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Monday, 22 February 2016
The outcome of the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow at Havana’s José Martí airport cannot be properly understood without an awareness of this theory of the “third Rome”. It is at the heart of the ideology of the “Russian world” (Russkii Mir) that has been promoted by church and state in Russia in recent years. Indeed, the Pope and the Patriarch’s joint declaration can be read as a sort of tacit summary of all the major points in the Russian world ideology –from the uniqueness of Russia as a Christian civilisation and its miraculous rebirth to its understanding of itself as the saviour of “the Christian soul of Europe”.
The “Russian world” ideology is a sort of nationalism with a markedly Messianic character. It has been developed by Kirill and President Vladimir Putin in numerous speeches and church-state initiatives since shortly before Kirill’s election as Patriarch in 2009. It sees “Russia” as a civilisation with a common language, religion and culture whose borders go way beyond the Russian Federation. Kirill described himself in his remarks to the press in Havana as the Patriarch of “All Russia”. This is a historical idea of Russia that includes Ukraine and Belarus, and sometimes even Moldova and Kazakhstan. These ideas are supported by the TV network RT and by the Russkiy Mir Foundation, started by Putin to nurture Russian culture and language worldwide.
In this view of the world, Orthodox Russia is taken to be a twenty-first century “third Rome” to rival (and perhaps save) the corrupt and de-Christianised West. Patriarch Kirill is considered to be the real leader of the Orthodox churches, rather than Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (the “second Rome”), with his relatively modest number of followers. Thus, Kirill, not Bartholomew, should be the primary negotiator with the first Rome, and lead partner in reaching out together to the lost West. This “Russian world” is seen as a providential civilisation that has undergone an “unprecedented renewal of Christian faith” after years of state atheism.
This view is reflected in the joint declaration. So is the idea that its Eastern Orthodox values, knowledge and experience of the “first millennium of Christianity” give the Russian world a singular – and divinely ordained – position of undistorted Christian witness in a contemporary world dominated by secularisation. It has a God-given role to fight terrorism, to protect Christian victims of violence in the Middle East and North Africa, to bring peace and justice and do everything possible to avoid a “new world war”. One is reminded of Shatov in Dostoyevsky’s novel Demons: “I believe in Russia … I believe that the second coming will take place in Russia.” A lasting peace cannot be found in secularism but only in what the joint declaration calls the “common values” of Orthodoxy. Sadly, the reasoning goes, Europe has lost touch with its Christian “roots”, and must be saved. Above all, the family is under attack by a crisis wrought by secularisation leading to the “banishment from public conscience” of the “distinct vocation of man and woman in marriage” through gay unions being considered on a par with heterosexual marriage. With the loss of the natural heterosexual family comes contraception, abortion, euthanasia and the “manipulation of human life”.
The Russian world is bonded together by a common language, a common faith with common values, a common canonical Church and a common Patriarch, who works in symphony with a common leader or “tsar” (as Putin is called by his inner circle). It follows that the separation of Russia from Ukraine is quite unnatural. Finally, while recognising that the Greek Catholic “ecclesial communities” have a right to exist, the joint declaration rejects “uniatism” as a thing of the past. So the “we” of the joint declaration could easily refer solely to the Russian and not the Catholic Church.
Why would the Vatican sign a document that, while it does not contradict its official teaching, seems to reflect one Church more than the other? Some observers have suggested that Francis has been “played” by Kirill and his assistant, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. This is, it is said, akin to how Moscow had earlier “played” Patriarch Bartholomew by receiving promises from him at the Pre-Conciliar Primates Meeting in January in Chambésy, Switzerland, that he would not intervene in Ukraine in exchange for allowing the forthcoming Pan-Orthodox Council to take place in Crete in June.
According to this narrative, the Vatican was so desperate for dialogue after years of being told the relationship was merely “strategic” that it ended up signing a statement that was more for the benefit of Moscow than for itself. Indeed, already the declaration has deeply hurt churches such as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, with its demotion of them to “ecclesial communities”, and the call for them to refrain from political involvement, such as the protests in Maidan Square.
But the Vatican is not nearly so naive as it is sometimes being portrayed. Despite Francis’ broad liberal gestures –“Who am I to judge?” –the two churches share a common moral vision, a fear of increasing secularisation and a heartfelt concern for the suffering of Christians in the Middle East. There is also a real acknowledgement by Moscow of the Roman Catholic Church as the Christian body closest to Orthodoxy.
In fact, the desperation for a meeting is more likely to be on the part of Moscow. The Orthodox Primates Meeting in January was marked by Kirill’s speech on the sufferings faced by his “canonical” church in Ukraine. It is said that it is haemorrhaging parishioners daily to the more nationalistic (and “uncanonical”) Kyivan Patriarchate. In December, the leader of Moscow’s autonomous church, Metropolitan Onufry of Kiev, as a compromise allowed priests to serve the Divine Liturgy without commemorating Kirill by name.
He needs help from a hugely popular international figurehead such as Francis to raise his profile in Ukraine, where he is deeply unpopular and forbidden by the government to visit. He can also in this way prove to President Putin that he is useful in opening up links with the West while Russia is becoming increasingly politically isolated. Lastly, meeting with Francis as an equal – even though traditionally it is Patriarch Bartholomew not Kirill who is the spiritual head of the Orthodox Churches – will give Kirill increased stature at the forthcoming Pan-Orthodox Council and head off any attempts by the other churches at the Council to intervene in Ukraine.
But what are the future prospects for the relationship? If Kirill is desperate, fearful he will lose his church in Ukraine, and thinks that the relationship with Francis can help him, then this declaration needs to be seen as a calculated risk. He has staked the imperial vision of his primacy of the “third Rome” on the opening of a window to the West through the first Rome.
It seems likely that Francis and his advisers knew that Kirill needed their help, and was fearful of his future and the future of Russia. They have given him leeway in the declaration so he can more easily justify this meeting back home, where some still call the Pope a “Catholic heretic”. Moscow can continue to make bold symbolic claims of uniqueness, but these will be just so many words. But now it is bound to an ecumenical process that it cannot withdraw from without serious embarrassment. In these bleak days, it is important for Rome to throw open a window on Russia so that, as John XXIII said of the Second Vatican Council, the fresh air of the Spirit may be allowed to flow.
Dr Brandon Gallaher is lecturer in systematic and comparative theology at the University of Exeter. This article first appeared in The Tablet on 20th February 2016 and was since republished on Academia.edu. It is reproduced with the agreement of the author with grateful acknowledgement to the publishers.