Russia's war on Ukraine is leaving cities in ruins and risks destroying relations among the Orthodox churches and between the Russian Orthodox Church and its ecumenical partners.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has supported President Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine and, for many Orthodox scholars, that support is outrageous, but not surprising.
"It is impossible to remain silent and to tolerate what the Russian Orthodox Church unfortunately has adopted as official discourse and its official attitude" not only to the war, but to Putin's vision of the region, said Pantelis Kalaitzidis, director of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Greece and a member of the steering committee for Orthodox-Catholic dialogue at Austria's Pro Oriente Foundation.
Kalaitzidis was one of the main authors of "A Declaration on the 'Russian World' (Russkii mir) Teaching," a statement signed by hundreds of Orthodox theologians and scholars condemning as "heresy" Patriarch Kirill's vision of Russian power and influence cloaked, they said, in religious language, but fundamentally anti-Christian.
"It is ethno-religious nationalism on steroids," Brandon Gallaher, an Orthodox deacon who teaches theology at the University of Exeter in England, told Catholic News Service. Gallaher is a member of the Eastern Orthodox-Roman Catholic Pastoral Consultation in the United Kingdom.
For the past 20 years, the declaration said, Putin and Patriarch Kirill have promoted the idea of "a transnational Russian sphere or civilization, called Holy Russia or Holy Rus', which includes Russia, Ukraine and Belarus -- and sometimes Moldova and Kazakhstan -- as well as ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people throughout the world."
The teaching "holds that this 'Russian world' has a common political center (Moscow), a common spiritual center (Kyiv as the 'mother of all Rus''), a common language (Russian), a common church (the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate), and a common patriarch (the patriarch of Moscow), who works in 'symphony' with a common president/national leader (Putin) to govern this Russian world, as well as upholding a common distinctive spirituality, morality and culture," the declaration said.
Patriarch Kirill's insistence that the war in Ukraine is simply a matter of Russia defending itself from the threat of the sinful "West" and its "gay pride parades" is his application of the "Russian world" view.
"We firmly reject all forms of government that deify the state -- theocracy -- and absorb the church, depriving the church of its freedom to stand prophetically against all injustice," the declaration said. "We also rebuke all those who affirm 'caesaropapism,' replacing their ultimate obedience to the crucified and resurrected Lord with that of any leader vested with ruling powers and claiming to be God's anointed, whether known by the title of 'Caesar,' 'Emperor,' 'Tsar' or 'President."
While professing one faith and recognizing the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople as the "first among equals," the Orthodox Church traditionally has been organized according to language, culture and national identity, a form of jurisdiction that ensured the church and its leaders were part of and close to the people, Kalaitzidis said March 14.
But the Orthodox Council of Constantinople in 1872 condemned "ethno-phyletism," the complete conflation of church and nation, as a heresy, which, he said, is at the heart of the "Russian World" teaching and of the Russia Orthodox Church's demand to be treated as the most important of the Orthodox churches.
"Kirill's position will cause more complications for inter-Orthodox and inter-confessional relations," Tamara Grdzelidze, an Orthodox scholar and former ambassador of Georgia to the Holy See, told CNS. "Churches, leaders and theologians are already revolting against the position of the Russian Orthodox Church."
"Of course, when there are serious tensions between the churches or within the churches, this affects the results of the dialogues" the Catholic Church is engaged in, said Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
A variety of Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic leaders around the world publicly have called on Patriarch Kirill to use his influence with Putin to stop the war.
Whether Pope Francis or the pontifical council have tried is not known, although it would have been done privately in the hope of keeping open some lines of communication.
Responding to the plea of the head of the World Council of Churches, Patriarch Kirill used the "Russian world" position, saying, "It is my firm belief that its (the war's) initiators are not the peoples of Russia and Ukraine, who came from one Kievan baptismal font, are united by common faith, common saints and prayers, and share common historical fate. The origins of the confrontation lie in the relationships between the West and Russia."
Archbishop Borys Gudziak, the Ukrainian Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, told CNS, "It is a matter of tears when a church becomes an accomplice or an apologist" for the kind of war that Russia is waging on Ukraine. "It's a very unfortunate truth that should not be veiled by ecumenical hopes."
Gallaher, who belongs to the ecumenical patriarchate's Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain, said that with the war in Ukraine and the Russian Orthodox support of it, "it is absolutely impossible to, as it were, dance with the Russian church anymore."
Many Orthodox, as well as Catholics, he said, hope the Vatican "would radically rethink its relations with the Moscow Patriarchate."