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While Catholicism has been embroiled in a crisis of sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance reaching to the highest levels of the Church, Eastern Orthodoxy may be on the verge of an epic crack-up with major ecumenical and geopolitical consequences.

There are three competing Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine today. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is in full communion with, and subordinate to, the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow. Then there are two breakaways from Moscow: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. This tripartite fracture is a scandal, an obstacle to re-evangelizing a broken culture, and an impediment to ecumenism.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople has indicated that it is considering a proposal to recognize the autocephaly, or independence from Moscow, of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, should the contending Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine restore unity. The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has responded with fury, dropping references to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople from its liturgy. And its international mouthpiece, Metropolitan Hilarion, issued an overwrought statement contending that “the war of the Patriarchate of Constantinople against Moscow [has continued] for almost a hundred years.” Hilarion also charged that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is first-among-equals in Orthodox Christianity, had not supported the Moscow Patriarchate during decades of Soviet persecution—an ironic allegation, given that the man to whom Hilarion reports, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, was an old KGB hand back in the day.

What’s going on here? Several things.

First, the Moscow Patriarchate is terrified. Should a reunited Ukrainian Orthodoxy be recognized by Constantinople as “autocephalous” and therefore not subordinate to Russian Orthodoxy, Moscow’s claim to be the “third Rome” would be gravely imperiled. Russian Orthodoxy would shrink drastically by the loss of the large Orthodox population in Ukraine, and the Moscow Patriarchate’s claim to a kind of de facto hegemony in the Orthodox world would be badly damaged.

Second, Russian Orthodoxy, continuing a long, unhappy tradition of playing chaplain-to-the-czar (whatever form he takes), has provided putatively religious buttressing for Vladimir Putin’s claim that there is a single Russkiy mir (“Russian world” or “Russian space”), which includes Ukraine and Belarus. And in that “space,” Ukrainians and Belarussians are little brothers of the Russians, the true inheritors of the baptism of the eastern Slavs in 988. That is a falsification of history. Yet it has underwritten Russian imperial claims for centuries, and it continues to do so today.

A reunited and independent Ukrainian Orthodoxy centered on Kyiv (site in 988 of the baptism of Prince Vladimir and the tribes that eventually became Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarussians) would empirically falsify what serious historians have long known is a dishonest narrative. Moscow and Russia are not the sole inheritors of the baptism of the eastern Slavs, and Russian imperial claims (like those that have underwritten the invasion and annexation of Crimea and the Russian-sponsored war in eastern Ukraine) rest on a false story. Thus, both Russian Orthodoxy and President Putin would be major losers, should Ukrainian Orthodoxy reunite and be recognized as independent by Constantinople. That is why Metropolitan Hilarion is taking a harsh line with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. That is also why Putin is likely encouraging his new friend, President Erdogan of Turkey, to turns the screws on Bartholomew, whose presence in Istanbul (the former Constantinople) depends on Turkish governmental goodwill. For Putin knows that his attempt to recreate something like the old Soviet Union, which has capitalized on the “Russian world” ideology, could implode.

Russian Orthodox clergy have charged that efforts to reunite Ukrainian Orthodoxy and grant it autocephaly are a Roman plot. That should concentrate some minds at the Vatican. The 2016 Havana Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill was supposed to inaugurate a new era of ecumenical cooperation between Rome and Moscow. Yet as soon as Moscow feels pressured, the Vatican bogeyman is trotted out and vilified. Those of us who judged the Havana Declaration ill advised two years ago ought not take any satisfaction in having been right; but those who wouldn’t listen then should think again about making deals with agents of Russian state power.

Nothing is certain in this Ukrainian drama, given Ukrainian Orthodox fractiousness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s relatively weak position, and the unhelpful involvement of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. The stakes, however, are high indeed.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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