Editor's note: all opinions and terminology are those of the author.
On August 5, a Ukrainian court convicted a metropolitan of the russian (I follow a convention in Ukraine to lower case russia) affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) to a five-year term for publicly supporting the invasion of Ukraine and advocating for the overthrow of the Zelensky government by a pro-russian coup. Another metropolitan, Pavlo Lebid, the former superior of the Kyiv Caves Monastery, is under house arrest for his many pro-russian declarations and actions as well as for “fomenting inter-religious hostility.” Meanwhile, yet another metropolitan, Nathaniel, broke ranks and called for Ukraine’s victory over the invader. Notably, Nathaniel’s see of Volyn-Lutsk had suffered a deadly missile strike a day earlier. The invasion of Ukraine has caused not only an immense shift in Ukrainian public opinion against the once dominant UOC in favor of the autonomous Orthodox Church of Ukraine (under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate) but also internal dissent within the UOC. However, the religious implications of the war reach beyond Ukrainian territory.
With surprising frankness, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople acknowledged: “It would not be possible for all the Churches not to condemn the violence, the war … I did not want the Church of russia and Brother Patriarch Kirill to be this tragic exception … He should react to the invasion of Ukraine and condemn the war as all the other Orthodox Primates did. He did not, that is to his detriment … I expected Brother Kirill at this critical, historic moment to rise to the occasion. If it is required to even sacrifice his throne, and tell Putin, ‘Mr. President, I cannot agree with you, I resign, I leave.’ Or put him in jail, I don’t know what President Putin would do if the Patriarch reacted to his plans, but that is what we, the other Primates, would expect.” In March 2023, Bartholomew added that the russian church shared responsibility for the crimes committed in Ukraine, “Our interreligious dialogue has to focus on ways to resist and neutralize the capacity of the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate to undermine unity and to theologically legitimize criminal behaviour.” Although tensions between the two churches have been long standing, Moscow’s size and financial power ensured a prominent place among Orthodox churches and in the ecumenical world. Since February 2022, that position is less secure.
In September 2022, the 11th Assembly of the Word Council of Churches (WCC) condemned the “illegal and unjustifiable war,” and rejected “any misuse of religious language and authority to justify armed aggression and hatred.” Nonetheless, the WCC continues to attempt to mediate between the parties, albeit fruitlessly. Meanwhile, opposition to the russian church’s position has increased within its own ranks, witnessed by the reluctance of its European branches to participate in a meeting of the Council of Primates. Even many clerics in the UOC have ceased to liturgically commemorate Kirill, as is the traditional practice.
As never before, the russian Orthodox church’s marriage to the secular russian powers threatens the church’s standing within the wider Orthodox and Christian communities. Orthodox theologian Cyril Hovorun pointedly stated, “Any war must have guns and ideas. In this war, the Kremlin has provided the guns, and I believe the Russian Orthodox Church is providing the ideas.” Kirill has preached that russian soldiers who die in the invasion will have their sins washed away. Former chief editor of the russian Patriarchate’s publishing arm, Sergei Chapnin (now at Fordham University), condemned the russian hierarchy in an open letter, “Now, during the military attack of russia on Ukraine, I have totally ceased to understand you. I hear you uttering nothing but state propaganda clichés, disguised as pious words of Church message, and dubious theological formulas which lead you and your flock away from the Gospel and towards an imperial pagan cult centered on power, wealth and violence. I think you share the blame for it. I see that for many of you it is a conscious choice.”
The increased isolation of the russian church is also affecting relations with the Vatican. The russian church’s delegation was notably absent at the 2023 meeting of the Joint International Commission of the Catholic and Orthodox Church, which produced the first agreed-upon statement in seven years. There is no longer any hint of a meeting between Francis and Kirill, as there was prior to 2022. Vatican statements on the war have shifted from a focus on mediation to returning Ukrainian children taken by the occupiers. At World Youth Day, Francis spoke directly to Ukrainian youth and vowed to work for the return of children to “martyred Ukraine.” Can the Pope welcome Kirill who flagrantly condones the martyrdom?
Condemned internally and externally, the russian Orthodox church faces an uncertain future, an immense loss of prestige in Christian circles and the growing question of its legitimacy within the Christian ecumene. Certainly, the Vatican must wonder whether its historic Ostpolitik has finally come to an end.
Myroslaw Tataryn is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Canada, and a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic priest.