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Meeting of pontiff and patriarch in Cuba: tactical benefits and strategic risks

The landmark meeting of Roman Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Russia finally took place in Havana on February 11-12, 2016. Heads of the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox churches had not met after the Council of Florence of 1439. It was a matter of principle. The relations of the two churches were imbued with a spirit of rivalry, fighting and antagonism after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans and Russia emerged. Those relations, in fact, reflected the civilizational confrontation of Russia – “The Third Rome” and Rome with its “Christian World” – Europe.

Apparently, the meeting in Havana has a relevant political subtext. Therefore, it needs a political commentary. Well, why Cuba? This circumstance suggests that the Cuban leaders mediated the high-level meeting. Ironically, the Cuban communists and revolutionaries (Raul Castro was present at the meeting of the Pope and the Russian patriarch) help the former Soviet communists and contemporary “capitalists” establish links with Vatican in the current foreign policy crisis the post-Soviet Russia has faced. Two years ago, Pope Francis mediated the U.S.-Cuba relations at the request of Washington. Now, it appears that the Cuban communists kindly agreed to host the “landmark” meeting of the two religious leaders. Pope Francis – born Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Argentina)– is familiar with Cuba. As Bishop Bergoglio, he accompanied John Paul II – born Karol Józef Wojtyła (Poland) – during his “landmark visit” to Cuba in 1998. Later, Bergoglio wrote a book about that trip wherein he reproduced the dialogue of the Pope and Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader of Cuba.

Besides, Pope Francis is Jesuit and the Cuban leaders – communist Castro brothers received education at a Jesuit college. Vatican has inherently enlisted the trust of the communist Havana, as it permanently opposed the policy of American embargo and the sanctions against Cuba. In addition, the Latin American episcopates of the Roman Catholic Church had to correct the general policy of the Catholic Church due to the attractive ideas of social revolution in Latin America. Amid anti-imperialistic revolution, the Catholic Church in Latin America really became more perceptive to the ideas of social justice. In this light, Pope Francis has a reputation of a “Leftist” in the West. Hence, it was not a coincidence that the Joint Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill (point 17) contains an idea so consonant with the aspirations of Latin Americans: “…The unrelenting consumerism of some more developed countries is gradually depleting the resources of our planet. The growing inequality in the distribution of material goods increases the feeling of the injustice of the international order that has emerged.” Latin America is still the stronghold of the Roman Catholic Church. That is why the Pope and the Russian patriarch in their message from Havana addressed “all the peoples of Latin America and of the other continents.” “By meeting far from the longstanding disputes of the “Old World”, we experience with a particular sense of urgency the need for the shared labor of Catholics and Orthodox, who are called, with gentleness and respect, to give an explanation to the world of the hope in us,” the two leaders say in the Joint Declaration.

It is noteworthy that the joint message of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill deliberately avoids the major and very acute problems of the religious dogmatism and ceremonialism that was behind the schism of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century. Apart from that, the political sense of the Joint Declaration adopted in Havana is more than evident.

The Declaration addresses the following three political and cultural topics in succession:

— The dramatic situation the Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa have found themselves in (points 8-12). This topic refers to Syria and Iraq, first. It hints at the value of Russia’s involvement in the “anti-terrorist operation” there. Yet, for some unknown reasons, the Declaration keeps quiet about the problems of the inter-religious conflict in the Balkans, particularly, in Kosovo;

— An appeal to conservative values shared by the Catholic and Orthodox churches (points 15-22). This topic refers to Europe, first of all, and wider West. It addresses a broad spectrum of issues such as restriction of the rights of Christians by the secularized societies “some countries have transformed into; European integration that is devoid of respect for religious identities; the problem of poverty, migrants and refugees; the problem of justice; the problem of family crisis; the right to life - against abortions, euthanasia and wider use of biomedical reproductive technologies; the problem of spirituality and the present-day youth.

Appeal to the conservative values of Europe is as never relevant for Russia isolated from Europe after the Ukraine crisis. In this light, Moscow appeals to the European rightist conservatives who are connected with Roman Catholics to a certain degree in Europe. For instance, yet not so long ago, Horst Seehofer, leader of his conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) of Bavaria visited Moscow. It is noteworthy that Bavaria is the stronghold of Catholicism in Germany. Pope Francis’ predecessor – Pope Benedict XVI – was from Bavaria. That is why several points in the Joint Declaration of the Pope and the Russian patriarch concerning the traditional values are addressed mainly to European Catholics. The Declaration shows that the Russian Orthodoxy shares these conservative and traditional values.

— The third, political aspect of the Joint Declaration, addresses the topical issue of the relations of the Orthodox and Catholics in Ukraine. For the last 25 years, the Moscow Patriarchate had been voicing two major obstacles to the meeting of the patriarch and the pope – anti-Orthodox actions by Uniates in the Western regions of Ukraine and general proselytism of Catholics in the territory under jurisdictions of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Declaration here suggests a concession for Moscow and Vatican. Without condemning the method of Uniatism dating back to the previous centuries, the Declaration says that Vatican does not use it presently, but the “historical” Greek Catholic communities have a right to exist and develop in the territory of Ukraine. Actually, after 420 years of uncompromising struggle that followed the Union of Brest in 1596 and claimed the lives of many Orthodox, Patriarch Kirill has recognized the right of the Greek Catholic Church subordinate to Vatican on the lands of historical Russia. Naturally, the unions may become more active in Belarus too.

In addition, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has exacerbated the issue of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church as part of the Moscow Patriarchy. A point in the Declaration says “It is our hope that the schism between the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine may be overcome through existing canonical norms, that all the Orthodox Christians of Ukraine may live in peace and harmony, and that the Catholic communities in the country may contribute to this, in such a way that our Christian brotherhood may become increasingly evident.” This statement shows that the Russian Orthodox Church admits that there are schismatic at the Ukraine Orthodox Church led by “Patriarch of Kiev and All Russia” Filaret (Denisenko) and that the local Greek Catholics and ordinary Catholics subordinate to the Pope may involve in the relations of the two orthodox religious communities in Ukraine.

It would seem that the first in history meeting of the Patriarch of All Russia – the leader of the most influential church among all the orthodox churches – and the Pope means that Russia has maintained its positions in the world despite the acute conflict with the West. Through mainstream media covering the foreign activity of the Patriarch of All Russia, Moscow demonstrates that it has overcome isolation once again. However, the tactical benefits of such approach mar the 500-year-old Orthodox tradition of “standing for the faith.” In their declaration, the two religious leaders use the word “brother” to describe their relations – “It is with joy that we have met like brothers in the Christian faith.” On the one hand, one can see here that the Russian Orthodox Church does not recognize the Pope’s claims for leadership in the Christian world, as brotherhood – equal status - is mentioned in the Declaration. On the other hand, a single phrase puts an end to the tradition when the Russian Orthodox qualified the Pope as the main “heretic” in the Christianity and ordinary people called him a “devilish man” and the enemy of Russia. The statement on the brotherhood of the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches and their regret for the lost unity damage the historical and civilizational identity of Russia that is connected with the Russian Orthodoxy so closely. All this is happening amid acute crisis in the relations of Europe and Russia. This problem concerns the idea of the “Russian world” and the Third Rome in a similar way.

Since the only sovereign orthodox state in the world in the 15th century and for the following few centuries was the Grand Dutchy of All Russia - later the Tsardom of Moscovy- the orthodoxy in Russia has obtained national features and become the main national Russian civilizational identity due to the idea of the Third Rome. During the years of testing, wars, and turmoil, Orthodoxy in Russia was the main pillar of support for the people in their fight for national independence and power of Russia. Now, amid acute crisis, when historical Russia is being destructed under slogan of “Europeanization” and “course for Europe,” the historical conflict with Catholics - one of the bases of Russia’s civilizational identity - is fading away.

Dmitry Semushin, editor of EADaily European Bureau

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