The Kremlin employed an ancient and underused instrument of Russian soft power in February when Kirill, Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, conducted an 11-day, four-country tour of Cuba, where he had an unprecedented meeting with Pope Francis, Paraguay, Chile and Antarctica.
The Moscow Patriarchate had long resisted the Vatican’s diplomatic efforts to set up a meeting. Although the Eastern and Western Churches share a common faith, they have distinct liturgical and theological traditions — each rich in their own way – are divided by centuries of historical grievance and disagree over the pope’s role. Moscow opposes the so-called Uniate Church, believers in Ukraine who use eastern liturgical rites but have allegiance to Rome. It also is fiercely opposed to Roman Catholic proselytization in “Orthodox lands.” Orthodox leaders, as does Vladimir Putin himself, frequently extol the moral superiority of the Russian people over their Western parts, even though far fewer Russians say they believe in God, or attend Church regularly than in many Western countries.
Equally as divisive have been differences over the role of church and state. The modern papacy is institutionalized in an entity that is an independent global diplomatic player. Recent popes have frequently criticized the policies of secular leaders and claim the religious loyalties of Catholics their political citizenship aside. By contrast, the Orthodox Church, especially in Russia, has worked hand in glove with the Russian state, a legacy of its Byzantine past. A trip such as Kirill’s, therefore, is difficult to separate from Russian foreign policy more generally (Indeed, the Russian press said the Kremlin had enabled the meeting). Kirill also likely agreed to a meeting for reasons of ecclesiastical prestige. Pope Francis has excellent ties with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Moscow’s ancient rival for the symbolic leadership of Orthodoxy. The Russian Patriarch no doubt was reluctant to yield its position in Eastern Orthodoxy on the eve of a major conference of Orthodox Churches later this year.
The meeting between the two leaders thus was a triumph for Vatican diplomacy and a major symbolic step toward Christian unity. In a joint declaration released afterward the two leaders called for an end to fighting in the Middle East and to the persecution of Christians in the region. But in tone the language of the document leaned toward Orthodox positions. In a swipe at the secularized West, the statement proclaimed traditional the importance Christian values, (a favorite theme of Vladimir Putin, though Putin and Kirill and Francis no doubt understand those values differently). The document also condemned “uniatism” as a way to achieve unity and called on Greek and Orthodox Ukrainians to find ways of co-existence. Omitted, unfortunately, were significant references to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has been supported by many Russian Orthodox leaders. The remainder of Kirill’s trip was colorful, if less eventful. The Patriarch presided at a service in an Orthodox cathedral in Sao Paolo, Brazil (There are 3,000-4,000 Orthodox faithful in that country). Most colorfully, at the end of his tour he held a communion service at the only active church on the continent of Antarctica, the Holy Trinity Church at the Russian Station on Bellinghausen Island. There he took a leisurely walk among the penguins.
Three years after his election as Supreme Pontiff, many Catholics are still trying to take the measure of a Pope who is prone to off hand informal comments and who, most unusually, seems more liberal than the traditional church he leads. The Vatican is justly proud of securing the historic meeting with the Moscow Patriarch. But in its willingness to accommodate Kirill in order to get a meeting it seemed to underestimate the role Kirill plays in the Kremlin’s aggressive and dubious assertion that there is a Russian World that needs protection. (Some observers noted that, if Francis’ and Kirill’s positions had been reversed and the meeting took place in the east, the Pope would be allowed nowhere near majority Orthodox Slavic societies).
The Kremlin, meanwhile, has recently shown it has a much different view than does Francis of the differences between the sacred and the profane. The Pope was one of the most recurring targets of Moscow disinformation in February, with “The Vatican lobbies for sodomy and for the reduction of the birthrate,” a frequent theme. A video about the pope lobbying for more homosexuality in Europe was posted on the site of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, a body financed by the Kremlin. It is uncertain whether the Vatican was unaware of the attacks or if was turning the other cheek in favor of what it considered a greater good. Nor has there been any comment from Russian Orthodox authorities, who seem far from abandoning their wariness of Rome.