The Vatican Response to Secularization and Conflict in Ukraine

I recently argued that the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC—one of two Greco-Catholic churches in Ukraine) is struggling with nationalist and secular influences. Unfortunately, it appears His Beatitude, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk’s valiant efforts to steer his Church between the internal Charybdis of nationalism and the external Scylla of western secularism and unabashed Russian aggression may be at risk. From the perspective of Rome’s ecumenical efforts with the Russian Orthodox Church, the situation is complex and the stakes are high.

On March 19 an LGBT “Festival of Equality” in L’viv was thwarted by masked, weapon-wielding thugs dressed as far-right extremists. There are suspicions they may have been brought in from Kyiv to incite violence against LGBT ideologues, who themselves provocatively defied a city council order prohibiting their demonstration (the council claims no official request was received). Unfortunately, some self-proclaimed nationalists in western Ukraine hurt their cause by fueling the flames with Facebook comments such as “And after this, why should we not maim the LGBTs?

Notwithstanding police intervention, miraculously no one was hurt. But, this further buoyed suspicions the attackers themselves were LGBT-activists taking advantage of the incident to portray western Ukraine as anti-European reactionaries—which, if one knows anything about western Ukraine, could not be further from the truth. In other words and while the incident is under investigation, it indeed may be the whole thing was an intentional and well-planned provocation by the LGBT movement in a conservatively-Catholic part of the country to discredit it in the eyes of Kyiv’s staunch European aspirations.

The questions are: why then and why in western Ukraine?

Top poster: "God—This is Love." Bottom poster: "Yesterday I met God. She's a Lesbian!"

Top poster: “God—This is Love.” Bottom poster: “Yesterday I met God. She’s a Lesbian!”

Given the costly war against Russia’s invasion, an oligarchy-controlled economy on life-support, and rampant and growing corruption, the homosexual issue is effectively a blip on Kyiv’s radar—even more so since they are (perhaps overly) sensitive about projecting a politically-correct and “tolerant” image to Europe. By weakening conservative western Ukraine’s relationship with the central government, the LGBT movement kills two birds with one stone: undermine opposition to homosexuality in western Ukraine while strengthening Kyiv’s geopolitical vector toward the west. The irony, of course, is the Ukrainian government and the LGBT movement are allied in wanting nothing to do with Russia, where both would fair badly. Where does this leave the UGCC?

Unfortunately, in addition to the gay movement and nationalist reactions to it, further complicating His Beatitude’s efforts (and likely his Church’s position with the Vatican) are indications of continued secularist pressures at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU). The university is struggling with an identity crisis in which its catholicity, rather than primarily animating its identity, effectively finds itself in competition with Ukrainian political and cultural activism. (Recall St. Thomas More’s wisdom: “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first!”) Worse, the nationalists appear confused in their attitude toward UCU: they despise liberal “progressive” tendencies at UCU while applauding UCU’s strong support for things Ukrainian.

Immediately following L’viv’s LGBT incident, two faculty members of UCU’s School of Journalism (one, a Member of Parliament) came out publicly—in an article and a blog post—largely in support of homosexuality, under the guise of “protecting rights” and “against violence.” Yet, UCU remains conspicuously silent—a repeat of their position last year when three UCU faculty members publicly supported homosexuality following a gay pride parade in Kyiv. Worse, at last count about thirty current and former students as well as UCU faculty signed an open letter directed to L’viv Mayor Sadovay demanding he do his job to permit homosexual demonstrations—effectively validating a societal “normalization” of homosexuality. These folks appear to ignore repeated charitable and steadfast support for Church teaching by His Beatitude (here, here, and here).

In an interview following the L’viv incident, His Beatitude yet again bravely asserted one cannot cherry-pick support for some of God’s commandments while violating others—implying support for homosexuality (as opposed to caring for those suffering from homosexuality) cannot be a Christian position. Moreover, His Beatitude is rightly concerned the Ukrainian government may be moving in a direction that risks an artificial conflict: when the Church speaks in truth and charity against anti-family ideologies, it might wrongly be seen as an opponent of Ukraine’s aspirations to develop into a European nation, and hence its position will wrongly be interpreted as opposing Ukraine’s development.

In this context and in support of His Beatitude, prior to the “Equality Festival,” Metropolitan Ihor Vozniak, Archbishop of the L’viv Eparchy, issued an open letter to Mayor Sadovay reminding him the future belongs to those nations for whom matrimony is holy and families are pure, stating concretely:

The principle of equality, in its correct understanding, does not contradict freedom and together with it gives each person the ability to exercise their rights as an individual. The freedom granted to man, as God’s gift, gave us the good that frees us from sin. By choosing sin, a person loses their freedom, and the resulting pain provokes the sinner to construct an ideology of personal rightness which substantiates and justifies sin… The Church proclaims the Truth, which for some is painful, but which is salvational.

From my personal experiences at UCU last year and by continuing to follow exchanges on UCU student Facebook pages, some of its pro-homosexuality activists appear to interpret reality through a secular understanding of tolerance and permissiveness (freedom as an end, not a means)—that is, not one of mercy, repentance and conversion based on truth but of an ideology based on disposable responsibilities. Rather than contributing to healing, secular “moralizing” is sometimes employed to bludgeon those who defend Church teaching on the traditional family. There are, of course, people attempting to heal the situation by inspiring people to not compromise on Church teaching. For example, Fr. Yuriy Sakvuk, Head of UCU’s Spiritual-Pastoral Department, politely called upon UCU’s community not to succumb to—rather challenge—the new “normal” of secularism—urging them to support UCU’s “special character” of service and human dignity.

The situation His Beatitude Shevchuk faces is even more complex than this. Without question, the UGCC faces a vile propaganda barrage by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in its backing of continued Russian aggression in Ukraine—falsely claiming Ukraine is its “canonical territory” while supporting Putin’s goal of reshaping the international geopolitical climate. Rome, perhaps inadvertently, may be contributing to the confusion over “canonical territory,” partly because of the “Latin” lens through which some view the UGCC and other eastern Catholic rites. Indeed, these churches ought to be permitted governance of their flocks (there is, after all, an Eastern Code of Canon Law), which are largely (although not exclusively) geographically and ethnically demarcated. Jurisdictional restrictions imposed upon eastern Catholic rites fail to respect the autonomy of these particular churches, and is certainly noticed by the ROC. In other words, on the issue of “canonical territory,” Rome may be one of the stumbling blocks to ecumenical progress.

In this context, some argue the UGCC may again be thrown under the Vatican-Russian international power-politics bus. Last year, Ukrainians were incensed by seeming Vatican appeasement of the ROC’s position, when Pope Francis characterized Russian aggression in Ukraine as “fratricidal violence,” and as a result of three not-so-carefully worded paragraphs in the joint statement in Cuba between Pope Francis and ROC Patriarch Kirill. In addition, the Holy Father warned Ukrainian bishops to stay out of politics.

To be fair, however, while some may interpret this exclusively as a Vatican power play, the real motivation is more likely prudence: in a far-reaching ecumenical context, the Vatican may be cautious about proceeding fully with the ROC while issues in Ukraine remain unresolved. A hint of this was provided by the Papal Nuncio to Ukraine, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, who noted it was important to improve relations between the UGCC and Roman Catholic Church (RCC) in Ukraine by continuing the good work of the former Nuncio Edward Gullickson. That this issue was raised is important … and consequential.

Both in the context of its ecumenical efforts and in support of improving relations between the RCC and the UGCC, the Vatican may be telegraphing its desire to draw upon the latter’s gifts to Europe and to Russia—in particular His Beatitude’s clearly articulated support for traditional family values and Church teaching. Discouraging public expressions of dissent against Church teaching by certain UCU faculty might be accomplished (in mercy and charity as well as fortitude) by stating unequivocally the true meaning of academic and spiritual freedom. In turn, Rome could be better attuned to respecting the notion that eastern-rite churches ought not to be artificially limited by geography. All this might then present an opportunity to increase the ROC’s confidence regarding efforts to reunite the Orthodox and Catholic Churches—something that is not only crucial, in terms of growth in holiness (Heb 12:14), but also obligatory (Jn 17:21).

(Photo credit: Lviv LGBT protest / UNIAN photo)

Alexander R. Sich

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Alexander R. Sich is Professor of Physics and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has twelve years of professional experience in nuclear safety and non-proliferation abroad, primarily in Ukraine. For the 2014-15 academic year, Dr. Sich was a Fulbright Teaching and Research Scholar at the Ukrainian Catholic University. He earned his doctorate in nuclear engineering from MIT and a Master's in Soviet Studies from Harvard University and a second Master's in philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary.

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