The creation of dioceses-- a more formal and permanent structure than apostolic administrations-- will bring new stability to the Catholic Church in Russia. But for that very reason it will bring down the wrath of Orthodox leaders who already complain that Catholics are undermining their authority within the "canonical territory" of the Moscow patriarchate.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, is due in Moscow later this month for talks with ranking Orthodox officials. His visit, February 21-22, was seen as an important opportunity for promoting better relations between Rome and Moscow. That visit now takes on new importance in light of the Vatican's pending policy announcement.
On February 6, the papal nuncio in Moscow, Archbishop Giorgio Zur, met with the Orthodox Archbishop Clement, a spokesman on ecumenical affairs for the Moscow patriarchate. The papal legate formally informed his Orthodox counterpart about the Vatican plans to create Russian diocese. Archbishop Clement, the Russian Orthodox Church announced, said that "the actions planned by the Vatican represented violations of the canonical principles and norms of inter-church relations." The Orthodox prelate said that the Vatican move would create "serious obstacles" to further ecumenical dialogue.
In Rome, some Vatican diplomats have told reporters that they are "extremely disappointed" by the decision to create dioceses-- especially since it comes just before Cardinal Kasper's visit. Others, taking the opposite position, remark that the visit by the Vatican's top ecumenical official will provide an ideal opportunity for discussion of the new canonical situation.
The Catholic Church in Russia, emerging after years of suppression, has worked steadily to establish a clear administrative structure. In April 1991, two apostolic administrations were created to serve the local Catholic populace. In 1999 these two jurisdictions were divided, and two new apostolic administrations created. The four current administrations are for Moscow and Saratov in European Russia, and for western (Novosibirsk) and eastern (Irkutsk) Siberia.
An apostolic administration is an administrative region-- less "complete" than a diocese-- which is set up to serve Catholics in a place where the local situation prevents the establishment of a diocese. Frequently-- as in the Russian case-- the establishment of a diocese is judged imprudent because of relations with the local government or other religious groups in the area.
The bishops heading these Russian apostolic administrations have been working quietly with the Congregation for Bishops and the Secretariat of State to establish full diocesan structures, Vatican sources now reveal. The formal announcement of the dioceses is expected soon.
At the Vatican, one diplomat-- who did not wish to be identified-- expressed regret that the timing of the announcement would clash with the visit to Moscow by Cardinal Kasper. That coincidence, he said, would cause the "ruin of hopes" for ecumenical improvement. He argued that in recent weeks the Moscow patriarchate has shown signs of interest in warmer relations with Rome, and the visit by Cardinal Kasper might have brought concrete steps in that direction.
Other Vatican officials-- also speaking anonymously-- argue that the timing of the cardinal's visit is "providential" because it will provide for an immediate, candid discussion of any difficulties that could be created by the establishment of Catholic dioceses in Russia.
Cardinal Kasper's visit, which was scheduled independently of the plans for the dioceses, is part of a regular series of consultations between the Holy See and the government of the Russian federation. Cardinal Kasper has previously traveled to Moscow in November 1999 and June 2000. He also met privately with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II in September 2001, when they both were present for the celebration of the 1300th anniversary of Christianity in Armenian.
During his stay in Moscow, the cardinal will undoubtedly discuss the two consistent complaints of the Russian Church leaders: that Catholic parishes should not be established in Russia because it is the "canonical territory" of the Orthodox Church, and that the Byzantine-rite Catholics of Ukraine should be discouraged from expansion in Orthodox territory there.
The Holy See does not recognize the claim to "canonical territory." While insisting that Catholics should not engage in aggressive "proselytism" of Orthodox believers, Catholic spokesmen point out that many Catholics are now living in Russian territory, and many other unchurched people are still waiting to hear the Gospel message.
In Ukraine, tensions between Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox have been simmering for years. On January 11, Pope John Paul II approved the establishment of a new exarchate (the equivalent of a diocese) for the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Donetsk, under Bishop Stepan Meniok. Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, the Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, has indicated that he would like to move the seat of the Byzantine Catholic Church from Lviv, in the heavily Catholic west of Ukraine, to Kiev, which is located in the east, where Orthodox believers predominate.