Everybody is figuring that Pope Francis and President Obama spoke about religious freedom in America (and maybe they did). But the two of them ought to have spoken – and maybe they did – on a more pertinent topic: the crisis in Crimea. Because the division of Ukraine carried out by Vladimir Putin earlier this month is just the latest episode in a long tussle over territory, property, and cultural heritage that goes back to the Catholic-Orthodox Great Schism of 1054.
A little tablet-friendly history (correct me where I’m wrong): Again and again in the centuries after the schism the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church sought to establish spheres of influence. Again and again each sought to establish its authority over local rulers and national governments. Again and again the leader of the Russian nation made local decisions based on a symbolic calculus of where Russia should stand vis-a-vis the West, framing his case for territorial expansion and aggression, Fall-and-Redemption-like, in terms of the restoration of a long-violated original order. Sound familiar?
Pope Francis and his Vatican associates – such as Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, the American-educated archbishop emeritus of Kiev – know this history as well as anybody. What’s more, Pope Francis knows firsthand the tensions of countries which feel themselves to be under the Euro-American thumb, countries where Christian ideals coexist uneasily with Marxist ones.
Western leaders — popes among them — have been trying to figure out what Russia wants for nearly a thousand years. Here’s hoping the president sought the pope’s counsel, not just his blessing.