The announcement of the two-hour meeting to be held between Pope Francis and Patriarch of Moscow Kirill on Friday in Cuba has brought a lot of excitement—along with some criticism over Francis’s decision to have the meeting at all. There are three basic lines of critique.
First, there’s the political-diplomatic dimension of the meeting. The pope is going to meet the leader of a church that is seen more and more as part of the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin and an ideological support for his neo-imperial foreign policy. This criticism stresses the risks to Francis’s credibility, especially if considering the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in supporting Putin’s military actions in Syria and in Ukraine. (Kirill was, however, more cautious about Ukraine, given the potential consequences of the loss of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine for inter-Orthodox relations between Moscow and Kiev).
Second, there’s the internal politics of the Orthodox churches, in light not only of the historical rivalries between Moscow and Constantinople for supremacy within Eastern Orthodoxy, but also of the upcoming Great Synod of the Orthodox Churches on the Greek island of Crete in June. Some see Francis as naïve in regard as to how the patriarchate of Moscow could use the meeting to assert a new supremacy at a critical time for the future of the Orthodox churches. Here too the war in Ukraine factors into the equation.
Third, there’s the ecumenical dimension of the meeting. The Russian Orthodox Church has been far less engaged in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church than the patriarch of Constantinople has; in agreeing to meet with Kirill, Francis is accused of sitting at the table with a leader who has not shown the minimum amount of ecumenical spirit required to start a conversation with the pope.
Francis is a risk-taker, and this meeting certainly involves risks.
His diplomatic and ecumenical activity is part of his emphasis on mercy, as the editor of Civiltà Cattolica, Antonio Spadaro SJ, explains in the current issue. In this decision especially Francis is taking risks at several levels: with those Catholics and westerners who believe in isolating Putin’s Russia, with those non-Russian Orthodox Christians who believe in keeping some distance from the patriarchate of Moscow, and with Eastern Catholics who see the war in Ukraine and Russian Orthodoxy’s posture in it as telling of the deep intentions of Kirill and his men. These sentiments must be respected and not underestimated. But it must also be said that the long-term view has always governed the ecumenical and diplomatic activity of the Holy See, and that sometimes the perspective on events is better from a distance. (This was the case with the U.S. presidential election of 1928, which the Vatican was content to watch from afar, with the long view in mind, despite the presence on the ballot of Al Smith, who of course was crushed.)
Moreover, a look at recent history allows some optimism about the future of ecumenical relations between Rome and Moscow. If we go back just half a century, we see a similar kind of criticism over John XXIII’s receiving in audience Rada Nikitichna—the daughter of Nikita Khrushchev—and her husband, the journalist Alexandr Adjoubei, in 1963; they were the first Soviet citizens admitted in the Vatican since the Russian revolution of 1917. John XXIII’s audience with them not only faced resistance from Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani of the Holy Office; it also was met with a deafening silence from the semi-official Vatican voice La Civiltà Cattolica, and the refusal of the Secretariat of State to issue a press release. This unprecedented move for a pope in the midst of the Cold War functioned as a public statement from John XXIII about the engagement of the church in the Vatican “Ostpolitik” that would ultimately lead it to Helsinki in 1975, where the Soviet Union would sign the treaty on human rights, partly due to the diplomatic leverage of the Vatican.
Whatever the concerns over Francis’s “naïveté,” it is important to remember that Russia has always been a key player in getting the whole Eastern Orthodox Church on board with ecumenical initiatives of the Catholic Church. Only the sudden and unexpected decisions of the Holy Synod of Moscow, on the eve of Vatican II in October 1962, to accept an invitation to send “observers” to Rome, eventually moved many other Orthodox churches to send their own (including the patriarch of Constantinople).
Finally, as to the “lack” of the ecumenical maturity of the Russian Orthodox Church leader who is meeting Francis in a few days, it is wise to recall when the Catholic Church was considered an ecumenical pariah. At an important meeting of the World Council of Churches in Rhodes in August 1959, Catholic observers were officially present merely as “journalists,” because they were not allowed to meet with non-Catholics in ecumenical events. One of the issues on the table for the relationship between Catholics and the WCC was religious liberty. Concern over the dire state of Catholic theology on crucial ecumenical issues, such as religious freedom, stand out in the pages of the diary of monsignor Johannes Willebrands: “Visser’t Hooft [secretary general of the WCC, 1938-1966] brings up the topic of religious liberty. We don’t have a paper for this. The commission responsible for this theme is still working on the subject.” The Roman Catholic Church debated ecumenism and religious liberty a few years later at Vatican II: the decree Unitatis Redintegratio on ecumenism was approved by Vatican II on November 21, 1964, and the declaration Dignitatis Humanae was approved on December 7, 1965, the day before the council concluded.
The history of Vatican “Ostpolitik” in the second half of the 20th century is part of a historiographical work still in progress, if not just beginning; to be honest, historians in Western Europe (myself included, when I worked in the field) and Eastern Europe have different interpretations of the accomplishments of Vatican diplomacy with Communists in Eastern Europe and Russia. (This is not just a concern for academia; it is relevant for the Vatican’s opening to China now.) But there is no question that the Vatican’s opening to Russia was an integral part of the ecumenical engagement of the Catholic Church in the years immediately before, during, and after Vatican II. Pope Francis is part of this legacy; it is in this context that his decision to meet Kirill needs to be understood.