1946 DOES NOT EQUAL 1596

August 17, 2016

Brest represents an important chapter in Ukraine’s European aspirations. The pseudo-synod of L’viv, on the other hand, represents Moscow’s attempt to draw Ukraine back from European civilization.

The recent 70th anniversary of the Lviv pseudo-synod of March 1946 prompted broad Ukrainian Orthodox recognition that the liquidation of the Greek-Catholic Church in Galicia and its transfer to Russian Orthodox jurisdiction violated canon as well as civil law. The Moscow Patriarchate, however, persists in the fiction that the 1946 “Sobor” was justified. Its chief argument, it seems, is that 1946 was simply a reversal of 1596. Thus, even if it should admit that the Lviv gathering was not a true council and not voluntary, it could fall back on its claim that the Brest council of 1596 was not canonical or voluntary either. Thus, two wrongs would make a right, and the incorporation of Greek-Catholics into the Russian Orthodox Church was merely a return to the status quo ante.

There are ethical and historical problems with this argument.

Ethically, of course, a previous bad action does not justify a new one. Assuming for the sake of argument that the Union of Brest, as some Orthodox leaders claim, was concluded by force, that did not justify a forcible “re-union” in 1946.

Historically, there are two principal flaws in Moscow’s position. First, in 1596 the Ukrainian and Belarusian Orthodox (known to historians as Ruthenian Orthodox) were not under the jurisdiction of the newly (and, incidentally, coercively) created Moscow Patriarchate.  The Metropolitanate of Kiev was, rather, under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople. From this it follows that if anyone is entitled to complain about the Union of Brest, it is the Ukrainian or Belarusian Orthodox. The Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate lacks standing to challenge it. If 1946 were to be a return to the status quo ante, it would have been a return to a Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, not to a Russian Orthodox Church of Moscow.

The other historical flaw is that the pseudo-synod of 1946 was not comparable to the council of 1596. To be sure, illegalities were committed after 1596, often including forcible seizure of churches and even killings. The king of Poland supported the Union, even if Polish opinion was divided on the issue. But the greatest violence took place during the Khmelnytsky revolution of 1648-54, the Haidamak uprisings of the 1700s, and the subsequent Russian liquidations of the Uniate Church in newly-acquired territories in the 1790s, 1839, and 1875. In all these cases, it was the adherents of the Union of Brest who were the victims. In the latter three campaigns, it was the Russian Orthodox Church that gained. Thus, there was little to be “avenged” by that Church in 1946.

Moreover, the events of 1945-46 and its aftermath were markedly different from those of 1596 and its sequel. The Union of Brest was an attempt to reform Ruthenian Orthodoxy and restore church unity, which in fact split both church and society.  For decades, however, it was mostly a matter of learned polemic, with prominent church, social, and intellectual leaders on either side. Whatever the canonicity of the 1596 Brest council (and its concurrent Orthodox rival), there can be no doubt that the 1946 gathering, which had not been convened by any local Greek-Catholic bishops, was illegal under church law. This pseudo-synodwas a politically motivated operation imposed from above by the Soviet state and security apparatus, with the obligatory participation of the Russian Orthodox Church, upon a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic population that was overwhelmingly opposed to it. Modern technology served to magnify the terror and repression. The two events are simply not comparable.

Thus, to defend the L’viv pseudo-synod by reference to the Union of Brest has no basis in ethics, history, or law.

The 1946 pseudo-synod coincided with the 350th anniversary of the Union of Brest. To fully understand the former event, it is worth considering those aspects of the 1596 Union that it sought to negate – and that have special relevance today.  The Brest Union came at a time when Ukraine’s society felt the influences of the Protestant Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the Catholic Reformation. These movements introduced Ukrainians to modern learning, to the latest innovations in the media (namely, printing) – and to their potential for revitalizing the Church. The Union promised the Church equality with Roman Catholics, and for the nobility -- parity with its European counterparts. Although these promises were not fulfilled, the ideal remained. The debate over the Union was conducted mostly by intellectuals drawing on Western learning. Thus, Brest represents an important chapter in Ukraine’s European aspirations. The pseudo-synod of L’viv, on the other hand, represents Moscow’s attempt to draw Ukraine back from European civilization into its orbit of autocracy and ecclesiastical subservience.

The effects of the L’viv pseudo-synod have been largely overcome. Ukrainians are free to worship as Greek-Catholics – or as Russian Orthodox or Ukrainian Orthodox. But full historical justice has not been achieved. For the Union once extended to Belarusian and Russian as well as Ukrainian territories. Thus, historical justice today would mean full freedom for the Belarusian Catholic and Russian Catholic Churches in their own lands.

Andrew Sorokowski


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