By Paul Goble
Ten years ago, when Kirill was elected patriarch, he entered that office as a reformer who would increase the role of the Moscow Patriarchate in Russian society both “quantitatively and qualitatively,” Nezavismaya gazeta says in a lead article. Today, it is clear he has failed and has been reduced to being “a hostage of political circumstances.”
Kirill has increased the size of the church bureaucracy, but his involvement in public has backfired or misfired. In the Pussy Riot case, the church became the occasion for a toughing of laws against freedom of expression and has paid a price for that. And in the case of Ukraine, it has lost even more (ng.ru/editorial/2019-01-27/2_7492_red.html).
His church has become the victim of a transformation of religious life in Ukraine, the editors says. “As a result, there is now in the Orthodox world a global split, which would have seemed impossible even in the times of the iron curtain between West and East.” And that has a particular irony for Kirill himself.
In one of the rare cases where he positioned the ROC MP at odds with the Kremlin, he has lost totally. In 2014, he refused to shift the Crimean bishopric from Ukraine’s canonical territory; but now, “if the UOC MP is forced to rename itself the ROC in Ukraine, the only principled action of Patriarch Kirill will turn out to be meaningless.”
“It is possible,” of course, that Kirill is now simply going to be willing to follow “the logical of political events” and allow his patriarchate to become “a national church of Russia.” Indeed, he is acting more and more like that, attending government and military functions ever more often and supporting the Kremlin ever more servilely.
Moreover, Kirill and his church are losing ground abroad. He has long been persona non grata in Ukraine. Last year he wasn’t allowed into Moldova, and there is more talk of autocephaly in Belarus. “Ten years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine” such an outcome with a church leader committed to maintaining his canonical territory in Soviet borders.
And Kirill, criticized by many in Russia for his ecumenical contacts with Rome, suffered in that regard as well. His meeting with the pope in Havana was reduced from being a rapprochement of the leaders of two branches of Christianity to a political move by the Kremlin to overcome its international isolation, hardly what Kirill would have wanted.
“Many consider,” the Moscow paper says, “that the Moscow Patriarch more clearly shows himself as a political actor rather than a spiritual leader.” But in fact, in the political realm, he has played only a supporting role rather than a leading one, making such conclusions more an expression of hope than reality.
What Kirill has achieved by his increasingly close ties with the Kremlin is a strengthening of the church’s administrative possibilities and financial well-being. The patriarch and his representatives can be ensured of a hearing on many issues; and the church is wealthier than ever before. But that is hardly what Kirill appeared to want a decade ago.
More to the point, Nezavisimaya gazeta says, “the actions of the Moscow patriarch are ever more limited by the possibilities of the state and the political will of the leadership of the country” — hardly the division of powers that the founder of Kirill’s religion anticipated when He talked about rendering to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.