Shadow Government

A Pope, a Patriarch, and a Missing Superpower

How did the United States find itself on the sidelines of the historic meeting between the two religious leaders?


Can common geopolitical concerns overcome more than a millennia of theological differences? Last week’s historic meeting between Pope Francis and Metropolitan Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church was notable in many ways — most especially that the meeting did not result from an incipient theological rapprochement, but rather from the currents of international politics. While there have been periodic efforts at working groups and dialogue sessions addressing the theological issues dividing the East and West, in this case the leaders of the world’s two largest Christian churches appear to have come together around shared concerns over several political and security crises afflicting Europe and the Middle East (with a nudge from Moscow and Havana, about which more below). This thoughtful FP commentary by Reid Standish and Benjamin Soloway also describes the salience of geopolitics to the meeting.

This is not to downplay theological differences. While many in our secular age may find theological convictions unintelligible and irrelevant, for devout believers matters of doctrine can be as important as — or even define — matters of life and death, or even life after death. As a Reformation Protestant myself, I do not have a firsthand theological stake in the Catholic-Orthodox divide, but I do appreciate taking seriously doctrine, and doctrinal differences.

In this respect, if anything much of the media reporting on the meeting perhaps understated its importance. While many news accounts ritualistically intoned about the “1,000 year rift” between the two communions, students of church history know that the divide between the Eastern and Western churches goes back much further than that. An 1,800-year rift is more like it. From the beginning of the Patristic age, the Latin and Greek churches experienced a deepening division over significant matters of theology and ecclesial authority, against the backdrop of growing political division. The “Great Schism” of 1054 only ratified what had long been a de facto separation. (For a thoughtful primer on the more recent history and divisions within the Orthodox communion, see this recent essay by the inimitable Peter Berger.)

Taken at face value, much of the joint statement issued by the Pope and Patriarch in Havana is to be welcomed. It largely avoids the vapidities that can afflict such declarations, and expresses clear and specific concern on several compelling moral and political issues, especially the dire straits facing Christians in the Middle East. But considering the Russian Government’s close (and not always fully requited) embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church, the statement’s concern over the plight of Middle Eastern Christian populations rings rather hollow when seen in light of Russia’s destabilizing policy in the region. Specifically, Russia’s support for the Assad regime and bombing campaign against the Syrian rebels bear some responsibility for strengthening the Islamic State and fueling the genocidal conditions afflicting the region’s Christians.

This meeting in Havana of two of the world’s most prominent religious leaders also serves as a curious illustration of America’s declining global influence. There was a time when the United States played the leading global role in forging religious cooperation on geopolitical matters. In a book I wrote a few years ago, I described how at the dawn of the Cold War presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower devoted strenuous efforts — and achieved some partial successes — in bringing Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic clergy together in a pan-religious alliance against Soviet communism. In more recent decades, President Ronald Reagan became Pope John Paul II’s foremost ally in inspiring Protestant and Catholic co-belligerency against Soviet communism, in addition to Reagan’s close cooperation with many Jewish leaders.

Given this history, it is somewhat jarring to see this latest Catholic-Orthodox entente being shaped by Vladimir Putin and the Castro brothers, with the United States only a bystander from across the Florida Strait. To be clear, America cannot and should not be the central actor in every possible ecumenical initiative. But our absence from one of this consequence is revealing. Not surprisingly given the prominence of Putin and the Castros, there are also reasons for caution and concern at some of the foreign policy implications of this summit. For example, Putin seems to have adopted a page from the old Stalinist playbook of co-opting the Russian Orthodox Church in service of Russian military aims. Regrettably, Metropolitan Kirill has too often been a willing supplicant of Putin’s agenda, even to the point of sacralizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Pope Francis, for his part, has not displayed the firm anticommunist convictions of his recent predecessors, most notably John Paul II. If not an adherent of liberation theology, he appears to be sympathetic to it, and has thus far said or done little in public against the Castro regime’s endemic abuses of human rights and religious liberty. As such, his encouragement of convening the summit in Havana was regrettable, given its attendant propaganda boost for the Castros.

In the Middle East, Putin is aggressively working to make Russia a dominant outside power, a role it has not played since Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat expelled Soviet advisors from Egypt in 1973. Now, it seems, Putin may be making a similar move to have Russia displace the United States as a major power in global inter-religious cooperation as well.


Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.