Monday, November 18, 2019

Moscow Patriarchate’s ‘Nuclear Option’ – Ignoring Canonical Territories and Making Itself into an Orthodox Papacy

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 15 – As ever more Orthodox churches recognize the legitimacy of the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Moscow Patriarchate which has unsuccessfully opposed this has responded by breaking relations with those who do and even considering violating their canonical territories by setting up rival Russian churches.

            (On that process, see in particular the steps Moscow has already taken in Turkey and Asia more generally ( and its ongoing consideration of doing the same in Africa, the canonical territory of Alexandria (

            But while these are the stuff of church diplomacy and show the Moscow Patriarchate’s extreme displeasure, they may not lead the churches which have acted to reverse themselves or cause those thinking about recognizing Ukrainian autocephaly. Instead, they may generate anti-Moscow patriarchate and more generally anti-Russian attitudes in many places.

            In this situation, where the ROC MP is clearly on the losing end of things, there is talk about the possibility that the Moscow Patriarchate might exercise what could be called its “nuclear option,” ignoring all canonical borders and declaring itself equal or superior to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople and thus de facto an Orthodox “Vatican.”

             There is no precedent for such a center in Orthodoxy and the ROC MP consistent with current Kremlin policy seems more inclined to conduct “a hybrid war” against its opponents in the Orthodox world, but Kyiv commentator Yekaterina Shchetkina suggests this option can’t be ruled out (

            Having churches loyal to the ROC MP in a variety of countries would boost the status of the Moscow Patriarchate and give it and the Russian state an additional channel for influence. But it would be expensive and in many cases be politically problematic.  And it could backfire if these new churches were to then influence the patriarchate itself. 

            But perhaps “the most radical variant” to make the ROC MP first or at least first among equals in the Orthodox world comes from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Shchetkina says.  He has called on the ROC MP to form an alliance with the Roman Catholic Vatican to defend traditional values against all comers.

            Such an alliance would put the Moscow Patriarchate on the road to becoming the Orthodox counterpart to the Catholic Vatican and thus something at least the current patriarch, Kirill, would welcome. But many of his subordinates oppose any ecumenical ties, and making the fight for traditional values could compromise the church’s mission in the eyes of many.

            At the end of her article, Shchetkina says somewhat provocatively that what is going on in the contest between the ROC MP and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople is a fight between two “dead” empires “which have for a long time been in a state of a cold war” but are now entering a hotter phase.

            How this will turn out -- and how far the ROC MP may go -- remains to be seen, she concludes; but it is already obvious, the Ukrainian commentator says, that “even a dead empire on this gameboard can respond” to what the representative of another “dead empire” does,  with this clash perhaps completing the impact of its earlier political defeats. 

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