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Russian Federation president Dmitri Medvedev's recent visit to the Vatican, which included an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, is being trumpeted in some quarters as further evidence of a dramatic breakthrough in relations between the Holy See and Russia, and between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. While I wish that were the case, several recent experiences prompt a certain skepticism.
In what were called "elections" in December 2010, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko was returned to office. Virtually all international observers regarded the "elections" as fraudulent and condemned Lukashenko's post-election arrest and jailing of candidates who had dared oppose him. Yet shortly after the results were announced, Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of Russian Orthodoxy, sent a congratulatory message to Lukashenko, whom he praised for having "honestly served the whole country and its citizens"; "the results of the elections," he wrote, "show the large amount of trust that the nation has for you."
Coddling autocrats is not, unfortunately, unknown in Christian history. What is new, however, is the Moscow patriarchate's repeated claims that Russian Orthodoxy is the sole repository of the religious identity of the peoples of ancient "Rus'" (Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians) and their principal cultural guarantor today. That close identification of ethnicity and Russian Orthodoxy raises serious theological questions, even as it crudely simplifies a complex history involving multiple cultural and religious currents.
More disturbing still were remarks made in Washington in February by Metropolitan Hilarion, the Moscow patriarchate's "external affairs" officer--Russian Orthodoxy's chief ecumenist. Hilarion is an impressive personality in many ways: he is entirely at home in English, he displays a nice sense of humor, and his curriculum vitae includes a large number of publications and musical compositions. Yet when I asked him whether the L'viv Sobor (Council) of 1946--which forcibly reincorporated the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine into Russian Orthodoxy, turning the Greek Catholics into the world's largest illegal religious body--was a "theologically legitimate ecclesial act," Hilarion unhesitatingly responded "Yes." I then noted that serious historians describe the L'viv Sobor as an act of the Stalinist state, carried out by the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB); Hilarion responded that the "modalities" of history are always complicated. In any event, he continued, it was always legitimate for straying members of the Russian Orthodox flock (as he regarded the Ukrainian Greek Catholics) to return to their true home (i.e., Russian Orthodoxy).
Throughout the meeting, Hilarion smoothly but unmistakably tried to drive a wedge between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II (whom two patriarchs of Moscow, both KGB-connected, refused to invite to Russia). He also suggested that Benedict's calls for a "new evangelization" in Europe, including a recovery of classic Christian morality, could be addressed by joint Catholic-Russian Orthodoxy initiatives. Yet, in what seemed a strange lack of reciprocity, Hilarion also spoke as if the entirety of the former "Soviet space" is the exclusive ecclesial turf of the Russian Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow.
Some clarifications are thus in order.
The Catholic-Russian Orthodox dialogue clearly needs theological recalibration. If Russian Orthodoxy's leadership truly believes that a 1946 ecclesiastical coup conducted by the Stalinist secret police is a "theologically legitimate ecclesial act," then there are basic questions of the nature of the Church and its relationship to state power that have to be thrashed out between Rome and Moscow. Serious theological issues are also at stake in the Moscow patriarchate's insistence on a virtual one-to-one correspondence between ethnicity and ecclesiology, a position Rome (which does not believe that genes determine anyone's ecclesial home) cannot share.
Second, the relationship between the Russian Orthodox leadership and the efforts of the Medvedev/Putin government to reconstitute the old Stalinist empire, de facto if not de iure, has to be clarified. Patriarch Kirill's praise of the dictator Lukashenko, like his forays into Ukrainian politics, suggest the unhappy possibility that the Russian Orthodox leadership is functioning as an arm of Russian state power, as it did from 1943 until 1991. If that is not the case, it would be helpful if Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion would make that clear, in word and in deed.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.