Orthodox America

  The Uniate Question: A Matter of Deception?

Russia is the greatest enemy of the [Roman] Church. (Pope Pius X) 

You offer us unification…and all the while, behind our backs, your Latin priests are sowing ruin amongst our flocks… (NM Metropolitan Benjamin of Kiev) 


    Tension between Orthodox and Catholics in the Ukraine has erupted in violence. In the Temopol region of western Ukraine, Orthodox Christian and parish council member, Vassily Mokrizki, was stabbed to death with pitchforks after refusing to sign a statement transferring control of his parish to the Ukrainian Catholics. In the same region Pochaev monks arrive to serve Sunday Liturgy at local Orthodox churches, used during the week by Catholics, and routinely find them locked--and the locks changed. Ukrainian Catholics have taken the antimens from Orthodox altars and trampled them.

       To a certain extent the present situation can be explained by heightened feelings of Ukrainian nationalism, with which the Ukrainian Catholic Church is closely identified. Declared illegal by Stalin in I946, the Ukrainian Church has now emerged from the catacombs to demand the return of hundreds of parishes which Stalin handed over to the subservient Moscow Patriarchate in the interests of Soviet imperialism At the same time, loathing for the Soviet regime, with which the Moscow Patriarchate is closely allied, has prompted some 300 Orthodox priests to transfer their allegiance to the Ukranian Catholic Church.

       Recent decades of ill-treatment would appear to justify the demands of the Ukrainian Catholics and explain the favorable bias of the Western press. Looking more deeply, however, one sees that the current situation is rooted in a history of confrontation and, worse, outright deception--which one might call the very raison d'etre of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

       Ever since the schism of 1054, there have been various attempts at reconciliation between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Unfortunately, such attempts have been so heavily laced with political considerations that often they have succeeded only in increasing the estrangement of the two Churches. Apart from these dialogues, Rome has vigorously proselytized among the Orthodox populations of Eastern Europe and Russia, using methods which raise serious doubts as to the sincerity of its desire for rapprochement in terms of anything less than the complete acceptance by the Orthodox of Rome's authority.

       In the sixteenth Century shifting political boundaries found large numbers of Orthodox within a united Polish-Lithuanian kingdom, at once anti-Russian and militantly Catholic. The forceful conversion of the Orthodox, conducted primarily by the Jesuits, was "legitimized" in 1596 by the Council of Brest-Litovsk, which proclaimed the "union" of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches within the Polish-Lithuanian State. (A medal coined at the creation of the Urda showed Pope Clement VIII on his throne with a Russian prostrated before him.) To facilitate this conversion, the Orthodox were allowed to retain the Eastern (Byzantine) rite and many externals of Orthodox worship--icons, iconostasis, Orthodox style vestments, the eight-point cross... They continued using the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and simply commemorated the pope instead of the patriarch. Many simple people thus converted without realizing the theological consequences. Those who refused to join this Uniate Church were persecuted; thousands were martyred. A leader in this campaign, the Polish Jesuit Josaphat Kuntsevich, admitted that he freely drowned the Orthodox, chopped off their heads and profaned their churches; he ordered their dead bodies to be thrown to dogs. (Pope John Paul II has praised this brute as an "apostle of unity"') Such is the inglorious past of the Uniate Church that its members prefer to be called Greek or Byzantine Catholics or Ukrainian Catholics.

      The imposition of such a "union" in Russia was clearly impossible while the Orthodox Church was supported and protected by the tsarist government It is therefore not surprising that Vatican foreign poi icy consistently aimed at promoting its downfall , a well-documented fact. Deacon Herman Ivanov Trinadsati, in his revealing and at times shocking article, "The Vatican and Russia" (Orthodox Life, I990, No. 2), describes how the Vatican encouraged England and France to side against Russia in the Crimean War, the joy with which it greeted the Bolshevik Revolution, its readiness to enter into negotiations with the new militantly atheist regime, while closing its eyes to Bolshevik atrocities. Similar evidence appears in David Mitchell's study, The Jesuits: a History (Franklin Watts, New York, 198l). It quotes a comment by the official Vatican journal, Observatore Romano, that with the success of the Bolshevik Revolution, "'the moment for rapprochement has arrived, inasmuch as the inner circle of caesaro-papism which closed Russia to all Roman influence has been broken.' Italian newspapers ran sarcastic cartoons showing Plus XI blessing the red atheist persecution of Orthodox Christians." A more recent work, Antoine Wenger's Rome et Moscou 1900-1950 (Deselee de Brouwer, 1987), based mainly on French sources, documents the activity in Russia of foreign Assumptionist and Jesuits priests, "consumed with a passion, if not obsession, for the mission of converting Orthodox Russia to Catholicism., These priest-enthusiasts took advantage of whatever historical occasion arose-the greater toleration for Catholics after l905. the use of foreign churches to maintain a foothold m various parts of the country, the decline in support for the Orthodox Church after the compromise of the 1920s--to push their advantage" (as reviewed m Religion in Communist Lands, Autumn I988).

      Once the Bolsheviks had control of the Russian Orthodox Church, sanctioned by Metropolitan Sergius' Declaration of 1927, they were no longer interested in negotiating with the Vatican, and the Vatican changed its tactics. Today it continues to press for "fraternal dialogue" with the Russian Church at the ecumenical round table.

      In view of the historical record, one is certainly justified in questioning the Vatican's motives here One might also ask what place, if any, the artificially conceived Uniate Church has in this dialogue. In a bid for more honest relations between Moscow and Rome, one would incline to favor its abolition; although such a move would bring limited benefits while political considerations still dominate the issue. From a religious standpoint, as unappealing as post-Vatican II is sure to be to devout Uniates, until the Moscow Patriarchate hierarchs repudiate Sergianism and regain their moral authority, one cannot expect these lost sheep to return to the Orthodox fold of their forefathers.

      Meanwhile, the conflict begs resolution. Conscious, no doubt, of its moral disadvantage, the Moscow Patriarchate is battling for the retention of parishes on legal grounds--and losing. It would do better to follow the recommendation of Orthodox activist Gleb Anishchenko (translated from Possev, May-June 1990):

       "Concerning the purely religious side of the 'Uniate Question', we, Orthodox, cannot but grieve that thousands of our brethren have left Orthodoxy on the basis of historical conditions. We should not however, search out someone else's sins and faults rather, we should repent of our own. And not try to correct the situation by applying forceful administrative measures, but redeem our own sins through widespread and profound preaching of the Orthodox Faith. It is not the godless Council for Religious Affairs which can help us in relation to other confessions and faiths, but the colossal experience of Orthodox mission work which, in its time, extended over America and Japan, Western Ukraine and Siberia The main question here is whether we will be able to show people the truth of our Faith, and not whether we shall be able to retain, at whatever cost, this or that church building.”