What Russian Orthodoxy Wants From Pope Francis

This week's summit in Havana is a historic opportunity. 

Although the Patriarchate of Constantinople holds a place of honor among the fourteen canonical Orthodox Churches, it is the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), the world’s largest, that has emerged as the leading spokesman for Orthodox Christians. Its influence was clearly on display during preparations for this summer's first-ever Pan-Orthodox Council, when it convinced the heads of fellow churches to abruptly shift the venue from Turkey to Crete by suggesting that difficulties might arise in Turkey because of that country’s current tensions with Russia.

It was then able to ensure that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) remains the only one recognized as canonical, and that the rival Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) received no invitation. Finally, in a significant blow to Ukrainian ambitions to establish their own national church, it obtained a pledge from Patriarch of Constantinople that he would not encourage a self-governing Church in Ukraine, or undertake any actions that might legitimate the self-proclaimed Kyiv Patriarchate, “not at the Council; not ever.”

Finally, this month it agreed to another historic first, a meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, which both sides are describing as an opportunity to promote collaboration on the key international issues of the day. Such collaboration is already commonplace in European venues, where Catholics and Orthodox frequently combine forces to defend Christian values. Now they hope to formalize their partnership, expanding it to the Middle East and elsewhere.

Each side brings notable strengths to this alliance. Catholicism brings its global reach, a deep Western intellectual pedigree and considerable financial resources. The Russian Orthodox Church bring its considerable political influence, not just in Russia but throughout the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, as well as centuries of experience living in harmony with the Muslim communities in their midst.

No one should expect full unity any time soon, however. The theological disagreements between Catholic and Orthodox may be minor, but they are not trivial. Still, it is encouraging to see Catholic spokesmen like Cardinal Walter Kasper, who was formerly in charge of Vatican relations with Russia, stress that these are mostly matters of local tradition, not dogma. For now, therefore, the most important thing to take away from the upcoming meeting between the two religious leaders, as noted St. Petersburg theologian Fr. Georgy Kochetkov puts it, is that “both sides want more.”

Given the noted intimacy of church and state in Russia, many are probably asking what the Church’s resurgence portends for Russian foreign policy. That is already pretty well established. First, in keeping with the transnational character of the church, it will continue to lobby Russian state institutions to defend the interests of Orthodox Christians throughout the world, even if they are not Russian citizens. Second, as it has already done with the Roman Catholic Church, it will seek out new allies to promote Christian moral values and counter the secularization of European society. Finally, wherever Russian state and civic organizations promote Russian culture and language abroad, the church will seek to tack on its agenda of “re-Christianizing society.”

For now, therefore, the state and the church in Russia are pursuing complementary agendas, the former in the secular arena, the latter in the spiritual arena. This is in keeping with the classical ideal for church-state relations in Eastern Orthodox Christianity—symphonia—which is a harmony between church and state, rather than the Western ideal of separation. This intense interaction, however, also points to sources of potential conflict.

While the state promotes the national interest of the Russian Federation, the Russian Orthodox Church promotes a larger cultural identity, that it sees itself as having inherited from medieval Kievan Rus’. Both the ROC and the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church see the conflict in Ukraine as a civil war within a single pan-Slavic community (the Russky mir or “Russian world”). This civil war cannot be resolved by isolating Ukraine from Russia and thereby destroying the unity of their faith. The only permanent solution is for the Ukrainian government to embrace the pluricultural nature of Ukrainian society. From the Orthodox Church's perspective, this is the only way to achieve reconciliation among the Ukrainian people, and harmony within the multinational Russky mir.

Second, the Russian Orthodox Church does not see itself as merely one social constituency among many; it sees itself as the very heart and soul of society. Its purview therefore exceeds that of any other social groups, even the government, for while the government may speak to the values of society in the present, the Church speaks to the values of society over its entire existence, in this case for the eternal values of “Holy (Kievan) Rus’.”

Finally, the Russian Orthodox Church explicitly seeks to reverse the secularization of society. It can therefore support a modernization that results in tangible benefits for the poor, but it cannot support policies that promote secularization. What the Church strives for, therefore, can best be described as modernization without secularization.

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