If we could travel into the future, say 2116, and look back at the huge blunders we’re making today – so that maybe, just maybe, we could avoid them – it’s very likely in the history books one hundred years from now we’d find the meeting in Havana on the 12th of February, 2016 between the head of the Catholic Church and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church as a global turning point.
It has taken a millennium for the Pope to meet a Russian Patriarch face to face. The fact this meeting took place after a thousand years of strained relations and competition (a term I’ll come back to) and moreover, one that culminated in a joint, 30-point declaration, could only mean that the state of humanity is in such dire condition at the turn of this 21st century that even dogmatic disagreements – the root cause of the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox faiths – can be left aside, for now.
Let’s not mince words. The Havana meeting is relevant on a global context and sends a clear message to the seats of power the world over. It is, primarily, a political move, because it is motivated by political issues and because it will have geopolitical outcomes.
On the other hand, this is also a fighting message. Attacked from multiple sides – intolerant secularism under the guise of ‘tolerance’, Islamic terrorism under the banner of threatened identity, propaganda that condemns one’s gender, or one’s place of birth – institutionalized Christianity no longer plans to turn the other cheek.
The Havana Declaration is a call for a new type of war and the responsibility to undertake it. Unfortunately, we are no longer in a time of peace. Nobody is telling us who the enemy is, but the frontline can extend into anybody’s soul.
This is why it’s important for us to understand the messages that are implicitly present in the document signed by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill.
A few examples:
1) The location of the meeting is a message. Cuba, as a country, finds itself in ideological and spiritual limbo. It’s no longer a ‘pure’ communist state, but it also hasn’t returned to capitalism. It’s something else; most likely the majority of Cubans don’t know what it is. Fifty years of poverty and isolation cannot be skipped over casually, but it’s just as unrealistic to expect a return to its former status of “America’s Casino”.
A strategic hotspot during the Cold War and the place that almost set off a nuclear apocalypse (see, the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962), Cuba is both an anti-consumerist symbol (a cause dear to the Catholic pontiff) as well as a place where the Church can fill the void of hope created by the state’s official atheist stance (a disposition espoused by the Patriarch).
Points 2 and 3 in the Havana Declaration also say, if you read between the lines, that the model isn’t Europe with her “longstanding disputes”, but this island – the “symbol of hope for the ‘New World’”. Strange, perhaps, but worth keeping in mind.
2) Points 5 through 7 refer explicitly to restoring the “unity willed by God” as the only way of “responding together to the challenges of the contemporary world.” It’s a veiled reference to the attacks I referred to above, in the face of which - the two signatories say – “our Christian conscience …compels us not to remain passive…”
3) It isn’t outwardly clear, for the average reader, to whom the Pope and Patriarch are referring to on point number 9, where they “call upon the international community to act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion of Christians from the Middle East.” This lack of clarity persists when they urge the international community to “undertake every possible effort to end terrorism”. There’s a sense that this wording is used in lieu of, “you know who you are”.
4) Points 13 and 16 focus on the radicalization of Islam. The first of these insists that “no crime may be committed in God’s name”, a clear reference to suicide bombings. The other is a diplomatic stance with regard to the question of refugees: “While remaining open to the contribution of other religions to our civilization, it is our conviction that Europe must remain faithful to its Christian roots.”
The text appears to say hospitality is one thing and renouncing one’s identity is another. On point 17, the text indicates the solution to the migration problem lies at its source and the cause is “the growing inequality in the distribution of material goods.”
5) The defense of the family based on marriage between man and woman, as well as an explicit regret that the concept of paternity and maternity as ‘vocation’ is “being banished from the public conscience” (points 19 and 20) are part of the most highly contested ideological battle in the world; Tradition versus liberalism, difference versus androgyny, marginal ideas dictate mainstream discourse, minority rights, the parents’ influence on their children’s upbringing – these various notions and their discords are no longer discussed in a rational manner, regardless of the size of the initiating group.
It’s the era of every man for himself, under the constraint of tolerance, but amidst a sort of mass hysteria where many are prepared to use weapons to impose their beliefs.
6) Points 24 through 26 are a small victory for Russia – as if Vladimir Putin himself signed in Patriarch Kirill’s name. “It cannot be accepted that disloyal means be used to incite believers to pass from one Church to another…” a clear reference to Uniate Catholic proselytizing in Ukraine. The proof comes in the next point: “The past method of ‘uniatism’… is not the way to re-establish unity.”
This is no more than the grave historical condemnation of the Uniate Catholic faith, established as compromise between the Western and Eastern Churches. In addition, the declaration also takes aim at the attempt, by some Ukrainian Orthodox faithful, to abandon Moscow’s authority and create an autocephalous Patriarchy in Kiev. “It is our hope that the schism between the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine may be overcome through existing canonical norms…”
7) The final three points in the Declaration (28, 29, and 30) denote encouragement to Christians to continue to bear witness to Christ. The exhortation, “do not be afraid any longer, little flock” sounds like a confirmation of the – not entirely defined – general confrontation to which this historic text refers.
I promised I’d come back to the term “competition”. Point 24 says “we are not competitors but brothers” – an affirmation that demands evidence if the Churches’ respective ‘bodies’ are to believe it. This is because, in the mostly Orthodox area of influence, the Russian Church will be seen as a second Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially after this event. Insofar as Rome is concerned, a willingness to discuss the question of papal primacy would demonstrate that brotherhood is above infallibility.
Perhaps a solution to the schism isn’t a time travel machine into the future, but into the distant past. To a time where the heads of the Church chose, too often, to give onto Caesar all that is Caesar’s, but also what belongs to God.