Pope Francis

Pope Francis Comes Out Against Orthodox Christianity’s Balkanization

Pope Francis recently marked the Catholic Church’s shift into a less Western-centered approach to the world by announcing a groundbreaking decision: to support what he renamed the “outskirts of the world”, namely the emerging powers of the Global South, in their fight for the de-Westernization of the international order. Francis has shown what he means by that in many ways, including one in particular.

Supporting ‘The Outskirts Of The World’

The Pontiff has plans to visit Beijing in the near future, a phenomena which is to be read within this context, as is the diplomatic support given to Cuba and Iran during their negotiations with the Obama administration. However, above all, Francis is focusing his efforts on the most important dream of every Pope: a reunited Christendom.

Bridges With Orthodox Christians

In February 2016 he had a historic meeting with Kirill I, Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’ in L’Havana, and since then Francis has been visiting many Orthodox-majority countries to show Rome’s will to end the centuries-old division between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. He has also been joining the efforts with the Kremlin to help persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

The Crisis Facing Orthodox Christianity Today

The Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholemew I has a very good relationship with the Pope and apparently shares his vision. Bartholemew has been lobbying throughout the churches under his influence to end internal divisions. Ironically, however, Orthodox Christianity is falling apart due to a schism from within that Bartholomew I directly helped create by recognizing the Ukraine Orthodox Church’s autocephaly and independence from Moscow. This was a decision that spurred other churches in the Balkans to call on Costantinople to grant them autocephaly from Belgrade.

The Pope initially maintained neutrality so as not to interfere in the Orthodox churches’ affairs nor to annoy Moscow or Constantinople, but recently his opposition to “Orthodoxy’s balkanization” has started growing.

What Is Going On In Montenegro?

Soon after having achieved independence from Belgrade, Montenegro was turned into an important anti-Russian and anti-Serbian bastion in the Western Balkans. The country recently joined NATO and is now interested in following Ukraine’s path as regards religion: it wants independence.

The Montenegrin Orthodox Church operates under the patriarchy of Belgrade but both the clergy and the current government want to end this relationship. The former have demanded to Constantinople to concede autocephaly, while the latter is pursuing passage of a controversial law which, if adopted, would lead to the expropriation of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s assets in the country.

However priests loyal to Belgrade have been demonstrating strong opposition and have convinced thousands of churchgoers to gather and protest against the expropriation law. They have gained support from many of the main leaders of the Orthodox world, including Bartholomew I.

The Vatican Intervenes

Starting in June, the Patriarch of Constantinople gradually started changing his pro-autocephaly and pro-Balkanization standing and the Vatican’s discreet diplomacy is likely to be behind this development. Bartholomew I first rejected the idea of granting autocephaly to the would-be schismatic Montenegrin Church, and then later addressed a letter to the country’s president, Milo Djukanovic, demanding him to withdraw the proposed expropriation law.

Eventually, in early December, Pope Francis expressed his own position on the matter at the urging of Serbian Patriarch Irinej. Francis delegated the Vatican’s powerful Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, to contact Montenegro’s Prime Minister, Dusko Markovic, “not with the aim of interfering with the internal affairs of the Montenegrin state, but in the hope that the proposed law concerning religious freedoms would be passed on democratic principles.”

In other words, the Vatican is asking the Montenegrin government not to adopt the law without the consent of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which means, practically speaking, they are urging Montenegro not to pass the law. The Holy See’s intervention could prove crucial: on December 14, Markovic landed in Rome to have talks with the Pope regarding the wider subject of enhancing bilateral cooperation and it’s clear that the best way to pursue this goal is to take into account Pope Francis’ position on wishing to de-escalate Orthodox Christianity’s Balkanization.