Orthodox America

Caught between Gorbachev and the Pope

By Priest Alexander Webster

The historic meeting on December I between the pope of Rome and the present ruler in Moscow may have ushered in a new era for religious believers in the Soviet Union-in more ways than one, not all of them salutary.

        Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to recognize local congregations of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, brutally suppressed in 1946 by his predecessor, Josef Stalin, signals the beginning of the reversal of an egregious violation of religious freedom and national identity. Human rights advocates throughout the world can celebrate another triumph of liberty over totalitarianism. In particular, the roughly four million long-suffering Ukrainian Catholics have cause to rejoice: the lonely vigil for freedom of their modern confessors like Josif Cardinal Slipyi, the persecuted Archbishop of Lwiw [Lvov] who died in exile in Rome, has been vindicated at last.

        In the two decades since the Vatican launched its Ostpolitik toward both the communist regime in Moscow and Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, millions of Byzantine Catholics in Eastern Europe had feared for their continued existence as distinctive Eastern Rite Churches in full partnership with their more numerous, albeit often domineering, Latin Rite brethren. Would these Byzantine communities in Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere, whose fierce loyalty to Rome had estranged them from their older, larger Eastern Orthodox neighbors, suddenly find themselves pawns in the Vatican's chess game with Moscow? Would they be, for example, bargained away by the pope, handed over to the Orthodox hierarchies in exchange for greater freedoms or more privileges for the Latin Rite Catholics in Eastern bloc countries? Pope John Paul II has, through his vigorous advocacy of the Ukrainian Catholic cause, put these fears to rest.

      For the Russian Orthodox Church, however, the concordat between Moscow and Rome has more ominous implications. The ease with which the pope has exacted from Gorbachev the re-legitimization of the Ukrainian Catholics must surely have the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate fearful for its future. Once a major player in the Vatican's Ostpolitik, poised to receive the largesse of ecumenically-minded Rome, the bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate may now find themselves pushed to the sidelines as the pope bids to become the de facto spiritual spokesman for all of Russia--including the Orthodox. While a charismatic pope and a progressive communist together redraw the religious map of the Soviet Union, the sixty million Russian Orthodox faithful headed by the Patriarch of Moscow can only watch and wait-and pray that their independence as a distinctive religious community will not be sacrificed on the altar of Gorbachev's Westenpolitik toward Rome.

      The Moscow Patriarchate, to be sure, must shoulder much of the blame for its present predicament. When Stalin liquidated the Ukrainian Catholic Church, forcing its several million adherents into the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexei and his bishops received these coerced "converts" gleefully. Instead of protesting prophetically against this persecution of fellow Christians, the Moscow Patriarchate shamelessly exploited their plight, heaping religious tragedy upon political atrocity.


         As recently as last month, Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev adamantly defended the 1946 Synod of Lvov at which a relative handful of Ukrainian Catholic clergy and lay leaders, instigated no doubt by the communist regime, voted to "dissolve" their Church. This hastily Summoned assembly, Filaret and the Moscow Patriarchate claim, rectified centuries of sheep-stealing by Rome inaugurated by the Union of Brest in 1596. Having been robbed from the cradle of their faith, the Ukrainian Catholics had been returned to their proper Orthodox home. And the Moscow Patriarchate would never let them revert again to heresy!

         Obviously, "never" may be an appropriate theological category, but it does not apply to the political realm. Not only have Filarct and the Russian Church been outmaneuvered by Gorbachev; they have suffered a serious loss of moral credibility. Whatever the merits of Filaret’s historical arguments - and I believe they are considerable--the Moscow Patriarchate and, hence, unfortunately, the entire Russian Church were, from the beginning of this dispute, on the wrong side of simple, universal justice. And now they are paying for it. Despite the noble witness of genuine advocates of religious freedom such as the Russian Orthodox dissidents Alexander Ogorodnikov and Fr. Gleb Yakunin, the public image of the Russian Church has been soiled beyond redemption in the foreseeable future.

        It has even become fashionable among the power elites in the United States to trash the Russian Orthodox Church. Intellectuals on both the right and the left in this country frequently repeat the old canard about the supposedly ingrained subservience of the Russian Church to tsar and commisar alike, or the ethnic stereotype of virulent, mystical, slavophil nationalism, as if these alleged character flaws may account for the exotic, unwestern, unsophisticated “backwardness" of Russia and her church. While a local radio talk show host in Washington incredibly traces the origins of Bolshevik communism directly to Russian Orthodoxy, political columnist Charles Krauthammer and Penn professor Aron Katsenelinboigen warn apocalyptically about resurgent Russian Orthodox nationalism in a post-communist era. The plight of persecuted Russian Orthodox believers has been generally ignored in the major media and in the U.S. Congress, while Soviet Jews, Pentecostals, and Ukrainians of all confessions have their champions. Eugenia Ordynsky of the Washington-based Congress of Russian-Americans laments that few on Capitol Hill are willing to take up this cause. And, of course, on the current Ukrainian question, the typical sound bytes on the evening news simplistically depict the forces of light--the pope and his emergent Ukrainian Catholic flock arrayed against the apparent forces of darkness in the Russian Orthodox Church.

       Thus only one year after the glorious celebration of the millennium of Christianity in the lands of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church has effectively displaced the Ukrainian Catholic Church as a captive community subject to the vicissitudes of political events entirely beyond its control. In this latest episode of its post-Revolutionary history, when, will the benighted Russian Church find powerful, persuasive defenders of its dignity and integrity?

       Surely the hierarchs of the Church cannot be taken seriously. Judged by their record of obsequious loyalty to their communist oppressors, the patriarch and his bishops are hardly about to assume the prophet's mantle and become impassioned spokes men for the liberty and human rights of their own people.

      Neither Pope John Paul II nor Mikhail Gorbachev can be counted on. Although he graciously tried to soften the blow to the Moscow Patriarchate in advance of his meeting with the Soviet Union, the pope represents, despite his warm ecumenical regard for the Orthodox, a rival Christian community with its own religious and political agenda. Ironically, in the zero-sum game of religion in Russia, as the star of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the pope himself rises, that of the Russian Church will be increasingly eclipsed. Gorbachev, on the other hand, is still a communist and, notwithstanding his progressive reforms thus far, an enemy of the Church who may not be trusted.

       Further, the American power elites, especially the major media and intellectuals, have always been for Russian Orthodoxy a lost cause. And even the four million Orthodox Christians in the United States will probably prove useless as usual: the Orthodox in America are too fragmented, too uncertain of their own identity, and too unsophisticated in the use of the media to render any meaningful service to their co-religionists in Russia.

        That leaves only the multitudes of Russian Orthodox believers. Perhaps articulate, virtuous exponents of the best in Russian Orthodoxy with an international stature akin to that of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn will emerge from the burgeoning ranks of dissidents. Perhaps a generation will have to pass before new champions of the Church manage to rise from the grass-roots to national prominence. Whatever happens in the Kremlin, the Vatican, and in the Congress, the Russian Orthodox Church will survive. It has done so for a thousand years.


      "As a fanatically anti-Russian, anti-Bolshevik bastion, Poland had by the Treaty of Versailles been awarded two large provinces, formerly part of the Russian empire, containing several million Russian Orthodox Christians and Greek Orthodox Uniates. A campaign to catholicize these schismatics was immediately launched. Orthodox priests arrested, dragonnade techniques applied; and in Soviet Russia Catholic priests were, understandably, classified as political agents of the Polish government. Yet while condoning the Catholic terror in Poland and protesting at the persecution of Catholic priests in Russia, Benedict XV and Plus XI began to negotiate with the Bolsheviks. Cardinal Gaspari, the Secretary of State, had warned that 'the victory of Tsarist Russia...would be for the Vatican a disaster greater than the Reformation'..." 

(From The Jesuits by David Mitchell; Franklin Watts, New York, 1981) 

Fr. Alexander F. C. Webster (Orthodox Church in America) is a Senior Research Associate at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D. C.