A Bridge Too Far? The Pope and the Patriarch in Cuba

There are only a handful of global institutions that deal with their history in terms of millennia and two of these celebrated a remarkable first on February 12. In Havana, Cuba, Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, met with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, for the purpose of issuing a joint declaration on the shared interests of the two churches. Separated by a 1056 schism, the Orthodox and Catholic Churches have made a number of ecumenical gestures and discussions over the years, but the Russian Patriarch, leader of the largest of Orthodoxy’s autonomous Churches, has never participated. The reasons are many, varied, and almost exclusively political, but the long wait is now over. What is starting to be called ‘The Havana Declaration’ is crammed full of all of the optimistic, brotherly language one might expect from an ecumenical document, such as calls to alleviate poverty, protect the environment, uphold the sanctity of human life, and provide humanitarian aid. However, what the document does not say is generating more controversy than what it does. As war rages between Russia and Ukraine, the world’s two largest Orthodox populations, the Vatican’s embrace of an institution so closely associated with the rule of Vladimir Putin has provoked disappointment and even outrage. Ukrainians, both Orthodox and Catholic, had looked to the Pope to condemn, or at least pressure, what they see as a church under the thumb of an expansionist state. Questions and controversy constantly swirl around Pope Francis and his role as a world diplomat, but the Havana Declaration may prove to be one of his most polarizing actions yet.

Image courtesy of President of the Russian Federation © 2006, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of President of the Russian Federation © 2006, some rights reserved.

Patriarch Kirill oversees one of the most dramatically resurgent Christian churches on earth. Following the collapse of Communism and the return of organized religion to public civil society, the Russian Orthodox Church grew rapidly to regain its status as the largest Orthodox community in the world and an integral part of the Russian social fabric. This growth in influence, however, attracted the attention of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has co-opted much of the Church’s message to buttress his own political agenda and power base. The illiberalism which has characterized Putin’s domestic policy has become difficult to distinguish from the ideology of more conservative elements of the Russian Orthodox Church, especially on issues surrounding the censorship of the arts. In foreign policy, the Church is wielded by Putin as political cover for his expansionist tendencies. The Havana Declaration explicitly condemns the genocide of Christians in the Middle East, especially by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), but critics see in this a tacit endorsement of Russia’s own intervention in the conflict to protect the brutal Assad regime. Pope Francis and the Catholic Church have made known their objection to further violence in the region, but no emphatic demands for Russian restraint have been forthcoming.

A similar story has taken place in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have plunged the country into a vicious civil war. The Russian Orthodox Church has taken no stance on the war, other than to condemn the violence.  However, Ukrainians have accused the Church of acting as a soft power tool to spread Russian influence while concealing the Putin government’s involvement. Sectarian rivalry also comes into play in this theater. Since the civil war broke out, Ukrainians have been steadily leaving the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate in favor of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Kyivan Patriarchate. As minute a difference as that may sound, the distinction is crucial for Patriarch Kirill. His Moscow Patriarchate has traditionally held authority over the Ukrainian Church, in full communion with the rest of Orthodox Christianity, while the Kyivan Patriarchate exists as a fully independent institution, unrecognized by other Orthodox Churches, but free of all Russian influence. Critics accuse Kirill of supporting Putin’s attempt to exert control over the area as a ploy to preserve Moscow’s authority over the vast number of Ukrainian Orthodox believers.

These accusations have only grown in the wake of the Havana Declaration. Two of the world’s most important religious leaders devoted only one line of their joint statement to the destructive conflict, deploring the loss of life and calling for some kind of peace. No mention is made of the causes of the conflict, what a postwar Ukraine might look like, or even who is actually fighting. Needless to say, patriotic Ukrainian religious leaders were gravely disappointed at the oversight. Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (still part of the Roman Catholic communion, despite the name), said that the Declaration, ‘has caused deep disappointment among many faithful of our church and among conscientious citizens of Ukraine. Today, many contacted me about this and said that they feel betrayed by the Vatican… and even see it as indirect support by the Apostolic See for Russian aggression against Ukraine.’ He also added that, ‘[Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill] spoke about us without us, without giving us a voice…’ The Kyivan Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church echoed this sentiment and condemned both the refusal to acknowledge Russian aggression and the exclusion of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church from the meeting. Indeed, the Havana Declaration seems to be doing far more to unite Catholic and Orthodox believers in opposition to its statements than in support of them, at least in Ukraine. While the Pope declares he will not intervene in a conflict between brothers in Ukraine, Ukrainian churches are uniting in brotherhood to demand such an intervention.

Pope Francis, like his two predecessors, has never shied away from the role of world diplomat and has certainly never lacked for boldness. The papal role in the opening of Cuba, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and the refugee crisis should not be understated. However, his eagerness to build bridges has left some of his flock to wonder if they are being left behind. His joint declaration with Patriarch Kirill in Havana, though indisputably an ecumenical triumph, may prove to be a bridge too far. Ukraine’s Catholic and Orthodox faithful must deal every day with the destructive foreign policy of Kirill’s ally Putin and the lack of attention show to the conflict by both religious leaders has been disheartening, to say the least. The Havana Declaration is already being wielded by the Kremlin as a diplomatic victory and tacit approval of Russian military action in the Middle East. Whatever tattered diplomatic isolation of Russia still exists at this point due to their annexation of Crimea (remember Crimea?) has been dealt yet another hammer blow. Well-intentioned he may be, but Pope Francis may live to regret signing on to this polarizing document.

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