Cardinal Manning – a contemporary and follower of Cardinal Newman – once remarked that “All human conflict is ultimately theological.” (You could even say all things human inevitably involve theology, but that’s a complex subject for another day.) In Russia’s current war against Ukraine, the theology is not an ultimate consideration. It’s near the surface. Even if the war ends in some tolerable outcome, the theological divisions are going to be with us for a long time.
Because it’s not only Vladimir Putin who has declared Ukraine a “holy war,” but also religious leaders such as Moscow Patriarch Kirill. Putin is cynically using the Orthodox as moral cover for his ambitions. But he’s also intuited that to “make Russia great again,” Russian Orthodoxy – the bearer of many deep elements in the myth of Holy Mother Russia and its secular projection, “Russian world” – is crucial to the political plan.
The Russian Orthodox leaders have no such political excuse.
In fact, we now see not only political corruption among compromised Russian religious leaders, but a deep spiritual divide that was somewhat covered over by professions of Christian brotherhood. There are even Christians in the West who, traumatized by our decadence and woke-ism, have convinced themselves that Putin’s Russia – with its generalized repression, assassination of dissidents (even abroad ), and the highest rate of abortion in the world  – is somehow a religious savior.
Several recent popes have made serious efforts to heal the schism between Rome and Orthodoxy – and have generally been rebuffed. Before the war started, Pope Francis was seeking a second meeting with Patriarch Kirill. The first took place in 2016 at the Havana airport. Agreeing to that pariah venue was bad, but at least both leaders expressed a “deep desire” for unity . And the pope said of the meeting “We spoke as brothers.”
That fraternal spirit has not lasted. During their Zoom meeting earlier this month, Francis seems to have boldly chided Kirill, for claiming the Ukrainian “special military action” is “holy war.” Francis made an even bolder move on Friday with the consecration of Russia, Ukraine, and the whole world to Our Lady of Fatima. Kirill and Putin know that Our Lady asked for that consecration to stop Russia’s errors from spreading and to bring about the nation’s conversion. Kudos to Francis for doing both things, whatever objections may have come his way.
Unfortunately, Francis also contradicted the whole Christian tradition in the meeting with Kirill with the claim that all wars are unjust. Just this past week, he added while speaking to a coalition of women’s groups , “I was embarrassed when I read that a group of states have committed to spending two percent. . .of GDP in acquiring weapons as a response to what is happening now. Madness.” And he deplored “the old logic of power that still dominates so-called geopolitics.”
Indeed, it does – and will, so long as fallen human beings continue to exist on earth. Which is why some powers – imperfect, historically and morally – must at times stop the most ruthless among us from dominating the world.
It’s not “madness” when nations decide on defense budgets in light of the threats they face. Given an aggressive Russia, political leaders are merely being responsible in beefing up national defenses, late though it’s coming.
Francis seems to think that “dialogue” not deterrence is the only permissible Christian response to threats. You may appreciate his horror at war without accepting that premise. Dialogue has not even brought religious agreement with Kirill. Putin, I’m sure, would love to see dialogue, endless dialogue – in the churches, NATO, American politics – while he moves on one nation after another.
The Ukrainians take a different view. Which is why they’re still standing, and Russia has had to turn to lesser ambitions in Ukraine.
The fall of the Soviet Union opened up some possibilities – for both the churches and Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church – the largest of Orthodox bodies – was both persecuted and compromised under Communism. In his collaboration – perhaps even active work – with the KGB, Kirill played a shameful role in that unholy compromise.
He’s compromised himself again – alienating most Orthodox in Ukraine in the process by blessing Putin’s slaughters. Under the circumstances, it’s difficult to see how Moscow will be part of any future ecumenical dialogue – even how Russian Orthodoxy will hold together.
The Great Schism (1054) between the Western Church and the Orthodox is almost a millennium old, and is painful because – filioque questions notwithstanding – it’s more a matter of jurisdictions and governance than doctrine. Orthodox bishops, priests, sacraments are not only valid in Catholic understanding; the rich spiritual and liturgical traditions of the East contain much that should be integrated into a global and universal Church.
Jesus Himself prayed for an ecclesial unity like His own unity with the Father. Christians haven’t been very good at that high – and admittedly demanding – calling. (Jn. 17:21)
In his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint  (“That They All May Be One”), St. John Paul II spoke of the kind of true ecumenism – not the flabby, sentimental version common in Western “ecumenical” discussions – as rooted in the historical reality and spiritual substance of East and West:
the Church must breathe with her two lungs! In the first millennium of the history of Christianity, this expression refers primarily to the relationship between Byzantium and Rome. From the time of the Baptism of Rus’ it comes to have an even wider application: evangelization spread to a much vaster area, so that it now includes the entire Church. If we then consider that the salvific event which took place on the banks of the Dnieper goes back to a time when the Church in the East and the Church in the West were not divided, we understand clearly that the vision of the full communion to be sought is that of unity in legitimate diversity.
Pope Francis, too, has spoken of unity without uniformity. His task, going forward, will be to practice what he preaches within the Western Church. The Eastern window is, for now, closed.
You may also enjoy:
Randall Smith’s Ukraine for the Long Haul 
Francis X. Maier’s Our “Land of the Free” Today