In 1095, Pope Urban II told a large gathering of knights in Southern France that it was their responsibility to avenge the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land (he did not mention that the conquest had occurred nearly 500 years earlier). Urban’s sermon led to the First Crusade, and it forever changed the dynamics between Western Europe, Eastern Christianity, and the Islamic world.
From a Christian theological perspective, Urban introduced an entirely novel—some might say heretical—way of thinking about the relationship between Christian piety and violence. Near the end of his sermon, Urban declared, “Set out on this journey and you will obtain the remission of your sins and be sure of the incorruptible glory of the kingdom of heaven.”
For nearly a millennium, Orthodox Christians have condemned Urban’s perversion of Christian teaching, just as they have condemned the historical events that flowed from it (especially the Fourth Crusade, which destroyed Christian Byzantium). Given this backdrop, Patriarch Kirill’s most-recent effort to curry relevance in Putin’s Russia is nothing short of remarkable: Kirill declared in a recent sermon that Russian soldiers who die in Ukraine will have their sins forgiven.
We are in the midst of a few anniversaries of note in the Greek world. Last year, of course, was the bicentennial of the war for independence. This year, it’s the centennial of the July 1922 founding of AHEPA, in Atlanta, and far more ignominiously, the conclusion of the Greco-Turkish War in September 1922. These events, especially the war, still affect the Greeks today, and the Greek Orthodox with them, but they are also directly relevant to the frightful issues raised by the Russian invasion of Ukraine—questions of nationalism, irredentism, and religion.
The connection has not gone unnoticed. After the publication of the “The Declaration on the ‘Russian World’ Teaching” on Public Orthodoxy, Fr. John Whiteford argued that, within Greek Orthodoxy, “One hears a very similar concept to ‘The Russian World’ fairly frequently, only it is called ‘Hellenism’.” Fr. Whiteford was not alone in drawing this connection. In a friendly critique of the Declaration published in Public Orthodoxy’s own pages, Andrey Shishkov described the Russian World as less a theological heresy than “an ordinary national doctrine, which is very similar, for example, to the Hellenistic Μεγάλη Ιδέα”—the ideological basis for the Greek incursion into Turkey after WWI and the dreams, in Shishkov’s words, of “restoring a Christian Byzantine Empire.” These are important points to consider. In the wake of just criticisms of the subordination of Russian Orthodoxy to the aims of the Kremlin and the Russian world, we must ask: what is the relation of Hellenism to Orthodoxy? Can there be one? If so, how?
The Christian world as a whole—and the Orthodox world, in particular—has been horrified by the invasion of Ukraine by the armed forces of Russia. It seems to be a distressingly indiscriminate campaign, in which thousands have been killed—young soldiers, men, women, and children—as well as hospitals, schools, homes, monasteries, churches destroyed, with millions of refugees fleeing from their homes and livelihoods. From the beginning, his Holiness, Patriarch Kirill, has spoken out in support of the military operation in Ukraine, using the same mealy-mouthed expression as President Putin to obscure the truth that a sovereign country has been invaded by its neighbor. This he seems to have done on his own initiative, for Putin shows no sign of interest in the support of the Church, but has rather sought to shackle the people of his own country by treating it as a criminal offence to call in question the actions of the Russian state. Nevertheless, insofar as any justification for the invasion of Ukraine has been offered, it has been in terms of the ideology of ‘Russian world’ (Russkiy Mir), which owes its origins to the initiative of Kirill (Gundyaev) in the years before he became patriarch, when, as Metropolitan of Smolensk, he established the World Russian Peoples Council, with its conservative and anti-Western agenda. Through its patriarch (our patriarch, for I speak as an archpriest of the Moscow Patriarchate), the Church of Russia has been thoroughly implicated in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Any voices of dissent, or even criticism, have been silenced throughout the Russian state (though it is noticeable that in the ‘diaspora’ there have been voices of dissent, even from senior hierarchs). This war has been going on for six months now, and despite protests and petitions from various quarters, the war continues relentlessly and news relating to the war has gone silent—or perhaps it would be better to use another metaphor—has gone dead. Putin’s policy seems to be (to adapt a remark of Tacitus’) to create a wilderness and call it…Russia!
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?