Union with union in Ukraine: To be or not to be?

The visit of the head of Phanar to Kyiv: is the union with the union postponed? Photo: UOJ

The head of Phanar met in Kyiv with Catholics and Uniates. We are analyzing this event with a view to a possible new union between the OCU and the UGCC.

Now, when several weeks have passed since the departure of the head of Phanar from Ukraine, it’s time to analyze the implications of this visit. There is a reasonable assumption that within the framework of the unification processes between the Phanar and the Vatican in Ukraine, the union between the OCU and the UGCC can be locally "tested". After the visit of Patriarch Bartholomew to Kyiv, it's time to think: did this visit increase the chances of such a scenario or not?

As previously reported, on August 23, 2021, Patriarch Bartholomew met with members of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations. The press release of this event indicated that the meeting took place on the initiative of the head of Phanar, which means that initially he was not invited to this meeting. Whatever it could be, at the meeting Patriarch Bartholomew presented the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) Sviatoslav Shevchuk with a panagia with his own signature and declared "the reciprocal desire of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches to restore unity in communion." In response, he received from the Uniates a set of patriarchal distinctions: a cross, an encolpion and a panagia.

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Patriarch Bartholomew and Sviatoslav Shevchuk. Photo: UGCC

At the same time, S. Shevchuk praised Patriarch Bartholomew profusely. He also voiced his feeling that the head of Phanar “came not only to the Orthodox, but to all Ukrainians, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, or confession”; and that the UGCC is a daughter of the Patriarchate of Constantinople; and that the gift of Patriarch Bartholomew is a recognition of the episcopal dignity of Shevchuk himself and his hierarchs. “For me, this is a symbolic sign that the mother church is attentive to her daughter, while we, as a daughter church, are respectful of our mother church. Panagia is a sign of episcopal dignity. To receive the panagia from the hands of the patriarch is a sign of recognition of episcopal dignity not only for me, but also for the episcopate of our church,” said the head of the UGCC.

If we talk about possible unification of the Phanar and the Vatican, then in addition to the exchange of panagias, the words of Patriarch Bartholomew, said by him in his address to the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, deserve special attention.

“The involvement of the Orthodox Church in the ecumenical movement depended on the desire of other Churches to pull down the walls of mistrust and division. In this regard, a radical and positive turn took place during the Second Vatican Council, when the Roman Catholic Church decided on the fundamental need for rapprochement between Christians, especially with the Orthodox Church. One of the most important events from this decision was, undoubtedly, the historic meeting in Jerusalem of Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in January 1964. In December 1965 a very prophetic gesture was made, and the same two primates jointly decided: as a visible sign of their desire to restore the Eucharistic communion that was broken for centuries would be to simultaneously lift the anathemas of 1054, laying the foundation for the bridge, which we continue to design and build in this century and in the future. The ‘Dialogue of Love’ between the two sisters of the Churches became a ‘dialogue of truth’ with the creation of a joint international commission for theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church as a whole in 1979."

Not only Greek Catholics were present at the meeting of the head of Phanar with the AUCCRO. There were Jews, Armenians, and Protestants, but in his address, Patriarch Bartholomew dwelled only on the dialogue between the Phanar and the Vatican. This can be interpreted as a sign of a special relationship, which is true, since Phanar's ecumenical ties are developing most dynamicallyt with the Vatican in the first line. However, one cannot fail to notice what was missing in Patriarch Bartholomew's address. There was not a single specific message about the future. Mention was made of the meetings of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in the 60s of the last century, there was a mention of a joint international commission on theological dialogue in 1979. But nothing was said about the current state of the "dialogue of love" between the Phanar and the Vatican, and nothing was said about further contacts and prospects.

In addition, within the framework of the visit to Kyiv, there was not a single event attended solely by Patriarch Bartholomew, Sergei (Epiphany) Dumenko and Sviatoslav Shevchuk. It would have been so easy to arrange it, and it would have fit so organically into the program of the visit of "his divine holiness." For example, Patriarch Bartholomew did not visit the cathedral of the UGCC in Kyiv; there was no general prayer service for Ukraine or for the environment (a favorite subject of Patriarch Bartholomew) on the Vladimir Hill. All this could have become a tangible advance on the path of the Phanar-Vatican dialogue, but it did not happen.

In order to understand why, one should take a look at the situation developing today around the Phanar and inside the Vatican.

Phanar and the "OCU" project

Phanar positions itself as the main patriarchy of the Orthodox World, endowed with special powers and making the only correct decisions. The canonicity of these decisions is determined not by their compliance with the canons of the Church, but by how they are assessed by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It was this perspective that pushed Phanar to launch the project of the “Orthodox Church of Ukraine”. It is not so difficult to calculate what the masterminds of the creation of the OCU were counting on.

At the end of 2018, the propagandists of the OCU spoke about ten (and some even more) bishops of the UOC, who allegedly signed a petition to Phanar for autocephaly. The pressure exerted on the bishops by the power structures of the state suggests that Poroshenko undertook to ensure the participation if not of the majority but of a significant number of hierarchs of the UOC in the OCU project. If this could be done, then the so-called unification council of December 15, 2018 could indeed be declared as unifying, and thanks to the wise decisions of Patriarch Bartholomew, it was possible to overcome the Ukrainian church schism and restore the unity of Orthodoxy in our country.

This was to be followed by the recognition of the OCU by the majority of the Local Churches. In turn, such recognition was supposed to push the UOC bishops who refused to come to the "unification council" to eventually join the OCU. Thus, in Ukraine there would be one large OCU and a group of stubborn hierarchs of the “abolished” UOC with their small flock. They could easily be labeled as stupid marginals.

But, as you know, everything turned out exactly the opposite.

  • Only one ruling bishop moved into the schism from the UOC, followed by as few as about 20 priests from his diocese out of almost 300;
  • the schismatics managed to seize about 140 churches, but all the communities remained loyal to the UOC, and most of them have already rebuilt new churches;
  • the “honorary patriarch” Filaret Denisenko left the OCU, and this organization itself is shaken by pecuniary, homosexual and other scandals;
  • After two and a half years of tough diplomatic brainwashing, the OCU was recognized, in addition to Phanar, only by three Local Churches, accompanied by scandals and divisions among the episcopate in each of them.

The OCU project clearly flopped, and instead of the expected triumph, Patriarch Bartholomew is facing the prospect of being brought to canonical responsibility for an attempt to impose the heresy of papism on Orthodoxy and for illegal interference in Ukrainian ecclesiastic affairs.

State of RCC 

The Vatican is now going through hard times. The most indicative marker of the precarious situation in the Vatican was open talk about the possible resignation of Pope Francis, ostensibly for health reasons. In February 2021, Vatican analyst Frédéric Mounier published The Pope Who Wanted to Change the Church work, in which he described the pontificate of Pope Francis. In conclusion, Mounier concluded: “Perhaps Francis has already come all the way. <…> I won't be surprised if the pope resigns in 2021.” Famous Vatican experts Antonio Socchi, Aldo Maria Valli and Marco Tozatti speak about such a possibility in their publications for various outlets. The Libero Quotidiano newspaper, citing unnamed sources in the Vatican, reported that the next conclave, chosen by the next pope, could take place in the very near future. Health problems are cited as the main reason for a possible resignation. Talk of an impending resignation spread so much that Pope Francis himself was forced to refute them. In an interview with Spanish Radio COPE, he stated: "It never crossed my mind ... I don't know where they got this idea that I was preparing to resign." However, as recently as 2015, Pope Francis said that the example of Pope Benedict's resignation should not be considered an exception, and that his own tenure as the head of the Vatican could be short. “I have a feeling that my pontificate will be short: four to five years. I cannot say for sure, but it seems to me that the Lord did not put me in this place forever,” Pope Francis said then.

However, the state of health can only be a pretext, rather than the actual reason for a possible resignation. The reason may be the recent heightened struggle between conventional modernists and conventional conservatives in the Vatican. This struggle is so irreconcilable that some think-tanks are now talking about a split in the Catholic Church itself. The conventional front-runner of this schism is the Catholic Church of Germany, whose clergy, with some exceptions, advocates such innovations as the recognition of LGBT people, same-sex unions, female priesthood, the right to abortion and euthanasia. Thus, the famous Roman expert on the Vatican, Aldo Maria Valli, expressed the opinion that the structures of the Catholic Church in Germany had already actually separated from the Vatican, since the synod of German bishops, without looking on the Vatican, adopted some resolutions that can be interpreted as approving the clergy to get married, women to obtain the priestly title, and blessing of same-sex unions.

Aldo Maria quotes Cardinal Walter Brandmüller on this topic, who said: "There is no split so far, because no one has officially announced it yet, but it has already occurred at the very core, in deeds." Indeed, this seems to be the case, since on the one hand, we have the German cardinal Reinhard Marx, who publicly declared: "Gays of the whole world, I bless you." On the other hand, we have the Vatican conservatives, who secured the adoption of the Doctrine of the Faith by the Congregation, according to which "it is unacceptable to give blessings to same-sex unions, since marriage is an inseparable union of a man and a woman, concluded for the birth of a new life." This definition came in for harsh criticism by the Catholic bishops of Germany and Austria. There were even statements it would not be implemented.

In May 2021, Cardinal Reinhard Marks submitted a letter of resignation to Pope Francis due to numerous incidents of sexual assault by clergy. “I want to be clear: I am willing to take personal responsibility not only for my own mistakes, but also for the church as an institution I have contributed to over the decades,” Cardinal Marx wrote. Indeed, in the Bishopric of Cologne alone, an official investigation has identified 314 victims and 202 rapists in recent decades. But a sex scandal can only be a pretext. Cardinal Marx filed his resignation shortly after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith definition, cited above, prohibiting blessing of same-sex couples. Thus, Cardinal Marx put Pope Francis before a choice: who does he support – the German modernists or the Vatican conservatives? Pope Francis did not accept the resignation of Cardinal Marx. However, the Pope also cannot go against the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this stalemate situation, the most acceptable for Pope Francis may be resignation, or at least a retreat from the active leadership of the Catholic Church. On top of that one can add financial scandals in the Vatican, for example, the case of embezzlement of more than 300 million euros in connection with the sale and purchase of the former building of the Harrods department store in central London and many others, accusations of Francis of paganism due to the sensational worship of the "pachamama” idol in the Vatican and so on.

What's next?

Therefore, given the ongoing situation with both the Vatican and the Phanar, such cardinal steps as the "restoration" of Eucharistic communion or any other forms of unification seem inappropriate. The Vatican is well aware that it is one thing to unite with the entire Orthodox World, and another thing to unite with the Phanar, which represents only itself. The latter is too small-time for the Vatican. The promotion of the latter option now, when the Phanar is facing a confrontation with the Local Churches (representing the overwhelming majority of Orthodox believers in the world) means that the possibility of any serious ecumenical contacts with these Local Churches will be closed for the Vatican for a very long time. In addition, pedaling unification with the Phanar will entail another factor of division for the actually split Vatican.

On the other hand, both the Phanar and the Vatican have already designated the 1700th anniversary of the First Ecumenical Council, which Christians will celebrate in 4 years as the date of notable advancements in the unification of the two Christian confessions. In other words, if the Phanar and the Vatican nevertheless decide to unite by this date, then they need to hurry up, since time is running out. The coming years promise to be very engaging in this regard; very soon the true intentions of both Rome and Constantinople will transpire. So far, the visit of Patriarch Bartholomew has shown that it is impossible to say with certainty that the OCU and the UGCC will unite in some form in the near future, although such an option cannot be completely ruled out. Rather, one can assume some kind of cooperation between these religious organizations, for example, in the field of education, chaplaincy and others.

However, one thing can be asserted now: if it were not for the resilience of the UOC, its episcopate, clergy and believers, we would be witnessing the rampant ecumenism in Ukraine now. But this is not a reason to rest on our laurels, but rather an incentive to be firm in our Orthodox faith withstanding temptations down the road, of which, apparently, there will be a lot more.

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