This week, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin is in Russia. The visit, which began on Monday August 21 and was due to end on Thursday August 24, marks an important moment in relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as providing an opportunity for Vatican diplomacy to promote international peace and dialogue.

Given present tensions, and the fluctuating nature of the Russian Orthodox attitude to ecumenical dialogue, many observers are asking why the visit is taking place now, and whether the fact that the invitation comes from the Russian side presages any breakthrough in the search for unity, or whether the Russian government hopes for geopolitical dividends from the diplomatic contact.

Parolin began with a meeting at the Danilov Monastery, the “Russian Vatican”, with Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the Moscow Patriarchate’s spokesman for external relations. On Tuesday he will have met foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in the morning and Patriarch Kirill himself in the afternoon, before meeting President Putin on Wednesday. The successive encounters with religious and political leaders should remind us that in Russia it is difficult to disentangle the religious sphere from the political, and that the Kremlin as well as the patriarchate have complementary objectives, which present challenges as well as opportunities for Rome.

When it comes to ecumenism, Moscow has blown hot and cold in recent decades. The renewed vigour and self-confidence of post-Soviet Russian Orthodoxy have also seen a growth in those sections of opinion which reject ecumenism outright as a betrayal of the Orthodox Church’s exclusive claims to apostolic authority. Kirill and Hilarion are both in fact moderately favourable to ecumenism, but they cannot afford to alienate the powerful conservative forces. Hence the Russian refusal to participate in last year’s Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete, seen as an attempt to advance the ecumenist agenda led by Moscow’s arch-rival, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

Earlier this month, however, the Russian Church issued a draft catechism which contained a carefully worded but clear justification of ecumenism as compatible with Orthodox ecclesiology. The apparent zigzagging is in fact a characteristic way of seeking a balanced position.

The theological desirability of a moderate ecumenism for the patriarchate also corresponds to the Kremlin’s political agenda, to which Kirill remains in part beholden. During the Cold War the Russian Church was among the most enthusiastically ecumenical, since this corresponded to Soviet propaganda’s desire to be seen as advocates of peace.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection