Summer 2001, Vol. 4, No. 2

Summer 2001

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Related Articles
Rome Relativism, and Reaction, Religion in the News, Fall 2000

Two Cheers for the Pilgrimage, Religion in the News, Summer 2000

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Other articles
in this issue

From the Editor: The Minister, the Rabbi, and the Baccalaureate

Idol Threats

Purging Ourselves of Timothy McVeigh

Faith-Based Update: Bipartisan Breakdown

The Perils of Polling

The Rael Deal.

Superceding the Jews

Jamming the Jews

Evangelism in a Chilly Climate

Correspondence: Palestinians and Israelis


The Pope Among the Orthodox
by Andrew Walsh

Pope John Paul II is a man who can’t take no for an answer. In recent years he has said repeatedly that the reunion of Catholic and Orthodox Christians is among his fondest hopes. And so, he is making systematic trips to Orthodox lands as one of the major priorities in the waning years of his papacy. He even goes to places, like the Ukraine, where local Orthodox leaders have made it plain that he’s not welcome.

John Paul is willing to accept bad treatment as the cost of getting his program across. Last year, on a trip to St. Catharine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai, Orthodox monks refused to pray with him. In Jerusalem a month later, Orthodox clergy refused to pray the Lord’s Prayer with him and the near-dead Patriarch Diodoros dragged himself to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to personally prevent the pope from using the main door of the church, where the site of both Christ’s crucifixion and his tomb are enshrined.

In May, John Paul arrived in Athens, where no Greek Orthodox clergy greeted him at the airport and drove through empty streets as he entered the city. The churches of a hyper-conservative Orthodox splinter group greeted him with a mournful ringing of funerary bells and agitated monks held placards denouncing him as a "two-headed grotesque monster" (consult the Book of Revelation). A guy who often attracts more than a million people to celebrations of the mass could not fill an 18,000-seat indoor basketball arena.

In June, the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church competed with one another to make the strongest statements of dismay and unhappiness at the pope’s spurning of their plea that he not visit the Ukraine—which, one Roman Catholic official told the Boston Globe, "is ground zero for Orthodox-Catholic tension." The streets of Kiev, the capital of a Ukraine whose population is divided between 6 million Catholics and 30 to 45 million Orthodox, were also pretty quiet when John Paul arrived.

So what’s with the Orthodox? If even Fidel Castro can go with the flow of a papal visit, why is it so hard for them? If nothing else, the less than stellar public image of Orthodoxy is hardly enhanced by dissing the most celebrated religious leader on the planet.

The London daily The Independent remarked in wonder at the "ferocious, quite unspiritual hostility of the Russian Orthodox church." After the Athens visit, Stewart Lamont of the Edinburgh Scotsman observed that "when it comes to being the one true church outside of which there is no salvation, Orthodox churches make Roman pretensions to be the key holders of the kingdom seem almost liberal."

"The pope came to Kiev begging for Orthodox forgiveness and calling for an end to the 1,000 year-old schism," the Baltimore Sun editorialized on June 27. "This extraordinary appeal was not even considered by Orthodox leaders loyal to Moscow; they chose to dwell on their unresolved disputes with the Vatican over church property confiscated by the Soviet Union." The Sun indicated that it is fed up with this kind of senseless bickering. "Instead of heeding the redemptive message of the Gospel, too many have shown themselves to be prisoners of the past. They cannot free themselves because they don’t want to."

Truth to tell, the Orthodox aren’t sure that it’s bad to be prisoners of the past. But it makes them inscrutable to most Western observers. "The Orthodox view of the Catholic Church is often a curious mélange of fact, fantasy, cultural prejudice, sublime theological misunderstanding, resentment, reasonable disagreement and unreasonable dread," David Hart of Duke University Divinity School told R. Jeffrey Smith of the Washington Post on May 4.

And, as been so often the case on papal trips, in Greece John Paul did something that genuinely shook things up. The Greek Orthodox Church had stonewalled a papal visit for years. The nation’s socialist government, which often spars with the church, had pushed it unwillingly into agreeing to a papal visit that would allow the pope to retrace the missionary steps of St. Paul. It did so by sending the President of Greece to the Vatican as part of an end-run to invite him to visit as the head of a state, rather than as a religious leader. Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens eventually conceded, largely because he didn’t want the Greek church to look foolish in the eyes of the world.

To appease conservatives, Christodoulos took a tough rhetorical line with John Paul. At the first substantial meeting between the pope and Orthodox clergy at the archbishop’s residence, Christodoulos dressed down the pope, laying out a long series of Orthodox grievances with Catholics dating back 1,000 years.

"‘Until now, there has not been heard a single request for pardon’ on behalf of the ‘maniacal crusaders of the 13th century,’" the Washington Post quoted Christodoulos on the topic of "Roman" oppression. "Understandably, a large part of the [Greek church’s adherents]…opposes your presence here."

The pope immediately replied with a surprising and sweeping request for pardon, although one directed at God rather than the Greeks. "For the occasions past and present, when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us the forgiveness we beg of him." He went on to express his "deep regret" over the Crusader sack of the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, in 1204—the event that in all probability actually severed the Orthodox and Catholic traditions.

It was one of those magic papal moments. "Christodoulos clapped his hands in relief as the Pope spoke," the Guardian of London reported on May 5. "A few minutes before the popular archbishop had delivered a stinging rebuke to the pontiff on the Vatican’s lack of contrition."

John Paul’s apology "visibly softened" Christodoulos, reported U.S. News & World Report on May 21. Echoing the journalistic consensus that the apology was a tour de force, U.S. News went on to paint a picture of the pontiff’s dramatic success. "Later, in private, the two leaders recited the Lord’s Prayer together, breaking an Orthodox taboo against joint prayer with Catholics. At the end of the visit, Christodoulos declared it "the beginning of a new era."

In fact, however, the whole thing was a bit of dramatic set piece. Christodoulos delivered his tirade knowing full well that the pope was poised to apologize. Hoping to dispel opposition in Greece, the Vatican had told the Greek Church in advance that the apology would be made. Christodoulos had "worked to avert wider unrest by selectively disclosing the plan for an apology to various leaders," the Washington Post’s Smith reported on May 5 in what stands as a scoop.

While Christodoulos’ thespian talents are widely appreciated in Greece, he got very little acknowledgement or credit from the Western press, when he in fact acted at John Paul’s straight man. In Greece, the archbishop proved to be a man willing to take action to improve relations and to protect the image of the Orthodox Church; and a skilled ecclesiastical street fighter capable of making the conservative critics who bedevil him look like fringe fanatics.

John Paul must have wished for a Christodoulos on his June journey to the Ukraine, a trip billed by the press as full or risks and called the "migraine journey" on the press plane.

The challenge was created largely by the religious tensions that characterize the Ukraine, which one reporter called "the Bible belt of the old Soviet Union." Most at issue is the surging revival of the five-million-member Greek Catholic church in the western portion of Ukraine known as Galicia. Greek Catholics use liturgies, vestments, and churches that are indistinguishable from Orthodox ones, but have, at various points since the 16th century "reunited" with Rome.

"John Paul views Eastern Catholics as a valuable link between the Catholic and Orthodox traditions," Deborah Weissberg reported in the July 4 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "But many Orthodox regard Eastern Catholics as traitors."

Ukraine means "border" and segments of both the Orthodox and Catholic churches have been pushed or pulled in both directions whenever the border moved east or west. The Greek Catholic Church was created in the 1590s and it expanded in times and places of Catholic power and contracted in times of Russian dominance.

The western, and dominantly Greek Catholic, region of Ukraine around the city of Lviv greeted the pope ecstatically. The rest of the Ukraine was indifferent. And the pope came to Ukraine specifically to celebrate the Greek Catholic churches’ recovery from devastating persecution by the Soviet government—persecution that forced Greek Catholics into the Russian Orthodox church in the late 1940s when the area around Lviv, which had been part of Poland, became part of the Soviet Union.

Greek Catholics resisted, were savagely suppressed by the Soviet authorities, and viewed the Russian Orthodox as complicit in their suffering. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Greek Catholic church reasserted itself, sometimes violently. In the 1980s, the Russian Orthodox church claimed more than 1,200 parishes in the Lviv region. Now it has about 15. More than 400 Orthodox priests have shifted into the Greek Catholic fold.

Orthodox clergy and believers have often been treated badly in recent years in the Western Ukraine, and articles like Ellen Hale’s June 22 piece in USA Today and Susan Glasser’s June 20 article in the Washington Post depicted their struggles. Remnants of the Orthodox communities worship in cottages and even old buses, and often can’t get local building permits to replace the churches they were ejected from.

Greek Catholics, of course, see themselves as merely restoring the pre-Soviet status quo. But, as Glasser noted, the pope was choosing to identify himself with Greek Catholics "in an area where reborn Greek Catholicism has become intertwined with anti-Russian political nationalism." Clashes between Orthodox and Greek Catholics "are not just over who controls the churches, but over the extent of Russian influence on Ukraine, a country poised between the capitalist West and the post-Soviet East."

So, when cranky Russian Orthodox hierarchs complain about Catholic "proselytism," they aren’t so much thinking of the distant past as of the past decade—the era of John Paul II.

The pope came to Ukraine and preached a message of reconciliation. "Let us recognize our faults as we ask forgiveness for the errors committed in both the distant and recent past," the pope said when he landed in Kiev. "Let us in turn offer forgiveness for the wrongs endured."

Richard Boudreaux of the Los Angeles Times provided the best sense of the pope’s position on "proselytizing" in a piece published June 24. "I wish to assure (non-Catholics) that I have not come here with the intention of proselytizing, but to bear witness to Christ together with all Christians."

Boudreaux quoted Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s senior ecumenical officer: "We want the Orthodox to remain Orthodox. We want to help them, not hurt them. The problem is that the Orthodox have a different definition of proselytism." The Vatican, Boudreaux continued, "asserts the right to set up churches wherever it finds believers, some Orthodox leaders regard their territory as sovereign and inviolable. The growth of Catholic communities, just like the arrival of the pope, is seen as an invasion."

Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times assessed the papal trip to Ukraine this way on July 1: "His trip had two, at times clashing goals. He wanted to celebrate the rebirth of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church…But he also wanted to soften the resistance of the Russian Orthodox Church, which views the pope’s support for Ukraine’s five million Greek Catholics as one of the chief obstacles to reconciliation."

This was roughly the equivalent of going to Appalachia to encourage peace and reconciliation between the Hatfields and the McCoys and also to honor the Hatfields for their fidelity to principle.

From the Russian point of view, it’s all well and good to ask that bygones be bygones in the name of future cooperation. But they couldn’t help noticing that the pope waited until his side got its own back before calling for all to live and let live.

And so, the Russians, the Greeks, and (Lord knows) the Serbs remain reluctant to respond to John Paul’s passionate efforts at reconciliation. And it remains unclear, after papal visits to Orthodox Churches to Georgia and Romania as well as Greece, Ukraine, and the Holy Land, just what he expects will happen to end 1,000 years of bitter division.

At the heart of the Catholic-Orthodox division is a dispute about the organization and nature of the church—the question of whether the Christian church is understood to be an integrated organization under the leadership and control of the Bishop of Rome, or a collegial body self-governing, geographically defined churches that share communion, theology, and identity. This single issue is far more important than differences over things like proper iconography, the use of leavened or unleavened bread in communion, whether clergy can marry, or even the definition of the person of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity.

It is here that, from the Orthodox point of view, Pope John Paul is stuck between his vigorous assertion of Roman privilege and his yearning for union. And why the Greek Catholic Church and the other Catholic "Eastern Rite" churches are such a thorn in the side of the Orthodox.

The position of the Orthodox churches of the Middle East and Eastern Europe is that they were never "under" the papacy. The Orthodox see the Latin rite as a valid, ancient form of worship and organization, especially if it abandons its claim of universal sovereignty. The 500 years of formal Roman policy of encouraging and even levering Orthodox worshipers into "union" with Rome, in Orthodox eyes, has created a series of hybrid groups that threaten the autonomy and integrity of local Orthodox churches.

The Orthodox "solution" is clear, if not well known: The Eastern Rite churches should be dissolved as part of the process of resolving differences between Catholics and the Orthodox. The fundamental unit of the historic Christian church is the diocese, and Christian believers in a given place who are in communion with another should live together in one ecclesiastical organization. That means that Greek Catholics in the Ukraine or Romania or Syria should revert to Orthodoxy. And it probably means that Orthodox worshipers in the West should integrate into the Roman church structure after reunion.

John Paul has been less than forthcoming about how thinks the issues that divide the two ancient churches can be resolved. In particular, he’s given no concrete sense of what he’s willing to do to make a deal. The Russian Orthodox, in particular, thinks that John Paul should have discouraged the dramatic revival of the Greek Catholic church in the Ukraine for the sake of peace and reconciliation with the Orthodox.

That, of course, is a lot to ask, of a pope and a group of people who suffered persecution for 50 years because of their loyalty to the papacy. But the Pope is the one who’s pushing for reconciliation. The trip to the Ukraine was almost certainly a step backwards in Orthodox-Catholic relations.

The Pope’s great dream is to visit Moscow, where there are very few Catholics of any sort, and lots of very suspicious Orthodox. Patriarch Alexei doesn’t want him any time soon.

But the next papal visit to countries with Orthodox and Catholic populations is just around the corner. He is scheduled to visit Kazakhstan and Armenia in September. We’ll see what he has to say.

Related Articles:

Rome Relativism, and Reaction, Religion in the News, Fall 2000

Two Cheers for the Pilgrimage, Religion in the News, Summer 2000

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