Nicholas E. Denysenko: The Possibilities of the ‘Joint Declaration’: Dreams or Illusions?

Like many other Orthodox Christians, I tuned in to the historic meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill which took place in Havana on Friday, February 12. In the short time since the meeting, I have read diverse assessments of the meeting. In response to requests for official comments, Church leaders from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America have welcomed the meeting and its ensuing declaration as an occasion for celebration, a mark of significant progress in continuity with decades of ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Some observers view the meeting as a victory for Pope Francis, the realization of a dream that gained momentum with the ecumenical impetus of Vatican II. The Pope himself apparently exclaimed “finally!” in reacting to the news of Patriarch Kirill’s agreement to meet him in Havana. Commentators knowledgeable about the history and implementation of Patriarch Kirill’s Russkii Mir initiative believe that the Vatican is ignoring a geopolitical strategic move to exploit the good intentions of the Pope and spin the text of the declaration to fit the agenda and position of the Russian federation on Russia’s military campaign in Syria and its continued denials of arming rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Others wonder if Pope Francis hoodwinked Patriarch Kirill by persuading him to hold the meeting and issue a statement which carefully avoided explicit accusations. Patriarch Kirill’s signature on the declaration denotes his commitment to ongoing dialogue with the Catholic Church and a common witness to resolving matters with international implications. Perhaps the most vocal critiques of the meeting and declaration are emerging from the embattled Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church. Pope Francis’s public position on the war in Ukraine has not been supportive of the UGCC, and the texts of the declaration pertaining to Ukraine both avoid implication and merely support the UGCC’s right to exist.

In the coming days and weeks, fresh assessments of the meeting and the declaration are sure to emerge. My own assessment will neither declare winners and losers nor render a final verdict on the meeting and its statement. I will instead focus on the primary parties who were the subjects of discussion in the statement and weigh the declaration’s capacity to impact these parties in light of the actual pastoral initiatives of the Vatican and Moscow Patriarchate. Allow me to offer my congratulations to both Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, along with their assistants, for holding the meeting and issuing a joint declaration: I support the meeting as a major achievement for contemporary ecumenical dialogue. However, the meeting’s ultimate success depends on a series of actions which must occur as a result of the meeting. In the remainder of this essay, I will iterate the necessary actions and discuss the capacity of the respective parties to inaugurate and support them pastorally. The primary parties who would be impacted by a hypothetical Catholic-Orthodox initiative are Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, Christians in Russia, citizens of Europe, and Greek Catholic and Orthodox in Ukraine. Here are the necessary actions, with an assessment following each proposed action:

1. To restore Christian communities in the Middle East, provide for refugees, and end the religiously motivated violence in the Middle East, Catholics and Orthodox must partner with governmental and non-governmental agencies in assisting refugees and displaced persons. Furthermore, Catholics and Orthodox must learn how to engage interreligious dialogue together, especially with Islamic leaders. To gain the trust of Middle Eastern populations, Catholics and Orthodox must lead organized efforts to care for Christians and Muslims who have been victimized by the violence in the Middle East.

The points concerning the plight of Christians in the Middle East were not surprising. Both Catholic and Orthodox Churches have expressed grave concern on the speedy and violent eradication of ancient Christian communities from the Middle East. The traditional presence and activity of Orthodox Churches in these areas establishes Orthodoxy as a natural conversation partner as a Church with roots in Syria and Egypt. Of course, the Church of Rome has made remarkable ecumenical progress in the twentieth century in taking steps towards re-establishing communion with the estranged Churches of the East, particularly the Chaldean and Assyrian churches. The Church of Rome leans on its experiences from the legacy of Unitatis Redintegratio of Vatican II, and in the time that has elapsed since this declaration, the Roman commitment to ecumenical dialogue, especially its willingness to recognize and affirm aspects of churchliness in the smaller Churches of the East, has gained momentum despite occasional internal resistance to theological language and customs that are not native to Rome. Furthermore, the Church of Rome also has a mandate for interreligious dialogue ignited by Nostra Aetate, which provides for the possibility of studying Islamic history and theology in Catholic universities, in addition to the work of existing dialogues. On this point, the Orthodox Church can only benefit from a joint ecumenical collaboration with the Church of Rome, because the Roman Church has made significant progress in learning how to dialogue with representatives of religious traditions without rehabilitating the bellicose and polemical language of the medieval era. In October 2015, Father Vsevolod Chaplin, then-spokesperson of the Moscow Patriarchate, referred to Russia’s military campaign in Syria as a “holy war.” The deliberate use of such hot-button language has no place in interreligious dialogue at the global level, so Orthodox can rely upon the updated approach of the Roman Church in this regard. Adopting this approach does not, of course, require the Roman and Orthodox Churches to abdicate their doctrinal positions: ecumenical and interreligious dialogue is at its best when dialogue partners meet the others as they are, without necessitating the abandonment of theological tenets.

Of greater significance for the survival and restoration of Christian communities in the Middle East is the willingness of the Churches to provide humanitarian assistance to all of those afflicted by the violence. The leading organizations of both the Roman and Orthodox Churches provide support to refugees, including not only shelter and food, but also education, healthcare, and economic recovery. CARITAS already has a working relationship with both Catholic and Orthodox Churches on the ground, and also coordinates humanitarian relief with Shia and Sunni organizations. The ecclesial infrastructures are already in place to begin the process of restoring Christian communities. A meaningful gesture for interreligious dialogue with an impact surpassing the publication of documents would be for Catholic and Orthodox relief services to provide humanitarian aid for Middle Eastern Christians and Muslims. A common and consistent commitment to building homes, providing food, shelter, education, and healthcare to all of those afflicted – including Muslims – would confirm the Catholic and Orthodox desire for interreligious dialogue. CARITAS and the IOCC are assisting all refugees; this gesture of interreligious humanitarian philanthropy should shape the words of documents stating ecclesial positions on relations with other religions. Such an elevated interreligious witness would also speak strongly to the general mandate of no. 13: “Attempts to justify criminal acts with religious slogans are altogether unacceptable.”

In sum, this objective can be actualized with the adoption of a more irenic approach to interreligious dialogue supported by tangible gestures of hospitality extended to all by offering relief to people of all religious backgrounds. A witness to a decrease in the use of polemical language justifying war and an increase in humanitarian aid would build global confidence in the capacity of the declaration to contribute to the common good.

2. To ensure the continuation of a Christian rebirth in Russia of the post-Soviet period, the burden of responsibility falls on the Moscow Patriarchate to evangelize its citizenry effectively, which requires gaining the trust of a disinterested people. The Patriarch of Moscow should exploit the ecclesiological strength of Orthodoxy and refocus his efforts on pastoral initiatives for a local Church, which would require him and his assistants to abandon the international aspirations of the Russkii Mir initiative.

The joint declaration rejoices in the “unprecedented renewal of Christian faith in Russia” and other countries of Eastern Europe which had been dominated by atheism (no. 14). It would be morally irresponsible to deny the grace of God which sustained believers through the persecution and outright hatred of Christianity perpetrated during the period of the Soviet Union. Without a doubt, the continued existence of the Churches, their proclamation of the Gospel and evangelization of the people is an occasion worthy of joy.

It would be equally irresponsible to deny the problems and challenges confronting the Churches in the post-Soviet period. The sheer size of the Moscow Patriarchate and its international character suggest a prominence which is not manifested by the active participation of the Russian populace in the life of the Church. Like many countries in the world, Russia is afflicted by the apathy of the faithful, who come to the Church for special holidays, marriage, and Baptism. The Church’s response to the populace’s apathy has been the creation of a document outlining its social values, titled the Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church (2000). The Moscow Patriarchate also launched a pastoral initiative called the Russkii Mir (Russian World), a global civilization championing holiness manifest in the multinational structure of the Patriarchate itself. Patriarch Kirill is considered to be the architect of this pastoral initiative, as he essentially defined it in two speeches he delivered to the Russian Fund of the Russian World in 2009 and 2010. The core peoples of the Russian World are Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, though anyone of any nationality can belong to the Patriarchate, as long as they embrace its core values, which are (again) located in the Basis of the Social Concept document.

The problem with this initiative is its geopolitical overtones, which seem to align with a political aspiration to reconstitute some kind of multinational empire located in Moscow. Also problematic is the ideological accent of the initiative, which situates the sacred peoples of the Russian World against the external threats posed by globalization. Since defining the contours of the initiative, Patriarch Kirill has essentially inaugurated the process of implementation, and one of the core countries, Ukraine, has mightily resisted it. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that the initiative is contributing to the transformation of Russian society itself. Unfortunately, Russian society remains crippled by the same moral ambiguity gripping much of the rest of the world, manifest by human catastrophes such as high rates of divorce and human trafficking.

The joint declaration adds a layer of assurance for Patriarch Kirill that the Moscow Patriarchate is not alone in its quest to effectively evangelize the people. The church of Rome has attempted to equip the local Churches to evangelize more effectively since the promulgation of Lumen Gentium at Vatican II, especially by emphasizing episcopal collegiality and synodality. Despite periods of obvious Roman centralization, Pope Francis’ papal tenure discloses a newfound commitment to synodality in the Roman Church, which only empowers local Churches to evangelize in the linguistic and cultural idioms of their regions and nations.

The joint declaration offers the Moscow Patriarchate a golden opportunity to set aside its international aspirations and downsize to intensify its focus on evangelizing the Russian people. This initiative would require Patriarch Kirill to trust in the ecumenical alliances he has built, in addition to the considerable influence he wields within global Orthodoxy. The allocation of many more pastoral resources to Russia can only enhance the attempt to change the course of the Church in the post-Soviet era, which has plateaued, at best. This strategy will be effective only if Patriarch Kirill and his assistance shift their emphasis from an international focus to a local one, which also requires trust and fraternal confidence in the Church of Rome and the sister Orthodox Churches to engage their ministries with love.      

3. In response to the common and oft-repeated complaint of Catholic and Orthodox leaders on the evils of secularism, Church leaders should concentrate their efforts on coming to know their own people, especially the challenges they face in ordinary daily life. In an attempt to invite global citizens to commit to eternal life in the kingdom of God, the leaders should abandon the important strategy of opposing secularism as an abstract entity inherently opposed to Christianity, and instead attempt to engage secularism in a dialogue.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Christian leaders across the globe have bemoaned the rise of secularism and the ease with which Christian people embrace it. A common Christian view of secularism is that it diminishes Christianity and establishes a false equivalence between Christianity and all other religion, creeds, and even principles. Secularism also demands a separation of Church and state Paragraph no. 15 of the declaration sets its sight squarely on secularism and its ill effect on Christian freedom:

In particular, we observe that the transformation of some countries into secularized societies, estranged from all reference to God and to his truth, constitutes a grave threat to religious freedom. It is a source of concern for us that there is a current curtailment of the rights of Christians, if not their outright discrimination, when certain political forces, guided by an often very aggressive secularist ideology, seek to relegate them to the margins of public life.

Furthermore, the sequence of the declaration seems to blame Europe for its promotion of secularism. Frustration with the process of European integration and its threat to religious freedoms is the topic of the very next paragraph, no. 16. In fact, Europe is the only entity implicated in any negative way in the entire document. The notion that Christian leaders perceive a false equivalence between all religions is manifest in no. 16’s appeal to Europe to “remain faithful to its Christian roots.”

The Churches lament on the steep decline of participation in the life of the Church blames secularism, but does not engage related aspects of the dialogue. First, while the document refers to a European soul shaped by “two-thousand years of Christian tradition,” it does not take into account academic studies referring to apathy among Christians beginning as early as the fourth century. In other words, the document presumes that Christian faith was vibrant in Europe solely on account of the continent’s Christian privilege, the affiliation of Church and state during the medieval age. Furthermore, the document does not account for the global nature of contemporary life: people are now more literate and mobile than ever before, and secularism permits choice, which means that another church, temple, mosque, religious community, or unnamed alternative can be selected in place of a Christian church. Prior to modernity, one’s religious community of choice was shaped by social standing and mobility: for Christians, this often resulted in walking to the church nearest one’s home. The emergence of a spiritual marketplace where people have the right to exercise choice offers the appearance of muting Christianity, especially if that choice results in selecting no Christian community at all.

For Christian leaders, the illumination of secularism as the enemy to be opposed exposes an evangelism bereft of creative energy. The proper approach to assessing Christianity’s place in a secular world is manifold, and it has two key components. First, Christians should consider the alternative of state-sponsored churches. The Moscow Patriarchate in particular can attest to the grave drawbacks of a Church functioning as an organ of a state, with cautionary tales emerging both from the Petrine era of the synodal Church (1725-1917), and the close control of the Church employed by the Soviet regime. Freedom from state control results in the loss of state privilege, but it also frees one from the political woes of a state and permits the Church to adopt a prophetic office, especially one that illuminates the woeful conditions endured by local orphans and widows. The second negative result of blaming secularism for the loss of religious freedom comes from false pride. Most of the joint declaration avoids implication, even though the Pope and patriarch could have explicitly blamed ISIL and Russia for causing the humanitarian crises in Syria and Ukraine. The decision to implicate secularism suggests that these religious leaders will continue to oppose secularism and have not paused to account for their own flaws which contribute to decreased participation in Church life. History shows that attempts to evoke spiritual awakenings are usually far-fetched; the war against secularism cannot be won because it is fought against an abstract principle. The Orthodox theologian Davor Džalto aptly illuminates the potential drawbacks of Orthodox variations of Christian empires, which tend to promote theocracies in place of secular political-social structures (“Nationalism, Statism, and Orthodoxy,” SVTQ 57 [2013]: 515-16). Džalto suggests that such efforts tend to result in the secularization of the Church itself, in which the Church tries to “sanctify the entire social and political sphere,” thereby abandoning “the everlasting otherness of the Church.”

The Pope and Patriarch would fare much better were they to focus on constructing Churches which will serve as influential bodies within secularized societies. This approach demands that religious leaders admit their own flaws and confess remorse for the sinful surd which permeates various layers of Church life instead of laying all of the blame on secularism. The pope has demonstrated his willingness to model humility in his pastoral ministry, so the natural next step is to perform an honest self-assessment and ask how the Church of Rome has created its own problems. The Orthodox spiritual tradition offers infinite methods to discover humility; in his new alliance with the Church of Rome, Patriarch Kirill might find that people are more attentive when he admits his and his Church’s errors and expresses remorse for them.      

4. To contribute to a lasting peace in Ukrainian society and in its Churches, Catholic and Orthodox leaders should cease the medieval practice of preventing dissident groups from dialoguing with the official Church, which would permit the Greek Catholic and Kievan Patriarchates to participate in all dialogues concerning the people. Furthermore, because the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the authentic mother Church for all Orthodox and Catholics in Ukraine, the Pope and Russian Patriarch should defer first to the actual local Churches in determining the next steps, and second, should honor the principle of synodality privileged by Orthodoxy and gaining momentum in the Roman Catholic world.     

Much of the response from Ukrainian quarters has been expressions of disappointment. Greek Catholics are dismayed that they are called ecclesial communities and have a right to exist, but there is no discussion of mission. The adherents of the Kievan Patriarchate demonstrate their respect for the declaration, and ask why they are not permitted representation? They also refer to the existing Ukrainian structure of the All-Ukrainian Organization of Churches and Religious Institutions, which attempts to address societal matters univocally.

The Moscow Patriarchate has been hampered by the Ukrainian issue since 1918, when the All-Ukrainian Council in Kiev voted for autonomy and disregarded ecclesial Ukrainization. Moscow’s consistent response to the organic movement for Ukrainian autocephaly has been to delegitimize it by distinguishing the Ukrainians who aspire for autocephaly from the so-called canonical Church. Most of global Orthodoxy has supported Moscow’s position on the Ukrainians, though this has changed in recent years, especially when the Ecumenical patriarchate received diaspora Ukrainians into the Church in 1990 and 1995, respectively.

The Havana meeting itself exposed the primary problem afflicting the Roman and Muscovite approaches to Ukraine: the Greek-Catholic and pro-autocephalist Orthodox voices have no recourse to present their own cases to the respective Church bodies. The only options for these two Churches, which reportedly have the support of the majority of the people of Ukraine, is to issue statements responding to the declaration, which results in an unfortunate cycle of narrative and counternarrative.

The Catholic Church has altered its approach to dialogue by meeting with previously alienated Churches since Vatican II. In the history of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, the pro-autocephaly cohorts have been excluded from international gatherings, and one learns about them only through the narrative of the Moscow Patriarchate. This retention of the medieval practice of alienation and isolation violates the spirit of conciliatory ecumenical dialogue.  In orthodox Ukraine, the ever-memorable Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan) (2014), facilitated the creation of dialogue between the dissident Orthodox Churches with the Moscow Patriarchate. A restoration of this spirit of conciliatory dialogue would elevate the public profiles of the larger Churches, which will demonstrate a commitment to meeting with dissident groups. As mentioned above, face-to-face dialogue coheres with the spirit of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue; it does not demand the abandonment of one’s position.

In this instance, both Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill would be wise to consider the consequences of continuing their exclusion of these groups from dialogues concerning the lives of their own flocks in war-afflicted Ukraine. Excluding minority religious groups from dialogue for canonical reasons – and they are dubious in this case – only breeds more alienation and isolation. Only good can emerge from the spiritual decision to honor the image of God in the other, and the best way to convey one’s veneration of the divine image in the other is to meet him or her, face-to-face. The Havana meeting itself modeled this mutual veneration: it could become an archetype for reconciliation among the Churches in Ukraine.

In this essay, I have imagined the steps Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill must take for their joint declaration to have tangible results. I have referred to areas where the two Church traditions might complement one another in achieving the objectives. Presently, the joint declaration itself offers a dream of a new epoch of ecumenical and interreligious cooperation with the capacity to make a substantial contribution to the common good. The meeting was historic, but it will only become an academic footnote if it is not followed by devoted action, and the dream will quickly morph into an illusion. The declaration establishes principles for a beginning, but concrete action is now needed to demonstrate real ecumenical progress and a new alliance between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches with the participation of the Moscow Patriarchate. What is needed is transformed hearts on the parts of these religious leaders who must be willing to exercise their ministries with love for humankind, and not power. The ultimate verdict on the 2016 Havana Meeting depends on their willingness to embody the principles of the declaration and convert them into action. I offer these four actions as a potential blueprint for adoption.


Nicholas E. Denysenko is an associate professor of Theological Studies and director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, and is deacon at St. Innocent Orthodox Church in Tarzana, California.

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