Moscow - Relations between the Holy See and the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, which have deteriorated rapidly since the formal establishment of four Catholic diocese in Russia, grew still cooler as Catholic leaders in both Moscow and Rome issued blunt statements responding to Orthodox complaints.
In Moscow, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz issued a statement criticizing the Moscow patriarchate for a failure to engage in open dialogue with the Catholic Church. After Orthodox leaders released a volley of statements criticizing the Vatican's creation of the new dioceses, the archbishop shot back: "We are perplexed and seriously concerned about the interference in internal affairs of the Catholic Church in Russia."
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz used simple and distinctly undiplomatic language to respond to the Orthodox charge that the establishment of a metropolitan archdiocese was an unusual move for the Catholic Church. "This affirmation is false," he said. The archbishop also pointed to the Orthodox dioceses that have been established in predominantly Catholic countries, without objections from Rome.
Finally, the Moscow archbishop traced the history of Catholic activity in Russia, arguing that the Catholic Church has been active in the country for decades. And he once again used extremely blunt language as he rejected--"for the umpteenth time"--the Orthodox complaint that Catholics are engaged in "proselytizing" to steal believers from the Russian Orthodox flock.
In Rome, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls issued a similarly blunt statement. The real issue involved in the dispute, he said, was the legal right of the Catholic Church to establish her own administrative structures within Russia. "Does one wish to accept and safeguard the fundamental rights to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion that lie at the base of all forms of civil and pluralistic coexistence?" he asked.
In a remark that was evidently intended as a criticism of Russian government officials who had joined in the criticism of the Vatican move, Navarro-Valls added that if Russia recognizes the principle of religious liberty, "it follows that each faith be recognized and respected in its individual identity, avoiding discrimination between citizens for religious motives--as, indeed, is guaranteed by the civil code of the Russian Federation."
The Russian ministry of foreign affairs, which had been notified well in advance of the Vatican's intentions, had provoked some ire in Rome by suggesting that the creation of the new diocese should be "postponed" because the move might "cause serious complications" with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz took the stance that the creation of dioceses-- in territory that had previously been covered by the less permanent apostolic administrations-- meant nothing more than a normalization of Catholic affairs in Russia: a move that was, he suggested, long overdue. "Today we can say that at last Russia has received normal Catholic structures similar to those that exist in other countries," the archbishop said.
The Russian Orthodox complaint against the dioceses is based on the argument that all of Russia is the "canonical territory" of the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II had argued that the creation of a metropolitan archdiocese was an implicit assault on that territory. "The founding of an 'ecclesiastical province' in essence means the creation of a Catholic Church in Russia centered in Moscow that claims to have as its flock the Russian people, who are culturally, spiritually and historically the flock of the Russian Orthodox Church," he said, in a statement endorsed by the Patriarch Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Archbishop Kondrusiewicz left no doubt about the Catholic response to that argument. "I do not recognize the term 'canonical territory,'" he said.
The Catholic Church in Russia points out that many Catholics have lived in Russia for years, and deserve the pastoral care of their Church. Moreover, they point out, although in theory two-thirds of the Russian people are classified as members of the Russian Orthodox Church, in practice about 2-3 percent are active members of any parish.
So the challenge for Christians in Russia, Catholics assert, should be to bring the Gospel to all men--not to become caught up in a battle for control of the country's administrative turf.