In 2014, Russia prompted an international uproar when it annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, while also backing a separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine, part of a war that has claimed thousands of lives.

But now there’s another kind of Ukrainian territory in dispute: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and this time, it’s Russia that’s protesting.

On April 20 of this year, the ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople, headed by Bartholomew I, archbishop of Constantinople, decided to grant “autocephaly,” or complete Church independence, to the Orthodox Christians of Ukraine. When the decision is fully implemented, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church would be free to govern itself entirely, electing its own patriarch and setting its own agenda.

The Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, meeting in Istanbul (the former Constantinople), voted October 11 to renew its decision.

Autocephaly would replace the current Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is in many ways beholden to the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow.

Many charge that the Russian Orthodox Church in recent decades has done the bidding of the Kremlin, particularly in its “Russkiy Mir” (“Russian World”) project to strengthen Russian identity at home and abroad. If that is true, autocephaly would be a blow not only for the patriarchate of Moscow but for Vladimir Putin himself.

Not surprisingly, the Russian Orthodox Church has undertaken a campaign, both behind the scenes and in the media, to resist the change. The Moscow Patriarchate threatened to sever ties and break eucharistic communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

It also declared that it would not participate in events headed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and would not even pray for Bartholomew during liturgies.
Recent reports of Russian hacking of the emails of Ecumenical Patriarchate officials and even the Vatican nuncio to Ukraine have suggested a more sinister side to Moscow’s campaign.

“There’s been kind of a rivalry between Constantinople and Moscow, and kind of different understandings, especially of an understanding of the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church, and there have been tensions over the years and different issues that come along and so forth, but they’ve been able to resolve their differences,” said Father Ronald G. Roberson, CSP, associate director of the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“But this time around it seems all of this is kind of coming to a head, and they do seem to be on a collision course unless some cooler heads prevail in some way.”

In the view of George E. Demacopoulos, an Orthodox theologian teaching at Fordham University in New York, the dispute is shaping up to be the “greatest challenge to Orthodox Christian unity of our generation.”

“From a purely political perspective, Ukrainian autocephaly would represent an unmitigated disaster for the Russian Orthodox Church,” Demacopoulos wrote on the website Public Orthodoxy.

“Not only would it deprive the Russian Church of one-third of its parishes and undermine its ‘Russkiy Mir’ project, but it would dramatically belie the claim of the Moscow Patriarchate that it is the leader of the Orthodox Christian world.”

While the ecumenical patriarch can claim history and tradition to support his claim to be “first among equals” among the patriarchs of all the Eastern Orthodox Churches of the world, he leads a dwindling flock in a Muslim-majority country. That pales in comparison to the populous and growing Orthodox communities in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

But Constantinople is proceeding apace to implement autocephaly. It sent legates to Ukraine to explain the situation to various Church leaders and communities.

That in itself is quite a task. Besides the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) — the only one recognized by the other Orthodox Churches around the world — there are two breakaway groups: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv (also Kiev) Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), a group that granted itself autocephaly some time ago.

The division is seen as the main reason for Bartholomew’s decision to grant autocephaly. On October 11, after meeting with the legates to Ukraine, Bartholomew reinstated the leaders of those breakaway Churches and their flocks to full communion with Constantinople.

Eventually, it’s expected that representatives of all three Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine will meet to establish a new, unified ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

Ukrainian Orthodox theologian Father Cyril Hovorun told Angelus News that would mean the election of a new primate. Hence, Moscow’s resistance is not surprising: Hovorun, who once was an official in the Moscow Patriarchate, says he’s seen it before.

“I can speak from my own experience because I was part of this process of arriving at a solution to the Ukrainian schism, and I witnessed the unwillingness and inability of the Russian Church to give a solution,” said Hovorun, who is now interim director of Loyola Marymount’s Huffington Ecumenical Institute.

“When we started a dialogue with the Patriarchate of Kyiv, one of the schismatic groups in Ukraine, it was immediately blocked from Moscow.”

Why? Because with autocephaly, Moscow’s political influence upon Ukraine would be “weakened significantly,” Hovorun believes.

But why should Moscow have any claim on Ukraine and her Church anyway? To answer that, we have to look back to the 10th century.

Long before Russia and Ukraine existed, there was “Kyivan Rus,” the first eastern Slavic state, and, at the time, the largest and most powerful state in Europe. Prince Vladimir ruled over this polytheistic society, but after seeing some of his pagan subjects killing minority Christians, he sent envoys abroad to investigate other religions.

They seemed most impressed with what they encountered in Constantinople, particularly the mystical form of worship they experienced in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia.

“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth,” they told Vladimir. “We only know that God dwells there among the people, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.” This so convinced the prince that he decided to have himself and his nation baptized, an event that took place in the year 988.

Today, the churches in Russia and Ukraine both look to St. Vladimir as their spiritual progenitor. And, significantly, both regard Kyiv as the birthplace of Slavic Christianity.

So why is Moscow the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church? In the year 1240, Mongol invaders destroyed Kyiv. Leaders of the Church sought refuge in a relatively new principality to the north — Moscow. From that point on, the Kyivan Church was based in Moscow, and Kyiv itself would become a subordinate see.

Demacopoulos explained that “it’s not simply that a small piece of the Moscow Patriarchate wants autocephaly in Ukraine today,” but rather a symbolically important piece that represents the birthplace of Russian Orthodoxy.

“For Kyiv to get independence, it undermines the narrative of the Russian Church in a lot of symbolic and important ways. The Russians simply do not want it relinquished,” said Demacopoulos, co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham.

This isn’t the first Ukrainian attempt at spiritual autonomy. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, a group of nationalistic Ukrainians took advantage of their country’s brief independence from Russia to establish an autocephalous Church, but did so in such unorthodox fashion that the Church was never recognized by other Orthodox Churches.

Once Ukraine became part of the USSR, Soviet authorities made sure the group was absorbed back into the Moscow Patriarchate.

In spite of a brief resurgence of an autocephaly movement under the Nazi occupation of Ukraine during World War II, it wasn’t until the weakening grip of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s that the movement for autocephaly was able to take off again.

But this desire for autocephaly got perhaps its biggest boost from recent Russian aggression.

“There are, I would say, hundreds of thousands of believers within the canonical Church of the Moscow Patriarchate who belong to the Church despite the fact that they don’t share the messages of the Church regarding the current situation in Ukraine — I mean the ongoing military conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” said Hovorun.

He believes the patriarchate’s perceived support for the bloody war quietly weighs on the consciences of many Ukrainian Orthodox.

The alternative for most of these Christians, Hovorun said, is going to one of the schismatic Churches or the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is in communion with Rome but follows Orthodox practices, liturgy, and spirituality. In fact, Russia has charged that the Vatican and the Ukrainian Catholic Church are backing autocephaly for their own gain.

“Part of the propaganda campaign and the disinformation campaign that the Russians are putting out is that all of this is simply going to lead to an expansion of the Eastern rite (Catholic Church), because they’re cavorting with heretics and that sort of thing,” Demacopoulos said.

“But I think exactly the opposite is true. There’s no scenario in which this is going to increase the number of Eastern-rite Catholics in Ukraine. The question is to what extent it will decrease the number,” because Orthodox Christians who have taken refuge there will “drift” back to an Orthodox Church newly independent of Moscow.

Russia is not alone in putting a spin on things. On September 25, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin met with the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, at the United Nations General Assembly. Soon thereafter, the Ukrainian ministry website claimed that the Holy See had expressed support for the idea of autocephaly.

The nunciature in Ukraine had to issue a statement clarifying that the Holy See had no position regarding this “internal matter of the Orthodox Church.”

Roberson said it’s too soon to tell how the controversy might affect Catholic-Orthodox relations, although Moscow has said that it will not participate in any theological dialogues where the co-chair is a bishop of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

“That’s already a problem, because if you have essentially two different communions grow up around a serious schism, then I suppose one would have to have a dialogue with each group,” Roberson said.

Asked if the Vatican is concerned about the situation, Roberson said, “I would think so, yes. The Catholic Church is in favor of Christian unity, so when there are new divisions it’s a source of sadness. Even if it’s among non-Catholic Churches, we take no joy in seeing further divisions in the Christian world.”


John Burger is an award-winning writer at Aleteia.

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