By Ben Marchman
On Feb. 12, 2016 Pope Francis of the Catholic Church and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church met on a hot day in Havana, Cuba. The meeting was the first time that the heads of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy had met since the Great Schism of 1054. In their brief two-hour meeting, both men reaffirmed their hope for unity and called for the protection of persecuted Christians around the world but specifically in the Middle East. Both leaders went their separate ways following the meeting, with Pope Francis continuing onto Mexico and Patriarch Kirill traveling to Brazil and Paraguay. For the Catholics and the Orthodox Christians of the world, this meeting was a glimpse of a new unified world between their faiths. Yet, it all seems a bit political doesn’t it? Since 1054, empires have risen and fallen, science, politics, medicine, and society itself have drastically evolved. So why now? International political observers tend to find politics lurking in the darkened corners of every happy story, and this event is unfortunately no different.
First, the following question must be asked: why choose Cuba? This is not to say that the airport of Havana, Cuba is not a suitable place for leaders of centuries old religious orders to meet and catch up, but the location certainly does not relate to either church. However, as Foreign Policy magazine pointed out, Cuba is actually the perfect location. Pope Francis had a heavy hand in causing the rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, even leading to the resumption of diplomacy. Cuba stands as one of the many places where the line of demarcation between East and West is most visible, and also the place where the tension between these two worlds is relaxing. In some sense, this meeting seemed like a Cold War-style summit on a far more humble scale. The West and East coming together next to Baggage Claim, striking a new path forward for humanity.
This comparison is not altogether that outrageous, given the close ties Patriarch Kirill has to the Kremlin and the work Pope Francis has done with Washington. Patriarch Kirill has openly supported the strong ties his church has with Vladimir Putin, a close relationship which has not gone unnoticed in Russia. Pussy Riot members were arrested for “hooliganism” in 2012 after protesting against the close ties between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church. Pope Francis doesn’t have the same sort of close connection with Washington but has forged his own diplomatic path in international affairs. Not only did Pope Francis secretly fix relations between Cuba and the United States, but he has spoken about the Syria refugee crisis, the Syrian Civil War, and even domestic U.S. politics. The Pope does not seem content to stand on his balcony and proselytize to the masses but wants to interject himself into the global political scene. So an increasingly globalized and diplomatically engaged Pope and a Kremlin-linked Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church walk into a Cuban airport… what does that mean for the rest of us?
Some commentators have suggested the meeting was a way to come together on the topic of Syria and larger world issues. The Vatican says the meeting was a historic precedent that signals greater unity between the two churches. Both are equally true. In one sense it seems to reflect a détente between East and West and further cooperation, but huge policy differences still divide these two churches. For one Patriarch Kirill has supported Russian airstrikes in Syria, as opposed to the Pope Francis’ opposition to the war in Syria. However, both have consistently rallied against the persecution of Christians in ISIL-controlled territories. The truth is, both leaders seek to solidify the international position of Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy. Only politics explains why these two opposing orders would suddenly come together. Observers should not see this as a relaxing of tensions between East and West – even if they did meet in Cuba – but rather as an alliance. It is tempting to see both churches as puppets of Putin and Obama, but to do so would be an inaccurate assessment of the situation. Pope Francis’ Catholic diplomacy and Patriarch Kirill’s connections with politics signal an assertive re-emergence onto the global stage. This meeting between former enemies will likely be one of many that continue to solidify and strengthen the churches’ newfound international presence.