The Eastern Orthodox Schism Behind the War in Ukraine

schism is underway between two major Orthodox Churches, one with significance for Catholicism. And yet, in Catholic media the phenomenon—called by many the biggest split in modern Orthodoxy history—has gone conspicuously unnoticed. A single Catholic News Agency article from a while back summarizes the problem tellingly and laconically:

The Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow has cut ties with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, claiming his recognition of an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine departed from Orthodox Christian norms . . .

. . . Patriarch Bartholomew’s plan to create a single, self-governing Church in the Ukraine, led by its own patriarch, is motivated by a desire to unify the country’s 30 million Orthodox Christians. The Russian Church sees the move as an infringement of its jurisdiction and authority.

There are about 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. The Orthodox Church split from the Catholic Church in 1054.

Something is afoot that should capture the Catholic imagination. It has something to do with unity, authority, and Apostolic Christianity. Its precise meaning, however, remains elusive not merely because the situation remains in flux but also because the inner workings of Orthodox Christianity seem—to many anyway—obscure, opaque.

As a Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic myself, this crisis hits a bit closer to home. For us, the Orthodox—with whom we share a liturgical, theological, and ritual patrimony—never seem very off. In many ways, they are closer than our Latin brethren. Regardless, this particular controversy is worthy of the attention of all members of the Catholic Church, whose response should be neither a simplistic triumphalism nor a willful ignorance. In fact, the Schism cuts right to the heart of our ongoing kerfuffle about authority and primacy.

With this in mind, let us try to understand exactly what is transpiring in and around Ukraine.

Whose Schism? Which Rationale?

The short version of events is that, since about the collapse of the USSR, there have been three competing jurisdictions in Ukraine: the UOC-MP (Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate), the UOC-KP (Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kyiv Patriarchate), and the UOAC (Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church). Until the beginning of this crisis, only the first of these was recognized as the legitimate, canonical Orthodox Church in Ukraine; it is subordinate to the “Moscow Patriarchate” (hence the MP), and thus, in the eyes of many Ukrainians, is an arm of the Russian nation-state, which is obviously not incredibly popular in the aftermath of the invasion of Crimea. The other two jurisdictions arose in 1992 and 1921 respectively, in the hope that Ukrainian Orthodox believers could, for the most part, govern themselves—a concept known as autocephaly (something even the MP Church asked for when the Soviet Union fell). What the Ecumenical Patriarch—traditionally the protos (head) of the Orthodox Church—has done is to ask all three groups to unite into one body, which would (hopefully) be free of outside influence. In response, the Russian Orthodox Church has ceased Eucharistic communion with all believers under the omophor (pastoral protection) of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. Most other Orthodox Churches are sitting on the sidelines, figuring out what to do, still in communion with both, though many have notable Russian sympathies.

The arguments of each faction betray a different vision of how authority ought to work, that is, what exactly the Orthodox Church is. Supporters of the Ecumenical Patriarch argue that only his see has ever been allowed to grant autocephaly, that even Moscow’s headship over Ukraine was a temporary right granted under duress by Constantinople. This move is merely an attempt to bring back into communion millions of people who have existed outside of canonical Orthodoxy for no good, dogmatic reason. Politics should not separate those who are united in the Faith. Thus Bartholomew’s move is not only in the spirit of Christian charity but also wholly in line with the traditional understanding of autocephaly, which can only be granted by the Ecumenical Patriarch, and, who in bestowing it, preserves himself as the rightful, visible head of the Orthodox Church. Archbishop Job of Telmessos summarized this position well in a recent interview:

— If you study the history of the Orthodox Church, according to texts and documents, rather than created myths and false historiography, it is evident that absolutely all modern autocephalies have been proclaimed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Even if we take the history of the Orthodox Church in Russia, we see that its autocephaly was self-proclaimed in 1448, when Moscow elected metropolitan Jonas independently, without the consent of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It is interesting to emphasize that the Orthodox Church in Russia has never been given a tomos of autocephaly! In 1589-1590, Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremias II simply normalized the situation by raising this see to a patriarchal rank, while allowing the Moscow bishop “to be called” patriarch, provided that he would commemorate the Ecumenical Patriarch and consider him “as his head and protos,” as stated in the letter.

Later autocephalies that were proclaimed in the 19th and 20th centuries—all were proclaimed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate: the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Greece (1850), in Serbia (1879 and elevated to the a patriarchate in 1922), in Romania (1885 and elevated to a patriarchate in 1925), in Poland (1924), in Albania (1937) in Bulgaria (1945 and elevated to a patriarchate in 1961), in Georgia (1990) and in the Czech Lands and Slovakia (1998). Each of these proclamations was linked to a political factor and autocephaly was proclaimed as a way of ensuring the unity of the Church, within the interior of each of these states, as well as the unity between the Local Churches.

In addition to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in the history of the Orthodox Church, no other Local Church has proclaimed autocephaly. True, the Orthodox Church in Russia may claim that it proclaimed the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Georgia (1943), in Czechoslovakia (1951) and in America (1970), but these autocephalies were not recognized by the fullness of the Orthodox Church as the Orthodox Church in Russia does not have such a prerogative of providing autocephaly. Therefore, these three Churches themselves appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for providing tomoses of autocephaly. Over time, the Ecumenical Patriarchate normalized the situation by declaring the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Georgia (1990) and in the Czech Lands and Slovakia (1998).

Supporters of Moscow fire back that this is an infringement on their canonical territory; it is effectively a power-grab by Constantinople, whose traditional position of authority is undermined by the fact that the Russian Church is, by far, the largest in the Orthodox Communion. Of course, with many of its faithful and 12,328 of its churches located in Ukraine, the Russian Church stands to lose the prestige that comes with these numbers should Bartholomew succeed. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the head of External Church Relations for the Russian Orthodox, has said the he hopes “common sense prevails.” Here, “common sense,” means: “you gave us authority over this territory long ago. It’s ours and now you seek to mettle in it to your own benefit. You initiated this schism by overreaching.”

There are many ways of staging this conflict: nationality v. universality, tradition v. pragmatism, etc. Ultimately, however, all of these pairings may be reduced to questions of authority and institution, questions that have already been raised in the pages of this very journal.

Authoring Orthodoxy

The fundamental question here is not just who grants self-governance but rather what does autocephaly really mean? Who has ultimate authority in the Orthodox Church? Archimandrite John Panteleimon Manoussakis addressed this question in the essay “Petrine Primacy: Who Can Speak on Behalf of the Orthodox Church” many months ago (and in a book of his). His observations in Church Life Journal are made all the more significant by these recent developments:


The demand for consistency is related, in my opinion, to the question of authority. Who can speak on behalf of the Orthodox Church? Who is entitled to do so? Orthodox faithful today become familiar with a phenomenon that takes alarming dimensions, namely, the rise of a movement within the Orthodox Church consisting of zealots who see themselves as the rightful “guardians of Orthodoxy,” over and against the Church’s institutionalized authority. In their ferocity against the Western other, these “guardians of Orthodoxy” reject any notion of primacy, espousing and promoting an ecclesiology that they misunderstand to be democratic in its structure of equality.

Manoussakis goes on to consider various alternatives to the primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarch. He rejects the idea that the sacramental equality of all bishops means their ecclesial (or one might say, political) equality. Ecumenical Councils, he argues, do have a special authority, but these need to be called by someone, by a primate, a convener. Christ, he says, is the head of the Church, but does his headship replace the need for a visible leader? “Are Orthodox just Protestants avant la lettre?” he seems to ask. His response in his essay on Petrine primacy is:

By asserting such a claim, the Orthodox present a not-so-implicit critique against papal primacy, which is often caricatured as a centralized, imperialistic, and therefore totalitarian and oppressive ecclesiology. In opposition to such a structure, the Orthodox take pride in what they consider a more democratic structure. They give, however, little or no thought to the fact that the synod as a manifold body presupposes the office of the One—that is, the one primus who, although inter pares as far as his sacramental faculty is concerned, remains nevertheless unequal in his primacy. Similarly, the patriarch or the metropolitan is also inter pares with the bishops who are administratively under him; yet, as the 34th Apostolic Canon makes clear, the synod cannot do anything without his consent. As the bishop is also inter pares with all baptized Christians, he is one of them every time he officiates—an ecclesiological truth signified by the white sticharon (the equivalent of the alb) that the bishop, like all clerics, wears as the first piece of his liturgical vestments. And yet, despite the fact that he is inter pares with the faithful (cum fidelibus), the local church cannot do anything without him, nor would they even exist as a community.

In short, for Manoussakis, failing to see the Ecumenical Patriarch as protos (or primus, if you like) is rooted in the same instinct as is anti-Catholicism. One might go so far as to say that such an approach is a sort of Modernism, that is, an attempt to redefine the traditional governing structures of the Church along new lines (in this case, often nationalistic ones). Ironically, many of the other cases in which the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted autocephaly were the result of national Churches desiring relative independence from Constantinople. In this case, a nationalist group is seeking the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s help in containing the influence of a foreign power. This time there is great controversy; in the past, such nationalistic endeavors were seen as guarantors of unity. Now, such nationalism is not common sense.

Russia under Putin (and its Church under Kirill) has become associated with a sort of nationalism, though one that is imperial, rather than simply particular. This conflict is thus a stand-in for political and ecclesial ideology. On the one hand, there are the ecclesial traditionalists open to the West. Here it is worth noting that current Ukrainian president Poroshenko has “cast ‘autocephaly,’ or autonomy for the Ukrainian church, as part of Kiev’s broader push for integration with the west through EU and NATO membership while withdrawing from agreements with Russia.” On the other, those who speak of ecclesial democratization whose politics align with something generally regarded as less-democratic. Theological modernization—a sort of spreading-thin of religious authority—stands with imperial ambition. Ironically, standing with the dialectic of one and many in the person of the protos stands with globalism and Westernization.

It seems our typical ideological categories fail to contain reality. Then again, the same can be said about “conservative” Pope Benedict’s famous thoughts on democratic socialism.

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

Having untangled some of this ideological knot, let us return to Catholicism. This schism should cause us pain and sorrow. It should break our hearts that fellow Apostolic Christians are no longer communing with one another. It should hurt us that others are going to be asked to choose sides in a conflict over political jurisdiction and not doctrine or dogma. We should be praying for reunion, not celebrating our unity. And what unity do we have to celebrate?

Ours is a Church riven by questions of authority, especially given recent developments in the sex abuse crisis and general opposition to Pope Francis. Bartholomew and Francis are often compared—both are friends of the environment, are often seen as “liberals” by their co-religionists. We may be united in the Eucharist, but our minds seem bent on schism. In other words, these two situations cannot easily be disentangled; their co-existence casts an eerie shadow, not rays of hope.

Acknowledging this allows us to return to the relative silence about the schism in Catholic media. To take one example, First Things (though technically not Catholic, it covers the Church a good deal) has recently published quite a few pieces on the ongoing Synod, along with one on institutional critique in Peter Damien. Nothing yet on the Orthodox schism, which, of all outlets, The Atlantic has addressed.

We seem to prefer to keep up with our own squabbles. This fighting, of course, is imperfectly paralleled in the Ukrainian schism. Ideological boundaries are challenged in both situations, leading to a sort of intellectual ossification. Opposing Pope Francis must be to be on the side of Tradition, since he favors gawdy clerical accoutrement and speaks against modern nation-states. Russia is the defender of Western values; supporting it and its policies must thus be the only appropriate way to support Christian witness. Or, so the hastily constructed syllogism goes.

But these questions misunderstand the nature of authority and decision-making. Neither the pope nor the Ecumenical Patriarch is a tyrant. Neither must be endorsed wholesale merely because of his office—such unabashed (and extreme) ultramontanism is not healthy, nor is it traditional. Both leaders deserve to be critiqued here and there. Both of these men are imperfect. And both, in all honesty, might be using opportunities for political gain—autocephaly in Moscow does benefit the shrinking Ecumenical Patriarchy over and against growing Russia. Using a weird ferula does showcase and tacitly approve Pope Francis’ odd liturgical tastes.

Simply deciding on new schemes of authority, however, can only lead to schism, can only break apart our Churches in ways damaging to our claims of universality. Who will become Russian Orthodox if the Russian Orthodox Church claims to be the one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church alone in a sea of heresy and schism? Who will join with Pope Michael in Kansas? Who, in the modern, cosmopolitan world, will be convinced of the need for Apostolic Tradition if the Body of Christ is shattered into so many different denominations?

The difficulties of these questions have allowed us to repress the Ukrainian situation. The ideological boxes they ask us to break, the delicate balance they commit us to, make it seemingly impossible to inquire about our Orthodox brothers and sisters. This we cannot allow should we wish to face a secular world head on; we must think with this unthinkable schism—and above all pray for unity—should we seek a revivified Church, or have we already forgotten the words of John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint?

The unity of all divided humanity is the will of God. For this reason he sent his Son, so that by dying and rising for us he might bestow on us the Spirit of love. On the eve of his sacrifice on the Cross, Jesus himself prayed to the Father for his disciples and for all those who believe in him, that they might be one, a living communion. This is the basis not only of the duty, but also of the responsibility before God and his plan, which falls to those who through Baptism become members of the Body of Christ, a Body in which the fullness of reconciliation and communion must be made present. How is it possible to remain divided, if we have been “buried” through Baptism in the Lord's death, in the very act by which God, through the death of his Son, has broken down the walls of division? Division “openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the Good News to every creature.”

Featured Image: Ferdinand Hodler, The Reaper, 1910; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.


Chase Padusniak

Chase Padusniak is a PhD candidate in Princeton University's Department of English, where he specializes in medieval literature. In addition to his academic pursuits, Chase spends time working on creative projects such as films, poetry, and cultivating negativity.

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