Too soon for a patriarchate?

29 May 2019, 12:53 | Andrew Sorokowski's column | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Andrew Sorokowski

…the Kyivan patriarchate envisioned in the 1620s was conceived as a joint Uniate-Orthodox entity, remaining in communion with both Rome and Constantinople. Forces on both sides sank this ambitious dream. Could it be revived today?

Last year the Vatican Nuncio in Kyiv, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, predicted a “surprise for Ukraine.” That surprise may be revealed at a meeting in Rome this coming 5-6 July between Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (UGCC) Major Archbishop Sviatoslav (Shevchuk) with his Permanent Synod and metropolitans on the one hand, and Pope Francis, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity Cardinal Kurt Koch, and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Luis Ladaria on the other.

What issues could lie on the agenda of a meeting between the UGCC hierarchy, the Pope, and the Vatican officials responsible for foreign relations, the Eastern Catholic Churches, ecumenism, and doctrine? In view of the latter two areas of responsibility, Orthodox relations seem likely to come up.

In a recent article, Andrea Gagliarducci mentions three “dreams” of the Greek-Catholics that might be discussed at this meeting (“Papa Francesco e Chiesa Greco Cattolica Ucraina, personaggi e teme del prossimo incontro,” Aci Stampa, 20 May 2019). These are a UGCC patriarchate, the beatification of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, and a papal visit to Ukraine.

A visit by Pope Francis to Ukraine could follow the settlement of the other issues. The Sheptytsky beatification would complete a decades-long process, though it might still require overcoming resistance from Polish quarters. A Greek-Catholic patriarchate would similarly crown persistent efforts undertaken by Major Archbishop Josyf Cardinal Slipyj (1892-1984) after his arrival from the Soviet Gulag in Rome in 1963 and continued by his successors.

It is here, however, that Orthodox concerns appear. Josyf Slipyj’s struggle against the resistance of Vatican diplomats and ecumenists deferring to Russian Orthodox objections to his requests is well known. Moscow’s opposition was motivated by both political and ecclesiological considerations -- the inadmissibility of a Ukrainian “Uniate” church formally based on Soviet territory, which in religious matters the state had reserved for the Russian Orthodox Church, and the prohibition of a rival patriarchate on the “canonical territory” of the Patriarchate of Moscow. Even when the Roman canonists’ objections had been overcome with the legalization of the UGCC on its home territory in 1989 and the completion of its internal structure (a permanent synod and a patriarchal curia), Russian Orthodox disapproval apparently remained influential. Thus, despite the “maturity” of the UGCC in terms of ecclesial self-consciousness and identity, the Holy See has not seen fit to grant or recognize its patriarchal status.   

Today, the creation by the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) of a new, canonical Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) independent of Moscow, and the split in the Orthodox world occasioned by Moscow’s defiance of that decision, would seem to remove some of the obstacles to the creation of a UGCC patriarchate. After all, the independent Ukrainian Orthodox are more amenable to ecumenical relations with the Ukrainian Catholics than the Moscow Patriarchate, which refuses to recognize the former and only grudgingly acknowledges the existence of the latter. Thus, the newly autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox might be willing to countenance an upgrade in the status of their Catholic co-nationals. Will a Greco-Catholic Patriarchate be the surprise that Nuncio Gugerotti predicted?

And yet, the Ukrainian Orthodox might not be all that enthused with the idea. OCU head Epifanii (Dumenko) is only a metropolitan, and as such could understandably oppose a full-fledged “Uniate” patriarchate in Kyiv. Even without the complications posed by Honorary Patriarch Filaret’s views on the status of the Kyivan see, the prospect of a UGCC Patriarchate of Kyiv and Halych would likely meet with Ukrainian Orthodox resistance. It could also annoy the Ecumenical Patriarchate and chill its potentially warmer relations with the Catholic Church.

In fact, the Kyivan patriarchate envisioned in the 1620s was conceived as a joint Uniate-Orthodox entity, remaining in communion with both Rome and Constantinople. Forces on both sides sank this ambitious dream. Could it be revived today? The Orthodox would object to a merely local union, concluded without the assent of all the Orthodox churches. Yet as a limited experiment, conducted by agreement between Rome and Constantinople, would it gravely harm the interests of either? Ukraine, after all, has served as a “laboratory of ecumenism” before. And both Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew are bold innovators. Moreover, a gradual strategy of such piccoli passi – “small steps” – to the reunification of the Eastern and Western Churches might be more realistic than the utopian expectation of a single grand amalgamation of the entire Catholic and all the Orthodox Churches.  

Such a long-term perspective, however, would require the Catholic side to put the UGCC patriarchate on hold. This might not be fair, for the struggle has been long and the conditions have been met. The UGCC would merely be joining the half-dozen Eastern Catholic churches (out of less than two dozen) that have long enjoyed patriarchal status. Doesn’t the Church of the Martyrs deserve this reward?

Yet the Greco-Catholics might be well advised to consult with their Ukrainian Orthodox brethren before taking such a step. Roman ecumenists, too, might discuss it with their Greek partners in Istanbul. Such measures would not constitute false or excessive deference to the Orthodox, but ecumenical prudence. Given the broader considerations, to proclaim a Greco-Catholic patriarchate without prior consultation with Kyiv and Constantinople might be imprudent -- if not impudent.

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