Guest Columnists

Most Needed: An Ecumenical Reset

In the early 1990s, I met Kirill, now Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’, when the man christened Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev was chief ecumenical officer of the Russian Orthodox Church. The occasion was a dinner hosted at the Library of Congress by the late, great James H. Billington, whose history of Russian culture, “The Icon and the Axe,” remains the classic work on the subject.

Metropolitan Kirill, as he was then styled, struck me as a sophisticated cosmopolitan, not unused to the finer things of life; there was nothing of the Dostoevskian ascetic or mystic about him. And if he seemed less a churchman than a suave and worldly diplomat in ecclesiastical garb, one had to be impressed by the cool composure with which he played that role. Much of the table talk and subsequent conversation over postprandials revolved around the possibility of Russia’s becoming a functioning democracy — a prospect for which, if memory serves, Kirill showed considerable, if urbane, skepticism.

Investigating his biography later, certain things about Kirill came into sharper focus. 

In 1971, at the tender age of 25, then-Archimandrite Kirill was sent by the patriarchate of Moscow as a Russian Orthodox representative to the World Council of Churches in Geneva. Ten years earlier, the Soviet regime, then conducting a draconian persecution that shut down half the country’s Orthodox churches, had “allowed” the Russian Orthodox Church to join the World Council. The regime’s motives were hardly ecumenical, however.

Russian Orthodox representatives at the World Council were carefully selected by the KGB, the Soviet secret intelligence service; their task was to block any challenge to the Soviet Union’s violations of religious freedom, while turning the World Council into a constant critic of the West. All this is detailed in The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB. And from that invaluable resource, it is impossible not to conclude that Kirill was, at the very least, a KGB asset; he may well have been a KGB agent like another Vladimir, Mr. Putin.

Kirill’s ecclesiastical career prospered during the Putin decades and he reportedly became a wealthy man — if not on the colossal scale of Putin himself, then to the point where he was once photographed, to his embarrassment, wearing a $30,000 Breguet watch which he assumed was hidden beneath his robes. (The Russian Church put up a fusillade of propaganda suggesting that the photograph had been doctored, although what seems to have been a subsequently airbrushed photo, deployed in Kirill’s defense, clumsily showed the watch’s reflection on a shiny tabletop.) Whatever his financial circumstances, it is indisputable that Kirill has been a faithful servant of the Russian state since his election as patriarch in 2009.

And while he got blowback from reactionary Russian Orthodox circles for his meeting with Pope Francis in Havana in 2016, he must have known that, whatever internal opposition he faced from anti-Roman clergy and congregants, the Kremlin and its master — without whose green light the Havana meeting would not have happened — had his back.

Thus it should be no surprise that Patriarch Kirill has attempted to provide cover for Putin’s unprovoked and brutal aggression against Ukraine, which Kirill has long insisted is part of the Russkiy mir, the “Russian world.” The war in Ukraine, he said on the fourth day of the Russian invasion of its neighbor, had been caused by “dark and hostile external powers,” the “forces of evil,” and “the attacks of the evil one.”

For Kirill to act as an instrument of Russian state power is nothing new. He has been doing that for decades. His February 27 statement set a new low, however, deliberately invoking Christian imagery to falsify what was going on in Ukraine. The technical word for such willful, aberrant use of the things of God is blasphemy. Kirill’s profane agitprop also undercut his own Church in Ukraine, whose leader, Metropolitan Onufry, condemned the Russian invasion.

Ever since the early 1960s, the Vatican has been infatuated with the idea of a bilateral entente with Russian Orthodoxy. Whatever its noble intentions, that has been a fool’s errand and it is past time for an ecumenical reset. If two of the most venal, corrupt organizations on the planet — the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, the world soccer hegemon — can sever relations with Russia because of its lethal aggression, the Vatican can surely inform Patriarch Kirill that the Holy See’s ecumenical contacts with Russian Orthodoxy are suspended until Kirill condemns the invasion of Ukraine, thereby proving himself something other than Putin’s puppet.

Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C.