Pope Francis Handed Putin a Diplomatic Victory

The meeting between the pope and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church benefited only Moscow.

Historic meeting.

Photographer: GREGORIO BORGIA/AFP/Getty Images

Russia's state-owned media covered the first-ever meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, as a historic event. The official news agency, TASS, even ran a real-time blow-by-blow account. The meeting's value wasn't in any ecclesiastical breakthrough: The Pope, probably inadvertently, played a part in a Kremlin propaganda gambit.

The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches parted ways in the Great Schism of 1054 over some theological and ecclesiastical differences. It's not a major concern for the faithful of both churches today whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from just the Father (as the Orthodox teaching goes) or from the Father and the Son (as the Catholics hold). Whether or not Purgatory exists (Catholics believe in it, Orthodox Christians don't) is contentious, but the issue doesn't prevent the churches from accepting each other as legitimate parts of the Christian tradition and even, in some cases, performing rites that involve members of both.

The biggest Catholic-Orthodox dispute is, as 1,000 years ago, about papal primacy. The Catholics see the Pope as a sovereign, and Orthodox clergy only believes in the "primacy of honor," holding the Bishop of Rome should be "first among equals" without power over the entire church edifice.

Friday's meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill on the neutral turf of Havana was two years in preparation, but it didn't even begin to resolve that major difference, which has led to turf wars between the two churches and made previous meetings impossible. This one only happened because, in 2013, Pope Francis met with Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople, the "first among equals" of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It became harder for Patriarch Kirill, who has the most real-world power in the eastern branch of Christianity, to explain dodging an encounter with the Pope, as his predecessor Alexi II had done throughout his tenure.

More importantly, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has come as close as no Russian ruler since the czars to making Orthodox Christianity the state religion, wanted the meeting to take place. "Putin needs a meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch more than ever before," wrote Alexander Baunov of Moscow Carnegie Center. "The political West is openly hostile toward Russia and toward him personally. It's all the more important to show that the traditional, religious West is not as hostile."There are two specific issues on which this lack of hostility was especially important to demonstrate: Ukraine and Syria. Given the Pope's dovishness, Russia's tough military action in both countries would seem to be a hard sell. Amazingly, in the joint declaration signed after the Havana meeting, Pope Francis appeared to have gone along with the Russian patriarch's views.

In Syria, the church leaders agreed, it was imperative to stop the expulsion of Christians and to make peace under the auspices of the international community. There is, of course, no mention of Russia's role in the conflict, and the Syria part of the statement could have been written by the foreign ministry in Moscow: Its sanctimonious tone is more Russian "hybrid diplomacy" than Christian piety.

The Ukraine part was so pro-Russian that it was hard for some Ukrainians to take. "The Pope clearly signed this to the dictation of Kirill and the FSB," nationalist politician Oleksandr Doniy wrote, referring to Russia's domestic intelligence service.

Ukraine was the main bone of contention between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches. Moscow sees it as its own canonical territory, and it has suspected the Vatican of making inroads into it by fostering the uniate Greek Catholic Church in western Ukraine. The joint statement says:

It is today clear that the past method of “uniatism”, understood as the union of one community to the other, separating it from its Church, is not the way to re–establish unity. Nonetheless, the ecclesial communities which emerged in these historical circumstances have the right to exist and to undertake all that is necessary to meet the spiritual needs of their faithful, while seeking to live in peace with their neighbors.

Though the Catholic Church has acknowledged years ago that uniatism was a dead end, this can be read as Pope Francis's concession that the Greek Catholic Church should not expand and that it should seek to make peace with the Orthodox Church. Orthodox believers, of course, are split between Moscow and Kiev patriarchates in Ukraine, but they should, according to the joint statement, reunite on the basis of "existing canonical norms" -- Moscow's preferred formula.

Confirming the carefully drafted text's pro-Moscow bent, the following paragraph talks of Ukraine's armed conflict as if Russia had no part in it:

We deplore the hostility in Ukraine that has already caused many victims, inflicted innumerable wounds on peaceful inhabitants and thrown society into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis. We invite all the parts involved in the conflict to prudence, to social solidarity and to action aimed at constructing peace. We invite our Churches in Ukraine to work towards social harmony, to refrain from taking part in the confrontation, and to not support any further development of the conflict.

This would all be fine if the Russian Orthodox Church weren't the Russian government's faithful ally. By signing the declaration, Pope Francis essentially recognized it as an independent institution, not an arm of the Putin state and a pillar of the "conservative" regime Putin says he is strengthening in his country. That is a diplomatic success for which Putin should be grateful to the Patriarch. John Paul II, the Polish pope who unsuccessfully sought to arrange a trip to Moscow after the fall of Communism and was rebuffed on political grounds disguised by talk of hardcore Orthodox Christians' hostility toward Catholicism, wouldn't have yielded as much as Pope Francis did.

The current pope has a reputation as a peacemaker, but compromises and concessions are only useful when they benefit both sides. It's not clear what the Catholic Church gets out of the "historic" meeting.

The joint declaration says the churches are "pained by the loss of unity, the outcome of human weakness and of sin" and stresses a yearning for reunification, but it does nothing to resolve any of the differences that have separated the two branches of the faith for a millennium. Full communion remains outside the realm of possibility. There is no mention of any possible practical steps toward it, such as the acceptance of a unified holiday calendar. The meeting is not going to change anything for Christians in the war zones of the Middle East, or in fact for any rank-and-file members of both churches.

The only thing Pope Francis has achieved is a diplomatic success for Putin's "conservatism," which he uses to make common cause with extreme right and religious groups throughout the world.

He may be naive about this, but Patriarch Kirill and his Kremlin patron are not.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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