “They are pathetic nationalists”

    From what I’ve read, the same can be said about the Moscow Patriarchate.

    • Because even with my limited knowledge that conclusion is very obvious, and in any case I clearly have a great deal more sense than you do.

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