The reported first words of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill on their historic meeting – for historic it was, however hackneyed the word – were revealing. “Finally” said the Pontiff, adding “we are brothers”. Kirill was equally satisfied but perhaps less effusive: “Yes, things are much easier now”.
Easier no doubt because the Vatican, in its eagerness to secure a meeting that had eluded successive popes for decades, had allowed the Moscow Patriarchate largely to set the terms and the agenda for the meeting. Meeting in Havana, in a country where Russian political influence was once strong, the two men issued a carefully negotiated joint statement whose final form was agreed only a matter of hours before, no doubt after minute negotiations and searching scrutiny from officials on both sides.
There is a commitment to work towards unity: “It is our hope that our meeting may contribute to the re–establishment of this unity willed by God”. This might seem self-evident to Western Christians, but the Orthodox involvement in ecumenism is hotly contested by influential voices in Russia and elsewhere. For this reason Moscow stressed from the outset that Pope and Patriarch would not pray together. So, committing himself to seeking restored communion is not lacking in courage on Kirill’s part.
Nonetheless the main emphasis of the text is on common witness and action ad extra. There is an insistence on the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as on the general suffering caused by conflicts there, with Syria and Iraq mentioned explicitly, and a plea on behalf of the two Orthodox bishops of Aleppo held captive since 2013. A strong plea is made for a reversal of the conditions which threaten the ancient Christian communities in these lands with extinction or permanent exile. The language is somewhat stronger than Francis has generally used in public, and some will be wondering why it has taken Kirill’s involvement to persuade the Pope to adopt a more combative tone.
The same consideration applies to the firm words the statement contains on the need to counter the advance of secularism and the promotion of traditional Christian moral values. The defence of the family, based on heterosexual marriage and requiring openness to procreation, is reinforced by an explicit condemnation of cohabitation, abortion and euthanasia.
Francis has of course always said that his attitude to these questions is no different from that of his predecessors. But he has expressed reluctance to allow them to assume the prominence in his public pronouncements which they receive in this joint text. His own pressing concerns are echoed, though perhaps with lesser vigour, in the affirmations of the necessity for joint promotion of ecological concerns, social justice and humanitarian aid to refugees, though it is noteworthy that there is no outright call for a policy of generous welcome to the displaced.
There is much reference to dialogue and mutual respect, not only between Christians but also between adherents of different religions and world views. This too is more of a reflection of Francis and the Vatican’s priorities than those of the patriarchate.
Kirill will, however, be satisfied with the references to conditions nearer home. There is an almost jubilant celebration of the religious rebirth in Russia since the fall of atheistic communism, and it was inevitable that this would not be balanced by any reference to the ambiguous consequences for the Russian Church of its closeness to centres of political and economic power. There are several paragraphs directly relevant to the situation in Ukraine, and these should and will receive close scrutiny.
Ukrainian Greek Catholics will have mixed feelings about the document. It is no surprise to find the customary rejection of “uniatism” as a way forward towards unity, though there is a welcome acknowledgment that Eastern Rite Catholic communities have a right to exist. Several key phrases seem to me, while seeking an apparently even handed tone, to echo Orthodox concerns in a way that will be especially pleasing to Kirill and his constituency at home.
The rejection of proselytism and pressure to convert applies to both sides of course, but by saying that the Greek Catholic Church should “undertake all that is necessary to meet the spiritual needs of their faithful, while seeking to live in peace with their neighbours”, the statement might be seen as restricting their right to evangelise. The injunction to the churches to “refrain from taking part in the confrontation” is unobjectionable in itself, but might mirror accusations from prominent sources in the Patriarchate that the “uniates” have been whipping up anti-Russian sentiment.
Moscow has also accused Greek Catholics of fomenting division between the rival Orthodox groups in Ukraine, so it is significant that the text expresses the desire “that all the Orthodox Christians of Ukraine may live in peace and harmony, and that the Catholic communities in the country may contribute to this”. The hope is expressed that the inter-Orthodox schism in Ukraine will be “overcome through existing canonical norms”. Does this constitute explicit Catholic support for the Moscow Patriarchate’s rejection of any autocephaly for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, which would be a pre-condition of restored unity for the groups separated from Moscow?
On reflection, this statement seems to me to be a significant boost to the objectives of the Moscow patriarchate. As well as seeing many of its own priorities endorsed, Moscow now looks like it has been accepted by Rome as privileged partner in the dialogue, at the possible expense of Constantinople. The Vatican, for its part, will be satisfied that the encounter took place at all.
It is Kirill who has most reason to be satisfied with the meeting and with the statement. He has made a courageous and significant gesture in indicating that he sees restored communion as a goal, with an affirmation that Catholics and Orthodox enjoy a “shared heritage of the Church of the first millennium”. But he has seen Rome bend over backwards to accommodate him, without any real concession in return. I must confess to a certain disappointment at the lack of any concrete reference to such convergence as has already occurred on the disputed points of doctrine, or even of any explicit commitment to on-going dialogue about them.