Cover story -- Pope’s Russia Policy
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Issue Date:  September 17, 2004

The perils of accommodation: Russia and John Paul II


Russia has haunted Pope John Paul II, from the confrontation with Communism during his first decade to his push for reconciliation with the Russian Orthodox in the last. This first Slavic pope has long dreamed, so far fruitlessly, of a Russian voyage that would be the emotional capstone of his pontificate.

Russia may haunt his legacy as well.

The great irony of John Paul’s “Russia policy,” according to observers here, is that the pope who began by rejecting John XXIII’s and Paul VI’s Ostpolitik -- a policy of softening tensions with the Soviets, which a young Karol Wojtyla saw as lacking nerve -- is today recycling that Ostpolitik in an ecumenical key. The Soviets are gone, but the “don’t rock the boat” mentality survives. Replace “socialism” with “Russian Orthodoxy,” and the picture is the same: a strategy of de-escalation through soft policies and softer speech.

There is a consensus that John Paul has gone to extraordinary lengths to advance relations with the Russian Orthodox, whose doctrinal and liturgical traditions he obviously reveres -- so much so, in fact, that some Catholics fear the local church is being sacrificed in the bargain. Protestantism in Russia is growing by leaps and bounds, they say, while the Catholic church sits on the sidelines for the sake of a murky ecumenical moment that never seems to arrive.

Make no mistake: Russian Catholics are fiercely loyal to the papacy, and they feel a special bond with John Paul. At the same time, however, some wonder if the approach to Catholic/Orthodox relations in John Paul’s Vatican doesn’t end in the same stance Wojtyla himself once abhorred: accommodation.

* * *

The peril and promise was thrown into relief Aug. 27-30 by a Vatican delegation to Moscow whose ostensible mission was to return to the Russian Orthodox a copy of the Icon of Kazan, a famous 16th-century image believed to have miracle-working powers. The delegation’s other assignment was to get relations with the Orthodox back on track.

The icon was presented to Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow Aug. 27, at the end of the Orthodox celebration of Mary’s Dormition (Assumption) in a Kremlin cathedral named for the feast.

Someone unschooled in ecumenical politics would have been puzzled, since normally one would expect the Orthodox to make a big deal out of an icon and the Roman Catholics to not quite understand the fuss. The Orthodox, after all, base their sense of ecclesial tradition on the first seven councils, the last of which was devoted to anathematizing people who went around smashing icons. Orthodox churches are dominated by icons; they are a quintessential expression of Orthodox spirituality. Roman Catholicism does not have the same tradition.

Yet on this occasion, it was the Catholics who played up the significance of the icon, and the Orthodox who minimized it. Alexy said the icon was simply “one of many copies” of the famous Kazan image, while the eight-member Catholic delegation treated the object as a priceless treasure. (Debate over this icon’s provenance is a subject in itself; one Russian magazine, New Eyewitness, recently carried a long piece suggesting it may once have belonged to the Czarist Romanov family.)

The two sides also had different evaluations of the impact of the pope’s gesture.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the 10-member Vatican delegation that presented the icon to Alexy, told NCR Aug. 28 that sessions with their Orthodox counterparts had been “very friendly, very positive,” and that the climate was much improved over the last time he was in Moscow in February.

Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Moscow agreed.

“I see a new climate now,” Kondrusiewicz told NCR Aug. 31. “There’s a new sensitivity from all people, and everyone’s speaking to one another.”

Orthodox officials, on the other hand, expressed much less enthusiasm, always adding that they’re looking for more.

“We would like this gift to symbolize the beginning of a new policy from the Vatican in Russia,” Fr. John Lapidus, the official in charge of relations with Catholics for the Moscow patriarchate, told NCR Aug. 30.

“With this step, we hope that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church will take more concrete, real steps for resolving all the problems that exist among us.”

Such ambivalence ran through all the public statements from the Orthodox, including a written message from Alexy II to John Paul Aug. 30. The tone was positive, with Alexy thanking the pope for a gesture of “good will,” but twice Alexy referred to “problems” in Catholic/Orthodox relations. He pointedly called for “sensitivity in carrying out any actions in territories where another Christian tradition has existed for centuries.”

These were not just official attitudes. One finds them among Orthodox believers.

Veta Uspenskaya, who teaches English at a Moscow-area school, said she was “sort of suspicious” of the pope’s motives. “Good relations are better than bad,” she said, “but without a hidden agenda.”

* * *

When Russian Orthodox spokespersons refer to “problems,” they generally mean “proselytism,” the accusation that Catholics in Russia are soliciting converts from the Orthodox despite officially regarding them as a “sister church.”

It’s a charge that Catholics emphatically reject.

“Let me put it this way,” Kondrusiewicz told NCR. “If we have this policy of proselytism, if it’s the policy of the Vatican, the Holy Father should remove me immediately from Moscow because I’ve not done anything!”

Lapidus, however, ticked off example after example: a church in Novosibirsk that advertised lectures about God and Christianity without identifying the lecturer as a Catholic priest; Spanish nuns who catechized while teaching Spanish; Catholic orphanages where Orthodox children are raised as Catholics.

Trying to establish the truth is an exercise in frustration, given the lack of reliable statistical data on religious adherence. (The Russian census does not ask the question.) Even as basic a piece of information as the number of Russian Catholics is almost anyone’s guess. Official Vatican numbers say there are 600,000, but Kondrusiewicz told NCR it could be as much as 1.5 million, based on polls that say Catholics are 1 percent of the national population.

Yet local Russian Catholics, who conducted a study two years ago by calling all 250 parish priests in Russia and asking them to take a count on Sunday, say the real number is more like 200,000. Even that may be too high, according to sociologist Nikolai Mitrokhin, who directs the Institute of the Study of Religion in the Commonwealth of Independent States and Baltic Countries.

“If you want to talk about really practicing Catholics, meaning going to church at least once a week, it could be as low as 20,000 or 30,000,” Mitrokhin told NCR Aug. 30. “You couldn’t find a single Catholic parish in Russia that draws more than 500 people.”

Perhaps more relevant for the question of proselytism is the number of converts to Catholicism from Russian Orthodoxy. Here, too, the numbers are up for grabs.

Local Catholics say that the same 2002 study found that the number of such converts for the entire decade of the 1990s was a mere 800. Kondrusiewicz agreed: “I’d say in these 13 years [there have been] maybe several hundred,” he said.

Lapidus sees a much bigger phenomenon.

“In Moscow, there are big numbers of converted people from Orthodoxy to Catholicism,” he said. “If we take the data from all Russia, there’s a big number.”

More than 800?

“Yes, of course, more. … In the beginning of the 1990s, they said there were about 300,000 Roman Catholics in the Soviet Union and neighboring countries. Currently, they say now we have over 600,000 Roman Catholics. You should also remember that during the last 20 years many Roman Catholics went back to Germany.”

The growth, Lapidus said, is being driven by converts from Orthodoxy. Mitrokhin, however, said conversions to Catholicism are extremely rare.

Earlier in the year, a special mixed commission was established, composed of three Orthodox priests and three Roman Catholic priests, to look at each allegation of proselytism. It met for the first time in May and will meet again in September.

The second issue that looms large in Orthodox complaints is the Western Ukraine, where following the collapse of Communism many parishes that had been under the aegis of Moscow were claimed by the Greek Catholic church, a 5.5 million strong body that follows Eastern traditions but is loyal to Rome.

The Greek Catholics were suppressed under Stalin, so they went underground, with many members appearing to be regular Orthodox faithful. When they resurfaced in the early 1990s, they took huge chunks of the Orthodox church in Ukraine with them. Since the Western Ukraine supplied one-third to one-half of the vocations and income of the entire Russian Orthodox church, its loss was an enormous blow, from which Catholic/Orthodox relations in some ways have never recovered.

Lapidus was fiercely critical of the Greek Catholics, especially their current push to declare their leader, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, a patriarch.

“The Ukrainian situation may in any moment slip out of control,” Lapidus said. “The Greek Catholic conviction that they should establish a patriarchate at any cost witnesses to a separatist tendency. If they achieve patriarchal status, they may declare their complete independence of any outward authority.”

Lapidus warned that the Greek Catholics are conspiring with two breakaway factions of the Orthodox church to create a pan-Ukrainian national church that will answer to no one, either in Rome or Moscow.

Vatican officials told NCR Sept. 1 that while the project of a Ukrainian patriarchate has been put on hold out of deference to Orthodox sensibilities, they regard the idea of a split from Rome as “fantasy.”

* * *

Russia has always been a rather dreamy place, where reality is perennially subject to reinterpretation. Hence it is perhaps no surprise to learn that the Russian Orthodox, by making the Roman Catholics the object of their complaints about proselytism, seem to be ignoring that the real proselytism on Russian soil these days is coming from the Protestants.

“The most important religious trend in Russia today is the growth of Protestantism,” Mitrokhin said. “I expect that in 25 or 30 years, Russia could become a predominantly Protestant country.”

Even if other analysts aren’t prepared to go quite that far, all agree that the growth has been dramatic. Downtown Moscow is dotted with Protestant churches, and there are small villages in rural Russia where among 150 residents, 50 are Seventh Day Adventists, 50 are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and perhaps 50 are nominally Orthodox.

The top three new religious movements in Russia, according to conventional estimates, are the Pentecostals, the Baptists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. By one count, Protestantism grew throughout the 1990s at a rate of 20 to 25 percent per year. Even if that rate has slowed, growth continues. (It’s not just Russia. According to official statistics issued by the Belorussian government, Pentecostals are now the second largest religious group in the country, surpassing Catholicism, based on the number of registered communities.)

Though reliable figures in Russia are once again difficult to find, by consensus there are some 1 million Protestants in Russia, the vast majority active. Since only about 3 percent of Russians baptized as Orthodox attend church once a year, and only about one-third of that number goes once a week, Mitrokhin says the number of practicing Protestants in Russia may actually be more or less the same as the number of practicing Orthodox.

Protestants are especially present in Siberia, the Far East and the Urals as well as in the major cities. Their congregations tend be unusually young.

The result has been a changed religious landscape.

“In general, the Protestants are more dynamic, they’re moveable, they have new tactics of preaching and communicating with people,” said Alexei Yudin, assistant professor at St. Andrew’s Biblical Theological College and an observer of the religious scene in Russia. Yudin, a Catholic, spoke to NCR Aug. 30.

“They have drive. Catholics and Orthodox prefer to speak to people from the churchyard, because they have a ritualistic mentality. The Protestants meet with people face to face,” Yudin said.

Moreover, Mitrokhin said, they’re good at meat-and-potatoes pastoral care, helping Russian men get off vodka and hold down a job. Often they promote a dress-for-success approach to life that fits well with the new entrepreneurial spirit of Russia.

“If we want to talk about proselytism in Russia, we have to talk about the Protestants,” Mitrokhin said.

* * *

For the most part, however, the Orthodox don’t talk about the Protestants when they complain about proselytism. Why not?

Lapidus provided the official answer.

“From our side, there is no objection to the proselytism by Protestants,” he told NCR. “But we perceive the Catholic church as a sister church, a term which has become common in theological conversation since the Second Vatican Council. The Catholic church started to treat the Orthodox church as a sister church, and that’s how we see them. …. So we have a higher expectation of the Catholics.”

While that response undoubtedly has merit, few observers find it wholly convincing.

Many say that historical resentments in Russia against Poles and Lithuanians is an important factor, especially given that Pope John Paul is Polish and Kondrusiewicz is from a Polish family. More broadly, Rome has been the principal “enemy” of Orthodoxy for so long that, as the saying goes, old habits die hard.

Politically, this view elevates the patriarch of Moscow, who heads a church that at best can claim no more than 200 million followers, to be seen as the main sparring partner of the pope, whose official following is over a billion. Some Orthodox leaders also believe that the growth in Protestantism in Russia is ephemeral, while if the Catholics are allowed to gain a toehold they will be around for the long term.

Orthodox journalist Andrei Zolotov told NCR Aug. 26 that in some ways criticism of the Catholic church is a compliment.

“If tomorrow someone were appointed supreme bishop for the Pentecostals in Russia, few Orthodox would care, because they don’t understand who these people are,” Zolotov said. “With the Catholic church, on the other hand, they understand that this is a real bishop.”

Finally, some observers believe that the recent difficulties in the Western Ukraine, because of their impact on the income and vocations of the Moscow patriarchate, have poisoned the relationship in a way that colors everything else.

Whatever the explanation, the bottom line is that the Russian Orthodox response to the Catholic church seems at times to be influenced by factors beyond rational analysis of the threat it actually poses.

* * *

In turn, this raises the question: To what extent should the mission of Catholicism in Russia be put on hold in an effort to accommodate potentially exaggerated or irrational Orthodox sensibilities? Local Catholics point to ways large and small in which they fear too much ground is being given away.

For one thing, these Catholics note, the Russian Orthodox like to deal directly with the Vatican, almost pretending that the local Catholic community does not exist.

For example, when previous Vatican delegations have come to Russia, Kondrusiewicz has not been invited to take part. This time, he was added to the delegation at midday on Aug. 25, some 36 hours before the flight from Rome arrived. Similarly, when the moment came to present the icon to Alexy, four members of the delegation from the outside ascended the sanctuary: Kasper; Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington; Archbishop Renato Boccardo of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications; and Bishop Brian Farrell from Kasper’s office. Kondrusiewicz remained off to the side.

To add insult to injury, a group of local Catholics had asked to be able to pray in front of the icon in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Friday night, before it was handed over on Saturday. They were told, however, that out of respect for Patriarch Alexy, his should be the first eyes to see the icon. (As things turned out, the first eyes to see the icon in Russia belonged to a young female customs officer who insisted on inspecting it.)

Sensitivity to the Orthodox is pushed to an extreme, local Catholics complain. They say their church is “on hold,” locked into a ghetto made up mostly of Poles, Germans and Lithuanians, because it’s official Vatican policy not to grow.

“We do not take much care of catechism, proper catechism,” one local Catholic leader told NCR. “Worse still, we do not have evangelization at all. Can you imagine a church without evangelization?”

In fairness, there is a Catholic radio program in Russian and a wide variety of Catholic publications, some published by the dioceses and many by religious orders. Still, local observers say these offerings are directed largely to existing Catholics rather than to introducing the church to the broader Russian culture.

Kondrusiewicz denied that sensitivity to the Orthodox is preventing the Catholic church from living its normal life.

“We are preaching the Gospel, we are catechizing children and young people, our commissions are working as they worked before,” he said.

Still, the slow-growth policy seems real. One sign: If a Russian of Orthodox background shows up at a Catholic parish to express interest in joining the Catholic church, nine times out of 10 the priest’s first response, according to local observers, will be: “Why don’t you return to the Orthodox church?”

Similarly, Kondrusiewicz told NCR he is currently concerned that a number of Orthodox young people have expressed an interest in attending the Catholic church’s next World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005. He’s trying to invite Orthodox clergy to attend, lest this seem like “proselytism.”

Another wrinkle is financial. Because of John Paul’s abiding interest in improving relations with the Orthodox, local Catholics sometimes find themselves in the surreal position of watching funds from international Catholic donors flow to Orthodox causes rather than their own. For example, in the coming weeks a delegation from the mammoth German Catholic foundation Renovabis will arrive in Moscow to discuss supporting Orthodox seminaries. The lone Catholic seminary in Russia, meanwhile, struggles to pay the bills.

“The rest of the world must not forget that there are Catholics in this country who need resources,” said Vladimir Merkulov, a Catholic layman who works for the state gas company. “We should not be set aside for the sake of ecumenism.”

All this, of course, raises the question about John Paul’s policy of ecumenical détente: Is it worth it?

* * *

The aims are undeniably lofty.

Defenders say it is the will of Christ that the church be one, hence ecumenism is an indispensable commitment for Christians. Divided Christianity offers a compromised witness to the world, which badly needs its moral and religious message. In Europe, the pressures of secularism and the privatization of religion will only grow, and together Catholics and Orthodox will be better positioned to resist them. The challenges to European cultural identity posed by growing religious pluralism, especially Islam, also might benefit from joint Catholic/Orthodox reflection.

Certainly the architects of the policy understand its cost. Kasper spoke to the local Catholic press before he left, making it explicit.

“I ask the Catholic believers in Russia to sacrifice, to understand that there is no forgiveness, no reconciliation without sacrifice,” Kasper said. “This is the life of the church.”

In its own time, of course, strikingly similar arguments were made in favor of the Ostpolitik of John XXIII and Paul VI with regard to socialism, and that historical debate is far from settled. Defenders believe it lowered international tensions. Among other things, it may have helped avert a nuclear war over Cuba during the missile crisis. Critics, however, say it gave the Soviet system legitimacy at a time religious believers were being brutally oppressed.

The reality is that both arguments may have merit.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 2004

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