On February 12th, Pope Francis will attend his first-ever meeting with the leader of Russia’s Orthodox church – whom he considers to be “Third Rome,” in Cuba. This marks his first ever interaction with a religious institution considered by him as being part of “Third Rome,” according to Francis.
The Vatican says the meeting will primarily focus on ecumenical matters. But Pope Francis and Pope Leo will also address matters of personal and political significance during their conversation.
1. Theological Issues
In the late nineteenth century, Russian Orthodox Church adopted Western ideas in terms of language and thinking – particularly Catholic and Protestant ideas. As a result, polemist-theologians taught in Russian Orthodox a “polemical” discipline known as “oblitchitel’noe bogoslovie” (or “polemical theology”) with an aim to produce knowledge about both non-Orthodox world and Orthodoxy itself.
This discipline reflected the Russian state’s policy towards religious “heterodoxy,” or ‘heterodox,’ present on imperial territory such as Islam and Catholicism, shaping theoretical knowledge about these religions both inside Russia and the Western world. The polemical content of this discipline was heavily influenced by Catholic and Protestant thought’s alternation in influence on Russian religious thought – having an impact not only on its content but also its sociological and political implications.
2. Political Issues
The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), with 165 million members, enjoys strong ties with the Russian state. This bond has been fostered through symphonia – an ideal partnership where church and state should work together towards common objectives.
The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) strives to uphold conservative religious and societal values against the Western-liberal paradigm. This includes safeguarding Christians in regions prone to sectarian violence, as well as regaining control over church properties that were lost due to the Bolshevik Revolution.
Russia’s Orthodox Church (ROC) plays an increasingly influential role in reshaping its national identity. Patriarch Kirill, head of ROC, has dedicated himself to President Putin’s project of restoration, which he sees as deeply rooted in religion.
3. Ecumenical Issues
Pope Francis will need to address an old issue between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy: that Russia be recognized as the “First Rome,” with Constantinople serving as its “Second Rome.” These divisions have been festering for years and resulted in hostilities between both churches.
Though not unanimously held by all Russian Orthodox, this view has served as the driving force behind Russia’s decades-long refusal to engage with Rome and its ecumenical institutions.
But a meeting between Pope Francis and Moscow’s patriarch, Kirill, could help ease some of these tensions. If the two leaders work together to address some of Christianity’s most pressing challenges today – such as religious freedom and protecting Christians in Iraq and Syria from Islamic extremists – their meeting might usher in an entirely new relationship with Russia that goes beyond what has become standard practice at the Vatican.
To achieve this goal, the Vatican must come to agreement with Russia on some fundamental points — including its traditional position that it is the bishop of Rome rather than a world-wide authority. On the Moscovite side, they must renounce their hardball politics and subservience to Moscow that have dictated so many of their relationships with other Orthodox churches and Ukraine.
4. Religious Issues
Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow’s meeting is being seen as a historic step toward healing their 1,000 year-old schism between the two largest churches in Christianity.
Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths both claim to be the true Church of Christ. However, they disagree on a number of issues such as whether unleavened bread should be used for communion and whether clerics should remain celibate.
In 1054, religious disagreements and political rivalry culminated in a split between the two largest churches. Ultimately, the western church excommunicated Michael Ceruleas – an ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople – while the eastern church responded.
Many observers view the situation in Ukraine as dangerous and uncertain. Russia’s Patriarch Kirill has openly supported Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, sparking divisions within the Orthodox Church worldwide and leading many to feel cynicism toward him. This is an intricate issue that needs careful handling by the pope; one which protects both sides of the debate.