Though almost no one in the West has taken notice, there has been a recent development important for all of global Christianity. A new Autocephalous Church of Ukraine was created during the Kyiv Orthodox Church Synod on November 15, 2018 – a move that has been welcomed by the Ukrainian Catholic Church .
Is this just another outbreak of “Ukrainian nationalism” at a time when Russia has become increasingly active? Or the result of rivalry between Constantinople and Moscow for influence over Ukraine? And what does this event mean for the Orthodox as well as the Catholic Church?
In reality, it is a continental shift in the Church. St. John Paul II often urged Europe to breathe with two “lungs” – Western and Eastern. The “Western lung” is generally well understood. But what is the “Eastern lung”?
From the 11thto the 14thcenturies, the answer was unequivocal: the Christian East was organized around two centers: the Church of Constantinople (including Greece and Athens) and its “daughter” Church, the Church of Kyiv, from which Christianity spread to other eastern lands.
Between the 15thand 18thcenturies, a spectacular “continental” drift occurred, and Moscow displaced Kyiv (or Kiev). From then on, the Christian East was centered in Constantinople and Moscow. Muscovy incorporated into itself both the territory of ancient Kyivan Rus’ and the ecclesiastic Kyiv Metropoly, becoming the Russian Empire.
The distinctive features of ancient Kyiv spirituality were rigorously whittled down to conform to the interests of the Moscow model of caesaropapism. “Suspicious” church books were burned. Dissident church figures were repressed.
Kyiv was subjected to the “Third Rome” (Moscow) under both the Czarist and Communist dictatorships. It was only the collapse of the USSR that defrosted the Stalinist glacier. What Kremlin propaganda presented as local nationalisms, allegedly destroying Christian unity, was the liberation of peoples and their ecclesiastical communities from the monopolistic influence of the most powerful of nationalisms: Russian chauvinism.
In Ukraine, the idea of an autocephalous Orthodox Church was reborn. The Kremlin and its subservient Russian Orthodox Church countered in two ways.
The first was a methodical discrimination against both ecclesiastical and political developments in Ukraine. As one Ukrainian observer has remarked, Russian propaganda used terminology apparently taken, at first glance, from “the Western dictionary of ‘humanitarian values’, but in fact operated with werewolf-ideas, parasite-ideas, and phantom-ideas” (Andriy Baumeister). The Western world did not notice this manipulation and, at least until recently, accepted it at face value.
The second method consists in propagating the concept of the “Russian world,” put forward by Kirill, the Moscow Patriarch, which is in fact a quasi-religious imperial doctrine proclaiming the “spiritual unity” of all Russian-speaking and Orthodox peoples.
This became a way to legitimize the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine, allegedly for the sake of protecting the Russian-speaking population. Now Kremlin propaganda is preparing the world for a possible new attack against Ukraine to “protect” the Orthodox population.
So today we are witnessing a deep transformation of the “Eastern lung.” The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople sensed where things were headed and took the unusual move of intensifying its activities in the Orthodox world. Even though the Ecumenical Patriarch is only first among equals – not the sole leader of the church (like the pope in the West) – he took public responsibility for the fate of the daughter Church in Ukraine, which had been uncanonically severed from Constantinople.
There are many signs that the Eastern Slavic part of the “Eastern lung” is still largely dysfunctional. Communism was a deep trauma from which the peoples of the former Soviet republics have not yet totally recovered. In many places, people lost the Christian culture and true understanding of what Christian faith means. So distressing news – on both the political and religious fronts – may still be forthcoming from Kyiv. But in spite of everything, serious reorganizing in underway, and future changes will affect the whole Christian world.
The influence of Constantinople may prove to be extremely important. This has already been manifested in the establishment of the Statute of the newly constituted Ukrainian Church, which substantially modified administrative procedures in the direction of democracy.
So far, Western Christians have been concerned primarily with preserving the recent status quo with Moscow, as if the Russian Orthodox are simply the whole of the Christian East. In Western eyes, this seemed crucial to Christian peace and ecumenical dialogue. The Vatican’s diplomacy has been careful not to intervene in the intra-Orthodox affairs.
But the present situation creates a clear challenge for the Catholic Church. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna stated recently: “How is the Vatican to interact with the new autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine? If it recognizes it, that means conflict with the Moscow Patriarchate. If the Vatican does not recognize the new Church, that means conflict with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.”
The Western Churches must realize that the old status quo can no longer be maintained. The situation calls for a radical overhaul of current positions, including the reconsideration of the present models of ecumenism.
Conscientious Christians cannot simply consider Russia’s language of ultimatums and exclusion as acceptable any longer. Ukrainian Orthodox believers are a legitimate part of the Christian oikumene and at present are under siege.
They can become a catalyst for a civilized transformation of the entire post-Soviet space, starting with Russia. Westerners would do well to understand the new realities in Eastern Europe, and that including Ukrainian Churches in broader contacts with the world can bring many more benefits than their continuing isolation.
After the fall of Communism, many Westerners expected that the Slavic world, long forced to remain silent, would finally be free to make its proper contribution to Christian culture and the entire globe. Today, with the establishment of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, it may well be that an important voice is finally beginning to be heard.
*Image: St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, Kyiv