Posted: February 6, 2004
Interview with Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft of the Pontifical Oriental Institute
February 4, 2004
By John L. Allen, Jr.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, is scheduled to travel to Moscow Feb. 16-20, 2004 for a meeting with the Patriarch of Moscow, Alexy II. In anticipation of Kasper's trip, NCR Rome correspondent, John L. Allen Jr. sat down with Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft of the Pontifical Oriental Institute. Taft, a pioneer in Eastern liturgical studies and a veteran of East/West dialogues, is one of the leading experts on Orthodoxy in the Catholic Church. A transcript of the interview follows.
What’s the argument for erecting a patriarchate
for the Greek Catholic church in Ukraine?
The argument is
that when an Eastern church reaches a certain consistency, unity, size,
consolidation and so forth, it’s a normal step. Furthermore, among the
Orthodox it’s often been a normal step taken illegally. For example, the
Bulgarians were under the Patriarchate of Constantinople, who according to
Orthodox practice, imposed upon them a Greek hierarchy, until the Bulgarians
had enough and declared their independence, erecting their own patriarchate.
Constantinople refused to recognize it, until they finally realized that
nothing’s going to change and so they recognized it. Frankly, my advice to
the Ukrainians has always been to do the same thing. Just declare the
patriarchate and get on with it. Do it, of course, only if you’ve got the
bishops unanimously behind it …
Yes, I think they do now. The danger is that if there are even two people who
say no, then Rome’s going to say that the bishops are divided and we can’t
recognize it. I told them, take two steps. First, publicly declare the
patriarchate. Second, request Roman recognition, but even if it doesn’t come,
refuse all mail that doesn’t come addressed to the patriarchate. Don’t just
pretend, but really do it. The Secretary of State sends a letter addressed to
the archbishop? We don’t have any archbishop, we’ve got a patriarch. Send it
back unopened, “addressee unknown.”
Why erect it in Kiev rather than L’viv, where the
Greek Catholics in the Ukraine are traditionally concentrated?
You have to
understand, and this is something that anyone who knows any history has to
sympathize with, that Kiev, “Kievan Rus” as they call it, is the heartland of
all Orthodoxy among the East Slavs – Belorussians, Ukrainians, and the Russians.
To ask one of them to renounce Kiev is like asking the Christians to give
Jerusalem over to the Jews, to say we really don’t have any interest there
anymore. It’s ridiculous. …
Furthermore, there was a time when all of Ukraine west of the Dnepr River was in
union with Rome, and the presiding hierarch was in Kiev. It’s not like there’s
never been a Ukrainian Catholic bishop of Kiev, a metropolitan of Kiev. But, you
know, you don’t resolve this on the basis of history. History is instructive but
not normative. …
in Ukraine is like Paris in France. L’viv, even though it’s a lovely town, is
still a backwater. You’re dealing with a church that has spread beyond the old
Galician boundaries, in other words the Western Ukrainian boundaries of its
existence. In the modern world people spread all over the place. Even though
this is still the heartland, there are Ukrainian Greek Catholics not only
throughout Eastern Ukraine but also across Russia, Kazakhstan, you name it.
These people have a right to be served. Furthermore, one of the ugly secrets
that no one talks about is that it’s quite possible that the Ukrainian Greek
Catholic church is the largest group of practicing Christians in the country,
East or West. I’m talking about those who go to church. You ask the Orthodox in
the Ukraine, “How big are you?” and they say, “310 parishes.” But ask them “Who
goes to church?” and they say, “We don’t know.” “Eastern” and “statistics” is an
oxymoron. One thing that characterizes Ukrainian Catholics is that they go to
church, and they practice. Why was the Russian Orthodox church so upset at
losing that area back to the Catholic church? That’s where their vocations came
from, and that’s where their money came from. Collect a statistic sometime of
how many priests who were ordained in the Russian Orthodox church from the end
of World War II until the day before yesterday came from Western Ukraine.
Certainly it would be an overwhelmingly unbalanced proportion with respect to
the size of the Orthodox population.
the way, almost all the Ukrainian Orthodox today are Catholics who had been
forced into the Orthodox Church and for one reason or another remained Orthodox.
Aside from Orthodox sensitivities, is there any
argument against erecting a patriarchate in Ukraine?
Oh, good heavens, no.
That is, unless you want to ask the question of what right Rome has to erect an
Eastern patriarchate anyway. Basically, the scuttlebutt is that the pope said to
the Ukrainians, if you can convince Kasper, it’s okay with me. Kasper of course
is going to oppose it, and should. Kasper has been given the job of building
bridges with the Orthodox, not to dynamite them. I perfectly sympathize. What
Kasper’s doing is not following his own personal tastes and needs. He’s doing
But there’s no intra-Catholic reason to object to the patriarchate?
kidding? We’ve got a patriarchate for the Copts whose total membership would fit
in this room, for God’s sake. Give me a break. Maybe there shouldn’t be, that’s
another question, but there is.
What it is that bothers the Orthodox so much about the idea of a Ukrainian
them is the very existence of these churches. They look upon all of these people
as their property that has been won away, coaxed away, forced away from them.
And they’re right. But what they don’t realize is that you just cannot collapse
history the way they do. It’s like going on a visit to Greece to the beach
because you want to get a suntan, and some jerk points his finger at you as if
you fought in the Fourth Crusade. Most Westerners don’t even know what the hell
the Fourth Crusade was, and don’t need to know. You’re dealing with people who
collapse history as if it happened yesterday. Let me use my classic example of
the Anglicans. Does anybody think that Henry VIII took a plebiscite to see if
the Catholics in England wanted to separate from Rome? No, they got up one
morning and found that they were no longer Catholics. But that’s 500 years ago.
It certainly doesn’t mean that the Catholic church could enter England with an
army today and force all those people back into the fold. The same thing is true
in Ukraine. These people, the Greek Catholics, have been in the Catholic church
since 1596, and want to remain there. The Orthodox propose, and it’s hard to
even take this seriously, that Eastern Catholics should be given the “free
choice” of joining the Orthodox church or joining the Latin church. That’s like
telling African-Americans in Georgia that because you’re the descendants of
somebody who got dragged there, you can have the “free choice” of living in
Albania or Uganda. Maybe they want to stay where they were born, right in the
good old USA. To call that a “free choice” is a mockery of language.
The Orthodox say that Union of 1596 was dissolved in
Everybody knows what a
comedy that was. Even the secret police who organized the thing have spilled the
beans in print. As everybody knows, all of the bishops of the Catholic church
were arrested, so how can you have a synod without bishops? The two or three
bishops who were there had been ordained as Orthodox bishops, therefore they
were not Catholic bishops, therefore they could not in any canonical way preside
over a Catholic synod. Everybody knows this.
what is the real issue for the Orthodox?
They look upon
the whole area of Kievan Rus, which includes what is now Ukraine as well as
Muscovy and the area around Novgarod, those are the three historic centers, as
their heartland. This would be like for the papacy having somebody come in and
take over Italy.
they’re afraid of a domino effect?
To attempt to
apply rational analysis to this is to fail to understand what the East is. Once
you get over on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, the further you go South or
East from anywhere, the worse everything gets, except the food. Logic gets
worse, rationality gets worse, and everything ultimately winds up in hysteria
and emotionalism. It’s futile to try and reason about this.
So the Catholic church is never going to persuade the
Orthodox to accept the patriarchate?
No, and I don’t think we should even try. To hell with Moscow.
Cardinal Kasper is going to Moscow on Feb. 16, and
certainly this issue will be on the agenda. Is it a fool’s errand?
No, because Kasper is
a rational man. You’ve got two levels: the level of what appears in public
declarations and the press, and then the level of face-to-face contacts with
people who can be rational, like Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk (the number two
official in the Russian Orthodox hierarchy). He’s a rational, intelligent human
being, and he’s not an enemy of Catholicism. He has to make certain sounds from
time to time. You see, you have to realize that much of what the Russian
Orthodox hierarchy does is because of their own lunatic fringe. It’s a mistake
to think the patriarch and the permanent synod have the kind of control over
their hierarchy and their church that the pope does in the Catholic church. The
patriarch of Moscow is not a pope.
What realistically can Kasper hope to accomplish?
By talking turkey the way he did in his article in Civiltà Cattolica when
the Orthodox complained about the creation of the dioceses in Russia, which was
translated into other languages, he could make some headway. He laid it right
out. There are over 300,000 Catholics in European Russia, 65,000 of them in
Moscow alone. To say that a church doesn’t have a right to erect a diocese there
is absurd, especially when the Orthodox plant metropolitans wherever they want.
Let’s take the example of Austria. Vienna has been a Catholic see since the
first millennium, yet the Russian Orthodox have a metropolitan, not just “in”
Vienna but “of” Vienna … that’s his title. Yet there probably aren’t 5,000
Russian Orthodox in the whole of Austria. Fair is fair. Is Moscow their
canonical territory? Yes, but guess whose canonical territory Vienna is. They
come up with the argument, we believe in the principle of “one bishop, one
city.” Want to guess how many Orthodox bishops there are in New York? I mean,
for God’s sake. The problem is, nobody talks to them like that because nobody
knows what I know. Catholics hear this stuff and say, “Oh, gee, aren’t we
awful.” Give me a break.
what can Kasper hope for?
What Kasper can hope for is a renewal of the dialogue. What he needs to do is to
reassure Moscow once again is that the Catholic church regards the Russian
Orthodox church as a sister church, that we are there to take care of Catholics,
not to fish in their pond. We’ve said this a million times. Kirill has been
making some good noises lately. He’s said the dialogue has never been
interrupted, which is true, and that while the official position of both
churches is that we shouldn’t be fishing in one another’s waters, but there are
clergy on both sides who don’t respect those norms. There are Orthodox clergy
who proselytize among Catholics, we know that for a fact. The Russian Orthodox
opened up a parish in Palermo! All the Russians in Palermo you could fit into a
telephone booth. Who’s the priest? He’s a converted Catholic. When it was opened
up, in the journal of the Moscow patriarchate, it stated quite clearly that this
is a step toward recovering the Byzantine heritage of Sicily. Furthermore,
there’s a Greek monastery in Calabria that’s also proselytizing among the
Catholics. There are loose cannons all over the place.
So Kasper is not going to persuade the Orthodox. Is
his goal to soften the blow when it comes?
Yes. I think what Kasper needs to do is to tell them that this is probably going
to happen sooner or later, and if you get bent out of shape, that reaction is
going hurt nobody but yourself. Nobody. Do we need them? Answer, no. Simple as
you think they know that?
because they know that they control the turf in Russia, and they know there are
hundreds of thousands of Catholics in Russia. It’s extremely difficult for the
Orthodox to face up to their own reality. They don’t really understand the uses
of history. For example, there are hundreds of thousands of Catholics today in
Siberia. How come? Because the Russians dragged them there in cattle cars,
that’s how come. Let’s say it the way it is. Furthermore, before the war, 20
percent of the population of Siberia was Catholic. Were there Catholics dioceses
in Russia before the revolution wiped them out? Yes, there were. I mean real
dioceses, not just fictitious apostolic administrations. Real dioceses. If there
are Catholic bishops now in regions where there weren’t before the revolution,
it’s for the reason I just gave – these people were dragged to those regions in
cattle cars. The pope didn’t drag them there. Let’s say it the way it is.
They’re incapable of facing reality.
There seems to be a predictable pattern of crisis/reconciliation/crisis in
Catholic-Orthodox relations. Are we doomed to keep repeating this cycle?
I think so. In
part, because we live in a free world and nobody really controls all of their
own people. If the Neocatechumenate crowd decides to show up in some Russian
city and cause trouble, who’s going to put them under control? Part of the
problem is that this papacy hasn’t controlled some of these new movements.
Matter of fact, it encourages them. It’s not the Jesuits who are causing trouble
in Russia. It’s not the Franciscans. Part of the problem too is that the
Russians are always reacting not so much to what we do, as to how their own
constituency reacts to whatever we do. Basically, there are three groups in the
Russian hierarchy. You’ve got a real wacko kind of right-wing fringe. These are
the ones who would agree with calling Rasputin a saint and that kind of garbage.
Then you’ve got people like Kirill, who are open and ecumenical and intelligent,
because he’s got an education. Then you’ve got kind of a middle group that’s
very conservative but not frothing at the mouth. Kirill’s group is a very small
minority. The patriarch is a juggler trying to keep all these balls in the air.
The post-Vatican II goal of the ecumenical movement
was full structural unity. Is that a pipe dream with the Orthodox?
No, it’s not a pipe
dream, but it depends what you mean. The only possible aim for ecumenism is
communion. The old notion that the church begins with God, then the pope, and on
down in pyramidal fashion, is gone. What we’re dealing with now is sister
churches. That’s what we had before the East/West schism. Does anybody think
that Rome had anything to say about who became patriarch of Constantinople? Or
who became the metropolitan of Nicomedia? Of course not. These guys were bishops
there just like we had bishops here, and when they met they’d say, “You’re a
bishop? Hey, I’m a bishop too. How’s it going?” They were all in communion. It’s
not like Rome was telling them what to do.
How do we get communion?
First, let’s be
clear that this is all we’re ever going to get.
When will we get it?
I don’t know.
Certainly not in my lifetime. I would suspect that it’s going to take a few more
you agree that the central problem is the papacy?
Of course. What we’ve made out of the papacy is simply ridiculous. There’s no
possible justification in the New Testament or anyplace else for what we’ve made
out of the papacy. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in a Petrine ministry.
I believe that Rome has inherited that Petrine ministry. But there’s no reason
on God’s earth why the pope should be appointing the bishop of Peoria. None
whatsoever. So we really need a devolution, a decentralization. The Catholic
church has become so big that we need some kind of a synodal structure in the
West the same way you have in the East. The United States Conference of Catholic
Bishops ought to be a kind of synod of Catholic bishops in the United States.
They ought to be able to elect the bishops. Leave Rome a veto, if you want. By
the way, this would be no guarantee of better bishops. The notion that the
locals will necessarily pick better people than Rome is obviously false, as
anybody who knows the East understands. But at least people will see these guys
as their bishops and not Rome’s. Make your own bed and sleep in it. The pope
could say: ‘You don’t like the archbishop of New York? Hey, I didn’t name him.’
Given all the hassles, is there a case for simply
forgetting about dialogue with the Orthodox?
The Catholic church never calls anybody else a “church” if they don’t have
an episcopate. In that strict sense of the term, the Russian Orthodox is the
largest church in the world after the Catholic church. To ignore them would be
like the United States’ policy on China for so many years. There are a billion
people over there, and the U.S. tried to pretend they don’t exist. How stupid
can you be? So we’ve got to come to terms with Moscow, but they also have to
come to terms with us. Like it or lump it.
So, tough love is your approach.
Absolutely. That was one of the problems of the Secretariat of Christian
Unity under Willebrands. When the Orthodox would say something outrageous, they
would make remonstrances privately, but never did anything appear in public. You
can’t do it that way. That makes them think they’re getting away with it. It’s
got to be front page, in your face. We shouldn’t have a Catholic bishop in
Moscow? Well, let’s see, there’s a Russian Orthodox metropolitan in Brussels, to
say nothing of Paris, of London. Up to a while ago, there were three Orthodox
bishops in Oxford. All of the Orthodox in Oxford you could fit into a telephone
booth. You’ve got to challenge this sort of nonsense.
National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 2004