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Russian Orthodoxy’s Tragedy

With their fratricidal war, Patriarch Kyrill and Vladimir Putin have likely lost the birthplace of Russian Christianity forever
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From an unlikely source — The Pillar, a terrific Catholic newsletter — comes a detailed and well-reported piece about the shattering of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. It’s so well done, I reckon, because the guys at the Pillar — J.D. Flynn and Ed Condon — are both canon lawyers who understand the deeper issues in play. Their correspondent on the ground in Ukraine does a great job with it, quoting a variety of theologians and priests in Ukraine. Excerpt:

As Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill continues to support the Russian invasion of their country, priests in Ukraine’s Russian-affiliated Orthodox Church say their communion is splintering, and a formal divide now seems to many inevitable.

A growing split comes as bishops and priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), which falls under Kirill’s jurisdiction, push back against the Moscow patriarch’s support for Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

Despite the well-known pro-Russian sympathies of the UOC-MP’s leader, Metropolitan Onufriy of Kyiv condemned the Russian president’s actions on Feb. 24, the first day of the war, describing Putin’s aggression against Ukraine as “Cain’s crime” — fratricide.

At the same time, several UOC-MP bishops announced they would cease commemorating Patriarch Kirill, who has been seen to give cover the invasion, in their liturgies.

There is a breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox Church that came into existence a few years ago. It is not recognized by the Moscow Patriarchate, and is considered to be uncanonical by many Orthodox, though the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul granted it autocephaly, prompting a schism. There is no relationship between the breakaway church and the one loyal to Moscow, but with a Ukrainian hierarchy.

Now, though, with Patriarch Kyrill of the Russian Orthodox Church continuing to back Putin’s war, a total break with Moscow is brewing. Some Ukrainian priests of the church loyal to Moscow spoke on the record to The Pillar:

Fr. Andriy Kliushev a UOC-MP priest in Irpin, near Kyiv, stopped commemorating Patriarch Kirill in 2014.

He described the patriarch as the “ober-procurator” of the Holy Synod.

“In tsarist Russia there was such a position, the minister who oversaw religious affairs. I used to respect him a lot; we had high hopes for him. But now I’m disappointed. [Kirill] can not stop the war. But he could tell the truth into the face of the ‘tsar’ as Metropolitan Philip II of Moscow once did, exposing the atrocities of Ivan the Terrible.”

“Although,” Kliushev noted, “Phillip was a confessor who died as a martyr.”

UOC-MP priest Fr. Maksym Dynets assessed the position of Patriarch Kirill even more sharply, telling The Pillar he thinks the Church in Russia has become a mouthpiece of state propaganda.

“This structure is not only less and less Orthodox but also [less] Christian. What we’ve heard is not the voice of the Church; this is the voice of Goebbels’ state propaganda,” Dynets said.

Read it all. Good job, Pillar. Again, this is a very complicated story to tell, precisely because of Orthodox ecclesiology. The Pillar points out that no situation quite like the one emerging has ever happened in the history of the Orthodox Church. As an Orthodox Christian, I can tell you that the tragedy playing out here is tectonic. Patriarch Kyrill and Vladimir Putin are going to go down as the Russian leaders who lost Ukraine, politically and religiously. The only way Kyrill could possibly save Church unity at this point — if it’s even achievable — is to effectively martyr himself by publicly and unambiguously denouncing the war. Putin would do away with him somehow — either professionally or literally by martyring him — but he might have a chance at saving the unity of the Church. If not, though, Ukraine, the birthplace in the year 988 of Russian Orthodoxy, will be lost to Russia forever.

And how can you blame the Ukrainian Orthodox? If I were one, I would feel exactly the same way, especially if I had been loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate all these years, even in the face of the recent schism with the EP’s project. As an Orthodox Christian who is not under the jurisdiction of Moscow, but who loves Russian Orthodoxy, and who has been spiritually formed and nourished by the Russian Orthodox tradition, which has been one of God’s greatest gifts to me, I grieve this deeply. If you, reader, have been wondering about joining the Orthodox Church (Russian or otherwise), I beg you, do not let this scandal cause you doubt or hesitation. Yes, it damages our witness, but this too shall pass. And anyway, you cannot blame all the world’s Orthodox churches — Greeks, Arabs, Romanians, and the rest — for what Moscow does; you can’t even blame all Russian Orthodox, as there is a petition going around in which over 200 Russian Orthodox priests of the Moscow Patriarchate have publicly protested the war. Still, I recognize the scandal here, and I hate it.

The worst cost of Putin’s war is the loss of human life. But this comes next. This is fratricide, and by not openly condemning it, the Patriarch appears to bless it. For years some of my Orthodox friends in Moscow have been complaining that the Church is far too close to the State, and has compromised its independence. If true, we now see the true cost of that deal. What a long, painful Lent for the Orthodox Church in Russia and Ukraine! Russian Orthodoxy — grounded in Truth, long-suffering piety, and a matchless beauty that magnifies the Eternal — will survive this, as will Orthodoxy in Ukraine. But both will be diminished and wounded. It will be left to generations to come to heal this war between brothers — a war that did not have to happen, but was chosen by Vladimir Putin, and effectively sanctified by Patriarch Kyrill.

UPDATE: All this should cause Catholics who favor integralism to think hard about the wisdom of closely uniting Church and State. When the Church becomes a de facto arm of the State, people will hold it responsible for State decisions. The Russian state has channeled a fortune into the redevelopment of the Russian Orthodox Church after decades of persecution and destruction at the hands of the Soviet regime. This is all to the good — but now we see that it makes it very hard for the Church to speak prophetically to the State in times of crisis. The theory has it that the State benefits from the guidance of the Church, but to paraphrase the theologian and canonist Mike Tyson, everybody has a theory until the army of the State punches somebody in the mouth. The Church does get a seat at the table of power — but at what cost? I would love to see The Pillar do a story analyzing what lessons for Catholic integralism this situation in Russia and Ukraine offers — similarities, differences, and so forth.

UPDATE.2: I just arrived at a conference in Budapest. Met a visiting Ukrainian scholar, an Orthodox Christian. Very grim. He said, with reference to the future of the Orthodox Church in his homeland, “Everything is destroyed, all of the previous structures. Nothing will be the same again.”



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