What Putin wants from the Pope
Catholic Herald, 4 July 2019
Russian President Vladimir Putin must have been nervous. Pope Francis’s foreign policy has been agreeable to Moscow. But ominous clouds were on the horizon.
In May, the Vatican announced a meeting for July 5-6 in Rome for the leadership of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches. The head of the UGCC, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the synod council which governs the Church and the UGCC metropolitan archbishops were invited to meet with Pope Francis and the senior members of the Roman Curia. The official reason was to support the UGCC “in the delicate situation in which Ukraine finds itself”.
True enough, Ukraine is in a most delicate situation. Politically, the world has more or less decided to live with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. Religiously, the recognition by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople of a new, independent, unified Orthodox patriarchate of Kiev has enraged the Russians, who hold that Ukraine belongs to the canonical territory of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow.
But the “delicate situation” also includes relations between the UGCC and the Holy See, which have deteriorated over the last five years. The Holy Father greatly desires good relations with the Moscow Patriarchate, and the price of those good relations is to go easy on Putin, with the whom the patriarchate is closely allied.
Practically that has meant muted criticism, at best, of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Indeed, the preferred formulation of Pope Francis was that both sides were at fault, the invader and invaded. Only when the UGCC protested vehemently against such formulations did the Holy See offer a critical word in Putin’s direction.
Just over a year ago, Pope Francis, in receiving a delegation from the Moscow Patriarchate, took their side in the dispute with Constantinople over the independent patriarchate in Kiev. Pope Francis went further, saying that the UGCC itself should take Moscow’s side too.
That brought Shevchuk to Rome for an emergency audience with the Holy Father to clarify that the official position of the UGCC was neutrality between Moscow and Constantinople about the canonical status of Kiev. At the same time, both as Christians and Ukrainians, the UGCC hoped for greater unity among the Orthodox in Ukraine. They were sympathetic to a unified, autonomous Kiev Patriarchate, which now exists.
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