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31 March, 2016

The Pope in Havana: A new walk to Canossa?

The pope sacrificed his principles and the trust of a part of his faithful for the sake of a “deal” that looks like nothing more than the division of spheres of influence between competing bureaucrats under cover of “communicating” and “dialog” between two parts of a sundered religious community

German Emperor Henry IV’s walk to Canossa in 1077 to prostrate himself before the pope is a key episode in Christian history. Not only was it the peak of the papacy, but also the beginning of the end of its ambitions to imperial sovereignty. In retrospect, it turned out to be a step towards the birth of the modern, certainly western, policy of dividing the powers of Church and state that we now call secularization or “the separation of religion from the state.”

Back then, the emperor was forced to humiliate himself and crawl on his knees in just a nightshirt to the pope, but it was not for nothing: his excommunication from the Church, which might have led to the isolation of Medieval German princes, was lifted. And the minute Henry IV renewed his power over the Empire, he found new strength to fight against Rome.

The expression “to walk to Canossa” remained a popular saying, but it lost its original meaning: to debase yourself before higher authorities or a victor. A similar expression is “to bow your head,” which would not have much suited Emperor Henry, whose apparent humiliation was a masterful political move. So I propose changing this outdated, no-longer-relevant phrase for another: to walk to Havana. That’s where a different religious and political event took place on February 12, 2016: the meeting and Joint Declaration of Pope Francis and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, in the Cuban capital.

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It seems obvious that Pope Francis met with greater humiliation in Havana than the emperor had at Canossa. The result of his ‘dialog’ with Kirill was even more catastrophic than the most pessimistic expectations. Firstly, the pope made an enormous number of concessions, starting with the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in Ukraine, and got nothing in return, other than promises such as moving Easter, “promises that only commit those whom they are given.” Moreover, the pope behaved like a politician in a one-down position, not like the leader of the world’s largest Christian Church.

What’s more, the pope sacrificed his principles and the trust of a part of his faithful for the sake of a “deal” that looks like nothing more than the division of spheres of influence between competing bureaucrats under cover of “communicating” and “dialog” between two parts of a sundered religious community. Despite its pastoral and religious form, which is as it should be for such a document, the Declaration is saturated with the bureaucratese of political advisors who rarely ever know anything about theological issues.

I realize I am touching on matters that do not concern me, as I am neither a Catholic, nor a believer, but I can say right now: How did it happen that a pope and Jesuit who may not have lived under totalitarianism like his two predecessors, but nevertheless considers himself “clever”; that cardinals who know the dogmatic subtleties and Christian hermeneutics felt obligated to sign under so much selfish manipulation and pious lies?

Statements to the effect that the Russian Church represents all of orthodoxy cannot be interpreted as anything but politicking—because it’s actually just not true. Other orthodox churches have been around for a very long time—France alone has at least 10—and they cannot be expected to live in peace and harmony with the Russian Church, which did not even exist in 1054, when the original schism took place.[1]

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To agree to a common front with Moscow, supposedly in the name of the “Christian soul” of Europe that has “lost its way” the “militant secularist” process of European integration, while forgetting about the open aggression against the EU expressed by the Kremlin and its western acolytes—the Hungarian, Greek and German neo-nazis, France’s National Front, and so on, most of whom are, in fact, pagan—, and about the sectarianism of the Moscow patriarchate—not of orthodoxy as a whole—, which sees Catholics and Protestants as heretics and not fellow Christians, can also only be called politicking.

To accept the official Russian version of events, which is that the war in Ukraine is a strictly domestic conflict that Russia plays no role in, and that the Ukrainian churches, especially the Greek Catholic Church, are pouring oil on the flames and supporting freedom-loving attitudes, is also nothing more than politicking.

Two paragraphs in the joint declaration merit quoting: “We are grieved over the confrontation in Ukraine (such a fine euphemism), which has led to many casualties, has caused untold suffering among civilians, and has brought with it a heavy economic and humanitarian crisis. We call on all sides in the conflict to prudence, solidarity and active peace-building. We encourage our Churches in Ukraine to work on attaining social harmony, to refrain from participating in the conflict, and to not support its further expansion.” Of course, Russia and its Church have not had a hand in any of this—they certainly did not bless the annexation of Crimea—, whereas the Greek-Catholics are horribly pro-Maidan!

The declaration goes on: “We express our wish that the schism between the orthodox faithful in Ukraine be overcome based on existing canons so that all orthodox Christians in Ukraine might live in peace and harmony, and that the Catholic community support this, so that our Christian brotherhood might become more visible.” This is coded phrase not only associates any actions on the part of the Greek-Catholic Church, even ordinary discourse with Orthodox churches, with Uniatism, that is with one Church taking over the faithful of another—which Rome has clearly rejected since 1993—, but, in referring to only the “Catholic community,” even denies its status as a Church. It may seem like a minor detail, but the devil is in the details when it comes to religion, too. Professor Myroslav Marynovych wrote a brilliant, detailed analysis in an article called “An Epochal Meeting with Epochal Consequences” in Ukrainska Pravda.

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At first glance, all these phrasings seem intended to pacify, but in are, in fact, elements of classic stalinist language: “What’s mine is mine; what’s yours is open to negotiation.” In other words, this is a kind of post-Yalta interpretation of religion: the only permissible church is orthodox; the rest are banned, persecuted, and forced to merge with the Russian Church through the auspices of an NKVD-organized pseudo-Synod. And this all continues to this day: in independent Ukraine, the Orthodox Church (of the Moscow patriarchate – Ed.) enjoys complete freedom and has no problems, except maybe with its own faithful, who are annoyed by its pro-Putin position.

Meanwhile, on the territory occupied by separatists and Russian forces, the Catholic Church is banned, its buildings have been stripped, and its members, both clergy and faithful, are being persecuted. Patriarch Kirill is actually only one of the Russian priests. Under his direction, the traditional “symphony” of Caesar-and-Pope has been put to the service of not even the state so much as Putin himself. Kirill is the key to an unbelievable ideological synthesis of sovietism, orthodoxy and hatred of the West espoused by the Putin regime.[2] The Russian president is now actively “rehabilitating” Stalin, recently declaring that, despite negative aspects, it was not necessary to forget everything good that happened in the 1920s and 1930s. He also regularly boasts about his country’s nuclear power.

The declaration of the church leaders, unfortunately, is more than an enormous puncture on the eve of the Ecumenical Council scheduled for June. Because of the extraordinary importance of relations between the Eastern and Western churches, not just in the religious context but also in the political one, this recent gesture by the Pope is unjust and intolerable for Ukrainian Christians. They will have to muster considerable composer, generosity and wisdom, as well as spiritual strength, to come out of this situation without loss. It is this strength of spirit, in every sense of the word, that has always been demonstrated by the head of the Greek-Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav (Shevchuk), who wondered about “the meeting that never took place,” because of the extent to which “both sides were in completely different dimensions with completely different objectives”—pastoral in the case of one of the participants, and political in the case of the other.


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[1]  Ukraine has three orthodox churches. The church that is subordinated to the Moscow patriarch is one of the major ones, but it is now torn between its Ukrainian identity and the loyalty to Moscow demanded by Kirill. Moreover, it has been losing parishioners since the start of Russian aggression in 2014, which have been going over either to the Kyiv patriarchate or to the Autocephalous Church. To get a better sense of the complicated ecclesiastic orthodox geopolitics, both in Ukraine and in the world, I recommend the work of Antoine Arjakovsky, En attendant le Concile de l’ église orthodoxe. [Awaiting the Council of Orthodox Churches].

[2] See the article by French philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff, “Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine” [Inside Vladimir Putin’s Mind].


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