Our Man – in Havana?

Editor’s Note: America and the Church lost a great man this weekend when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in his sleep Saturday in Texas. Scalia was a friend of several writers on this site and his son, Fr. Paul Scalia, appears in these pages from time to time. We send our condolences to him and the whole Scalia family in the hope that they will find peace in the knowledge that he is now in the hands of the Divine Mercy, in which he so firmly believed. Requiem aeternam dona ei Domine. – RR

The meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis on Friday in Havana was a pivotal moment in relations between Western and Eastern Christianity. It’s also the culmination of decades-long efforts to get Europe to “breathe with both lungs,” as St. John Paul II said. And in several respects, it owes a great deal to particular qualities of Pope Francis, for both good and ill.

Francis’s public persona gets much praise, and criticism (on this page, as elsewhere) from people who think he’s confusing and is putting crucial Catholic doctrines in jeopardy. Both charges are correct – sometimes – but there’s more to the story. He has a gift for bringing people together – yes, not always with the necessary clarity or caution. But in this instance, he mostly did very well. With one serious misstep, of which more below.

The meeting probably would have been harder to arrange if the pope were a Western European. JPII, a Pole, knew the Slavic world well. Benedict XVI profoundly understood the theological differences between East and West. Both made overtures towards the Orthodox. But a Latin American pope made things less starkly East/West.

It’s worth reading the Joint Declaration that was signed in Cuba. It starts by strongly regretting millennium-old divisions within the Church, which Christ Himself prayed would be one, as He and the Father are one. And adopts a fraternal tone – something even factions within Catholicism and Orthodoxy don’t always use towards one another – seeking closer relations and common action.

That’s a genuine religious advance, but it’s also a response to the public challenges all Christians face today: “Human civilization has entered into a period of epochal change. Our Christian conscience and our pastoral responsibility compel us not to remain passive in the face of challenges requiring a shared response.”

First, in urgency (and the text) is persecution, martyrdom, and wholesale genocide of Christians, in the Middle East, Africa, etc. Many believe that was the primary motivation for the meeting.

The declaration treads diplomatically on conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, where Russia and the West are at loggerheads, calling all parties to seek peace – which can be variously interpreted by the different actors. But it speaks frankly about abortion, euthanasia, threats to the traditional family, the environment, poverty, refugees, Europe’s need to return to its Christian roots. And about encroachments on religious liberties, “when certain political forces, guided by an often very aggressive secularist ideology, seek to relegate them to the margins of public life.”

Historic embrace
Historic embrace

Very true, and that’s why it’s puzzling that this document was signed in Havana. I’ve been to Cuba and don’t recognize it here:

Our fraternal meeting has taken place in Cuba, at the crossroads of North and South, East and West. It is from this island, the symbol of the hopes of the “New World” and the dramatic events of the history of the twentieth century, that we address our words to all the peoples of Latin America and of the other continents. It is a source of joy that the Christian faith is growing here in a dynamic way. . .

Cuba, the world’s “ crossroads”? “Symbol of hopes”? Dynamic Christian growth? To be frank, these are lies – and a scandal. We’re hearing that a large Russian Orthodox church will be built in Cuba though few orthodox live there. This is Potemkin-village stuff. For a half-century, Cuba has denied building permits to Catholics, Baptists, Evangelicals, and others. It’s stubbornly Communist, one of those “aggressive secularist” ideologies pope and patriarch deplore.

In addition to political repression, religious protesters like the Ladies in White are routinely jailed. Oswaldo Payá, the Catholic founder of the Christian Liberation Movement, was killed in a “car accident” just four years ago. He’s not the only one.

Francis surely knows all this, yet went out of his way to praise Cuba, publicly telling Raul Castro Friday that “if it continues this way, Cuba will be the capital of unity.” Silly us. We thought that was Rome.

It’s regrettable to have to bring up political ugliness in this otherwise historic religious context. But as Orwell once said: “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.”

To make progress on religious persecution, we need truth – the whole truth. The Joint Declaration notes Christianity’s return to public life in Russia. But Russia’s longtime ally Cuba is another thing entirely. Why praise a Cold War dinosaur and religious persecutor in both the Joint Declaration and the event? Mr. Putin may have wanted that. But why did Francis, ignoring plain fact, join in?


Speaking of fact, since we’re now in dialogue with the Orthodox, and Christianity is a historical religion, a little history is in order. The press covered this event as if it were the first contact between the Eastern and Western churches in a thousand years. Like most public discussions of Christianity, this, at best, blurs the truth.

The Great Schism happened in 1054, of course, but the West still supported the East, notably in the Crusades, against Muslim encroachment. In the mid-fifteenth century, Moscow demanded a Metropolitan See – partly because Constantinople, under Ottoman threat, was seeking reunion with Rome. Constantinople fell in 1453, despite help from Venice. Thereafter, Moscow began to claim to be the “third” Rome.

The Moscow Patriarchate dates from 1558, the year Elizabeth I became Queen of England. Russians make up 40 percent of the world’s Orthodox believers, but the Moscow Patriarch is not a pope. The closest thing to an Orthodox pope is the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (now Istanbul), but he has only a tiny flock. Orthodoxy encompasses many competing – sometimes clashing – jurisdictions.

Reunion with the Russian Orthodox remains a distant prospect, but this is a good start. Relations with other jurisdictions are probably even farther away. But let’s pray that, someday, somehow, the good begun here becomes a reality.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.