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The Economist reports on ‘A Catholic-Orthodox meeting is spectacular but not unprecedented’

Read this article on the web site of The Economist

THE announcement of a meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, due to take place in Cuba on February 12th, is certainly a spectacular moment in inter-church diplomacy. But contrary to many reports that have appeared in the press this weekend, it is certainly not the first top-level encounter between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches since the East-West schism of 1054.

Before speculating about what will happen in Havana, it’s worth recalling, in barest outline, some landmarks in the history of this often tortured relationship. The rupture of 1054 was between Rome and the Patriarchate of Constantinople, modern Istanbul, an ancient see whose incumbent is still considered the “first among equals” among the prelates of the Orthodox Christian world. (The exact nature of Constantinople’s primacy often triggers arguments, but not the primacy itself.) If there were a breakthrough moment in the relationship between those two institutions, it would have been the encounter in Jerusalem in 1964 between Pope Paul and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. Without claiming to have settled any doctrinal differences, they agreed to set aside their ancient “anathemas” or mutual denunciations.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow is, of course, a very important figure, both in global Christianity and in Russian affairs. But for church history buffs, he and his institution are new kids on the block. Pope Francis is reckoned to be the 266th holder of his office, and the current Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, is 270th in line. Kirill is only the 16th Patriarch of Moscow.

How come there have been so few? The see of Moscow traces its spiritual roots to the baptism of the Slavic peoples in the year 988; but only in 1589 was Moscow recognised as a full-blown Patriarchate, the highest level of independence for an Orthodox church. It’s interesting to note that although it was created under Constantinople’s spiritual authority, the Slavic church, initially based in Kiev, did not instantly break ties with Rome in response to the 1054 bust-up; news probably took a long time to travel in those days. So you could argue that Patriarch Kirill had some remote predecessors (in the sense of leaders of the Slavic Christians) who were in full communion with Rome.

In 1440, there was a serious attempt to reunite the Catholic and Orthodox churches at the Council of Florence, and the bishop representing the Slavs, Isidore, was among the supporters of reunion; but on his return he was denounced and imprisoned by Prince Vasily of Moscow. After the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, Moscow’s rulers developed the doctrine that their realm was the “third Rome”, in other words the ultimate upholder of pure Christian doctrine. The first Rome had lapsed into heresy, the second (Constantinople or “new Rome”) had fallen to the Muslims, so the eastern Slavs had been left alone to defend Orthodoxy, both spiritually and militarily. Constantinople, of course, did not agree; under the Ottoman aegis it lost a lot of property but gained some power over the empire’s Christians: Slavs and Arabs, as well as Greeks.

Under subsequent Russian rulers, church-state relations took a different turn. In 1721, Peter the Great downgraded the status of the Russian church by doing away with the Moscow Patriarchate and trying, rather unsuccessfully, to introduce Western features of church administration. The Patriarchate of Moscow was resurrected, in a brief burst of liberal idealism in 1917, and for the remainder of the 20th century it suffered the vicissitudes of Soviet history. The Patriarch’s office was effectively suppressed, though not formally abolished, in 1925, only to be revived by Stalin in 1943 as part of a wartime appeal to traditional patriotism. His successor Nikita Khrushchev launched a fresh wave of anti-church persecution, but from the 1960s onwards the Moscow Patriarchate was allowed to function minimally at home and to engage quite intensively abroad in inter-church diplomacy, on the understanding that it would hew close to Soviet foreign policy.

From the Kremlin’s point of view, such diplomacy brought dividends. By engaging with both the Vatican and the Protestant-dominated World Council of Churches, the official Russian church was able to dissuade those bodies from denouncing the Soviet Union, whether over religious freedom or anything else. But there were some extraordinary moments in Russian-Vatican encounters. In September 1978, there was a meeting in Rome between Pope John Paul I and Metropolitan Nikodim of Leningrad, who was close to being the de facto head of the Russian church, given that the patriarch, Pimen, was reclusive and inactive. The 48-year-old Nikodim had a fatal heart attack in the course of the meeting, and received the last rites from the pope, who himself died three weeks later, after reigning for barely a month.

Nothing quite so dramatic is likely to occur during, or as a result of, the forthcoming encounter in Havana. It is indeed a milestone in intra-Christian relations, and the two spiritual leaders will have some business to discuss over Ukraine and Syria, about which Erasmus will have more to say. But it is not the first milestone.

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