New Kid From the Bloc
Will Ukraine Help to Reorient Post-Christian Europe?
by Andrew Sorokowski
If a latter-day Vladimir the Great, baptizer of the Eastern Slavs, were to choose a new creed for his people, would he still choose Christianity? Or looking toward the European Union as his model and ally, might he instead select the new creed of the European elite: a secular humanism based on pluralism, tolerance, equality, and human rights, with its Christian roots neatly amputated?
On December 26, 2004, the Orange Revolution in Vladimir’s capital of Kiev chose Europe and the West, rather than Russian Eurasia, as Ukraine’s political and economic lodestar. What will this mean for her 25 to 30 million Christians? Will democracy, civil society, and the free market bring secularism and the end of religion? Or will the Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants of Europe’s territorially second-largest country (Russia is first) help tip the balance between Christian and secular Europe?
Of a population of 47 million, about 33 million, or 70 percent, are religious believers. Roughly half of those are Orthodox, divided among three churches. The rest include some four million Greek-Catholics (that is, Catholics of the Byzantine-Slavonic rite); around a million Protestants; less than a million each of Roman Catholics, Jews, and Muslims; and about ten million who believe in God but do not belong to any church.
Like about a third of his fellow Ukrainians, the pro-Western leader in Kiev, Victor Yushchenko, is an Orthodox believer. The “Orange Revolution” that swept this opposition candidate into power in the closing months of 2004 was distinctly moral, demanding honesty in elections and integrity in government.
Exhibiting neither the cold ruthlessness of 1793 and 1917 nor the immature self-indulgence of 1968, the peaceful demonstrations in Kiev’s Independence Square were characterized by self-discipline and restraint—indeed, by the same personal ethics and morality that the protestors expected of their elected officials. Drugs and alcohol were banned. Observers were struck by the religious character of the protests, which began each day with prayers and included a sizeable contingent of secular and monastic clergy. At one point, representatives of Ukraine’s Jewish, Islamic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Greek-Catholic communities joined Yushchenko on the podium.
Yushchenko’s greatest support came from Western Ukraine, the most religious part of the country, where over 90 percent of the population believes in God. In this area’s L’viv and Ternopil’ regions, for example, weekly church attendance is over 44 percent. Western Ukraine is the traditional stronghold of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, banned by the Soviet regime from 1946 to 1989, whose roughly four million believers are led by the Western-educated Lubomyr Cardinal Husar. But Ukraine’s two Kiev-based independent Orthodox Churches are also strongest in Western Ukraine.
Yushchenko’s opponent, Victor Yanukovych, also an Orthodox believer, drew his strongest support from the heavily industrialized and Sovietized East and South—the least religious part of the country, where only about 55 percent of the population believes in God. Weekly church attendance in the Donets’k and Luhans’k regions, for example, barely exceeds nine percent. The population in these areas is heavily Russian or Russian-speaking, and tends to favor closer relations with Ukraine’s northern neighbor.
Of the Orthodox in that part of the country, the actively religious minority generally favors the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). Formerly the Ukrainian exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, this is still the largest of Ukraine’s churches, at least in number of eparchies (dioceses) and parishes.
In the run-up to the elections, some of its bishops and clergy openly supported Yanukovych, the government favorite. In October 2004, on the eve of the first round of voting, Yanukovych met with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksy II in Moscow. The patriarch presented him with an icon of Our Lady of Vladimir as a symbol of the historical unity of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples.
Yanukovych’s Orthodox supporters staunchly opposed Yushchenko’s Western orientation. On October 21, 2004, about two thousand Orthodox believers participated in a cross-bearing procession in Kiev organized by the Union of Orthodox Brotherhoods and the Russian Movement of Ukraine. The marchers protested Ukraine’s plans to join Euro-Atlantic structures such as NATO, condemning what one of the organizers called “the moral degeneration of society caused by the spread of Western culture.” The procession sought to call attention to the menace to Slavic cultures that a Yushchenko victory would bring.
To Yushchenko’s supporters, there was no contradiction between the Western traditions of democracy, human rights, and free-market economics on the one hand, and the religious underpinnings of the Orange Revolution on the other. They looked to the civilization of Old Europe as the only alternative to what they saw as Russian despotism, obscurantism, and xenophobia. They aspired to Ukrainian membership in the World Trade Organization, NATO, and the European Union.
While accepting the need for continued economic and cultural ties with their northern neighbor, they saw the West as the best guarantor of Ukraine’s political independence. To them, Ukraine had always been a European, not a Eurasian, country. And was not the West synonymous with Christendom?
Yet Ukrainian Christians might be well advised to consider the experience of their Polish neighbors, long familiar with both East and West. Some Polish religious thinkers have regarded liberal capitalism as a more insidious danger to Christianity than communism. “There is a great deal of truth in the statement that after the confrontation with communism Christianity must enter into a confrontation with liberalism,” wrote Polish Catholic philosopher Fr. Józef Tischner in 1992.
There is nothing strange in this. Once deprived of its moral-religious framework, liberal capitalism shares communism’s materialist foundation. But while Soviet communism tried to replace a religious Orthodoxy with a political one, with only limited success, a godless liberalism rejects all orthodoxies. It offers “freedom” by treating ethics and morality as marketable goods, rendering their value relative, not absolute. Its effect on traditional religion is as lethal as it is indirect.
Ukrainians are beginning to see the implications of Western European politicians’ and intellectuals’ secular drift. In an article that appeared last year in Patriyarkhat, a journal of the Greek-Catholic intelligentsia recently transplanted from the diaspora, Petro Husak, a faculty member of the Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv, pointed out some of these.
Ukraine’s contemplated accession to the European Union could force it to adopt laws and regulations on such matters as “reproductive health and rights” that would violate Christian norms on issues like abortion and contraception, he wrote. He also noted the EU’s refusal to mention Christianity in the preamble to the European draft constitution, its withholding of financial support for last year’s XXth Catholic World Youth Day in Cologne, and its rejection of Rocco Buttiglione’s candidacy for the European Commission because of his Catholic beliefs.
Perhaps the experience of atheistic communism has made Ukrainians leery of anti-religious taboos. While Article 35 of Ukraine’s 1996 constitution separates the church from both state and school, this separation is not construed as strictly as in France, the Netherlands, or the United States. As Cardinal Husar put it in a February 2005 interview, the historical experience of Ukraine, where the church was deeply rooted in the people, differs from that of a country like France, where history has dictated an “almost absurd” separation of church and state, and where the slightest cooperation between the two elicits a “pathological” reaction.
Last April, the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches called for a “partnership” between the state and religious confessions, and in June, President Yushchenko approved of this principle. Implementing a 2002 presidential decree on introducing “spiritual-moral values” into education, the Ukrainian government has proposed a course on basic Christian ethics for public schools.
As the European Union grows, and more eastern European countries join, will the faith of the East drown in the faithlessness of the West? Or will it be the other way around? Eastern Europe analyst Paul Goble, a professor at the University of Tartu in Estonia, has pointed out that, as partially or predominantly Orthodox Christian nations join the European Union, they may play an expanded role in EU policy making.
In 2007, Romania and Bulgaria are scheduled to join the Union, adding some 23 million Orthodox believers to the ten million Greek Orthodox already there, in a total population of 490 million. If Ukraine were admitted, she would add an estimated 15 million Orthodox, for a European total of close to 50 million. While Ukrainian accession to the European Union is not imminent, Poland has been supportive, and many Europeans find Ukraine a more logical partner than Turkey.
The change for Europe would be qualitative as well as quantitative. Goble cites a September 2004 article in the Moscow patriarchate’s bulletin Tserkovnyi vestnik by Russian Orthodox Bishop Ilarion of Vienna and Austria, who foresees a multipolar Europe where the rights of religious communities would be respected, and where Western liberal ideology, which denies the church an active role in social and political life, would be challenged.
Some Ukrainian Orthodox, however, see such statements as evidence of the Moscow patriarchate’s continuing bid to lead the Orthodox world. Goble argues that the Russian Church is following her traditional policy of supporting the foreign-policy initiatives of the Russian government. These include reasserting Russia’s influence over Ukraine.
Such initiatives are sure to be resisted by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev patriarchate, which broke away from Moscow in the early 1990s, and the smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which represents a split from the 1920s. Should these hitherto unrecognized churches succeed in wooing the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow patriarchate away from Moscow and uniting in a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church directly under Constantinople (as before 1686), the Russian Church would lose half her parishes, and a new power would emerge in the Orthodox world.
Unlike the Russian Orthodox Church, a united Ukrainian Orthodoxy would most likely cooperate with the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, with which the two groups not aligned with Moscow entertain cordial relations. The Greek-Catholics, who represent a sixteenth-century union of the Kievan Orthodox patriarchate with the Church of Rome, is historically well suited to serving as mediator between the Orthodox and Catholic communions.
Indeed, Cardinal Husar has called for a reunification of the Catholic and Orthodox branches of the Kievan Church. At the same time, the Greek-Catholics’ roughly four million adherents serve as a link to the European Union’s sizeable Catholic population, recently augmented by Poland’s 38 million Catholics and some seven million Hungarian, three and a half million Slovak, three million Lithuanian, and close to two million Slovene Catholics.
Eastern Europe’s 50 million Orthodox (not counting Russia) and her over 57 million Catholics would represent a significant number even when measured against an eventual EU population of 600 million (assuming Turkey as well as Ukraine have joined).
It is a matter of speculation, of course, when and if Ukraine will be allowed to join the European Union. Ukraine’s March parliamentary elections could slow her westward trend. Nor do numbers by themselves prove much. There is no guarantee that the Catholics and Orthodox of an expanded EU would unite in answering the late Pope John Paul II’s call for a re-evangelization of Europe. Nor is it certain that Ukraine’s divided Christians would choose to work together in this effort.
Yet Ukraine’s history especially qualifies her for an ecumenical response to Western European secularism. For one thing, she has long experience with Western as well as Eastern Christianity, beginning in the thirteenth century, and with Protestantism, beginning in the sixteenth. The Catholic-Orthodox civilizational divide passes through Ukraine.
And in the seventeenth century, Ukraine’s Orthodox devised a creative response to Counter-Reformation Catholicism by absorbing its intellectual achievements and adapting them to the task of reforming and modernizing Orthodoxy. Might they not similarly internalize the intellectual apparatus of postmodernism and put it to work reviving European Christianity?
As the secularist Western elite of the “generation of ’68” gradually loses power, the center of gravity in the expanding EU will most likely shift eastward. A new generation of leaders, some of them drawn from the East, may prove more mindful of Europe’s Christian heritage. With her ecumenical experience, Ukraine could prove pivotal in turning Europe in a direction more faithful to her own best traditions.
Readers interested in more information about Ukraine should see the websites of: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) (www.orthodox.org.ua); the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (www.ugcc.org.ua); the Religious Information Service of Ukraine (www.risu.org.ua); and the US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report (www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf).
More scholarly information can be found in Alexei D. Krindatch’s “Religion in Postsoviet Ukraine as a Factor in Regional, Ethno-Cultural and Political Diversity,” in Religion, State and Society (Vol. 31, No. 1); Society in Transition: Social Change in Ukraine in Western Perspectives, edited by Wsewolod W. Isajiw (Canadian Scholars’ Press, Inc., 2003); and Serhii Plokhy and Frank E. Sysyn’s Religion and Nation in Modern Ukraine (Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 2003).
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“New Kid From the Bloc” first appeared in the March 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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