(Economist) The ostensibly friendly encounter masked deeper political divisions.
CARDINAL Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, has just made a four-day trip to Russia. It was the first time in 19 years that a holder of that powerful office, sometimes described as “prime minister” of the Holy See, had visited Moscow.
On the face of things, the atmosphere during his visit looked remarkably warm. At least before the cameras, the cardinal’s exchanges with Russia’s political and religious leadership were much more cordial than, say, the recent, manifestly frosty encounter between Pope Francis and President Donald Trump.
President Vladimir Putin said he valued the “trusting and constructive dialogue” between his country and the Vatican. After a long meeting, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told the visitor that “our positions are close” on many issues. Discussions ranged from the need to protect Middle Eastern Christians from terrorism to “strengthening social justice and the family.” Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox church, hailed the visit as a sign of progress in “inter-church relationships”, building on his landmark meeting with the pope in Havana last year.
The Patriarch noted that the happiest recent event in Catholic-Russian Orthodox ties was this summer’s loan to Moscow of the remains of Saint Nicholas, normally kept in an Italian cathedral. More than 2m Russians had queued for hours to venerate the relics. The remains of Saint Nicholas, an early Christian bishop known as Santa Claus in the West, had done more to help the relationship, in the Russian prelate’s view, than any amount of religious or secular diplomacy.
In truth, Saint Nick has plenty more work to do. For several reasons, none of this week’s bonhomie points to a definitive breakthrough in relations between the Holy See and Moscow. Some are obvious: for example, the ongoing denominational standoff in Ukraine, which to some extent mirrors the country’s military and political fault-lines. The country’s religious spectrum ranges from eastern-rite Catholics who see their country as the victim of a Russian invasion to the extensively organised Ukrainian Orthodox church whose ultimate spiritual loyalty is to Patriarch Kirill.
Both the Patriarch (who insists that the war in Ukraine is “internal”) and representatives of the Vatican have trodden quite carefully in their recent public comments on the Ukrainian crisis. But as Cardinal Parolin pointed out, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox church regards the very existence of the eastern-rite Catholics in Ukraine as an “obstacle”.
A less obvious constraint is the existence of a powerful faction of theological purists within the ranks of Russian Orthodoxy for whom any warming of relations with the Vatican is a spiritual sellout. Soon after the Havana encounter, the influential Bishop Tikhon Shevkhunov, who is personally close to Mr Putin, seemed to place himself at the head of an “anti-ecumenist” faction when he spoke in a homily of the “serious confusion” that many people had felt on observing the Havana encounter. Although he stopped short of saying the Havana meeting shouldn’t have happened, Tikhon recalled the saying of a revered Russian bishop of the early 20th century that “Catholics are not even a church and as a result not even Christian.” The very fact that both President Putin and Patriarch Kirill used the word “church” this week when referring to Roman Catholicism will doubtless upset some purists.
Russia’s leadership are pulled in two different directions regarding relations with Rome. On the one hand, it is expedient for Russia to have a more or less friendly diplomatic interlocutor in the Western world at a time when it is under sanction from just about every other Western authority. On the other hand, upholding the doctrinal purity of eastern Christianity against all comers (in practice, against the Catholics) has been one the country’s raisons d’être since the 16th century, at least in the eyes of Russian nationalists.