This story was the subject of much discussion in last Friday's members' vidchat, and then, after the end of that event, many people sent me this version of the story from Russia's Sputnik site, and there's much food for thought here.
But first, I'd like to put all my cards on the table, and explain the title of today's blog, and why I am emphasizing the Papacy last, and least in the headline, and it is not simply because of my long association in the past with Eastern Orthodoxy, but that is part of it. It has always bothered me - perhaps intensely - that the modern secular West seems almost viscerally afraid of Eastern Orthodox cultures, and especially, of Russia. One person sent me a version of this story from a website, and the title of the article said it all: "Humble Pope To Meet Scandallous Patriarch," meaning of course, Patriarch Kryil of Moscow. The scandal here concerns criticism of Kyril's rather lavish lifestyle that has occurred in Russia. Whether true or not, it was an attitude that I've seen before, as long ago as my professorial days teaching medieval history, when one of my textbooks had a chapter (only one chapter!) devoted to covering the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Middle Ages, in a chapter somewhat rudely and dismissively titled "Europe's Neighbors." The meaning was clear: "Europe" meant the societies that emerged from the Christian West, i.e., the from the Latin Church and Papacy; the East remained an inscrutable reliquary, not worth studying in depth and comparing to the West, and this was particularly the case in the study of the major differences in theological formulation - and yes, the differences between the two churches are major, and not minor - that lead to major differences in church government, piety, and ultimately the cultures that emerged in each case.
But there's another operative factor here, and that is what happened at the Second Vatican Council held in the 1960s under the pontificates of John XXIII (Angelo Cardinal Roncalli) and his successor Paul VI(Giovanni Cardinal Montini). Without getting into the gory details of the Second Vatican Council, for all intentions and purposes virtually every classical formulation of Roman Catholic teaching was abandoned for a stew of platitudinous pronouncements, especially on relationships to other religious bodies, including Islam. The only "traditional" language that remained was the language concerning definitions of papal claims, power, and prerogative, and these would would have pleased a Pius IX (Giovanni-Maria Cardinal Mastai-Ferreti), who succeeded in having the papacy proclaimed infallible at the First Vatican Council in 1870-71. (And, for the record, there was significant opposition at this council and after it to the definition, though the opposition ultimately failed. But that's another story.)
Under this new "ecumenical" outlook, a whole host of "dialogues" with the Islamic world was initiated; dialogues that have, to this day, not succeeded in seeing any Christian churches opened in Saudi Arabia, and which have produced no ameliorations of the second-hand status of non-Mulsims in many Islamic societies, and which, to the contrary, have presided over a period of increasing persecution of Christians - be they Roman Catholic, Orthodox Catholic, Coptic, Nestorian, or Armenian - in the Islamic world. To put it bluntly, but plainly, it has been a stellar, and stunning, record of failure. But after all, it is difficult to negotiate with an unreconstructed ideology of warfare against ... well, against just about everybody that isn't Islamic.As the former Muslim and scholar Ibn Warraq put it, the Islamic world needs not just a Reformation, but an Enlightenment. To the Vatican's credit, however, Pope John Paul II did warn that American unipolarism and intervention in Iraq would spiral out of control, and lead to increasing persecution of Christians. His foresight has proven to be the case.
Which is why I find recent pronouncements from the Vatican so very interesting from this ecumenical-historical point of view, for Vatican spokesmen, including Pope Francis I himself, have made it clear, that Christians have the right of self-defence under the conditions that the old compact of their tolerance under otherwise reprehensible regimes of Saddam Hussein or, yes, a Bashar Al-Assad or Hosni Mubarek, has been broken.
In that rather broad context, then, consider this article on the meeting to take place between Russian Orthodox Catholic Patriach of Moscow, Kyril, and Roman Catholic Pope Francis, in, of all places, Havana Cuba:
What I found intriguing about Sputnik's take here is that the purpose of the meeting clearly is to discuss the persecution of Christians, which has reached epic proportions in the Middle East and Africa, with little being said by Western leaders. The choice of Havana itself is interesting, since Cuba is, of course, a largely Roman Catholic country, with a long history of association with Russia during the Cold War, making it difficult to ascertain if this meeting and its venue was largely a Vatican initiative, or that of the Patriarchate of Moscow. My intuition says that this was perhaps a bit of both, and that it has been in long quiet preparation.
In any case, it's tremendous grist for the mill of our high octane speculation, for what does it really portend? I suspect, and suspect strongly, that it portends a huge geopolitcal shift is in the offing, and that religion, or if you will, "Christian civilization" is the cover behind which it is being engineered. It is this factor that makes me suspect that Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate played more than a merely passive or respondent role to Vatican initiatives, for if this analysis be true, then we can expect any statement or statements to come from this meeting to do two things: (1) to emphasize the need for honest dialogue with the Islamic world, and not just a perpetual capitulation of the Christian to the Islamic worlds. In other words, expect the usual platidudinous ecumenical flannel, but lurking behind it, a subtle but nonetheless discernible change in tone behind the warm fuzzies and group hugs. (2) But I also suspect, if not in any initial statements, then in future "clarifications" both from Moscow and Rome, that it will be made clear that this right of Christians in the region to self-defense in the face of brutal, medieval, and barbaric persecution, that this right extends and is to be understood to include economic security, equal status before the law, and ultimately, the right to use force or to request military assistance - perhaps in the guise of "international peacekeeprs" - to secure those conditions. One can also look forward to some subtle, but firm, opposition both from the Russian government, the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Vatican, to you-know-who's not-so-subtle attempts to introduce "anti-blasphemy provisions" against its religion at the U.N., an effort that undermines the most fundamental condition of any free society: free speech.
This sweeping geopolitical and cultural change - if this "high octane reading" be true - also signals something else, and it is equally as significant as the meeting itself. When Jorge Cardinal Bergolio was elected and took the name Francis for his pontificate, I suggested that perhaps this was a signal that the Vatican powers-that-be in the Curia were recognizing, at long last, that the center of Roman Catholicism had shifted from its historical home in Europe and the First World, to the second and third worlds, and that it was thus to be considered a "bridge" papacy to a relignment, more openly, with those worlds. While the Vatican will continue to be intertwined, financially, with the West for some time to come, make no mistake, meeting with the Patriarch of Moscow may also signal that shift of orientation.
If any of these predications and speculations are true, then we can expect them to be borne out, slowly.
Time, of course, will tell if all these high octane speculations and predictions are true or not. But whether they are or are not, the meeting itself, and its venue in Cuba - a country with its own track record of religious persecutions - is significant enough. To put it country simple, I suspect that the venue's choice was deliberately chosen by both churches to emphasize that they mean business.
See you on the flip side...