Yesterday, the pope met with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church for the first time. Christians everywhere ought to celebrate the meeting. Jesus prayed “that they may be one,” as recorded in the Gospel of John, Chapter 17, and this is a momentous stride towards unity. Although the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church have been meeting and working towards reconciliation since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the meeting between the pope and the patriarch of the Orthodox Church’s largest autonomous church, sometimes called “The Third Rome,” has been elusive. Pope John Paul II had yearned for such a meeting, believing it to be the decisive move in realizing his dream of full unity between the churches, the healing of the rupture of 1054. But he died without achieving it.
Commentators have raised their antennae for Machiavellianism, noticing motives for the meeting baser than sublime unity. Most of the theories focus on Kirill. Kirill wants to raise his stock in the Orthodox Church, especially in advance of a historical upcoming meeting of the Church’s patriarchs. The leader of a Church that has long been intertwined with the power of the Russian state, Kirill may be boosting the prestige of Vladimir Putin, who, after all, portrays himself as the defender of Christians in the Middle East, where is intervening militarily and indiscriminately. Kirill may also be providing cover for Putin’s designs in the Ukraine. Pope Francis is being taken for a ride. And so on.
In church politics, as in secular politics, major events are rarely free from the sorts of dynamics picked up by antennae attuned to power and prestige. Such dynamics, though, do not rob this event of its significance for the unity of the Christian church. The declaration that the pope and the patriarch jointly signed reveals this stride towards unity to be broad and deep, built around some of the most important purposes and struggles of the Christian church in today’s world. There is nothing anodyne or cosmetic about it.
Consider some of the declaration’s points:
- Early in the document, the leaders note the wounds that have divided the churches for centuries, declare that “we are pained by the loss of unity,” and “call for the re-establishment of this unity.” Their goal is full reconciliation in the Christian church.
- The first of the many issues of justice they cover is the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa, where Christians have it worse than virtually anywhere else (except perhaps North Korea). They devote eight paragraphs to the issue in a document of thirty paragraphs. Most of these Christians are members of a Catholic or Orthodox church of some variety. They also “bow before the martyrdom” of Christians losing their lives for their faith, thus invoking what Pope Francis has called “the ecumenism of blood,” arguably the most powerful force for bringing divided churches together. Having the two leaders speak in unity on behalf of these beleaguered Christians can only help their cause.
- The two leaders speak more broadly about the suffering of all of the victims who have died or been displaced in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and call for humanitarian aid.
- Two paragraphs focus on religious freedom around the world. The leaders give thanks for the rise in the freedom of churches in the aftermath of decades of “militant atheism” in Russia and Eastern Europe. Indeed, the persecution of the Orthodox Church under Soviet communism in the 1920s and 1930s was one of the worst attacks on any Christian church at any time. The document rightly notes the “situation in many countries in which Christians are increasingly confronted by restrictions to religious freedom, to the right to witness to one’s convictions and to live in conformity with them. In particular, we observe that the transformation of some countries into secularized societies, estranged from all reference to God and to His truth, constitutes a grave threat to religious freedom.”
- Evincing holism, the leaders call attention to global poverty, migration, environmental degradation, refugees, and global inequality and devote an entire paragraph to the “inalienable right to life” and the millions who are “denied the right to be born in the world.” In Russia, abortion rates are at or close to the highest in the world, one of the few places where more babies are aborted than are born.
- Two paragraphs are devoted to family and marriage.
- The declaration also speaks honestly of matters that divide the two churches. It calls Christians to refrain from stealing sheep from other churches. In concrete terms, it addresses the issue of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, perhaps the most difficult point of division over the past few centuries. The Orthodox Church protests that this church broke from the Patriarch of Constantinople and entered into full communion with the pope in the Union of Brest in 1595. The declaration affirms that this “uniate” method of establishing unity, involving a community leaving its church to join another, is not the way to establish unity but that nevertheless communities that were established in this way have the right to exist and to be respected.
- My favorite paragraph was this one, addressed to youth:
“God loves each of you and expects you to be His disciples and apostles. Be the light of the world so that those around you may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father (cf. Mt 5:14, 16). Raise your children in the Christian faith, transmitting to them the pearl of great price that is the faith (cf. Mt 13:46) you have received from your parents and forbears. Remember that “you have been purchased at a great price” (1 Cor 6:20), at the cost of the death on the cross of the Man–God Jesus Christ.”
Not only have the pope and the patriarch conducted a historical meeting but also they have set forth a substantive foundation for unity and reconciliation – one that will outlast the political motives of the day. It is a meeting that is likely to be repeated and a foundation that is likely to be deepened.
Correction recorded February 15, 2016: A reader wrote to me to report that my description of Russia’s abortion rates is outdated. It describes the situation during the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, when abortions indeed exceeded live births. Since that time, though, rates have gone down. The 2014 report of the Russian Statistical Agency claims that in 2013, 53.7 abortions took place per live birth, whereas in 2005, the number was 117.4 abortions per 100 live births. Many thanks to this reader for this correction.