Relations between the largest of the eastern Catholic Churches, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), and the Holy See have been frayed in recent years, as the former has found the latter’s support lacking in the face of Russian aggression against Ukraine in general and the UGCC in particular.
Ukrainian Catholics believe that the Holy See wants to maintain good relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is strongly allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The consequence is that the Holy See does not protest too strongly against Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.
Two events in May suggest that those frayed relations are not going to be repaired soon.
First, there was the consistory for new cardinals announced on Pentecost Sunday. Leading the list of 11 new cardinal electors was Louis Raphaël I Sako, Patriarch of Babylon and head of the Chaldean Church, Iraq’s principal eastern Catholic Church. Creating the patriarch a cardinal was widely seen as sign of solidarity with the suffering Iraqi Catholics.
In 2016, Pope Francis did a similar thing for Syria, though that time he did not choose an actual Syrian bishop for cardinal, but rather the Italian serving as nuncio in Damascus.
Yet in five consistories for the creation of new cardinals, Pope Francis has passed over Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the UGCC and major archbishop of Kiev. Shevchuk’s predecessors have all been cardinals dating back to time when the UGCC – liquidated by Stalin – was the largest underground Church in the world.
Pope Francis is charting a new course in the selection of cardinals, but even given the idiosyncratic nature of his choices, it is evident that suffering Churches and suffering peoples are favoured with cardinals. That Ukraine has been overlooked now five times in five years suggests that Ukrainian suffering resonates less in Rome than the objections of the Russian Orthodox, who regard the very existence of the UGCC as an affront.
The second sign that UGCC-Holy See relations are not on the mend took place when Pope Francis received a delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church, led by Metropolitan Hilarion, the representative of Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow, for relations with other Churches. During the meeting, Pope Francis gave an address that was warmly received and promoted by the Russian Orthodox.
“I would like to reiterate that the Catholic Church will never allow an attitude of division to arise from her people,” Pope Francis said. “We will never allow ourselves to do this, I do not want it. In Moscow – in Russia – there is only one patriarchate: yours.”
In Ukraine there is an effort to establish a new Orthodox patriarchate that is independent from Moscow. It is a complex tale, ably described in these pages last week by Fr Mark Drew. It is supported by the Ukrainian government and has support among many Ukrainians who resent that their religious authority – the Moscow Patriarchate – staunchly defends their political oppressor, Putin.
The UGCC supports the efforts to have a new unified Ukrainian Orthodox patriarch, autonomous and independent of Moscow. That enrages the Russian Orthodox, so they were most pleased to hear the Holy Father – to their ears, at least – take their side.
“The Catholic Church, the Catholic Churches must not get involved in internal matters of the Russian Orthodox Church, nor in political issues,” Pope Francis said. “This is my attitude, and the attitude of the Holy See today. And those who meddle do not obey the Holy See.”
Who could Pope Francis have in mind? The Russian Orthodox certainly concluded that the Holy Father was speaking about the UGCC and Shevchuk. It is hard to think of any other plausible candidate given the current circumstances.
In recent years, Vatican slights toward the UGCC, or toleration of attacks upon the UGCC from the Russian Orthodox, were thought to be part of the price demanded by the Moscow Patriarchate for a meeting with Pope Francis – something long denied to St John Paul II. That historic meeting took place in Havana in February 2016.
The question is whether the new relationship between the Holy See and the Russian Orthodox will require ongoing strained relations between Catholics, namely the Holy See and the eastern Catholics of the UGCC. Recent events suggest that it will.