Wall Street Journal Europe: Vatican Gets Tough on Russia.

Geraldine Fagan, 28 February 2002

Could the Catholic Church and the Moscow Patriarchate be on the brink of a major rift? Relations, never good in recent years, have taken a sharp turn for the worse.

The Vatican's decision last week to upgrade its four "apostolic administrations" in Russia to fully-fledged dioceses seems innocuous enough. The leader of Russia's Catholics, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, explained that the move simply signified the "normalization" of his church's structures in the country, "and nothing more."

The Russian Orthodox Church, however, was outraged. The Moscow Patriarchate's second most powerful clergyman, Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, immediately protested that the plans indicated Vatican intentions "to preach to our people: to convert them to the Catholic faith." The Russian Orthodox Church would probably soon break off all relations with the Holy See, he warned. Sure enough, by Wednesday the Moscow Patriarchate had canceled a long-planned visit to Moscow by a senior Catholic cardinal.

Already feeling humiliated when the pope visited Ukraine last year against its publicly declared wishes, the Moscow Patriarchate's response to the Vatican's latest move is a desperate attempt to reassert its authority. It is also a reaction largely driven by the virulently anti-Catholic views of the mainstay of Russian Orthodox believers, who, believe it or not, are still smarting over the sacking of Orthodox Constantinople by crusaders wielding the papal banner -- in 1204. As recently as the 17th century, they will remind you, Vatican missionaries attempted to poach Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe via the "unia" of Eastern-rite Catholicism, which allowed priests to retain their wives and Byzantine rite services as long as they bowed to papal authority.

Ancient Hostilities

When in 1991 the Catholic Church re-established its structures on Russian soil following their decimation under Soviet rule without informing the Moscow Patriarchate, these ancient hostilities were reignited. Rushing to repel the new Catholic "invasion," the Russian Orthodox Church began to argue that a vast expanse roughly corresponding to the former Soviet Union was its "canonical territory." According to the ancient canons of the Christian Church, it maintained, there could only be one diocese and one bishop linked to a fixed geographical area -- in this case, Russian Orthodox. For the Vatican to install Catholic bishops in Moscow, Saratov, Irkutsk and Novosibirsk this week is thus seen as brazen impertinence.

The Moscow Patriarchate's double standards here are blatant. The Russian Orthodox Church maintains its own posts of Bishop of Berlin and Germany and Bishop of Vienna and Austria -- dioceses that, according to its own logic, belong to the canonical territory of the pope of Rome.

And yet despite that, the Catholic Church has pursued a policy of extreme caution toward the Moscow Patriarchate over the past decade. For 10 years it responded with lukewarm rebuffs whenever the Russian Orthodox Church trotted out vague accusations of proselytism. For 10 years it has hesitated to come to the defense of the Eastern-rite Catholics, whom the Moscow Patriarchate accuses of destroying its three dioceses in westernmost Ukraine. Indeed, if the Vatican wanted to take a leaf out of the Moscow Patriarchate's book, it could with justification point to the forcible turning-over of hundreds of Ukrainian Eastern-rite Catholic churches to the Moscow Patriarchate in 1946 as the greatest mass act of state-sponsored proselytism of recent times. But it remains silent.

Since the Vatican clearly does not invoke the wrath of the Russian Orthodox Church lightly, why has it taken such bold steps this week? Very likely because it senses that the Kremlin is growing ever more aloof from the Moscow Patriarchate, and will not join in the counterattack. Throughout the past decade, the topmost Moscow Patriarchate hierarchs have continued faithfully to serve Kremlin interests as in the Soviet period. They could reliably be co-opted to support the government campaign in Chechnya, for instance, while condemning NATO bombing of Serbia. In return -- as in centuries past -- the church has been granted certain favors, such as a discriminatory federal law on religion for which it lobbied extensively in 1997.

But under Mr. Putin this cozy relationship is showing signs of strain. In September a Kremlin official told me that "our leadership thinks that the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church is dishonest and doesn't trust them." To be sure, the Russian president still graces Orthodox churches occasionally. But standing on the praesidium at a recent conference in Moscow's grandiose new Orthodox cathedral, his body language spoke volumes. Flanked by the patriarch and Metropolitan Kirill, who repeatedly crossed themselves throughout the opening prayer, the allegedly devout president did not move a muscle. In his address to the conference, he did not refer once to the Russian Orthodox Church as an institution, let alone praise it.

Signal of Unity

Since September 11, the Russian administration's Westward tilt has also made Mr. Putin reach out to the Vatican. In a recent interview with Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza the Russian president spoke of his "dear hope" that he would receive a papal visit during his term of office. Late last year his ambassador to the Holy See, Vitali Litvin, remarked that events of Sept. 11 had shocked the international community and reminded Russians of the importance of unity. A papal visit to Russia, he said, "would be an important signal of such unity." Such talk is anathema to the Moscow Patriarchate.

It is still just talk, however. If Mr. Putin is really going to insist upon the constitutional separation of church and state in Russia and stop pandering to the whims and historical grievances of the Moscow Patriarchate, he must come out more strongly in support of the Catholic Church's legal right to carry out its activities in accordance with its own hierarchical and institutional structure.

A first step would be to grant two of the new bishops the Russian citizenship that they have persistently been denied by the state authorities, thus enabling them to take legal responsibility for their dioceses. The Kremlin must take the lead if the Russian people are ever genuinely able to choose, change and possess religious convictions in accordance with their own consciences, and not, as the patriarch said this week, be predetermined "culturally, spiritually and historically" to be "the flock of the Russian Orthodox Church."

Copyright (c) 2002 Wall Street Journal Europe. All rights reserved. (Reprinted with permission.)

Ms. Fagan is Moscow correspondent for the Keston Institute.