For the past few years, Russia under President Vladimir Putin has been worried about Chinese demographic and economic pressure pushing into poor and under-populated but resource-rich Siberia. Thus Russia allegedly supported a balancing action to extend Russian influence in China. The Chinese northeast had far more people and was developing much better than Siberia, but it had a weak spot: it was “spiritually poor,” with no religious belief to hang on to, and some people were harking back to their old pre-communist faith in Russian Orthodoxy.
Maoism had erased traditional beliefs and since the fall of Maoism, which had become a semi-religious creed, with the ultra-materialistic approach to economic growth and development, China has been a spiritual semi-desert. Most people held semi-superstitious ideas drawn from Buddhism and Taoism, some were drawn for a while to new religions like the Falun Gong, and there was an explosion of half-forgotten faiths, like Christianity in its different stripes and shapes and Islam.
In this atmosphere, Russia trained Chinese and Russian missionaries in seminaries and sent them to northwest China to help the revival of Russian Orthodoxy. Moreover Putin pressed the Chinese government to get a distinct official recognition for the Russian Orthodox Church in China. At the moment, the Orthodox Church is under the umbrella of the Christian Patriotic Association, which covers mostly Protestants. In China, these associations were established after the Communist Party took over the country to organize and keep an eye on the main religions in China. The officially recognized religions are Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and “other Christians” all listed under the Office of Religious Affairs. That is, all of the associations actually cover different schools and separate religions. For instance, Lamaist and Zen Buddhists are bundled together in one group (Buddhism); Sufi and Wahhabi Islam, too; Evangelicals and Mormons are under one umbrella (Christians). Only the Catholics have a coherent association of their own. In the late 1990s, the Falun Gong, initially registered as a sport association, insisted on being listed under the Office of Religious Affairs, separate from the Buddhist or Taoist umbrella, but their request was denied before the eventual official crackdown in 1999.
If Chinese home-grown religions are denied new separate associations, for the Russian Orthodox it is even more difficult, thus Beijing resisted all pressures from Moscow in this sense. Yet in a significant gesture, Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to meet Russian Patriarch Kirill in May 2015.
There are other implications in this story. If the Russian Orthodox Church is allowed to have its own association, other tiny minorities following Greek Orthodoxy in China would fall under its “leadership”. This could have international implications, as China could confirm an old Russian ambition to have its own version of Orthodoxy become the leader of all orthodoxies. In recent months, the Russian Church, comprising about half of the Orthodoxy worldwide, decided not to take part in the Pan-Orthodox Council in June in Crete. The council was also advocated for by Catholic Church in Rome. The Russian Church, whose Patriarch Kirill had met the pope for the first time ever in February in Cuba, had in principle agreed to the council at an earlier date.
A massive split runs through the Orthodoxy. One “factions” is making efforts to rebuild ties with Rome, as proven by the recent ground-breaking agreement on primacy and synodality some Orthodox churches signed in Rome in late September. Another part finds some of its national identity in its Orthodox Church. Here the borders between religion and politics become more blurred. The fight in Ukraine between Ukrainians and Russians runs also through a religious divide: the Catholic Ukrainians and the Russian Orthodox Russians. The same is true in Georgia, a country that feels threatened by Moscow. Georgian Orthodoxy is part of the national glue against Moscow and its version of Orthodoxy.
Here the Pope’s efforts to reach out across the wide Christian spectrum de facto collides with the many different political agendas in which leaders use the local religion for their specific political goals. Papal appeals to Christians to overcome theological differences, incomprehensible to most believers, clash with the reality of political-religions. Religions are being used now, as always, to cover up for political aims, and this can be legitimate.
Here there is an objective issue that may trouble Putin. The Pope reaches out to Protestants, Orthodox of every stripe and color, Muslims, and even to non-monotheistic Chinese in an objective political effort to put religion at the service of peace. Yet as we saw with China, religion is an important tool of Putin’s efforts to balance a growing neighbor. In Russia, without the ideological bond of communism, Orthodox religion has become an even stronger national tie. It has become part of its new national identity, and it may be used against enemies, including the Muslim rebels in Chechnya or the Orthodox Georgians. Then the papal appeals to unity of Christians and religions can de facto help to pre-empt the political use of religion for a specific cause.
Moreover, political leaders who used to think of religion in hard-nosed political terms may wonder whether the Pope’s political goal for peace is an end to itself or is an instrument at the service of other, subtler political aims. The Catholic Church has kept out of the religious wars that some Muslim extremists want to wage against the rest of Islam and Christianity. But some fanatics among the Orthodox and radical Evangelicals are eager to wage war on Islam as such. As the voice of the Pope reaches out to the heart of common Orthodox believers wishing for peace, so the voice of Orthodox fanatics reaches out to fringes of the Catholic Church blaming the Pope for giving up Christianity as a cultural identity.
The new super soft power of the church comes from a general situation in which America has not been able to become the total almighty superpower but is still the only superpower (see http://www.atimes.com/the-kiss-in-havana-pope-francis-rolls-out-his-mission-impossible-on-the-world-stage-sisci/). But it also has this Pope’s ability to surf over the many conflicting political agendas of states and parties in the world to reach out for peace.
This, one might say, was always the Vatican agenda, For centuries, however, Popes were encumbered in this task by the presence of their Pontiff state. Presently this effort is different. It is stronger than in the past because it does not conflict with the state interests of the pontiff state, but it is weaker because it is not supported by any real state or economic power.
Yet this new higher profile brings Rome to the centre of the world, as in the time of the conspiracies of the Renaissance. Are the Catholic conservatives enamored of Putin also actively supported by Putin? Or are the Russians right that behind the appointment of the American Greg Burke as spokesman of the Vatican there is the influence of the US conservatives? Is history repeating itself, almost like in the Renaissance? When Spain was strong, they had the Borgia pope; when Florence had clout, they promoted a Medici to the Holy See. But this logic is faulty, because the logic of the church prevails over the interest of every single nationality—this is how the church was founded and maintained for centuries. But growing media attention shows the risk of seeing in the nationality of each individual at the Vatican a different political agenda.
Here again the situation is very delicate. As the church is no monolith and the Pope doesn’t preside over 1.2 billion loyal subjects, many moves by the church are bound to be pushed and pulled in all directions for political goals by the single believers and the powers that directly or indirectly influence them. Unlike in the Renaissance, there is now freedom of speech and the pope wants more people to join the Catholic Church, not to split it further. That is, the pope seems to use the difference of opinion even about him to draw more people to the church rather than being upset about it and cutting people off from the church.
Furthermore, hard geopolitics is an old part of the Catholic game and evidence of the new soft superpower of the church. Of course the Vatican has suffered in the past many times because of pressures from different superpowers and the company of Jesus, from which this pope comes, was suppressed in 1773, almost on the eve of the French Revolution, because of political pressures. Then France was the major power defending the church at a time when other Catholic states were declining (Spain and Austria) and non-Catholic states (England, Prussia, Russia) were growing. France was extremely wary of the power and influence of the Jesuits and for years pressed for its disbandment. Because of this, the famously successful mission in China was withdrawn, but perhaps even more importantly, the Jesuit inroads in non-Catholic Europe were cut short.
By translating Chinese culture for Europe, the Jesuits reached out to countries that had broken out from Catholicism after the Protestant Reformation. Protestant England adopted a civil service model based on the experience of Chinese Mandarins as reported by the Jesuits; Gottfried Leibnitz, court philosopher of Prussia, changed modern science and thinking by studying the Yi Jing, brought again by the Jesuits. That is, the Jesuits used Chinese culture to bridge the gap in Christianity of the time.
But this actually encroached on the pivotal role France had acquired for itself in Europe as protector of the church. The Jesuits with their action were almost saying, we do not need the protection of one state because our diplomacy can expand the reach of the Holy See without being hooked to any single state. In this the Jesuits were reaching back to a time when Rome emerged through centuries as a centre of faith by constantly refusing the protection of the Byzantine emperor, who presided over Orthodox faith almost like President Putin looks over “his” Orthodox Church. Now almost in the same fashion, the pope is apparently striving to keep out of power politics, navigate over them, and thus establish a renewed role for the church that pushes for peace not power and in doing so goes beyond its traditional borders in Europe and America.
Some of the Catholic believers who oppose the Pope now perhaps fail to see this grand design and are willingly or unwillingly bending to the legitimate interests of single states. All of this is legitimate, but it is not the drive of the Vatican.
Written with Father Francesco Strazzari