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Russia's challenge to Christian unity

By Phil Lawler | September 28, 2010

The Catholic-Orthodox theological discussions, taking place in Vienna this week, hit a snag when the leader of the Russian Orthodox delegation lodged an emphatic dissent against the consensus that the early, undivided Church recognized the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.

That position is a definite deal-breaker, because the theme for discussion at this session of the joint theological commission is the understanding of papal primacy during the first Christian millennium—that is, prior to the schism that split the Christian world into East and West. The head of the Russian delegation, Metropolitan Hilarion, argued that the primacy of the Bishop of Rome had never been recognized in the East. If that’s the case, the entire discussion is moot.

It’s ironic that such an objection would be lodged by the Moscow Patriarchate, rather than one of the older Orthodox bodies. The Russian Orthodox Church traces its origin back to 988, when Prince Vladimir I made Christianity the official religion of his people. Thus the Russian Orthodox Church entered the Christian world at the tail end of the 1st millennium, and cannot claim any institutional memory of relations with Rome were handled in the early centuries.

Nevertheless a Russian prelate is certainly entitled to his opinions on the history of Eastern Christianity. Moreover, the opinions of the Moscow Patriarchate cannot be lightly dismissed. The Russian Orthodox Church is by far the largest of the Eastern churches. Any movement to restore Christian unity must include the Russian Church; without Russia, the Christian world would remain dramatically divided, East from West.

Relations between Moscow and Rome have improved markedly during the past 5 years, and Vatican officials specializing in ecumenical affairs see real promise for closer ties. But relations between Moscow and the other major Orthodox patriarchates have been troubled recently. The Russian delegation walked out of the last previous round of Catholic-Orthodox theological talks-- not because of any Catholic-Orthodox dispute, but because of a quarrel between Moscow and Constantinople over the seating of an Orthodox delegation from Estonia. The Moscow Patriarchate has frequently challenged claims that the Patriarch of Constantinople should be recognized as the arbiter of disputes among Orthodox prelates.

There is a pattern here. Other Eastern churches agree that the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has a certain degree of authority over other Orthodox patriarchs—not as a superior, but as a “first among equals. The Moscow Patriarchate objects to that understanding. Other Orthodox churches recognize that in the 1st millennium, before the East-West schism, the Bishop of Rome enjoyed some authority over other bishops—although the extent of that authority is still subject to discussion. But Moscow rejects the premise on which the discussion is based. In short, Moscow rejects claims that any other Christian prelate, in Rome or in Constantinople, has any authority over Russia.

Moscow’s stand on these questions sounds unfamiliar to the Catholic ear, and unhelpful to the cause of ecumenism. But it is consistent with other arguments that have been raised on a regular basis by the Moscow Patriarchate—such as, for example, the complaint that Catholics are meddling in the “canonical territory” of the Russian Orthodox Church when they try to evangelize in Russia or even in neighboring Ukraine. The Russian hierarchy takes a proprietary interest in the welfare of Christianity within the geography boundaries that is has traditionally controlled, and jealously defends against efforts by any other Christian body to establish authority within or beyond those boundaries.

This is not an entirely unreasonable stance. The Catholic Church also teaches that a diocesan bishop has both the authority and the matching responsibility for the welfare of the faithful within his diocese. The Roman Pontiff has a measure of supervisory responsibility for that diocesan bishop, but it is the bishop to whom the local faithful should look for leadership. What’s more, the bishop is responsible not just for the welfare of Roman Catholics who are registered in the parishes of his diocese, but for all of the local Christian community. If Russian Orthodox bishops claim the same jurisdiction, accepting their own moral responsibility for the souls living within their geographical limits of their dioceses, Catholics will have a hard time finding a logically consistent objection. In fact we might applaud their willingness to accept responsibility for evangelizing the people within their regions (if that is what they are doing).

Why, then, does the claim of the Russian Orthodox Church sound so strange to us Catholics? At least in part, the question really can be reduced to one of geography.

The Russian Orthodox Church is perfectly willing to accept the authority of the Holy See over those expatriate Catholics who happen to be living in Russia today, having been baptized into the Catholic Church elsewhere. The tension arises when the Catholic Church in Russia’s “canonical territory” welcomes new members who have not previously been affiliated with any religious community. From the Catholic perspective these are converts: souls newly won for Christ. From the Russian Orthodox perspective they are Russians, and so it follows (again, from the Orthodox perspective) that if they are won for the Christian faith, they should become members of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The question of “canonical territory” is at the heart of the matter. The Holy See, while acutely sensitive to other complaints from Moscow, has resolutely rejected the idea that Russia (let alone Ukraine) can be classified as the “canonical territory” of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Geography and theology do not make for stable mixtures. National boundaries change. Ethnic alliances change. Christ’s Church endures. The ancient Christian patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch were not national or regional churches, but local communities belonging to a universal Church. The Church of Rome, remember, was founded in Jerusalem.

The history of the Russian Orthodox Church, established by a Slavic prince, suggests an entirely different model: a model for a Church that is not merely located in Russia, not merely the Russian manifestation of a universal Church, but specifically a Russian Church.

How can that Russian model be reconciled with the understanding of a universal Church, founded by the apostles (not the tsars) and dedicated to the universal mission of evangelization? I don’t know the answer to that question. I do know that the question must be answered before we can restore the unity of all Christ's faithful.


This version: 7th October 2010

With acknowledgement to
Catholic Culture Website.

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