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To feel the full historical weight of Russian attitudes toward the Roman Catholic Church one should see the 1938 film Aleksandr Nevski —the Stalinist take on medieval Russia’s triumph over the Teutonic Knights. The film demonizes Roman Catholicism as inherently alien and hostile to Russia, and also as an integral part of German imperialism. Though many Russians now have more nuanced views, most still have trouble with the concept of Christianity as a universal faith: deep down they don’t believe that a Catholic can ever be truly Russian, or a German (or American) truly Orthodox.

Even Russians friendly to Rome see it as essentially other, essentially un-Russian—indeed, that is precisely what attracts them to it. Certain elements of the Russian intelligentsia tend to romanticize the West, including both Western modernism and Western fundamentalism. In some Orthodox parishes in Moscow, both liberal Episcopalians and conservative Southern Baptists can count on a warm welcome merely because they come from America. Sometimes simplistically, such Russians associate both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism with democracy, capitalism, and the Western way of life in general. In a sense they agree with their xenophobic countrymen who depict the Vatican as the spiritual counterpart of McDonald’s. Not surprisingly, every word that these Westernizers speak in support of Catholics infuriates the xenophobes all the more.

Many Roman Catholics in Western Europe and America want to reach out to the Orthodox Church in the hope of finding reinforcements for the traditionalist wing within their own confession. They would be unpleasantly surprised to find that in Russia it is not the traditionalist Orthodox clergy who are most drawn to Rome but the progressives: the tiny minority most sympathetic to the World Council of Churches, radical liturgical reforms, and modernist views on issues such as birth control. What the progressives hope to see is just what the traditionalist Orthodox fear: that a reunion of Eastern and Western Christianity would not reverse modernism in the West but simply spread it to the East. They may well be right.

Such theological concerns, however, are not the most formidable obstacles to the Vatican in Russia. For most Russians, anti-Catholicism is primarily a matter of cultural identity; in the national psyche anti-Catholic feeling is much more deeply rooted than hostility to Protestantism. Though doctrinal disagreements with Protestants are manifestly wider than with Roman Catholics, Russians are not obsessed with memories of their wars against Protestant powers such as Sweden. The seventeenth-century Polish occupation of Moscow, by contrast, absorbs them as if it had happened just last week. Like Protestants in Victorian England commemorating the defeat of the Spanish Armada, they recall the Polish invasion as an attack on their entire civilization—both political and religious. Many view such episodes as the Pope’s recent “virtual visit” to Moscow by television as a resumption of that invasion by other means. (The greatest advantage that John Paul II’s successor will have over him in dealing with Russia is that presumably he will not be Polish.)

Opinion surveys consistently find that about half of ethnic Russians identify themselves as “Orthodox Christians,” though only about five percent regularly attend church services. (The ethnic Polish, Lithuanian, and German minorities within the Russian Federation are similarly lax in their practice of Roman Catholicism.) The Russian Orthodox Church thus faces a standing temptation to pander to the politics of ethnic identity. When I lived in Moscow in the 1990s, Orthodox anti-abortion leaders seriously debated whether it would taint their movement to allow Roman Catholics and Protestants to join. (The right side won, narrowly.)

In a conversation some years ago with an Orthodox bishop who must remain anonymous, I suggested a thought experiment. Suppose the Pope were to have a sudden epiphany and decide to surrender to us Orthodox on all the doctrinal issues that divide East and West, including the filioque and papal infallibility. What would be the Moscow Patriarchate’s response? It did not take long for us both to agree that the Patriarchate would simply find some new excuse to keep the Vatican at arm’s length. As a human, political institution, the Patriarchate needs Rome more as an enemy than as a friend.

That political reality is the real cause of the Moscow Patriarchate’s neglect of profound theological disagreements on matters such as the Holy Trinity and its deliberate inflaming of petty irritants. For the last decade, Patriarch Aleksi and his inner circle have denounced every Roman Catholic advance in Russia as an act of “proselytism”—one of the most overused words in current religious writing—even if the filioquists are merely recovering what the Soviet regime stole from them. The Patriarchate has constructed a historical myth according to which Russia was always a purely Orthodox country, with Roman Catholics to be found only in the diplomatic circles of Moscow or St. Petersburg.

This myth ignores such stubborn realities as the unmistakably Western-style church buildings of cities like Irkutsk in the heart of Siberia—built by the local Polish community in the nineteenth century. There were actually more such Western churches in pre-Soviet Russia—serving local minorities of Poles, Lithuanians, and Germans—than there are today after a full decade of alleged “spiritual invasion.” The great majority of “new” Roman congregations within today’s Russian Federation are restorations of parishes that existed in 1917. The others are in towns such as Magadan that either did not exist or did not have significant minorities of Western Christians before the mass exiles of the Soviet years. As one Moscow Catholic told me, “The real founder of Catholicism in Siberia was Stalin.”

The Vatican’s decision earlier this year to create a normal administrative structure in Russia, upgrading its four “apostolic administrations” to full-fledged dioceses, brought a predictably sharp reaction from the Moscow Patriarchate and its allies within the Russian government. In the most dramatic of several episodes, on April 19, 2002 Bishop Jerzy Mazur of the east-Siberian diocese was abruptly expelled from the country; as of mid-July he still had not been allowed to return from Warsaw. Overall, it is fair to say that relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church are now at their lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At the end of June the Moscow Patriarchate issued a long document making rather specific charges about Roman Catholic “proselytism” in Russia. In a sense these new accusations represent a kind of progress; at least the Patriarchate now feels obliged to come up with concrete examples of alleged excesses rather than sweepingly declaring that the very presence of Roman Catholics on Russian soil is illegitimate. To what extent the charges are accurate remains to be seen. If it is true, for example, that some Roman Catholic orders have been preaching to captive audiences in the state school system, or running orphanages in Russia that deliberately try to convert children previously raised as practicing Orthodox Christians, then they are guilty of violating the Vatican’s own statements about interconfessional relations.

What makes it difficult to judge such accusations is the Moscow Patriarchate’s absurdly broad use of the word “proselytism,” under which it often includes any Western missionary efforts directed at anyone of ethnic Russian ancestry even if that person has never set foot in an Orthodox church. The Patriarchate even employs the term to denounce Protestant missionaries seeking to Christianize Uzbek and Tatar Muslims—which is what the Russian Orthodox Church itself used to do back in the nineteenth century when it had a genuine missionary vision. In effect, the Patriarchate’s defense of so-called “traditional religions” has now become a defense of only those religious organizations willing to collaborate with the state. Placing politics over theology, the Patriarchate favors such religious organizations not only over newcomers such as the Mormons, but also over independent-minded indigenous Christians such as the Old Believers or the unregistered initsiativniki Baptists.

On the Roman Catholic side, the difficulty is that the Vatican must take account of different internal constituencies with competing agendas. In Europe, including Russia itself, most Roman Catholics agree with their man in Moscow, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz: Russia is not to be regarded as a mission country, the lead in evangelizing its people properly belongs to the Orthodox Church, and Rome should not try to win converts from among those Russians who are already committed, practicing Orthodox Christians. But many of the American supporters of Roman Catholic work in Russia are as eager as their Protestant countrymen to achieve “the conversion of Russia.” The Moscow Patriarchate’s crude overreactions, such as its attempts to deny even basic freedom to religious minorities, have made it easier in the short run for Rome to satisfy both of these internal factions. In the long run, however, one or the other is going to be disappointed.

This summer saw an escalating war of words between the Patriarchate and the Roman Catholics, conducted largely through the secular media. Again this represents a kind of progress: the setting forth of specific complaints and demands, even when highly polemical, at least provides material for analysis, discussion, and perhaps an eventual return to real dialogue. The Western side of this debate accuses the Russian Orthodox of a double standard—of trying to keep Roman Catholic dioceses out of Russia even while the Moscow Patriarchate maintains bishops in places such as Berlin and London.

The accusation is largely valid, but the double standard is not quite as blatant as one might think. The Moscow Patriarchate has made it unmistakably clear that it regards its parishes in the West as enclaves to serve Slavic émigrés, not as missionary parishes working to recall Western Europe to its first-millennium Orthodox roots. (For example, it recently named not a westerner but a Moscow ecclesiastical bureaucrat to be its newest bishop in the United Kingdom.) From the standpoint of many Western converts to Orthodoxy, the Patriarchate’s position is scandalous—in effect declaring that the Orthodox faith is the peculiar property of the Russians, not a world religion.

Another benefit of the current debate is that it marks the end of a romantic illusion—the naive belief that reunion between the Orthodox Church and Rome was just around the corner. In pursuit of this illusion the Vatican was too willing to appease the Moscow Patriarchate, for example by failing to defend vigorously the rights of its own faithful. One danger now is that Rome may swing to the opposite extreme, cultivating good relations with Vladimir Putin at the expense of its relations with Patriarch Aleksi. Putin has far more political skills than the Patriarch and his circle, but he has no real interest in Roman Catholicism or in Orthodoxy except as levers of political manipulation. Even when the Russian state is presenting a more civilized face than the Russian Church, the Vatican should remember that its most important dialogue in the long run is with the latter.

Lawrence Uzzell has written about religious freedom in the Soviet Union and its successor states since the 1980s for, successively, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, and the Oxford-based Keston Institute.

Image by Sardaka licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.