Cardinal Walter Kasper, a papal emissary, is visiting Moscow on the invitation of Russian Catholic bishops. The top Vatican official is attending a jubilee conference dedicated to the 40th anniversary of a famous decree adopted at Vatican II. The document, referred to as Unitatatis Redinteratio by theologians, calls for an energetic dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and other faiths.
However, the conference is more of a pretext for the cardinal's visit. Kasper's true mission is to discuss a very serious issue with the Moscow Patriarchy. The issue is whether or not a solution can be found to the deep crisis plaguing relations between the world's two largest churches. Cardinal Kasper, the head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, is due to meet Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church's foreign relations department, on Thursday.
Catholic Rome and Orthodox Moscow have never been particularly close. But the earlier estrangement has recently transformed into more obvious hostility, which often emerges into the open. Cardinal Kasper could see if there really is such little hope of restoring the dialogue between the two branches of Christianity. In fact, the hope almost died in February 2002, when the Vatican decided to raise the status of catholic missions in Russia without even informing the Russian Orthodox Church. The so-called apostolic administrations, then temporary missions, were immediately elevated to full bishoprics. According to the Moscow Patriarchate, Russia was treated like yet another Western country, and not a traditional realm of Orthodoxy.
Catholic Rome's demarche in this country was perceived as pure proselytising, i.e., an unworthy attempt to convert the parishioners of a national Church, and on its own historic land, too.
In parallel with the 'brain drain,' the Vatican was accused of instigating a 'soul drain' from the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Russian Church does not even censure proselytes, its priests explain. An individual is free to choose any God, and faiths have the right to compete. The problem is the arrogance Vatican shows in promoting Catholicism here in Russia.
"We are not afraid that another Church might 'steal' a group of our parishioners," explained Father Igor Vyzhanov, representative of the Moscow Patriarchate's foreign relations department. "The problem is different. What we object to is that it is being done without respect for the rights of the Russian Orthodox Church, as if Orthodoxy doesn't exist in Russia now, and has not existed here for centuries."
Another bone of contention between the two Churches concerns tensions around the Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church in Ukraine. Its members have been planning to establish their own Greek Catholic Patriarchate in Kiev for several decades, and they want the Vatican to give its blessing.
The Moscow Patriarchate has a highly negative view on this idea, because it is fraught with new conflicts between Catholics and Orthodox Christians worldwide, who could otherwise worship Jesus Christ in unison.
The Russian Church still remembers the Brest Union of 1596, which subordinated the Orthodox churches of Poland and Lithuania to the Vatican. The Pontifical Throne, Russian theologians maintain, has been repeating attempts to spread its spiritual dominion over Ukrainians, Belarussians and Russians ever since, to impede their cultural development and even enslave them.
The Moscow Patriarchate is apparently wary of any new attempt by the Vatican to take advantage of the USSR's disintegration and repeat the experiment in the post-Soviet republics, first of all Ukraine.
In this sense, Cardinal Kasper took a risky step prior to his Moscow visit by presenting a memorandum on the establishment of a Uniate Patriarchate in Ukraine. It could well make his talks with Metropolitan Kirill more complicated.
The Metropolitan is armed with a host of arguments against the establishment of a Greek Catholic Patriarchate in Ukraine. Indeed, the heads of the Orthodox Church in many countries supplied him with some after receiving Kasper's memorandum.
His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, for example, responded that the creation of "a Uniate Patriarchate in Ukraine will be seen as a highly hostile act [directed] against the entire Orthodox world."
Many theologians point out that even Vatican II concluded, "The Uniate religion is no longer regarded as a way to achieve a union between the two Churches." Therefore, the idea Cardinal Kasper is bringing to Moscow today is seen by local Orthodox heads as "a way of proselytising and stealing of souls, which cannot be allowed between Christians."
The Moscow talks, to be more precise, the informal routine meetings between the Catholic cardinal and the Orthodox metropolitan, will be extremely difficult. It is still unknown whether Patriarch Alexy II of All Russia will agree to receive the Vatican's messengers, as he is out of Moscow. "The possibility of such a meeting is being considered," Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's international relations department, told RIA Novosti.
However, the fact that the silence has been broken is an optimistic sign. In the face of new evils threatening all of humanity, the Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches do not believe they can renounce dialogue.