Recently, Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church met in the city of Havana, Cuba, in order to develop and issue a new ecumenical declaration regarding the future relations between these two churches. The purpose of the present sample essay provided by Ultius is to discuss the significance of this declaration within the context of religious history and the contemporary global situation. The essay will have four main parts.
- The first part will discuss the relevant background historical context regarding the two churches.
- The second part will consider the statements contained within the declaration itself.
- The third part will describe the relevance of this declaration is light of the current global political situation.
- The fourth part will reflect on the implications of the declaration both for the future of the Catholic Church and relations between different religious groups upon the planet.
Christianity’s role in the Ecumenical Declaration
During the time of Jesus of Nazareth himself, there were of course no separate churches of the Christian faith; there was only Jesus himself and his followers. As MacCullough has made clear, however, internal divisions emerged within Christianity almost immediately in the aftermath of Jesus’s death, with initial divisions centering on the extent to which it stayed rooted in Jewish tradition and the extent to which it would pursue an innovative and more Greek course.
These divisions only expanded exponentially over time, with new churches being begun as a result of a strange confluence of both geopolitical considerations on the one hand and sincere theological convictions on the other. In the modern world today, of course, there are countless denominations of Christianity, with at least some of these churches not even recognizing other churches as being really and truly Christian at all.
One of the most important breaks in the history of Christendom consisted of the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, which can be traced to the event known as the Great Schism of 1054. Superficially, this was driven by theological disagreements regarding the observation of religious rituals, including the question of whether those rituals should be conducted in the Latin or the Greek language.
Further down, however, the real conflict had to do with deep questions regarding the autonomy of different churches within Christendom and the proper jurisdiction of the Latin pope. This conflict progressed and got worse over time; and as Whalen has indicated:
“On 16 July 1054, after a series of acrimonious debates, the legates deposited a bull of excommunication against Kerullarios [the Greek patriarch] and his supporters on the high alter of the Hagia Sophia” (1).
This marked the historical divorce of the Western and Eastern Churches within Christendom—a split that has by and large persisted into the present day.
In the modern United States, it would seem that few people really know a great deal about the nature of the Eastern Church. What may be much more familiar, rather, is the Protestant rebellion against and reformation of the Catholic Church that was generated first and foremost by Martin Luther; and this is for the obvious historical reason that the United States itself was founded by Protestants who were in search of religious liberty (MacCullough). .
The Eastern Church, however, was and remains an enormous force within Christendom as a whole. Indeed, the very fact that Americans tend to know little about this Church would itself seem to be a kind of evidence testifying to how significant the break between the Western Latin and Eastern Greek Church actually was, and the extent to which this rupture has persisted over time.
Statements the Ecumenical Declaration
Within the historical context delineated above, the recent ecumenical declaration released by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill from the city of Havana can only be understood as a stunning step forward in relations between the Western and Eastern Churches. As Winfield has indicated:
“In the 30-point statement, the two leaders declared themselves ready to take all necessary measures to overcome their historical differences, saying ‘we are not competitors, but brothers'” (paragraph 5).
This is, clearly, a wholesale reversal from the kind of logic that initially led to the Great Schism between the two Churches almost an entire millennium ago. The meeting itself occurred in Cuba due to the fact that that nation is far removed from the regions of Europe in which the conflict between the two Churches has historically played out, as well as the fact that the nation is familiar to both Roman Catholics and Russian Christians, albeit for different reasons.
It is worth pointing out, for the sake of clarity, that Patriarch Kirill is not the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church as such, but rather just its Russian constituency. However, that constituency is still a major one, and the reconciliation of Francis and Kirill clearly opens doors for further such reconciliations to occur in the future.
This said, however, it is also worth observing some of the problematic aspects of the recent ecumenical declaration. Weigel has summarized the matter in the following way:
“The relationship between the bishop of Rome and the patriarch of Moscow is quite asymmetrical. This was evident in Havana, when, at their joint public meeting, Patriarch Kirill spoke the language of the world and Pope Francis spoke the language of the Gospel. This asymmetry reflects the long subordination of the Moscow patriarchate to state power” (paragraph 7).
In other words, there is some concern that from the perspective of the Eastern Church, the ecumenical declaration was more of a political gambit designed to achieve pragmatic ends than a real furtherance of the religious cause of Christian brotherhood.
From the perspective of Pope Francis and the Western Church, however, the ecumenical declaration cannot be understood as a case of merely political compromise or capitulation. As Gaetan has put the matter:
“Pope Francis is determined to position the Catholic Church as a neutral interlocutor, balanced with regard to the worldviews of West vs. East, South vs. North. . . . This independent outlook is based on the Holy See’s view that Western culture is fundamentally Christian and thus stretches from Europe east to Eurasia and west to North and South America” (paragraph 18).
Francis, then, is really attempting to work at the cultural, trans-political level, bringing together Christians in accordance with a more radical understanding of what it even means to belong to the faith. This approach would seem to be congruent with the Gospel itself, which, while implicitly political, first and foremost focuses on a realm of human experience that is utterly irreducible to the merely political level.
How the Ecumenical Declaration relates to the current global situation
One key catalyst that has driven the increased cooperation of the Western and Eastern Churches has surely consisted of the rise of radical Islamist movements in the Middle East, and especially the quasi-state organization known as ISIS. ISIS has adopted a concerted policy of committing atrocities against Christians living in the Middle East. As Zaimov has unfortunately been compelled to write:
“The United States Department of State has detailed in its International Religious Freedom report what one described as ‘unimaginable horrors’ Christians are facing at the hands of the Islamic State terror group, including beheadings and kidnappings” (paragraph 1).
This is a level of barbarity and religious persecution that, until the rise of ISIS, most people in the modern world may have optimistically believed had not been present on the face of the planet since the Middle Ages.
In this context, it is entirely understandable that Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, and their respective Churches, would have felt moved to acknowledge that relative to the geopolitical and religious threat presented by ISIS and related groups in the contemporary world, the differences that resulted in the split of Christendom almost a millennium ago are becoming of lesser and lesser relevance.
In the face of the common enemy of ISIS and Islamic radicalism, the Western and Eastern Churches could only see each other as natural allies. This is true at both the political level, where ISIS has emerged as a threat against all of Christian civilization, as well as the religious level, where both Churches can only condemn the doctrines of ISIS has fundamentally incompatible with almost any meaningful interpretation of the Christian Gospel. Zylstra ha elaborated on this matter in the following way:
“While the two historic halves of the church [the Eastern and the Western] disagree on many matters . . . the violence against Christians in the Middle East was compelling enough to persuade Kirill to consent to a meeting that Francis has pursued” (paragraph 7).
In the same article, Francis is quoted as suggesting that as the enemies of Christendom do not care about the specific denomination of any given Christian but instead will just persecute him qua his status as a Christian, it would be absurd for various Christians themselves to insist too heavily on the differences that they perceive to divide them against each other.
Of course, this is a pragmatic judgment that may gloss over real theological disagreements. The deeper point, though, may be that given the state of the world today, people in general and Christians in particular no longer have the luxury of ignoring pragmatic realities in the name of relatively arcane and abstract points of disagreement at the theological level.
Implications for the Future
The recent ecumenical declaration released by Francis and Kirill clearly bodes well for the project of unifying Christendom as a whole. Again, the Great Schism occurred almost a full millennium ago, but it has had ongoing consequences over the course of history; and within this context, it could only be suggested that the recent declaration is a clear example of the leaders of Christendom moving toward healing this rift.
In itself, this is worth celebrating, and it also suggests that similar unification efforts will continue in the future, especially as long as Francis remains the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Francis has a clear policy of building bridges between different people groups as opposed to cultivating antagonisms between them, and there is no reason to think that he will reverse this outlook anytime soon.
On the other hand, however, one should maintain caution about the extent to which the unification implied by the ecumenical declaration is a true one at the level of conviction and principle, and to what extent it is merely a pragmatic alliance that may well degenerate in the future after the common threat of enemies such as ISIS has passed. In particular, it is perhaps worth reflecting on the fact that even within any single given denomination of the myriad denominations of Christianity, it can be very difficult to determine who is and is not in fact a truly practicing Christian. At least as the level of personal morality and fidelity to the spirit of the Gospel.
In other words, it is one things for self-identified Christians to be brought together at the political level of the material world; but it may be another for them to brought together at the level of what the Gospel itself identifies as the Kingdom of Heaven. For the time being, however, pragmatic alliance is nevertheless surely a goal worth pursuing in itself.
Blog Image: “Pope to Russian patriarch: ‘We are brothers.’” Nation/World. The Catholic Sun. 13 Feb. 2016. http://www.catholicsun.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/20160212T1802-2139-CNS-POPE-PATRIARCH-CUBA.jpg
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. 2011. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Penguin.
Gaetan, Victor. “Five Insights about Today’s Pope Francis–Patriarch Kirill Meeting.” National Catholic Register. 12 Feb. 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2016. http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/five-insights-about-todays-pope-francis-patriarch-kirill-meeting.
Weigel, George. “Testing ‘Brotherhood’: Next Steps for the Vatican and Russian Orthodoxy.” National Review. 19 Feb. 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2016. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/431561/pope-francis-patriarch-kirill-catholicism-russian-orthodoxys-new-relationship.
Whalen, Brett. “Rethinking the Schism of 1054: Authority, Heresy, and the Latin Rite.” Traditio. 62 (2007): 1-24. Print.
Winfield, Nicole. “‘Finally:’ Pope Meets Russian Orthodox Leader.” Associated Press. 12 Feb. 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2016. http://hosted2.ap.org/APDEFAULT/3d281c11a96b4ad082fe88aa0db04305/Article_2016-02-12-LT-Pope-Patriarch/id-381b8a36edc44dbcac77b012187e4fa0.
Zaimov, Stoyan. “‘Unimaginable Horrors’ Detailed in US Report on ISIS’ Persecution of Christians.” Christian Post. 4 Nov. 2015. Web. 28 Feb. 2016. http://www.christianpost.com/news/isis-christian-persecution-religious-freedom-report-us-state-department-149173.
Zylstra, Sarah Eekhoff. “Why Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill Made Christian History in Cuba.” Christianity Today, 11 Feb. 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2016. http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/february/why-pope-francis-patriarch-kirill-cuba-catholic-orthodox.html.