New Roman diocese in Russia strains relations

Published April 1, 2002


The Vatican has set up Roman Catholic dioceses in Russia, satisfying the repeated requests of its small Russian flock but plunging to new depths in its relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Vatican claims that the move is an administrative measure. “The Holy See has done nothing other than bring the organization of the Catholic community in Russia into line with that in other parts of the world, as set down by church law,” Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said. .

For the Orthodox, however, the Vatican’s decision amounts to the establishment of a rival church.

The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church described the establishment of a “Catholic Church of Russia” as a “challenge to Orthodoxy.” The patriarchate said the decision revealed the Vatican’s true “missionary aims” and called into question its overall ecumenical commitment.

The decision also deals a blow to the possibility of the Pope’s long-desired visit to Russia in the foreseeable future, it said.

The Moscow Patriarchate announced in February that it was postponing indefinitely the visit to Moscow of Walter Cardinal Kasper – president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity – who was scheduled to meet Moscow Patriarch Alexei II.

Patriarch Alexei’s consent is considered necessary for any visit by the Pope to Russia. President Vladimir Putin said last month that he was ready to invite the Pope to Moscow at “any time”, but that relations between the churches should improve first.

The Vatican’s decision “moves us away, in fact very far away from he prospect of a [papal] visit,” Igor Vyzhanov, a Moscow patriarchate official in charge of relations with the Vatican, told ENI.

As of February, Russia’s four temporary Catholic structures, or apostolic administrations, have been upgraded to three dioceses and one archdiocese, united in an ecclesiastical province.

The apostolic administrations are already legally registered in Russia and turning them into dioceses changes little as far as Russian civil law is concerned. But in terms of both Catholic and Orthodox church law, the change is significant.

The new Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz put the number of Catholics in Russia at about 600,000.

In a statement on 12 February, Patriarch Alexei and the Holy Synod said that “founding an ecclesiastical province in essence means creating a local Catholic Church of Russia centred in Moscow and claiming to have as its flock the Russian people, who are culturally, spiritually and historically the flock of the Russian Orthodox Church.

“It means a challenge to Orthodoxy. Nothing like this has ever happened in the history of our country.”

The timing of the Vatican’s decision has been questioned. It was made just as signs had appeared of a cautious rapprochement between the two churches.


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