Orthodox Unity and the Future of Ecumenical Dialogue

By Jovan Tripkovic

May 1, 2022

Ecumenical Dialogue
Photo Credit: Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

Despite historic advances in Catholic-Orthodox relations, work for unity of Eastern and Western Christianity may be threatened

Since Russia launched a military invasion into Ukraine on February 24, headlines around the world have focused on the atrocities of the war and its negative effects on international relations. Western journalists and theologians rushed to accuse President Putin of destroying the unity of Orthodox Church and dividing global Orthodoxy. However, Orthodox schism had been in the making for years before this latest conflict in Ukraine. Tensions between the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople and Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Patriarchate have a long history, going back decades and even centuries.

Depending on the historical era, the level of hostility between Constantinople and Moscow has varied. In 2018, after the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople’s decision to grant future “autocephaly” (self-governance) to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, antagonism reached an all-time high.

In 2019, during an interview to Greek newspaper Ethnos, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill talked about the split in the Orthodox Church, pointing out differences between Moscow and Constantinople. Orthodox theologians perceived this interview and others to follow as signaling a possible Orthodox divide into two blocs: Greek and Slavic. The Greek camp consists of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, Church of Greece, Church of Cyprus and Patriarchate of Alexandria; the Serbian, Bulgarian and Russian Church head the Slavic bloc.

The twenty-first century Moscow-Constantinople schism will not only affect inter-Orthodox relations, but likely jeopardize more than half a century of slow progress made by both sides of the Roman Catholic-Orthodox dialogue. Unfortunately, the religious aspects of the war in Ukraine, and its consequences on East-West dialogue, have been underreported in Western media.

Schisms in Orthodoxy

The first great schism between the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and Metropolis of Kiev and all Rus’ (the predecessor of the Moscow Patriarchate) occurred in 1467. The cause can be traced to the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438 to 1445), which led to full union of the Ecumenical Patriarchate with the Catholic Church. This schism lasted for almost a century and it marked the first great rift in the Orthodox world.

The second schism between Moscow and Constantinople occurred in 1996. The cause of the split was the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to reestablish the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church as an autonomous church, challenging canonical jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate over Estonia. Fortunately this split lasted for only a couple of months, from February 23 until May 16, 1996.

However, the 1996 schism is very similar to the latest Moscow-Constantinople schism that occurred on October 15, 2018: the Ecumenical Patriarchate decided to grant autocephaly to the newly-formed (by parishes in Ukraine splitting off from the Russian Patriarchate) Ukrainian Orthodox Church. In reply, the Moscow Patriarchate ended full communion with its counterpart in Constantinople. On January 5, 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I formally granted the tomos of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This decision, coupled with the Russian invasion of Ukraine three years later, made the deepening Orthodox schism inevitable – and potentially irreversible in the long run.

An Exceptional Journey

On January 5, 1964, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I and Pope Paul VI met in Jerusalem. After a millennium of silence and hostility between their churches, these two Christian prelates began an exceptional journey to renew relations. Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I jointly revoked the mutual excommunication decrees dating back to 1054. During this historic meeting, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenogoras said “May this meeting of our be the first glimmer of dawn of a shining and holy day in which Christian generations of the future will receive communion in the holy Body and Blood of the Lord from the same chalice, in love, peace and unity, and will praise and glorify the one Lord and Savior of all.”

Since then, both Rome and Constantinople have slowly been developing ecumenical dialogue, deepening their cooperation in many areas, from the discussion of Church doctrine to environmental issues.

The peak of the transformational ecumenical journey was reached during Pope Francis’ December 2- 6, 2021 trip to Cyprus and Greece – characterized by the media as the Pope’s “Orthodox Tour.” At his December 4 meeting with the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Pope Francis apologized to the Orthodox “for the ways Catholics have contributed to division with Orthodox Christians” – a significant breakthrough in Catholic-Orthodox relations.

In seeking to deepen the ecumenical dialogue, the Roman Catholic Church found a responsive counterpart in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which assumed the leadership role among Orthodox Churches in this process. Contrary to Constantinople, the Moscow Patriarchate has not shown a significant initiative to further develop ecumenical cooperation. It seems that the relationship between Rome and Moscow has been mainly initiated by the Roman Pontiff. During his “Orthodox Tour,” Pope Francis even expressed his willingness to travel to Moscow with the hope of meeting his “brother,” Patriarch Kirill.

“We are brothers and we talk straight to each other. We do not dance the minuet,” Francis told reporters aboard his return flight to Rome.

In the first days of the Ukraine conflict, Pope Francis even departed from protocol and made an unprecedented personal visit to the Russian Embassy to the Holy See to express his concern about the war in Ukraine. Then, Pope Francis held a March 16 video conference with Patriarch Kirill, during which he rejected a religious justification for the invasion of Ukraine as a “holy war,” saying, “today we cannot speak like this.”

Consequences for Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue

In an effort to successfully bring East and West together, the Roman Catholic Church has to cooperate and communicate with both Constantinople and Moscow. In the Orthodox world, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has a kind of primacy as “first among equals”; the Moscow Patriarchate is the largest Orthodox Church in the world. Both, however, may shift their attention from Rome to an inter-Orthodox power struggle over canonical jurisdictions around the world.

Earlier this year, the Moscow Patriarchate decided to establish a Patriarchal Exarchate in Africa, which is expected to include 102 clerics of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria. It also exhibits ambitions to establish a Russian Exarchate in Turkey, which would be a direct action against the Ecumenical Patriarchate – deepening the Orthodox schism, possibly for decades.

Then, on March 20, 2022 Metropolitan Ioseb of the Patriarchate of Georgia said during a sermon that “Any Patriarch or Bishop who supports Russia’s actions is a heretic, and has nothing to do with Orthodoxy.” Media reports followed, saying recognition of the Autocephalous Church of Ukraine by the Patriarchate of Georgia is closer than ever.

These unfortunate developments might have long-lasting consequences on the dialogue between Rome and the two primary objects of its ecumenical out- reach to Orthodoxy, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Russian Patriarchate. The Ecumenical Patriarchate could lose its prestige and influence as “first among equals” due to Patriarch Kirill’s canonical territorial expansionism in Africa and potentially in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the Moscow Patriarchate could become isolated from the rest of the Orthodox world, due not only to its expansionist moves in Africa, but also to its unwillingness to participate in the ongoing Pan-Orthodox dialogue and cooperation. For example, the Russian Orthodox Church chose not to participate at the Holy and Great Council of the worldwide Orthodox Church, held in Crete June 19-26, 2016.

Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church might withdraw completely from the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches; already, the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate in 2018 broke off participation in any episcopal assemblies, theological discussions, multilateral commissions, and any other structures that are chaired or co-chaired by representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

An Immeasurable Gap

The Orthodox schism’s enduring consequences, the possibility of a “multi-speed” Ecumenical dialogue (Rome-Constantinople vs. Rome-Moscow) should not be ignored – contributing to an even deeper Orthodox rift. The split would encourage the Ecumenical Patriarchate to accelerate dialogue with Rome, making it a strong ally of the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, as Rome and Constantinople develop closer relations, the Moscow Patriarchate would likely fall behind in the ecumenical dialogue, alienating itself from the progress made by Constantinople. Finally, if Moscow continues on its current trajectory, it would isolate itself from all Pan-Orthodox affairs and cooperation by refusing to participate in joint Pan-Orthodox initiatives. All these factors could combine to create an immeasurable gap in the Christian world.