The crucial religious dimension of the war in Ukraine


By Phil Lawler ( bio – articles – email ) | April 01, 2022

In recent columns, I have suggested that to form a balanced moral perspective on the war in Ukraine, we should understand:

  1. the sober moral reasoning demanded by the just war tradition and the need to reflect dispassionately on the issues at stake; and
  2. the Russian view of the stakes – since even if we condemn the invasion, we must understand what caused it.

In this third and final part, I want to explore a dimension of the conflict that too many analysts have neglected: the religious dimension.


“The Russian Orthodox Church has played an active role in forging the ideology that underpins Mr. Putin’s geopolitical ambitions,” the report said. the wall street journal, in one of the few media examinations of this key issue. “It’s a worldview that sees the Kremlin as the defender of Russia’s Christian civilization…” Newspaper The analysis went on to quote Vladimir Putin saying, just days before he launched his offensive, that Ukraine “is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.”

The Russian Orthodox Church considers Ukraine to be part of its “canonical territory”, and the Moscow Patriarchate vehemently resisted first the development of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church and then the formal recognition of this Church by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople as autocephalous (i.e. is, autonomous body). From the point of view of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, the loss of Ukrainian parishes has enormous consequences.

Ukraine is a religious society, and after being suppressed during the Stalin era, the country’s churches have grown vigorously since the collapse of the Soviet regime. The population is overwhelmingly Orthodox, especially in the eastern regions, which are at the center of Putin’s territorial ambitions. When Ukraine gained its independence, the main Orthodox prelate, Metropolitan Filaret, separated from Moscow and proclaimed himself the head of a new Kyiv Patriarchate. However, most of the country’s Orthodox parishes retained their allegiance to Moscow, and the Russian Orthodox Church rejected Filaret’s request.

In 2016, however, Orthodox prelates who had separated from Moscow petitioned the Ecumenical Patriarch – the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world – for formal recognition. Their petition was strongly supported by the Ukrainian government, and in 2018 it was accepted by Patriarch Bartholomew, despite bitter protests from the Moscow Patriarchate. The Ecumenical Patriarch’s decision caused a major split between Moscow and Constantinople, precipitating a leadership crisis in the Orthodox world.

For years, the Moscow Patriarchate has challenged Constantinople’s leadership, calling attention to the fact that it represents by far the largest Orthodox body in the world. However, while official statistics have certainly confirmed the predominance of Russian Orthodox in numbers, the actual number of practicing Orthodox believers in Russia are far from the census figures. The country’s churches are mostly empty; millions of Russians who are officially considered “Orthodox” never see the inside of a church. Moreover, Orthodox leaders in other countries are inclined to view the Moscow Patriarchate with suspicion, in light of the long and proven collaboration between the Russian Orthodox hierarchy and Soviet leaders and in particular the infamous KGB.

These two factors – the number of active worshipers and the history of deference to the Kremlin – play a powerful role in the relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Orthodox communities of Ukraine.

Ukrainian Orthodox churches, unlike their Russian counterparts, tend to be full. On paper, the number of Ukrainian Orthodox believers is perhaps a third of that of the Russian Orthodox. But in practice the numbers are much closer, and in fact Ukrainian Orthodox churches may have Continued active believers – a possibility that would seriously damage Moscow’s claim to pre-eminence. Certainly, the Russian Orthodox Church can trace its heritage back to the “Baptism of Rus'” in 988 AD. But since this historic event took place in Kyiv, the Ukrainian Orthodox can just as plausibly make the same claim.

Thus, the potential loss of Ukrainian Orthodox churches would spell disaster for Moscow. And while Russia’s Orthodox leaders quietly backed Putin’s offensive, Ukraine’s Orthodox leaders — many of whom remained loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate — condemned the invasion. Patriotic Ukrainians change allegiance from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Thus, the consequences of Putin’s war could shatter Moscow’s claims to the “canonical territory” of Ukraine, and even Russia’s claim to be the defender of Christian civilization.


Another fascinating factor: the Ukrainian prelate who spoke most forcefully against the Russian invasion and who became the main representative of Ukrainian Christianity, is Major Archbishop Svyatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church of Byzantine rite. His leadership made the Byzantine Catholic community – which is virtually indistinguishable from the Orthodox churches in its liturgy and culture – a center of national unity.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church, which is by far the largest of the Eastern Churches in communion with Rome, was brutally suppressed during the Stalin era. Bishops are assassinated, priests imprisoned, thousands of faithful martyred, parish churches handed over to more docile Orthodox clerics in the Kremlin. But somehow, the Ukrainian Catholic Church resisted and regained new vigor after the country’s independence. For generations, Byzantine Rite Catholics in Ukraine have urged the Holy See to recognize their leader as Patriarch. So far, the Vatican has resisted, apparently anxious to avoid offending the Moscow Patriarchate.

But now, if Moscow’s claim to the “canonical territory” of Ukraine is completely discredited, could the Vatican recognize a Ukrainian Catholic patriarch? And if Rome grants this status, could the Byzantine faithful of Ukraine, Catholics and Orthodox, unite in a single patriarchate, realizing a dream expressed by Bishop Shevchuk?

Pope John Paul II has frequently expressed the deep hope that the Church can “breathe with both lungs,” uniting Eastern and Western traditions. This ambition is not easy to achieve; old quarrels and animosities must first be overcome. But put together active Catholic and Orthodox communities in a pressure cooker environment, and who knows what might happen? And for Byzantine Christians, today’s Ukraine is a pressure cooker.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for over 30 years. He edited several Catholic magazines and wrote eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is news director and senior analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full biography.

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