Interview with Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft of the Pontifical Oriental Institute
By John L. Allen, Jr, NCR Rome Correspondent, Feb 4, 2004
National Catholic Reporter (NCR), The Independent Newsweekly
Kansas City, Missouri, February 6, 2004
Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting
Christian Unity, is scheduled to travel to Moscow Feb. 16-20, 2004 for a
meeting with the Patriarch of Moscow, Alexy II.
In anticipation of Kasper's trip, NCR Rome correspondent, John L. Allen Jr.
sat down with Jesuit Fr.Robert Taft of the Pontifical Oriental Institute.
Taft, a pioneer in Eastern liturgical studies and a veteran of East/West
dialogues, is one of the leading experts on Orthodoxy in the Catholic
A transcript of the interview follows:
[Allen] What's the argument for erecting a patriarchate for the Greek
Catholic church in Ukraine?
The argument is that when an Eastern church reaches a certain consistency,
unity, size, consolidation and so forth, it's a normal step. Furthermore,
among the Orthodox it's often been a normal step taken illegally. For
example, the Bulgarians were under the Patriarchate of Constantinople, who
according to Orthodox practice, imposed upon them a Greek hierarchy, until
the Bulgarians had enough and declared their independence, erecting their
Constantinople refused to recognize it, until they finally realized that
nothing's going to change and so they recognized it. Frankly, my advice to
the Ukrainians has always been to do the same thing. Just declare the
patriarchate and get on with it. Do it, of course, only if you've got the
bishops unanimously behind it .
[Allen] Do they?
Yes, I think they do now. The danger is that if there are even two people
who say no, then Rome's going to say that the bishops are divided and we can
't recognize it. I told them, take two steps. First, publicly declare the
patriarchate. Second, request Roman recognition, but even if it doesn't
come, refuse all mail that doesn't come addressed to the patriarchate. Don't
just pretend, but really do it. The Secretary of State sends a letter
addressed to the archbishop? We don't have any archbishop, we've got a
patriarch. Send it back unopened, "addressee unknown."
[Allen] Why erect it in Kiev rather than L'viv, where the Greek Catholics in
the Ukraine are traditionally concentrated?
You have to understand, and this is something that anyone who knows any
history has to sympathize with, that Kiev, "Kievan Rus" as they call it, is
the heartland of all Orthodoxy among the East Slavs - Belorussians,
Ukrainians, and the Russians. To ask one of them to renounce Kiev is like
asking the Christians to give Jerusalem over to the Jews, to say we really
don't have any interest there anymore. It's ridiculous. .
Furthermore, there was a time when all of Ukraine west of the Dnepr River
was in union with Rome, and the presiding hierarch was in Kiev. It's not
like there's never been a Ukrainian Catholic bishop of Kiev, a metropolitan
of Kiev. But, you know, you don't resolve this on the basis of history.
History is instructive but not normative. .
Kiev in Ukraine is like Paris in France. L'viv, even though it's a lovely
town, is still a backwater. You're dealing with a church that has spread
beyond the old Galician boundaries, in other words the Western Ukrainian
boundaries of its existence. In the modern world people spread all over the
place. Even though this is still the heartland, there are Ukrainian Greek
Catholics not only throughout Eastern Ukraine but also across Russia,
Kazakhstan, you name it. These people have a right to be served.
Furthermore, one of the ugly secrets that no one talks about is that it's
quite possible that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church is the largest group
of practicing Christians in the country, East or West. I'm talking about
those who go to church. You ask the Orthodox in the Ukraine, "How big are
you?" and they say, "310 parishes." But ask them "Who goes to church?" and
they say, "We don't know." "Eastern" and "statistics" is an oxymoron.
One thing that characterizes Ukrainian Catholics is that they go to church,
and they practice. Why was the Russian Orthodox church so upset at losing
that area back to the Catholic church? That's where their vocations came
from, and that's where their money came from. Collect a statistic sometime
of how many priests who were ordained in the Russian Orthodox church from
the end of World War II until the day before yesterday came from Western
Ukraine. Certainly it would be an overwhelmingly unbalanced proportion with
respect to the size of the Orthodox population.
By the way, almost all the Ukrainian Orthodox today are Catholics who had
been forced into the Orthodox Church and for one reason or another remained
[Allen] Aside from Orthodox sensitivities, is there any argument against
erecting a patriarchate in Ukraine?
Oh, good heavens, no. That is, unless you want to ask the question of what
right Rome has to erect an Eastern patriarchate anyway. Basically, the
scuttlebutt is that the pope said to the Ukrainians, if you can convince
Kasper, it's okay with me. Kasper of course is going to oppose it, and
should. Kasper has been given the job of building bridges with the Orthodox,
not to dynamite them. I perfectly sympathize. What Kasper's doing is not
following his own personal tastes and needs. He's doing his job.
[Allen] But there's no intra-Catholic reason to object to the patriarchate?
Are you kidding? We've got a patriarchate for the Copts whose total
membership would fit in this room, for God's sake. Give me a break. Maybe
there shouldn't be, that's another question, but there is.
[Allen] What it is that bothers the Orthodox so much about the idea of a
What bothers them is the very existence of these churches. They look upon
all of these people as their property that has been won away, coaxed away,
forced away from them. And they're right. But what they don't realize is
that you just cannot collapse history the way they do. It's like going on a
visit to Greece to the beach because you want to get a suntan, and some jerk
points his finger at you as if you fought in the Fourth Crusade. Most
Westerners don't even know what the hell the Fourth Crusade was, and don't
need to know.
You're dealing with people who collapse history as if it happened yesterday.
Let me use my classic example of the Anglicans. Does anybody think that
Henry VIII took a plebiscite to see if the Catholics in England wanted to
separate from Rome? No, they got up one morning and found that they were no
longer Catholics. But that's 500 years ago. It certainly doesn't mean that
the Catholic church could enter England with an army today and force all
those people back into the fold. The same thing is true in Ukraine.
These people, the Greek Catholics, have been in the Catholic church since
1596, and want to remain there. The Orthodox propose, and it's hard to even
take this seriously, that Eastern Catholics should be given the "free
choice" of joining the Orthodox church or joining the Latin church. That's
like telling African-Americans in Georgia that because you're the
descendants of somebody who got dragged there, you can have the "free
choice" of living in Albania or Uganda. Maybe they want to stay where they
were born, right in the good old USA. To call that a "free choice" is a
mockery of language.
[Allen] The Orthodox say that Union of 1596 was dissolved in 1946.
Everybody knows what a comedy that was. Even the secret police who organized
the thing have spilled the beans in print. As everybody knows, all of the
bishops of the Catholic church were arrested, so how can you have a synod
without bishops? The two or three bishops who were there had been ordained
as Orthodox bishops, therefore they were not Catholic bishops, therefore
they could not in any canonical way preside over a Catholic synod. Everybody
[Allen] So what is the real issue for the Orthodox?
They look upon the whole area of Kievan Rus, which includes what is now
Ukraine as well as Muscovy and the area around Novgarod, those are the three
historic centers, as their heartland. This would be like for the papacy
having somebody come in and take over Italy.
[Allen] So they're afraid of a domino effect?
To attempt to apply rational analysis to this is to fail to understand what
the East is. Once you get over on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, the
further you go South or East from anywhere, the worse everything gets,
except the food. Logic gets worse, rationality gets worse, and everything
ultimately winds up in hysteria and emotionalism. It's futile to try and
reason about this.
[Allen] So the Catholic church is never going to persuade the Orthodox to
accept the patriarchate?
No, and I don't think we should even try. To hell with Moscow.
[Allen] Cardinal Kasper is going to Moscow on Feb. 16, and certainly this
issue will be on the agenda. Is it a fool's errand?
No, because Kasper is a rational man. You've got two levels: the level of
what appears in public declarations and the press, and then the level of
face-to-face contacts with people who can be rational, like Metropolitan
Kirill of Smolensk (the number two official in the Russian Orthodox
hierarchy). He's a rational, intelligent human being, and he's not an enemy
of Catholicism. He has to make certain sounds from time to time.
You see, you have to realize that much of what the Russian Orthodox
hierarchy does is because of their own lunatic fringe. It's a mistake to
think the patriarch and the permanent synod have the kind of control over
their hierarchy and their church that the pope does in the Catholic church.
The patriarch of Moscow is not a pope.
[Allen] What realistically can Kasper hope to accomplish?
By talking turkey the way he did in his article in Civilta Cattolica when
the Orthodox complained about the creation of the dioceses in Russia, which
was translated into other languages, he could make some headway. He laid it
right out. There are over 300,000 Catholics in European Russia, 65,000 of
them in Moscow alone.
To say that a church doesn't have a right to erect a diocese there is
absurd, especially when the Orthodox plant metropolitans wherever they want.
Let's take the example of Austria. Vienna has been a Catholic see since the
first millennium, yet the Russian Orthodox have a metropolitan, not just
"in" Vienna but "of" Vienna . that's his title. Yet there probably aren't
5,000 Russian Orthodox in the whole of Austria. Fair is fair.
Is Moscow their canonical territory? Yes, but guess whose canonical
territory Vienna is. They come up with the argument, we believe in the
principle of "one bishop, one city." Want to guess how many Orthodox bishops
there are in New York? I mean, for God's sake. The problem is, nobody talks
to them like that because nobody knows what I know. Catholics hear this
stuff and say, "Oh, gee, aren't we awful." Give me a break.
[Allen] So what can Kasper hope for?
What Kasper can hope for is a renewal of the dialogue. What he needs to do
is to reassure Moscow once again is that the Catholic church regards the
Russian Orthodox church as a sister church, that we are there to take care
of Catholics, not to fish in their pond. We've said this a million times.
Kirill has been making some good noises lately. He's said the dialogue has
never been interrupted, which is true, and that while the official position
of both churches is that we shouldn't be fishing in one another's waters,
but there are clergy on both sides who don't respect those norms. There are
Orthodox clergy who proselytize among Catholics, we know that for a fact.
The Russian Orthodox opened up a parish in Palermo! All the Russians in
Palermo you could fit into a telephone booth. Who's the priest? He's a
converted Catholic. When it was opened up, in the journal of the Moscow
patriarchate, it stated quite clearly that this is a step toward recovering
the Byzantine heritage of Sicily. Furthermore, there's a Greek monastery in
Calabria that's also proselytizing among the Catholics. There are loose
cannons all over the place.
[Allen] So Kasper is not going to persuade the Orthodox. Is his goal to
soften the blow when it comes?
Yes. I think what Kasper needs to do is to tell them that this is probably
going to happen sooner or later, and if you get bent out of shape, that
reaction is going hurt nobody but yourself. Nobody. Do we need them?
Answer, no. Simple as that.
[Allen] Do you think they know that?
Probably not, because they know that they control the turf in Russia, and
they know there are hundreds of thousands of Catholics in Russia. It's
extremely difficult for the Orthodox to face up to their own reality. They
don't really understand the uses of history. For example, there are hundreds
of thousands of Catholics today in Siberia. How come? Because the Russians
dragged them there in cattle cars, that's how come. Let's say it the way it
Furthermore, before the war, 20 percent of the population of Siberia was
Catholic. Were there Catholics dioceses in Russia before the revolution
wiped them out? Yes, there were. I mean real dioceses, not just fictitious
apostolic administrations. Real dioceses. If there are Catholic bishops now
in regions where there weren't before the revolution, it's for the reason I
just gave - these people were dragged to those regions in cattle cars. The
pope didn't drag them there. Let's say it the way it is. They're incapable
of facing reality.
[Allen] There seems to be a predictable pattern of
crisis/reconciliation/crisis in Catholic-Orthodox relations. Are we doomed
to keep repeating this cycle?
I think so. In part, because we live in a free world and nobody really
controls all of their own people. If the Neocatechumenate crowd decides to
show up in some Russian city and cause trouble, who's going to put them
under control? Part of the problem is that this papacy hasn't controlled
some of these new movements. Matter of fact, it encourages them. It's not
the Jesuits who are causing trouble in Russia. It's not the Franciscans.
Part of the problem too is that the Russians are always reacting not so much
to what we do, as to how their own constituency reacts to whatever we do.
Basically, there are three groups in the Russian hierarchy. You've got a
real wacko kind of right-wing fringe. These are the ones who would agree
with calling Rasputin a saint and that kind of garbage. Then you've got
people like Kirill, who are open and ecumenical and intelligent, because he'
s got an education. Then you've got kind of a middle group that's very
conservative but not frothing at the mouth. Kirill's group is a very small
minority. The patriarch is a juggler trying to keep all these balls in the
[Allen] The post-Vatican II goal of the ecumenical movement was full
structural unity. Is that a pipe dream with the Orthodox?
No, it's not a pipe dream, but it depends what you mean. The only possible
aim for ecumenism is communion. The old notion that the church begins with
God, then the pope, and on down in pyramidal fashion, is gone. What we're
dealing with now is sister churches. That's what we had before the East/West
schism. Does anybody think that Rome had anything to say about who became
patriarch of Constantinople? Or who became the metropolitan of Nicomedia? Of
course not. These guys were bishops there just like we had bishops here, and
when they met they'd say, "You're a bishop? Hey, I'm a bishop too. How's it
going?" They were all in communion. It's not like Rome was telling them what
[Allen] How do we get communion?
First, let's be clear that this is all we're ever going to get.
[Allen] When will we get it?
I don't know. Certainly not in my lifetime. I would suspect that it's going
to take a few more centuries.
[Allen] Do you agree that the central problem is the papacy?
Of course. What we've made out of the papacy is simply ridiculous. There's
no possible justification in the New Testament or anyplace else for what we'
ve made out of the papacy. That doesn't mean that I don't believe in a
Petrine ministry. I believe that Rome has inherited that Petrine ministry.
But there's no reason on God's earth why the pope should be appointing the
bishop of Peoria. None whatsoever. So we really need a devolution, a
The Catholic church has become so big that we need some kind of a synodal
structure in the West the same way you have in the East. The United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops ought to be a kind of synod of Catholic
bishops in the United States. They ought to be able to elect the bishops.
Leave Rome a veto, if you want. By the way, this would be no guarantee of
The notion that the locals will necessarily pick better people than Rome is
obviously false, as anybody who knows the East understands. But at least
people will see these guys as their bishops and not Rome's. Make your own
bed and sleep in it. The pope could say: 'You don't like the archbishop of
New York? Hey, I didn't name him.'
[Allen] Given all the hassles, is there a case for simply forgetting about
dialogue with the Orthodox?
The Catholic church never calls anybody else a "church" if they don't have
an episcopate. In that strict sense of the term, the Russian Orthodox is the
largest church in the world after the Catholic church. To ignore them would
be like the United States' policy on China for so many years. There are a
billion people over there, and the U.S. tried to pretend they don't exist.
How stupid can you be? So we've got to come to terms with Moscow, but
they also have to come to terms with us. Like it or lump it.
[Allen] So, tough love is your approach.
Absolutely. That was one of the problems of the Secretariat of Christian
Unity under Willebrands. When the Orthodox would say something outrageous,
they would make remonstrances privately, but never did anything appear in
public. You can't do it that way. That makes them think they're getting away
with it. It's got to be front page, in your face.
We shouldn't have a Catholic bishop in Moscow? Well, let's see, there's a
Russian Orthodox metropolitan in Brussels, to say nothing of Paris, of
London. Up to a while ago, there were three Orthodox bishops in Oxford.
All of the Orthodox in Oxford you could fit into a telephone booth. You've
got to challenge this sort of nonsense.
National Catholic Reporter (NCR), The Independent Newsweekly
Kansas City, Missouri, February 6, 2004
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