09/11/2018, 19.48
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Orthodoxy’s age-old controversy over primacy

by Stefano Caprio*

The Moscow Patriarchate has rejected any discussion over the decision-making power in the Church and insists on the untouchability of the principle of "canonical territory" whereby everyone is master in their own home.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – Moscow's resentful reaction to the appointment of two patriarchal exarchs sent by Constantinople to the Ukraine is not just another chapter in a medieval-themed saga. The issue has been building up for months between Constantinople, Moscow and Kyiv. This is a direct and explicit expression of one of the most serious controversies in the history of the Church, that of primacy, or to put it in more secular terms, who gets to decide in the Church.

In the past decade, attempts have been made several times to restart a general reflection on this matter at various international ecumenical meetings. On 13 October 2007, the Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church released a paper on Communion, Conciliarity and Authority, which proposed a triple look at of how authority is exercised in the Church at local, regional, and universal levels. The aim was to avoid focusing the discussion only on the subject of the Roman papacy, which has been a source of schisms and disagreements during the second Christian millennium.

Known as the Ravenna document, the declaration is still in limbo because of the refusal of the Russian delegation to sign it for fear of "extending to the Eastern Church the western principle of papism", as the head of the delegation of Moscow, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), put it. The recent controversy over Ukrainian autocephaly is further evidence that the Russian aversion was not based only on matters of principle but also on very concrete factors.

Restarting the discussion over primacy has proved impossible so far, even at the level of the simple review and study of the testimonies and texts of the first millennium of the united Church that Greek members of the Joint Commission had proposed. The Russian Orthodox Church insisted on the untouchability of the notion of "canonical territory" whereby each Church is master in her own house, and on the need to move ecumenical contacts to charity and culture, avoiding dogmatic and ecclesiological questions.

The Russians have always considered Ukraine as part of their "canonical territory", despite the post-communist split, which gave rise to an independent nation that had never existed before. The areas that are part of today's Ukrainian republic have always been indeterminate and disputed since the times of the Mongol invasion (13th century), fought over by the Kingdom of Lithuania-Poland and Muscovite Russia for almost five centuries (15th-18th centuries). The imperial policies of Peter the Great and Catherine II finally subdued the lands on the two banks of the Dnieper, dismembering the Polish state piecemeal.

The dream of an independent Ukraine was reborn in the mid-19th century, inspired by the words of the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, who was confined in Siberia for this reason, visiting his native land only twice. The very nature of the inhabitants of this land, called by its many masters with different names (Volhynia, Galicia, Little Russia are the best known), has been one of an irrepressible thirst for freedom and independence, like that of the Cossacks, the true fathers of modern Ukraine. In the end though, the famous Ataman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who in the middle of the 17th century created the first movement for Ukrainian autonomy, ended up delivering the land to the tsar in order to free it from the yoke of the Polish king.

Even at the Church level, tensions go back as far as the ancient kingdom of Kyivan Rus', founded in 988 by Prince Vladimir who was baptised according to Byzantine rite. His son Jaroslav the Wise, thirty years later, was the first to appoint a local metropolitan, without waiting for the office holder to be sent from Constantinople. Several times the Ecumenical Patriarchate, even after it came under the Ottoman yoke, had to re-establish its primacy over Kyiv and Moscow. The last Greek to hold a see was Metropolitan Isidore of Kyiv, who in 1439 signed the bull of union with the Pope of Rome at the Council of Florence. When he returned to Moscow, he was immediately thrown in jail and then expelled by the tsar. Since then, Moscow has rejected any subordination to the Greeks.

The Union of Brest of 1596, which brought Orthodox Ukrainians back into communion with Roman, was a response to the proclamation of the Patriarchate of Moscow in 1589, extorted from Constantinople by quite "unorthodox" methods. Eventually, by the end of the 17th century, the jurisdiction of Kyiv was placed under the control of the Muscovite patriarch, and it is to this precedent that Kirill is appealing today in his opposition to Bartholomew.

The "war of the patriarchs" seems to back the Roman doctrine of the absolute primacy of the only pontiff, as the only way to avoid certain divisions. Yet the current pope, Francis, is trying in various ways to enhance the autonomy of local Churches, considering Roman absolutism a legacy of a past that must be in part forsaken. Perhaps the great struggle for Ukraine will lead to a heart-breaking new schism of the Church in the East, something the Russians dread, or it could become the basis for a renewal in the communion of the whole universal Church.

* Professor of History of Russian Philosophy at the Pontifical Oriental Institute

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