There are many who see in Patriarch Kirill’s reluctance to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, evidence of Caesaropapism. Certainly, it is likely that Patriarch Kirill sees Putin’s “special military operation” as regrettable but necessary in order to restore the divinely ordained unity of the Russian people – a unity undermined by the emergence of a western-oriented, independent Ukraine, right at the very epicentre from which ancient Christian Rus emerged.
The Byzantine Empire of Constantinople – the “New Rome” – from which Orthodox Moscow, known as the “Third Rome”, traces its origins, saw itself as a Christian commonwealth, transcending ethnic and national divisions. Kirill too sees Russia’s future in terms of a new, transnational, trans-ethnic Orthodox oikoumene, stretching East to West. Before scoffing too loudly at this idea, it is worth noting that it is Kirill’s vision of a Christian empire, rather than the Enlightenment’s vision of a secular nation state, that reflects the historic Christian position. In the 19th century, the Catholic Church was as vociferous in its condemnation of Italian nationalism as the Orthodox Church was of Greek nationalism.
Kirill’s vision of a Russia modelled along the lines of the Byzantine Empire, however, was condemned on 13 March 2022 by over 300 Orthodox clergy who said in an open letter that Kirill and Putin’s Russkiy mir (Russian world) vision for Russia amounts to nothing more than Russian nationalism and is a heresy of the kind condemned by an Orthodox Church Council of 1872.
The letter said that the invasion of Ukraine is “rooted in a form of Orthodox ethno-phyletist religious fundamentalism, totalitarian in character, a false teaching which is attracting many”. The letter accused Putin and Kirill of having repeatedly invoked and developed Russkiy mir over the last 20 years and, in addition to specifically condemning the pair for the invasion of Ukraine, the letter also accused them of imperialist activities in Africa. The Russkiy mir view is, said the letter, “profoundly un-Orthodox, un-Christian and against humanity” and, just as Putin had invaded Ukraine, so, the letter said, had Kirill “invaded the Orthodox Church”. The letter quoted St Silouan the Athonite: “The grace of God is not in the man who does not love his enemies.”
On 16 March 2022, Kirill held a video call with Pope Francis, during which the matter of the Ukrainian invasion was discussed. The pope agreed with Kirill that “the Church must not use the language of politics but the language of Jesus” and also that negotiations must now be used to end the war. The pope said: “There was a time when even in our Churches we talked about holy war or just war. Today we cannot speak like that.” Kirill and the pope also reportedly discussed a number of “current issues of bilateral interaction”.
Pope Francis last met with Patriarch Kirill in Havana in 2016, and as result of that meeting there was a follow-up meeting by Metropolitan Hilarion to the Vatican in 2021. The 2016 meeting between Kirill and Francis led to the Havana Declaration, which included a reference to the negative impact of western liberalism on religious values. The Havana meeting, was, however, heavily criticised by the Ukrainian Byzantine Catholics and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate), who felt the pope was being overly solicitous of a corrupt and politicised leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Putin and Kirill believe the West is in the depths of a profound moral and spiritual crisis, and that the present pope, as a Latin American, rather than a Western European, is perhaps more likely to be sympathetic to Russian efforts to lead a counter charge against the ideological basis of contemporary western culture. Russia is being backed by many Latin American countries. Brazil and Mexico, for example, have not been unequivocal in their condemnation of Russia’s invasion, while Cuba decided to abstain from, rather than support the UN’s condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine.
In 2014, Putin urged his regional governors to read Vladimir Soloviev’s The Justification of the Good. Soloviev is, at first glance, a strange writer for Putin to recommend given Soloviev’s controversial status in the Russian Orthodox Church, not least because of his close relationship with the Ukrainian Catholic Church – some say he converted from Orthodoxy. But Putin’s interest in Soloviev does make sense given Soloviev’s vision of a union of European Christian realms, a kind of “conservative utopia” through which the ancient European kingdoms might rediscover their Christian identity and, under the strategic control of Russia, fight against the Antichrist – the modern, godless, liberal world order. Soloviev had a vision of a theocratic Russia led by a partnership between the pope and the tsar, saving the West from itself. But for this to happen Russia had to first bridge its own gap between East and West.
Kirill knows that, as a Latin American Catholic, Pope Francis will understand the deep reservations held by a non-western world that is increasingly confident of itself, and reluctant to march to the drum beat of 21st-century neo-liberalism and modernity.
This article first appeared in the Easter 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund