Q&A With Serbian Ambassador Darko Tanaskovic On Catholic-Orthodox Relations

By Jovan Tripkovic

March 1, 2022

Darko Tanaskovic
Photo Credit: Darko Tanaskovic. Photo courtesy of Tanaskovic

Darko Tanaskovic is a Serbian university professor of Oriental studies, writer, translator and diplomat. He served as an ambassador of Serbia to Turkey, Azerbaijan, the Holy See and Sovereign Military Order of Malta, and UNESCO and is a prominent figure in the political and cultural life of Serbia.

In addition to his diplomatic service in the Vatican, Tanaskovic is regarded in Serbia as an expert on Turkey due to his extensive research of neo-Ottomanism, the Turkish foreign policy doctrine. During his ambassadorship at UNESCO, he was an instrumental figure in preventing the unilaterally declared state of Kosovo from becoming a full-fledged member of that organization, due to organized massacres of Serbs and destruction of Orthodox Christian heritage sites in 2004 in that province.

During his successful academic career, Tanaskovic wrote over 600 scientific works and articles. He has been awarded the Order of Saint Sava by the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Order of Pope Pius IX, the highest order conferred by the Holy See.

ReligionUnplugged.com interviewed Tanaskovic to understand the role of diplomacy at the Vatican and the potential for further Catholic-Orthodox cooperation. This interview occurred before Russia launched a full-scale invasion into Ukraine.

Jovan Tripkovic: From 2002 until 2008, you were the ambassador to the Holy See. You represented Serbia, an Orthodox Christian country. Can you tell me, what were the main takeaways for you during your ambassadorship in the Vatican?

Darko Tanaskovic: Diplomatic service at the Holy See is very different from diplomatic activity in bilateral relations with other countries or in multilateral sphere of international affairs. This difference stems from the dual entity of the Holy See, which is at the same time the world “capital” of Catholicism and a state with full international legal subjectivity. Many important areas of diplomatic activity in the structure of bilateral relations — such as “classical” politics, economy, security and consular affairs — simply do not exist in international relations with the Holy See. I had an opportunity to meet several extraordinary and experienced diplomats from certain countries who were not very successful in the Vatican because they did not understand the specific nature of papal diplomacy.

On the other hand, the diplomatic service at the Holy See is a real professional and life gift which brings many valuable insights and knowledge about the most important issues of the modern world. The Vatican is a unique diplomatic observatory. There is a lot to find out and learn if a diplomat is ready to fully engage in all fields that are open to him and to dedicate himself to what one of my colleagues happily christened “cerebral diplomacy.” The diplomatic service of the State Secretariat of the Holy See is rightly considered one of the best in the world. The Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, which trains Vatican diplomats, was founded in 1701. The fact that it is called “ecclesiastical” and not “diplomatic” indicates that the priority of Vatican diplomacy is ecclesiastical, not political. The Holy See is interested — very competently interested — in politics, with the aim of achieving the most favorable position and social environment of … Catholic churches and faithful communities in the countries where they live and work. Diplomacy is part of the mission of the Catholic Church!

I represented the Orthodox country and people towards whom the Holy See did not have, to put it mildly, a benevolent attitude during a significant part of history. However, during six years of my diplomatic service, I did not feel at any point reservations from Vatican diplomats towards me.

JT: Did you find the Catholic Church and its diplomacy to be reserved towards you as an ambassador of Orthodox country?

DT: Quite the contrary! The officers of the State Secretariat of the Holy See are dedicated to foreign affairs and characterized by a highly professional diplomatic approach. I even had the honor of being a member of the preparatory committee of a scientific conference in Vienna on the Ottoman campaign in Europe, organized by the Pontifical Committee for Historical Science. My involvement in this conference was by no means a very unusual act of trust placed in a foreign ambassador.

JT: In addition to theological differences, there are political issues that are presenting significant issues in the dialogue between the two churches. Is the dialogue dominated by theological or political disagreements?

DT: As an insufficiently informed layman, I am not called to give reliable judgments on the issue of interchurch relations. Therefore, in this conversation I will only talk about my assumptions and impressions. Dialogue between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Holy See are mostly based on vital and practical issues related to the position of the Catholic Church and Catholics in Serbia, their coexistence in religiously mixed communities and the government’s attitude towards churches and religious communities in general. Taking this into consideration, the interest of most churches and religious communities coincide in many aspects, such as religious teaching in public schools, religious service in the military, restitution of property nationalized after World War II, the social status of clergy and the enactment of laws affecting some important ethical issues.

In these areas, churches and religious communities achieved successful cooperation, working jointly (with) the government. The Serbian Orthodox Church has a political interest in the relationship with the Vatican. Same as the Republic of Serbia, the Serbian Orthodox Church is trying to influence the Holy See to maintain its position of nonrecognition of unilaterally declared independence of “Kosovo.” The Serbian Church uses its authority with the Catholic Church in Croatia to improve the difficult position of the Orthodox Serb minority.

Theological issues are rarely discussed! There is little chance that doctrinal differences between Orthodox and Catholic interpretations of certain dogmas will be mitigated, relativized or overcome. This is the truth for the Catholic-Orthodox relationship and ecumenical dialogue in general. However, there are attempts to openly discuss controversial issues, and that is why theological dialogue cannot be considered closed.

There is also the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Bishop Irinej (Bulovic) of Backa is a member on behalf of the Serbian Orthodox Church. If you truly want to, there is always something to talk about — without the intention to convince at all costs the other side of the correctness of your position. I will tell you an exceptional example of this. In 2003, the delegation of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church visited the Holy See in order to sign the cooperation agreement between the Serbian Church and the Pontifical Lateran University. During this visit, the late Metropolitan Amfilohije (Radovic) of Montenegro and the Littoral and Bishop Irinej of Backa had a very delicate theological discussion that included the meaning of papal primacy, with then the prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the later Pope Benedict XVI. After the meeting, Cardinal Ratzinger expressed regret that there was no more time for this conversation and said that he was looking forward to its continuation in Belgrade, where he was supposed to travel at the end of the same year. In the meantime, he became pope.

JT: What are the biggest contemporary separation points between East and West, and what is the common ground for both churches? 

DT: The answer to this question is beyond my competence and the limited scope of this conversation. First of all, it would be necessary to define what is meant in this case by “East” and “West.” There are general definitions that can refer to all sorts of phenomena. If, as I suppose, we have in mind the field of ecumenical Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, then I would say that events from the past, experiences and perceptions based on them, as well as contemporary political conflicts caused a deep gap of mistrust between global Orthodoxy and Catholicism. This social and psychological fact is much more serious obstacle to rapprochement (cordial relations) than theological differences. Therefore, it seems to me that the orientation, which seems to be more and more pronounced on both sides is to valorize the high degree of confirmed similarities or closeness that exists between the social doctrines of Orthodoxy and Catholicism. This would create a common starting point for facing the challenges of the postmodern age to which Christianity as a whole — and religion in general — are fatally exposed.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the experienced diplomat, answered a similar question with following statement: “Both churches represent the spiritual force that still maintains its influence in society, and both churches nurture a similar system of moral values.” That is the reason why their reciprocity is simply an imperative today. However, for now, we cannot talk about reunification in the doctrinal sense, since many issues inherited from the past have not been resolved yet.

JT: Recently, Pope Francis visited Greece and Cyprus, and he expressed willingness to visit Moscow. What is the reason for Pope Francis’ recent increase in diplomatic activities towards the Orthodox? Are these visits just formalities, or do you think they might lead to progress in the dialogue between two sides?

DT: My understanding of the essence of the reason why Pope Francis gives priority to ecumenical dialogue is contained in the last sentence of the previous answer. Although, there are other dubious assessments, I believe that enough signs provide the pope’s sincere commitment to reducing divisions among Christians. Additionally, Pope Francis’ vision goes beyond rigid limits of Rome-centric ecumenism. Pope Francis, like Russian Patriarch Kirill, believes that regardless of inherited and as-of-now inevitable theological differences, there are opportunities for useful Catholic-Orthodox cooperation that would benefit both churches, Christianity and I would say humanity as a whole. During a closed audience in the Vatican, I had the opportunity to hear from Pope Francis’ mouth that the sacred task of the bishop is not to make decisions that would further the divisions between Catholics and Orthodox. Instead of that, the pope believes that bishops need to contribute to bringing together Christians of all denominations.

JT: Since the Great Schism of 1054, there have not been more visits between the pope and the ecumenical patriarch than in the last eight years. The Orthodox Church is not as unified as the Catholic Church, and there are many national churches. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is first among equals. Does this prevent the broader dialogue between East and West, since the Catholic Church has to engage in a dialogue and communicate with dozens of Orthodox churches?

DT: The historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, which took place in 1965 after the end of the Second Vatican Council, marked the beginning of the opening process between Orthodox and Catholics. On that occasion, the mutual anathemas from 1054, the year of the Great Schism, were removed. From that moment until today, the ecumenical dialogue has progressed slowly, with occasional delays and even reversals.

On the Orthodox side, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was especially active in it. That was viewed with some suspicion in some Orthodox churches. It was considered that he was in unnecessary hurry to get closer to Rome and that there were some hidden reasons for such behavior that were not in the interest of global Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I think that his readiness of an equal ecumenical dialogue with the papacy, taken as a whole, could have been positively assessed until recently.

Today, the internal schism among Orthodox is almost a bigger problem than the relationship with the Catholic Church and the Holy See, for which the Ecumenical Patriarch is most responsible. That leads to the situation that his good relations with the Vatican are seen in a different light. For a long time, there has been a disagreement between the Ecumenical Patriarchate, other Orthodox churches and, most influential among them, the Russian Orthodox Church — “The Third Rome.” This disagreement is about the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s interpretation of its apostolic succession and implementation. According to the Russian Orthodox Church and these churches that share the same opinion, in Orthodoxy, unlike Catholicism, there is no “Holy See,” a single administrative structure. This implies that the Patriarch of Constantinople, who has held the title of “ecumenical” since Byzantine times, is recognized in honor but not in authority or jurisdiction over other Orthodox churches. On the other hand, the ecumenical patriarch maintains the former historical primacy even in modern and completely changed circumstances. This practice gives him the right to express his final word and make decisions on various issues in Orthodoxy, including granting autocephalous status to churches that want to become canonically independent from their mother churches.

The tension between the Moscow Patriarchate and Ecumenical Patriarchate regarding this and other controversial issues with different intensity has been going on for a long time. It culminated in a complete severance of communication after the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew unilaterally decided in 2019 to grant the “tomos” (decree) of autocephaly and complete canonical independence to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which does not recognize supremacy of the Moscow Patriarchate. For now, only the Patriarchate of Alexandria, as well as the Greek and Cypriot Orthodox Churches, have agreed with this extremely problematic and politically motivated decision of Patriarch Bartholomew. The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, at which the disputed issues could only be canonically and legitimately considered and eventually resolved, has become unthinkable. The inter-Orthodox schism further distances the possibility for Orthodoxy to speak in a single voice in ecumenical dialogue. From a leading factor and coordinator of dialogue, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has become its most serious obstacle.

JT: We mentioned before that you were the ambassador of Serbia to the Holy See. The Serbian Orthodox Church has an active dialogue with the Vatican. Tell us more about that dialogue. Many argue that the Serbian Church looks on its relations with the Catholic Church through the historical prism of Serbo-Croatian relations. Is there a truth to that and was the Vatican ready to make any concessions in order to encourage that dialogue?  

DT: There are regular activities and interreligious dialogue between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Holy See as well as the Catholic Church on the territory of the former Yugoslavia. As a consequence of this, various types of practical cooperation have been established. This required daily coexistence on the same territory. I think that interchurch relations today can be assessed as constructive and stable with some oscillations, primarily in Croatia. The reason for that is the fact that the Orthodox Serbian population is still objectively under various pressures and discriminated against in some important aspects of life. It is logical that the Serbian Orthodox Church and Serbs in general have formed their ideas about Catholicism and the perception of the Catholic Church through the prism of the experience with Croats because they are — along with Hungarians and Slovenes — Catholics with whom they have intensively communicated for centuries.

While I was ambassador in the Vatican, some prelates, especially the venerable Cardinal Walter Kasper, who was in charge of ecumenical dialogue, expressed his regret over this “narrowed Croato-centric optics.” I always tried to explain to him that it was natural and inevitable. It could be expanded and changed only if the Catholic Church in Croatia practically implemented significantly different attitude toward the Orthodox Serbs. I suggested that the Vatican should influence the Catholic Church in Croatia to move in direction of this idea. As soon as I would tell him that, the Cardinal Kasper would just resignedly wave his hand, which was a very eloquent gesture of his pessimism. It is not appropriate to talk about some concessions that the Catholic Church should make to the Serbian side. Rather than that, it should start treating the Orthodox as a whole in the spirit of Christian and evangelical morality.

JT: We are a bit over 30 years from the millennium of the Great Schism of 1054 and the breakup of the Christian church into two sections. From a historic perspective, 30 years is not a lot. What will happen over the next 30 years in interreligious dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox Church? Do you think their relations will improve, and two churches will become closer? 

DT: For the reasons I have mentioned in one of my answers to your previous question and in addition to some other, mostly nonreligious, even anti-religious and anti-spiritual circumstances and trends, I believe that the current state of humanity in the mid-term period will not achieve any significant, positive breakthrough in formal ecumenical dialogue. On the other hand, I believe that predominantly unfavorable social and political context — which will by all account become even increasingly unfavorable — in which the two most important Christian churches operate, will lead towards Orthodox and Catholic dialogue to the search for a model of real cooperation in opposing negative social trends and phenomena that threaten to deal them a fatal blow.

JT: Is the Serbian Orthodox Church growing and flourishing right now? Why or why not? Do you think that the Serbian Orthodox Church recovered from almost half a century of communist dictatorship and wars of 1990s in the former Yugoslavia? Do you think that the process of re-evangelization in the last decade of the 20th century was successful? 

DT: Like every other Christian church, the Serbian Orthodox Church is at the same time “the body of Christ on Earth” and a human community. The church is going through all the temptations that history and changing social realities constantly impose on it. It is difficult to assess the processes that are dynamically taking place inside and outside the church and that affect its condition and position in the society. Despite the fact that during most of the 20th century, the Serbian Church was together with its believers, it was mostly under pressure, and in the worst periods it suffered — which continues until today most drastically in Kosovo and Metohija. It could be said that the Serbian Orthodox Church is guided by principles of conciliarity and is able to respond to the challenges it faces. The church is alive and enjoys considerable reputation among the people.

This is not to say that since the 1990s and introduction of a multiparty system in Serbia, some bishops have the tendency to get closer than is appropriate to their vocation to politics and politicians. Also, there is a certain ideological stratification within the church. However, secularist hysteria about the alleged “clericalization” of society and the government is without basis. Same goes for tendentious accusations of alleged “Serbian fascism.” Clericalism and fascism have never been relevant sociopolitical phenomena and forces in Serbia. In fact, the Serbian people suffered from other nations’ clerical-nationalist and fascist ideologies. The Serbian Orthodox Church has always shared the fate of its people!

JT: What’s the key for good relations between religions and nation states in the former Yugoslavia?

DT: Sincere and consistent readiness to not only declaratively accept but also to implement a pluralistic attitude towards real and existing national, religious as well as cultural and ideological differences in social and political spheres of public life. This is not tolerance, which originally means patience and toleration, but the acceptance of the other and different as completely equal and worthy of respect. The late Serbian Patriach Pavle persistently directed us to such an attitude towards our neighbors, constantly repeating the slogan, “Let’s be humans!” Unfortunately, we are still far from that and that is the only right path for both believers and nonbelievers.

JT: Is the Serbian Orthodox Church doing any work to heal wounds and rifts from the post-Balkans war era? Or does it not need to pursue healing, forgiveness and restoration? Or politicians and statesmen should lead the way?

DT: If the process of reconciliation in the region solely depended on Balkan politicians and statesmen, it would probably never happen. Not because they are mostly quarrelsome and evil people — although that is (true) for some of them — but because they advocate policies whose narrative about neighboring countries and nations are based on inconsistent and often totally opposed “truths” about the recent and distant past. According to these projections of interethnic and interstate relations, “we” are absolutely right about everything — always have been and are — and “they” are wrong. Such exclusive truths gain the support through school programs, empowered by official manifestations and propagated in the media in the public life. If that is the case, how then to achieve reconciliation? It is a pan-Balkan syndrome!

The Serbian case is particularly difficult because in order to achieve the political, separatist and nation-building goals of the former Yugoslav people and nations — in conjunction with regional and global interest of influential Western countries as well as the countries of the Islamic world during the 1990s — (Serbs) created a one-sided mantra about the decisive Serbian guilt for all the evils that befell Yugoslavia and against Serbia’s vital national interest. This approach is still present today, which certainly does not contribute to the process of reconciliation, which all sides in the region declaratively support. The Serbian Orthodox Church, as well as other churches and religious communities, could not remain immune to such a distorted attitude towards reality. However, in certain bright moments, when they followed doctrinal universality of their ethical teachings, they managed to extract themselves and send messages of peace and calls for dialogue. Although they are not recognized in some religious and national camps, patriarchs of the Serbian Orthodox Church were at the forefront of such peacekeeping activities.

Knowing Patriarch Porfirije, I believe that he will continue to steer the ship of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the same direction as his honorable predecessors Pavle and Irinej did. It is clear that he will leave his personal stamp on his pastoral and social activities. I am sure that — without deviating from the fundamental values on which Christ’s teaching is based — with the support of other bishops, he will succeed in finding a way to establish a balance between the spiritual mission of the church and its worldly zeal while respecting the spirit of the times, without accepting the world’s perversions. Patriarch Porfirije proved that he was up to the most complex tasks and that he can overcome multiple temptations during his times as Metropolitan of Zagreb (Croatia) and Ljubljana (Slovenia).