RUSSIA: Orthodox-Catholic Relations Take Turn for Worse?

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 5 February 2001

`If the Vatican really does ignore the request to postpone the papal visit to Ukraine things can't improve,' spokesman for Orthodox-Catholic relations at the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations Igor Vyzhanov told Keston News Service on 25 January, `they are already getting worse and worse.'

In recent years Pope John Paul II has made official visits to the predominantly Orthodox countries of Romania and Georgia - but only with the agreement of the local Orthodox hierarchy. In the case of the scheduled papal visit to Ukraine this June, such agreement has not been sought. In a 22 January written request to Pope John Paul II to postpone the visit, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan) explains that it would create the false impression that the conflict between Orthodox and Greek Catholics in West Ukraine had been resolved. Patriarch Aleksi II has repeatedly stated that this conflict and proselytism by the Catholic Church in Russia constitute the main obstacles to an improvement in Orthodox-Catholic relations.

Speaking to Keston on 11 January, however, chancellor of the Apostolic Administration for Catholics of European Russia, Fr Igor Kovalevsky, questioned the validity of the obstacles to dialogue continually cited by the patriarch. In Ukraine, in his view, the Moscow Patriarchate's problems over jurisdiction were rather with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, while, he maintained, the Catholic Church was nowhere engaging in proselytism: `We are just trying to function normally in Russia and provide for our minority here - if I proselytised in my parish then I would have three times as many parishioners.'

The reasons for the Moscow Patriarchate's accusations, as understood by Russian Catholic clergy, are various. Fr Kovalevsky cited a widespread tribal attitude to religion: `a Russian must be Orthodox, a Tatar - Muslim, a German - Lutheran.' On 22 January Greek Catholic priest Fr Andrei Udovenko rejected the associated view that a Russian Catholic must therefore be the result of proselytism: `If a person was baptised Orthodox but never went to church then it is alright for him to become Catholic, and vice versa. If a person is truly Orthodox then he won't leave - Orthodoxy can't mean very much to him if he abandons it so readily.' He surmised that a weak Moscow Patriarchate feared an exodus in Russia similar to that in West Ukraine in the early 1990s: `600 priests - all trained in Zagorsk - went over. They can't have been trained well in the traditions of Orthodoxy if they switched as soon as they had the chance.' In his view, there was also a long-standing Orthodox prejudice against the Catholic Church - ironically encouraged by tsars of Protestant origin - as `politically western, a tool of western expansion'. This was not in fact the case, he maintained, since there were divisions even within the western orbit: `Ukrainian against Pole; an English Catholic can't be a true subject of the Queen.'

According to Vyzhanov, however, Catholics misunderstand Orthodox objections. He showed Keston a recent report from the Rome-based Catholic news agency Zenit which claimed that `the Russian Orthodox Church is opposed to the presence of the Eastern rite in Orthodox lands and to the return of their property expropriated under Stalin.' `This is a lie,' exclaimed Vyzhanov, `we are against the persecution of Orthodox - the situation in West Ukraine is like in Northern Ireland, where the Catholics are the minority.' When told that during a recent visit to West Ukraine Keston had been unable to find evidence for more than a handful of local conflicts (see KNS 5 October 2000), Vyzhanov expressed genuine surprise, remarking `but our bishop there constantly tells us that there are problems.'

Turning to the issue of proselytism in Russia, Keston asked how Catholics could be accused of this when their current numbers represented only a fraction of their presence prior to the 1917 revolution. Vyzhanov pointed out that `the picture has completely changed since then', as the prerevolutionary Russian Empire included Lithuania, Belarus and parts of Poland, while within Russia large numbers of German Catholics had emigrated and Poles were by now completely Russified. Arriving to claim back their parishes, according to Vyzhanov, Catholic priests sent from Argentina or Mexico would find ten believers where there had once been 100: `They preach in the villages, force literature onto people and soon they have their 100.' He singled out the presence of missionary orders for special criticism: `If they are missionaries then they must be coming here specifically to convert people.'

When Keston asked whether it was acceptable for a Mexican priest to press literature onto a Russian citizen with a Polish surname, but not one with a Russian surname, Vyzhanov deliberated before replying that it was not: `It is still expansion. Why does he think the supposed Poles are waiting for him? They would have invited him themselves.' He did not equate the Catholic Church with the West, and contrasted the Latin with the northern or Germanic tradition. `Here they talk about the West as if it were a homogenous unit, but England is completely different from Italy. We don't have concrete problems with Catholics in Germany, such as Renovabis.' When Keston suggested to Vyzhanov that it was such German Catholic foundations and not the Vatican which had funded the construction of the many new Greek Catholic churches in West Ukraine, he appeared unconcerned: `Well, let them build, that's their business.'

The Moscow Patriarchate, maintained Vyzhanov, in no way wished to claim `that a Russian must be Orthodox - it is a question of jurisdiction.' He explained that behind the accusations of proselytism - but never discussed due to the absence of theological dialogue between the two churches - lay the theological question of the primacy of the pope. `Rome is a local church, but it is set up higher – the Vatican considers the whole world its canonical territory. To us this position is unacceptable - the pope should just be the bishop of Rome.' An improvement in Orthodox-Catholic relations, he maintained, would manifest itself in discussion of such theological questions. (END)