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 GÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Â¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Âª
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. GÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Â¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Âª
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. GÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Â¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Âª
Kiev 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.
By 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 his job.
But there’s no intra-Catholic reason to object to the patriarchate?
Are you 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 patriarchate?
What bothers 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 1946.
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.
So 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.
So 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 Civilt+ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¡ 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 GÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Â¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Âª 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.
So 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 that.
Do you think they know that?
Probably not, 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 centuries.
Do 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.