Staunton, March 20 – For an ambassador to the Holy See from most countries, an assertion that Roman Catholicism is a traditional religion in his or her country would be little more than a diplomatic nicety. But when the Russian ambassador to the Vatican says the same thing, it has the potential to reshape life in Russia and beyond.
On the one hand, Russia unlike other countries makes a sharp and even legal distinction between “traditional religions” of which there are currently four – Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism – and all other faiths, with the former having special status and greater access to officials than the latter.
And on the other, Orthodox Russians have long viewed Roman Catholicism as a threat to their nation’s existence. Many, for example, say Aleksandr Nevsky’s decision to ally with the Mongols was justified because only in that way could he defeat Catholic forces which, some Russians think, would have ended Orthodoxy and transformed Russia into a greater Poland.
In an interview he gave at the end of last week to the Vatican Insider, a publication of Turin’s La Stampa newspaper, Aleksandr Avdeyev said “Catholicism is a traditional confession for us,” a declaration that could lead to a revision of both these attitudes and arrangements (lastampa.it/2018/03/16/vaticaninsider/eng/inquiries-and-interviews/the-russian-ambassador-dialogue-with-the-vatican-proceeds-we-feel-the-pope-close-to-us).
(Not surprisingly, given the potential of Avdeyev’s remarks to change many so things, Regnum’s Stanislav Stremidlovsky headlined his weekly report on Russian-Vatican ties “The Ambassador of Russia to the Vatican: ‘Catholicism is a Traditional Confession for Us” (regnum.ru/news/polit/2392939.html).)
Avdeyev’s statement about the traditional nature of Catholicism in Russia was embedded within language suggesting that Moscow increasingly sees the Vatican as an important ally against modernism in the West. The diplomat emphasized the warming ties between the Kremlin and the Holy See and said that these “contrasted with the relations between Russia and Europe.”
“In Russia there are more than a million Catholics,” Avdeyev continued, making “Catholicism one of our traditional confessions. A new cathedral will be built in Moscow, I think they have already found a place. Churches will be built in other regions of Russia. There are problems but they can be resolved via dialogue between the Churches and dialogue with local administrations.”
And the Russian diplomat praised Pope Francis and his efforts to “achieve security, stability and the resolution of problems via dialogue and negotiation. His decisive positions on all forms of terrorism in Syria as in other countries are also very valuable. We feel that he is close to our positions.”
Avdeyev’s remarks suggest that the Kremlin is prepared to make Roman Catholicism the fifth traditional religion of Russia, something Patriarch Kirill will see as a slap in the face, perhaps accelerated by the Russian churchman’s disastrous foray into Bulgaria recently and will certainly oppose.
That could open the way at least potentially for allowing other churches, including the Old Believers and Protestants, to seek a similar status, although that is at best a question for the more distant future. But clearly the Kremlin by this action is tilting away from Orthodoxy on an issue the Russian church cares very much about.