Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, Religion and Politics

Foreign Diplomats Assess the Vatican’s Ostpolitik

Published on: July 25, 2022
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It was a great opportunity to express solidarity to Ukraine by taking part in a panel discussion at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv on July 1. Four ex-ambassadors to the Holy See—Ukrainian,  Lithuanian, EU (originally from Poland), Georgian—were invited to speak about the history and contemporary challenges of the Vatican’s Ostpolitik. Ostpolitik emerged in 1963 as a term to define actions towards normalization of relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic. Later the term was applied to John XXIII and Paul VI’s efforts to engage Eastern European countries at several levels with the aim of helping Catholics behind the Iron Curtain.  As the panel invitation noted, “Some consider it (Ostpolitik) an ecclesial analog of Realpolitik, a betrayal of values and principles with the hope of achieving doubtful goals; others consider it ‘the art of the possible since it allowed to find a modus non moriendi for Catholics behind the Iron Curtain and the 1960s and 1970s, subsequently contributed to the decline of communism and the democratic transformation of East-Central Europe, and enables continuation of the ecumenical dialogue today.” Organizers and participants of the panel also took seriously another dimension of the conversation: the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine. The university was built from scratch in the 1990s, soon after the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine could leave behind its underground life.

Relevance of the term Ostpolitik, coined with regard to the communist past, to issues under discussion was challenged in the very beginning, although some of its characteristics are found in the Vatican’s policies towards the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Namely, parallel lines can be traced in going soft on particular principles by the Vatican for the sake of reaching an agreement with the ROC. Another affinity with the original content of Ostpolitik is the present political alliance of the ROC with the Russian state while the latter shows much resemblance to its Soviet heritage. These two understandings are basis for using the term Ostpolitik in this reflection about an interaction between the Holy See and Moscow under the present pontificate, which has reached its peak in recent months. In other words, how does the Vatican sustain Ostpolitik in light of the war in Ukraine?

The Orthodox Church has been a significant player in Ostpolitik. The numbers and the intellectual and physical force behind the ROC made the latter the most important agent of the Vatican’s Ostpolitik; consequently, interactions between the Holy See and the ROC have received a lot of attention and criticism. However, the paramount attention given to the ROC also carries the potential danger of a negative influence on Catholic-Orthodox relations at large.

A few preliminary comments about some aspects of the present pontificate towards the war and the level of political engagement of the ROC will precede an assessment of an imbalance in the relations between the Holy See and the ROC.

One learns quickly that the Holy See is far from being a monolithic association of congregations and councils; neither do its actual foreign policies always coincide with Pope Francis’s actions. The Pope has a freedom to say and do according to his own judgement on the spot, which mostly turns out to be challenging for him as the spiritual leader and supreme head of the Catholic Church worldwide.

It is true that by today Pope Francis has condemned the Russian invasion in Ukraine and the atrocities of the war, but also, as a defender of the Vatican’s longstanding policy to choose a peaceful dialogue over any kind of forceful resolution of conflicts, has condemned arms build-up in Ukraine.

Since 2014, Pope Francis has more than once spoken about the Russian-Ukrainian state of affairs as a “fratricide” and a conflict of interests between Russia and the US. In his recent interview with Il Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis recalled meeting with a head of state before the war who said that NATO barking at Russia’s door could have alarmed Russia. Has NATO been a real threat to Russia – now that Sweden and Finland are becoming members of the NATO Alliance but the further invasion in Ukraine is continuing? The war dynamic proved that Russia does not acknowledge Ukraine as a sovereign state, as an independent political entity therefore it was invaded. Until recently a strategy to invade Ukraine in order to restore the Russian imperial borders was only speculation; during the present war it has proved to be true not least by Putin’s self-understanding as an heir to Peter the Great.

So invasion was expected, but could it be partly justified because of Russia’s rule to follow its own agenda despite contradicting the internationally acclaimed regulations or the real state of affairs? Is the Vatican’s Ostpolitik measured against Russia’s Realpolitik? The most significant aspect of the ROC is that it cannot be separated from the Russian state; apart from religious nationalism inherent to states of traditional autocephalous churches, today the Moscow patriarchate is hardly separable from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia.

During my years as ambassador, 2014-2018, when discussing the political situation of Georgia after the 2008 war, the authorities of the Holy See, almost without exception, leaned towards a position very similar to what we read in that interview: namely, that Russia will not give up its historic interests and will protest against the Euro-Atlantic choice of the Georgian state. Counterargument that that choice was made by the Georgian people had little effect.

At the same time, both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have been supporting the territorial integrity of sovereign states of Georgia since 2008 and in Ukraine since 2014. In fact, this claim can easily be paired with a claim that the Holy See condemns Russian invasions into other states. Alas, according to the already mentioned tradition of not taking part in conflicts, the Holy See is avoiding it as far as it is plausible. Assessment of the war as “a place where good guys and bad guys do not exist” gives ample possibilities to the ROC to see an ally in Pope Francis.

Four Catholic scholars—Thomas Bremer, Regina Elsner, Massimo Faggioli, and Kristina Stoeckl—published a long-awaited commentary on the Russian manipulation of results of the Ostpolitik. It brings to our attention misinterpretation of facts and documents related to the Vatican-Moscow Patriarchate encounters. The Russian side manages to prove that the two churches share a position of political neutrality and that Pope Francis supports the ROC in its justification of the war in Ukraine. Thus, calling Patriarch Kirill “Putin’s altar boy” was interpreted in terms of brotherhood; and relations between heads of the two churches was set as exemplary for “a peacekeeping agenda around the Ukrainian crisis.” Manipulation on the part of Russia refers to all aspects, from wording to the real state of affairs and feeds state propaganda.

The strife on the part of the ROC to forge an image of the Vatican allegedly supporting the ROC in its justification of the war involves keen interest in its political content. When it comes to ecumenism, the ROC is not so open to church-to-church relations with Catholics. This church diplomacy is fitting into the imperial agenda of the Russian state; Russia pursues its imperial interests, snatching territories and spending billions to set up channels for a soft transmission of its policies. The recent Declaration on the Russian World, as a kind of Russian ideology to which ROC made a substantial contribution, has also made it clear.

The Vatican’s diplomacy, on the other hand, serves a non-partisan agenda; it is interested in the preservation of dignity of human persons, saving the planet from the anthropocene, backing dialogues, standing for peace, and being a moral authority.

So, the Holy See’s two positions under the current circumstances—condemning the war but also urging for a peaceful resolution in the midst of the full-scale war—are incompatible and counter-productive for peace, which can be reached through restoration of the territorial integrity of Ukraine and a self-re-branding of Russia. In fact, supporting the territorial integrity of a state but also finding excuses for justification of an invasion into another state seems confusing.

As a theologian, I admire the reforms in the church undertaken by Pope Francis, his intention to unfold the legacy of the Vatican II, but I find it challenging to seek relations with the ROC on an unequal footing. It was clear already in February 2016, when heads of the two churches met in the Havana airport. Is it worth maintaining a dialogue when one party is manipulating every aspect of it? Any dialogue has its preconditions and requirements: parties in dialogue must listen to one another. Is Moscow in a listening mood, ever?

At present, it seems difficult for the Holy See to continue relations with the ROC when the Orthodox churches went bonkers because of the situation in Ukraine, first in the aftermath of the granting of the Tomos of autocephaly to Orthodox Church of Ukraine (2019), and now with positioning of the Moscow Patriarchate in Kyiv; that complex reality will not be resolved soon. The Holy See should be considering this seriously together with the fact that in some states with a considerable Orthodox population and autocephalous churches, governments have joined sanctions against Russia, have sacked Russian diplomats, and have banned import of Russian resources. What is the Holy See’s answer to those Orthodox churches? Or, truly, to Catholics in those states?  

Pope Francis wisely said in the interview with the Jesuit publications in Europe that “reality is discerned not discussed; discernment is the charism of the society.” At this point in the war, a discourse on a peaceful resolution versus supporting Ukraine in its fight to restore the territorial integrity and retain its sovereignty intact does not give an impression of the reality being discerned. It supports the spreading of Russian propaganda through Vatican channels.

Whether Ostpolitik (as it is widely understood today) can be pursued under any circumstances, especially at times of war, is a very big issue and needs special attention.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University