Pope-Putin visit: Is church détente in the works?

President Vladimir Putin’s Nov. 25 meeting with Pope Francis was the third  to the Holy See by a Russian leader since the two sides established full diplomatic relations in 2009. 

3. Political concerns

Dating back to the 10th century, when Prince Vladimir adopted Christianity as the official religion for the Russian predecessor state, Kievan Rus, church and state have been closely intertwined. in Russia, After 70-plus years of Soviet atheism, the Russian Orthodox Church has experienced a remarkable revival, particularly in the past decade-- in influence, in wealth, in visibility, in number of adherents. It’s a trend that has been embraced (or possibly encouraged) by the Kremlin, which, as Stalin did, sees the Russian church as serving a nationalist, unifying purpose for a fragmented country, as well as providing moral or spiritual backing for political decisions. Allowing Catholics, or other non-Orthodox Christian denominations, to proselytize undermines that authority, providing a counter-narrative to the Russian church’s claim to spiritual preeminence. Having a popular, charismatic religious figure, such as Pope Francis or even more, the late John Paul II, visit Russia, would be a direct challenge to the Russian church. “John Paul II, he was a baroque, theatrical personality. This pope (Francis) is extraordinarily popular and I’m sure, in the back of Putin’s head, he’s thinking  ‘Do I want to have a Western pope coming into Russian and being compared unfavorably to the less than charismatic head of the Russian orthodox church,” says Lawrence Cunningham, recently retired professor of theology at Notre Dame University in Indiana.

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