Last March 8-10 marked the 70th anniversary of the so-called Lviv sobor (council) of 1946, by which the Greco-Catholic Church in Galicia supposedly liquidated and incorporated itself into the Russian Orthodox Church. On March 12, the eve of Forgiveness Sunday by the Julian calendar, a number of Orthodox faithful – clergy and laity, Russians, Ukrainians and others – signed a letter repudiating this pseudo-council, and asking forgiveness of their Greco-Catholic brethren. (http://risu.org.ua/en/index/all_news/confessional/interchurch_relations/62730/)
Not surprisingly, the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow was not among the signatories. Instead, it reiterated three arguments for the validity of the “council”: that it was voluntary, that it was prompted by the Greco-Catholic Church’s Nazi collaboration, and that it righted the wrongs of the Union of Brest in which that Church had originated 350 years earlier, and which had been “forcibly” imposed upon the Orthodox population of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.
In an age when governments and Churches have gone to great lengths to apologize for past wrongs, it is extraordinary that such a prominent institution should continue to insist that a past wrong was really a right. To be sure, the representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate do not seriously engage the issue of the canonicity of the 1946 assembly, either as a Greco-Catholic council (which, in the absence of any Catholic bishops, it could not have been) or as an Orthodox one (which, having been convoked by an “Initiative Group” of Greco-Catholic priests and laity rather than by Orthodox bishops, it likewise could not have been). Nor do they respond to the abundant evidence that this gathering was orchestrated, and subsequently enforced, by the Soviet government and secret police. Their allegations about the Greco-Catholic Church’s Nazi collaboration are unproven. On the contrary, eyewitness testimony and archival documents demonstrate Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky’s active opposition to Nazi policies.
The Moscow Patriarchate’s argument that the “return” of the Greco-Catholics to Russian Orthodoxy was simply a reversal of their forcible conversion to Catholicism at the Brest Council of 1596, however, is more insidious. For even if it had to acknowledge that in Lviv the Uniates were returned to Orthodoxy against their will, it could still argue that Brest was a historical injustice that had to be corrected. The 1946 council, by Moscow’s reasoning, simply returned matters to the status quo ante. Perhaps this is what Metropoltan Hilarion (Alfeyev), head of the ROC’s Department of External Church Relations, had in mind when on September 19 he told Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, that the matter of the union should be revisited by the Joint International Commission for Orthodox-Catholic theological dialogue.
Was the Union of 1596, then, a Polish (and popish) plot? Was it thereafter imposed on the Ruthenian (Belarusian and Ukrainian) Orthodox of the commonwealth by force? Since some Ukrainian Orthodox have taken these positions too, they are worth examining.
Was the union a conspiracy among the Catholic bishops, the Jesuits, the king of Poland and the Polish nobility? They all had different and often conflicting interests. Although King Sigismund III later supported the union, he did not initiate it (Borys A. Gudziak, “Crisis and Reform,” 1998, Chapter 13). Neither did the Jesuits, though they supported it too. Rather, it was the Orthodox bishops themselves, meeting at a series of synods beginning in 1590, who started the process (Paul Robert Magocsi, “A History of Ukraine,” 1998, p. 164). On October 6-9, 1596, the metropolitan and five bishops, as well as other Church and lay dignitaries meeting at Brest, united with the Roman Catholic Church. At a counter-council in the same city, two bishops and various prominent clergy and laity condemned the union.
The notion of an “imposed” union implies that the Rus’ Church was incapable of making its own decisions. It reinforces the perception that Ukrainians are passive objects rather than subjects. It resembles the Russian nationalist political narrative by which the “Little Russians” were tricked into becoming Ukrainians. It echoes Vladimir Putin’s theory of the Maidan, by which the Ukrainians were prompted by the U.S. to reject Russia. In this view, Ukrainians are mere pawns, unable to think for themselves.
Whether the Union of Brest was a wise move can, of course, be disputed. That it was a deliberate move, however, cannot be denied. Moreover, there were good reasons for it. The traditional view is that the Uniates sought to preserve their Church from mass defections to the Latin rite. Another motive, as Bishop Gudziak has argued, was a perceived need for Church reform in a fast-changing and highly competitive religious environment.
Was the fate of the Orthodox after 1596 a wrong that was ultimately righted in 1946? Anti-unionists did suffer administrative and judicial persecution and violence. Poland restored the union in lands under its control after 1667. But the general trajectory of the three centuries before 1945 was one of Russian Orthodox advances and Uniate retreats. There was thus little for the Orthodox to avenge in 1946. Moreover, Russia had no standing to avenge the Union of Brest. For in 1596, the Orthodox of Poland-Lithuania had been under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. Today, it seems, Moscow resents the fact that the victim of its 300 years of bullying is still alive.
Contrast the Ukrainian Orthodox who, having historically prevailed, are clement victors, tolerant of their adversaries. In fact, they share an important perspective. For both the union, and the Ukrainian Orthodox response to it, were framed in terms of contemporary European culture, rejecting Muscovite isolationism. In this tradition, the Ukrainian Churches today maintain a respectful dialogue aiming for eventual unity – a unity that ideally would preserve their ties to both Constantinople and Rome.
Meanwhile, the myth of Russian Orthodox victimization is the last gambit in the Moscow Patriarchate’s endgame with the evident. It will succeed only as long as there are gullible Western churchmen to swallow it.