An Orthodox schism could be looming. But there might just be a Catholic solution

Ukraine's then-President Viktor Yushchenko, right, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in 2009 (PA)

According to a report from a Ukrainian website specializing in religious affairs, two former Presidents of Ukraine have been to Istanbul where they were received by the Patriarch of Constantinople. The presidents, Leonid Kravchuk and Victor Yushchenko, presented the Patriarch with a petition asking him to grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. This follows previous visits for the same purpose and a petition from the Ukrainian parliament.

This magazine has long taken an interest in Ukrainian affairs, and readers may well wonder what this latest development means. While I am not an expert on these matters, here are some pointers to what is really going on.

Autocephaly loosely means self-government, or having one’s own head. There are currently 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches, and if autocephaly were granted to Ukraine, that would make it 15. This would mean that the Ukrainian Church would then govern itself, like the Polish Orthodox Church, which became autocephalous in 1924 (having formerly been governed from Moscow) or the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which became autocephalous after a long struggle with Constantinople only after the Second World War.

If Ukraine were to become autocephalous (and the historical precedents are good) then that will mean the Russian Orthodox Church, which claims to be the largest Orthodox Church, would lose many millions of adherents, and have its claim to be the leading Church called into question.

However, the Ukrainians have gone to Constantinople, not Moscow, to ask for independence. What they are asking for is the revocation of the original decree, dating back to 1686, which transferred jurisdiction from Constantinople to Moscow.

Will the Patriarch of Constantinople do this? If he does, he risks offending the Russians. He has done so already in the past, with regard to Estonia, another former Soviet territory. However, there are not very many Orthodox in Estonia, and the result of the Estonian situation was the setting up of two rival jurisdictions in one territory, that of Moscow and that of Constantinople.

The situation in Ukraine is worse than Estonia, in that there are three rival Orthodox Churches – that of the Moscow Patriarchate, that of the Kiev Patriarchate, and that of another group that broke away in the 1920’s. If Constantinople were to grant Ukraine autocephaly, there is a chance that these three groups might then be reunited. At present only the Moscow Patriarchate Church is recognised as “canonical”.

Given that the Russian government is waging war on Ukraine – despite its best efforts to deny it – it is hardly surprising that the Orthodox in Ukraine want to break away from Moscow. Constantinople remains their only hope of being free from Moscow and remaining in the Orthodox fold – though this might precipitate a greater schism, between Constantinople and Moscow.

There is another solution, and that is to seek union with Rome. It has been done before now and could be done again. I wonder if any of the rival Orthodox Churches in Ukraine are thinking of autocephaly sub and cum Petro as a solution to their problems?