(Timeline) - When people who haven’t talked in 1,000 years finally decide to bury the hatchet, that’s a hell of a Kumbaya moment to get excited about. On Friday, the Vatican said Pope Francis would meet with Russian Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Kirill I in Cuba next week. A pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch have never met.
That’s big news in the Christian world. The Eastern Christian churches and the Roman Catholic church split in 1054 in what’s since been called the Great Schism, or the East-West Schism. The leader of each church excommunicated the other — a punishment that held until 1965.
The AP called next week’s meeting a “historic step to heal the 1,000-year schism that split Christianity” and said it “marks a major development in the Vatican’s long effort to bridge the divisions in Christianity.”
But there’s a wrinkle. The Russian Orthodox Church is just one of 14 self-governing churches that make up the Eastern Orthodox Church, and while it’s the biggest (about two-thirds of the world’s Orthodox Christians) and wealthiest, Kirill isn’t the group’s leader. Symbolically, and according to internal church law, it’s the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, who is the first among equals in Eastern Christianity.
And Bartholomew meets with Pope Francis pretty regularly — five times in three years.
“The patriarch of Moscow speaks only for the church of Russia,” said George E. Demacopoulos, a theology professor at Fordham University. “When these 14 groups get together, Bartholomew gets the shiny chair.” Which means what? It doesn't mean he got to set the agenda for the upcoming council. It doesn't mean he gets to declare autocephaly unilaterally. It doesn't mean the episcopal assemblies set up across the world are bodies destined to become appendages of Ecumenical Patriarchate authority. It doesn't mean he can interfere in the operations of another Church. Such grandiose authority of the "shiny chair" doesn't even extend into the autocephalous Church of Greece.
The reason lies in the early history of the Christianity, when the church was growing rapidly, and its leaders found the need to meet now and again to maintain its rules and theology. The most significant of these meetings — called the “seven ecumenical councils” — beginning in 325 were held in and around Constantinople.
Roman emperors typically called such meetings, a practice that continued, at a reduced pace, into the Ottoman empire from the 14th to 19th centuries. While the Orthodox churches share one agreed-upon theology, they each govern themselves, and are now essentially a unified group of national churches. Over the last century, the absence of a single pan-national leader who can call the churches together has led to “an enormous amount of dysfunction,” according to Demacopoulos. Some (read: me) would say this conciliar, almost decentralized process also protected the Church from the woeful innovations that have beset the Catholic and Anglican bodies. Watch how the Anglican Communion (not to mention other Protestant bodies) kept voting on hot-button issues over and over until the more liberal of their number were able to force some unholy idea through. Papal prerogative has not been a friend to the dogma of the Catholic Church when it unilaterally inserted doctrines into its Church anathema to Orthodoxy (not to mention many of its people).
It has taken 40 years for Orthodox leaders to organize the first major church council in more than 1,200 years. That meeting, scheduled to take place in Crete in June, is the reason, Demacopoulos said, that Kirill agreed to meet with Francis next week. That is not why either Rome or Moscow said they are meeting. The Russian Church stated quite clearly that the primary purpose was to save Christianity in the Middle East. The upcoming council is not going to be a place for beating shoes against a desk. It's going to be, by all signs, a place where pre-written declarations are going to be read aloud and distributed.
“A week after this meeting is finalized, Kirill agrees to meet with the pope for the first time in history?” he said. “There’s no way that’s coincidental. Kirill is trying to represent himself, in the lead up to [meeting] of Orthodox leaders, as public face of Orthodoxy. He’s trying to usurp Bartholomew.” What wild and meritless speculation. There's nothing here to usurp. The Ecumenical Patriarch is chairing the meeting. He neither set the agenda or has a vote more powerful than any other of the autocephalous voters does. If he votes for something and even one primate votes no it doesn't matter how much he wants it to happen. The decision must be unanimous.
So, does that mean Pope Francis is a pawn in some kind of Eastern Orthodox power grab? In November 2014, Francis told Kirill he would “go wherever you want. You call me and I’ll go.”
That said, like Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI, Francis is interested in a detente with the Russian church, which has long accused it of sheep stealing — poaching believers in former Soviet lands and converting them to Roman Catholicism. Normalizing relations with the Russians would also allow the Vatican legitimate access to the country’s Christians. Not that I can see. The Russian Church sees the Slavic lands under her control to be her territory. There is no universal jurisdiction in Orthodoxy. I don't see the Pope wanting to spread Catholicism into Orthodox countries. A by far better target would be the quickly secularizing Europe.
Christopher Bellitto, a history professor at Kean University in New Jersey, told the AP that “the two men are trying to heal a millennium of wounds.” Again, not the announced aim of the talks. The purpose of the talks is very much in line with what the Russian Church's External Media Relations arm has been saying for years: Find points of agreement on important topics and battle Christianophobia wherever it rears its ugly head. Russian Orthodox efforts done in concert with other religious bodies on topics like abortion, bioethics, religious tolerance, etc. are not efforts whose goal is for "reunion." It is for the stated goals to be met. Certainly having the two primates meet is important, but it is not two men trying to heal a rift as a chief goal.
While the meeting next week is being hailed as a moment of healing and reconciliation, it seems both sides have something to gain, though Francis’ angle might be more in line with Christian teaching.
“There’s a desire by Francis … to atone for past wrongs with the Russian church,” said Demacopoulos. “The papacy was responsible for some pretty awful things in Slavic lands, and this is an attempt at restoration. Is Francis being played? Maybe. But he has a genuine reason to want this meeting.” The Russian Church also did some horrendous things to Catholics. I don't anticipate much hand wringing from Russian clergymen. If the Pope of Rome is being "played" so that the Patriarch of Moscow gets some media attention and isn't overshadowed (a hard thing to do when your media coverage and church size are already so huge) by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, that's a pretty petty game and not one that has much of anything to do with the stated goals of either party meeting in Cuba. Actually, these critiques are simply part in parcel with the Mr. Demacopoulos anti-Russian rhetoric machine where he calls them "fundamentalists" and "crazy" without much in the way of facts or impartiality.