Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Is the Pope the East's Friend or Foe?

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

The Russian media's attention to the pope's foreign trips is intensifying as the route of the papal visits forms a ring around Russia.

The five-day official visit of John Paul II to Ukraine, where as in Russia the Orthodox Church is the church of the majority, has resonated widely through society. This is in no small measure due to the fact that in making his trip to Ukraine, the pope for the first time disregarded one of his main rules and did not first win the agreement of the country's largest Christian denomination, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Is the pope friend or foe? It is hard to pose such a question straightforwardly, but behind it lies fear, pain and hope. One's attitude toward the pope's visit depends on one's answer to that question. In the Orthodox world, that question causes deep divides within society and splits national elites.

The political establishment interprets the pope's visit as one of the symbols of the Western world's recognition of the country, an important sign of its integration into the Western world.

In the words of Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoly Zlenko, the visit testifies to "the unconditional recognition of Ukraine by the Holy See and the international community," while at the same time it "confirms the path of Kiev toward European integration." Comments in the same spirit were made earlier by the political leaders of Romania and Georgia where the pope made his first visits to traditionally Orthodox countries in 1999.

As for the spiritual reasons for these trips, as well as their religious and social implications, politicians prefer not to speak of these matters.

But members of the Orthodox Church, whether from the hierarchy or simple believers, when asked the question "friend or foe?" have answered unequivocally, "of course, foe." Because, such is their centuries-long memory, in places where Catholics gain power, the Orthodox expect oppression and even forced conversion to Catholicism.

Orthodox Greece will not forget the Fourth Crusade, which ended with the establishment in 1204 of the Latin patriarchate in Constantinople, which was plundered by the crusaders, and the institution of Catholic dioceses in continental Greece accompanied by the coercive subjugation of the Orthodox congregations by the Latin bishops with the help of the state. Ukraine remembers well the crushing of the Orthodox dioceses and forcing of the Orthodox into the "Unia" with Catholics — i.e. subjugation to the Roman See at the end of the 16th century, which took place with the help of the Polish king. And Russia remembers the mission of Cardinal Michel d'Herbigny, a French Jesuit who in the 1920s tried to take advantage of the Bolsheviks' persecution of the Orthodox Church to expand the Catholic Church to the East. In other words, undisguised proselytizing of Orthodox believers was not a chance occurrence but a consistent policy of the Vatican toward Eastern Christianity.

For the sake of fairness, it should be said that last month, during his visit to Greece, the pope apologized for the Fourth Crusade. But he is not expected to do the same in relation to the Greek Catholics, who practice the Eastern rite but are faithful to Rome. The pope's visit to Ukraine is a sign of his complete and unconditional support for the Greek Catholics. And although on his first day in Ukraine, John Paul II said he had no intentions of proselytizing during the visit, how can one explain the refusal of Catholics to discuss proselytism, even theoretically, at joint theological discussions with the Orthodox Church?

The Orthodox hierarchy has no illusions about the future. Metropolitan Agafangel of Odessa and Izmail, one of Ukraine's leading pro-Moscow bishops, said that "the semblance of peace between Orthodox believers and Greek Catholics, which supporters of the visit have spoken about, represents an attempt to construct a peace without justice, which will never be a truly Christian peace and will seal for many years the Uniates' 'achievements' in their struggle against the Orthodox Church." And Patriarch Alexy II said bluntly a few days ago: "The pope's visit to Ukraine could irrevocably close the door to an improvement in relations between Orthodoxy and Catholicism."

Yet the toughest stand is that of the rank-and-file priests and worshippers, and not only in Russia and Ukraine but also in Greece, where the pope's visit in early May was preceded by rallies decrying the Roman bishop as an "arch-heretic" and the "two-horned monster from Rome."

Orthodox groups in Ukraine call the papal visit "a desecration of the sacred soil of Kievan Rus," and an anti-Catholic demonstration in Kiev two days before the beginning of the visit drew 10,000 participants. Nevertheless, the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church has asked believers to refrain from protests during the pope's visit and no one is likely to violate that order, even more so because the Ukrainian special services have taken unprecedented security measures.

But at the same time, Orthodox believers themselves are not able to overcome the ambivalence in their attitude toward Catholics. On the one hand, Catholics are seen as heretics, but on the other hand, they maintain an intellectual leadership in the Christian world. Orthodox experts relied on the Catholic experience in devising the Orthodox Church's first social doctrine and building a new model of church-state relations in Russia. Even in a harsh statement, a Moscow Patriarchate spokesman acknowledged a couple of days ago that the "social activity of the Catholic Church, its care for the helpless and deprived throughout the world can only inspire respect." However in Russia, he said, the Catholic Church has betrayed its mission and is engaged in proselytizing.

What is surprising is that from the moment the pope's visit to Ukraine became inevitable, the position of the Moscow Patriarchate has not undergone any change. It seemed, along with letting off steam with processions and rallies, the Orthodox Church should have demonstrated diplomatic foresight and at least resolved several issues that would be impossible to resolve under other circumstances, first of all the lack of rights of Orthodox believers in Western Ukraine.

The uncompromising position of the Russian Orthodox Church provokes the undisguised irritation of the Vatican. "The Russian Orthodox Church, opposing the visit of the pope to Ukraine, is falling behind the train of history," said Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Vals. It seems the pope can't get used to protests by Orthodox believers, even though he has encountered them in Georgia, on Mount Sinai and in Greece.

Why does Pope John Paul II so strongly desire to travel to Orthodox countries despite the breakdown in theological discussions with the Orthodox? Perhaps not the least because Catholicism is steadily losing its position in Western Europe and the Vatican is concerned with preserving its influence. It is essential to attract new believers and if that is not possible in Western Europe, then why not make more active attempts to convert the Orthodox? Or at least reinvigorate the Catholic Church at the expense of the Eastern religious revival?

In an interview not long before his death, Sir Steven Runciman, a British diplomat and scholar of Byzantine civilization, said: "Sometimes, how should I put it, I feel great disappointment with Western churches. However, I am happy in the thought that within 100 years, the Orthodox church will be the only historical church that will be strong. … I believe it offers people genuine spirituality, which other churches can no longer provide."

That historical optimism, unexpected in the context of a secular society, is typical of most Orthodox believers today and is linked to the rebirth of the church that has taken place over the past 10 years not only in countries of the former socialist camp but also in Western Europe, where a growing number of people are discovering Orthodoxy. And Pope John Paul II wants to partake of this optimism.

Too bad for what is known as "Catholic-Orthodox dialogue."

While informal contacts between Orthodox and Catholic believers are certainly not suffering, official relations between the churches have entered a phase of deep crisis. The start of the third millennium since the birth of Christ has failed to become a time when hopes of a unified Christian world could be realized.

Sergei Chapnin is editor of the Internet magazine Sobornost. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.