This week, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin is in Russia. The visit, which began on Monday August 21 and was due to end on Thursday August 24, marks an important moment in relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as providing an opportunity for Vatican diplomacy to promote international peace and dialogue.
Given present tensions, and the fluctuating nature of the Russian Orthodox attitude to ecumenical dialogue, many observers are asking why the visit is taking place now, and whether the fact that the invitation comes from the Russian side presages any breakthrough in the search for unity, or whether the Russian government hopes for geopolitical dividends from the diplomatic contact.
Parolin began with a meeting at the Danilov Monastery, the “Russian Vatican”, with Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the Moscow Patriarchate’s spokesman for external relations. On Tuesday he will have met foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in the morning and Patriarch Kirill himself in the afternoon, before meeting President Putin on Wednesday. The successive encounters with religious and political leaders should remind us that in Russia it is difficult to disentangle the religious sphere from the political, and that the Kremlin as well as the patriarchate have complementary objectives, which present challenges as well as opportunities for Rome.
When it comes to ecumenism, Moscow has blown hot and cold in recent decades. The renewed vigour and self-confidence of post-Soviet Russian Orthodoxy have also seen a growth in those sections of opinion which reject ecumenism outright as a betrayal of the Orthodox Church’s exclusive claims to apostolic authority. Kirill and Hilarion are both in fact moderately favourable to ecumenism, but they cannot afford to alienate the powerful conservative forces. Hence the Russian refusal to participate in last year’s Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete, seen as an attempt to advance the ecumenist agenda led by Moscow’s arch-rival, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.
Earlier this month, however, the Russian Church issued a draft catechism which contained a carefully worded but clear justification of ecumenism as compatible with Orthodox ecclesiology. The apparent zigzagging is in fact a characteristic way of seeking a balanced position.
The theological desirability of a moderate ecumenism for the patriarchate also corresponds to the Kremlin’s political agenda, to which Kirill remains in part beholden. During the Cold War the Russian Church was among the most enthusiastically ecumenical, since this corresponded to Soviet propaganda’s desire to be seen as advocates of peace.
The fall of communism saw a decline in this enthusiasm. Today, as Putin walks a geopolitical tightrope, and Western economic sanctions bite, religious detente must seem a good means to lessen isolation at relatively low political cost.
The Vatican believes that the potential dividends are worth the risks. In pursuing peace and stability the Vatican must seek to avoid undermining the position of the Ukrainian Greek Catholics and of Middle Eastern Christians, for example, by being seen to buy in unilaterally to Moscow’s agenda. The Russians, keen to gain capital among social conservatives in the West, will talk of an alliance in defence of traditional moral values. In a recent interview with a Russian news outlet, I thought Parolin was careful to appear cool in response to suggestions of this kind.
Pope Francis does not seem to think that a strong engagement with Western culture wars will be beneficial for the Church. What he does believe in strongly is the “culture of encounter”. Parolin’s Moscow trip is an attempt to advance that agenda.
The Vatican is used to playing a long game. It is interesting to see that both Parolin and Russian Church spokesmen dismissed talk of a papal trip to Russia in the near future, building on last year’s ground-breaking meeting in Cuba. Both sides believe that Russian Church and society are not ready for such a step. It is hard, however, not to believe that Rome does not see this visit as remote preparation for such a goal.
Fr Mark Drew holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique. He is priest in charge of the parish of Hornsea in Middlesbrough diocese
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