Following up on my last post on the Pope Francis-Patriarch Kirill meeting, I see that several of my favorite commentators are continuing to focus on the realpolitik behind the meeting. See here, here and here. One commentator sees the meeting as emblematic of a turn towards ostpolitik on the part of Pope Francis who, stressing “reality over ideas,” aims to establish relationships with leaders in places like Russia, Cuba, and China, even if this means compromising religious freedom and full human rights.
They focus especially on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which has long been loyal to the Vatican but is beleaguered by the Russian Orthodox Church next door, and on Ukraine in general, which has been subject to the aggression of Russia under Vladimir Putin. They focus, too, on the many political advantages that Putin and Kirill gained from the meeting while Pope Francis has stressed good will, exclaiming “finally! We are brothers!” upon meeting Kirill.
These worries are not without foundation. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has been a brave voice for religious freedom, the freedom of Ukraine, and democratization, having played a pivotal role in the Maidan Square democracy protests of 2014. Bishop Borys Gudziak, who spoke movingly of the experience of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church under communism and at Maidan at the Under Caesar’s Sword conference in Rome in December (see this previous post), just posted a beautiful piece at First Things just before the pope-patriarch meeting offering an appraisal of the meeting that was both gracious and cautious.
In the long-term, however, there is cause for optimism even with respect to these realpolitik concerns. Meeting and signing a statement has implications for all parties who participate. In 1975, the Soviets and Eastern European Communist regimes signed the Helsinki Accords, an agreement of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe declaring their commitment to human rights. Realist skeptics dismiss such an agreement as worthless: law and institutions make little difference in the world of superpower relations. But human rights dissidents in Eastern Europe did not think it worthless. They took courage and gained psychological support from the accords and used it to make appeals to their governments: you committed to these ideals, now live up to them. The dissidents were empowered, as was their determination to oppose their Communist regimes. At the time, few people outside of these countries knew of this effect. After the Communist regimes fell in 1989, though, the story became known. It is told by political scientist Daniel Thomas in his book, The Helsinki Effect.
Might a similar dynamic take place, mutatis mutandis, with respect to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and perhaps with respect to Kirill’s yielding relationship to Putin? There is much in the declaration to appeal to, including its strong words about religious freedom, its acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, however inadequate this acknowledgment might have been, and its claim to “deplore the hostilities in Ukraine,” again an inadequate description of what was surely “aggression.” Defenders of Ukraine and its church — and hopefully Pope Francis himself — though, can now present these statements back to Kirill and even to Putin on behalf of these worthy causes in the context of the new relationship that has been forged. Results will not be immediate, but Helsinki showed that declarations are not without consequence.