Monday, February 15, 2016

Havana Meeting Was Not a Complete Victory or Defeat for Rome or Moscow

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 15 – Many of the initial reactions on the meeting between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana on Friday featured declarations that the outcome was a clear victory for Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church and a defeat for Rome and for Roman Catholicism (e.g.,

            But today, two more thoughtful commentaries, one by Nikolay Mitrokhin, a Bremen-based specialist on Orthodoxy (, and a second by Andrey Melnikov, editor of “NG-Religii” (, point out what one would have expected: the outcome was not a complete victory or defeat for either side.

            Mitrokhin argues that “the results of the meeting of Pope Francis with Patriarch Kirill can be discussed in various dimensions” and one’s judgment about its results depends on which one any particular analyst or observer considers the most important once one goes beyond PR-driven commentaries about how wonderful any such meetings supposedly are.

            Those focused more specifically on Russian or Ukrainian policy, he suggests, will necessarily conclude that the joint declaration of the two church leaders bears “in certain points a decidedly pro-Russian character,” including its assertion that the conflict in Ukraine is an internal matter, that both churches should avoid getting involved in the conflict, and that divisions among Orthodox in Ukraine should be overcome by “canonical norms.”

            “From the document it becomes clear,” Mitrokhin says, “that Kirill considers the Ukrainian situation in terms of a conflict of Greek Catholics and Roman Catholics (and the supposedly controlled by them authorities of the country)” on the one hand “and the Orthodox under which he understands only the pro-Russian militants in the Donbas.”

            Kirill thus received much of what he wanted from the meeting, the church analyst says. “He not only fulfilled the assignments of the Russian leadership but spent time on an alien ‘canonical territory’ (having marked Valentine’s Day with Fidel Castro)” and was able to insert many arguments in the final document pleasing to him and the Kremlin.

            The Russian patriarch thus did not return to Moscow “with empty hands,” although what he got probably mattered more to Vladimir Putin than to the “less than one percent of the population” in Russia that attends Orthodox services “more or less regularly,” Mitrokhin continues.

            But Pope Francis did not leave with empty hands either, although for him this meeting with Kirill was far less important than it was for the Russian churchman. As the successor of St. Peter and the leader of a billion Roman Catholics, he is simply in a different position than the head of one branch of Orthodoxy.

            For Francis, the chief thing is to promote “fraternal communion and cooperation in order to advance Christian principles (as the Vatican understands them) in the world.” How that is done and with whom is a secondary concern.    

            Viewed from that perspective, the establishment of “direct and fraternal” communion with the head of a major Christian church “which for hundreds of years has stood in harsh opposition to the Roman throne is a strategic success, one worth petty tactical concessions on political issues of today.”

            But Francis’ success was not limited to that, Mitrokhin says. The Russian patriarch in a departure from his earlier positions and those of the Kremlin “acknowledged the right of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to existence and its right to provide succor to its believers.” That is important for Greek Catholics not only in Ukraine but those in Russia and Kazakhstan.

            “The thesis about fraternal churches also opens the path to the legalization of the long-existing but up to now semi-underground cooperation of individual parishes, priests, seminaries and entire bishoprics of the Russian Orthodox Church with Catholic organizations,” something that may have “a powerful influence on the entire climate” of relations between confessions in Russia.

            At the very least, Mitrokhin suggests, this declaration will undermine the Orthodox fundamentalists in Russia who have long been anti-Catholic and who can be counted on to view what Kirill has conceded as a betrayal of their faith and their nation, thus posing a challenge Kirill is likely going to be forced to respond to in the coming weeks.

            Melnikov also presents a more balanced assessment of the meeting, noting to begin with that despite Russian and Western media claims that this was “a meeting of the millennium,” the Havana encounter was anything but.  The Russian Orthodox Church was only established in 1589, and Pope Paul VI already met the Universal Patriarch Afinagor in 1964.

            But that is not to say that the Havana meeting was not important. Kirill’s mission was “to show the Vatican that Catholicism should unite with an international of conservatives headed by Russia.” In making that appeal, the patriarch demonstrated that “the technical role of the Russian Orthodox Church hasn’t changed since Soviet times.”

            The only thing that has changed is “the content” of its message.  As Melnikov points out, “Russia has not rejected contacts with the West, but it wants not dialogue with the liberal mainstream.” Rather it has placed its hopes on “the conservative forces of Europe” and hopes the pope will join them.

            Given Rome’s position on many social issues in Europe and its interest in defending Christians in the Middle East, such hopes are not without foundation. And the joint declaration enumerated many areas where pope and patriarch agree.  But “it is only in this sense that the union of Churches has significance.”

            With regard to Ukraine, the “NG-Religii” editor points out, there was “a compromise.” Rome will not promote the growth of Uniatism, “but the Moscow Patriarchate promises to accept Greek Catholics as a given and to co-exist with them in Ukraine.” That is a victory for the Greek Catholics as much as they may not like to have their fate negotiated by others.

            Melnikov concludes: “The meeting in Havana was not so much about content as aobut symbols. But it symbolizes not the historic reunification of the Churches but the development of a strategic block of conservative forces of European orientation.”  In short, both sides got some of what they wanted but only by giving up something else.

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