Eastern Europe is a thorn in the side of Francis’s pontificate, and there are many varied elements that prove it.
In the twofold synod on the family, the bishops of eastern Europe were among the most resolute defenders of tradition, starting with the relator general of the first session, Hungarian cardinal Péter Erdõ, author among other things of a sensational public condemnation of the violations committed by the reformist faction, which clearly had the support of the pope.
After the synod, eastern Europe was once again the source of the most restrictive interpretations of the papal document “Amoris Laetitia.” The bishops of Poland were particularly unanimous in calling for an application of the document in perfect continuity with the age-old teaching of the Church from its origin until John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
The bishops of Ukraine – where 10 percent of the population is Catholic – are also among the most dedicated in opposing ruptures with respect to tradition in the areas of marriage, penance, the Eucharist. But in addition they have not failed to criticize strongly the pro-Russian positions of Pope Francis and of the Holy See concerning the war underway in their country, a war that they experience as aggression on the part of none other than Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The embrace between the pope and Moscow patriarch Kirill at the Havana airport on February 12, 2016, with the associated document signed by both, was also a powerful element of friction between Jorge Mario Bergoglio and the Ukrainian Catholic Church, which sees itself as being unjustly sacrificed on the altar of this reconciliation between Rome and Moscow.
The death last May 31 of Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, the previous major archbishop of the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine, called attention back to this personality of the highest profile, capable of spiritually rebuilding a Church that emerged from decades of persecution without any sort of concession to the diplomatic calculations – in conjunction with Moscow and its patriarchate – that however during the pontificate of Francis have come back to the forefront.
Husar’s successor, the young Sviatoslav Shevchuck, is well known to Bergoglio from his previous pastoral activity in Argentina. But he too is one of the most straightforward critics of the tendencies of the current pontificate, both on political terrain and on doctrinal and pastoral.
And “it was certainly not a coincidence,” pope emeritus Benedict XVI wrote three weeks ago at the death of his friend Cardinal Joachim Meisner, the indomitable archbishop of Berlin during the communist regime, “that the last visit of his lifetime should have been made to a confessor of the faith,” a bishop of Lithuania whose beatification was being celebrated, one of the countless martyrs of communism in eastern Europe who today are in danger of falling into oblivion.
Against this backdrop the question naturally arises: in this region of Europe what is the state of health of Catholicism, which is known to be in serious decline in other areas of the world and particularly in neighboring western Europe?
This question has received an exhaustive reply – albeit in purely sociological terms – in a comprehensive survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington, which is perhaps the world’s most reliable barometer of the presence of religion on the public stage:
The survey concerned none other than the countries of eastern Europe, almost all of them subjected to atheistic communist regimes in the past. And the first striking fact is the rebirth in them, almost everywhere, of a strong and widespread sense of religious belonging, which for the Orthodox – a distinct majority over the whole area – coexists with rare attendance at the Sunday liturgies, while for Catholics it is accompanied by fairly substantial weekly participation at Mass: in Poland, for example, 45 percent of the baptized go, and 43 percent in Ukraine, while in Russia attendance at the Sunday liturgy for the faithful of the Orthodox confession is only 6 percent.
The Czech Republic bore the brunt of state atheism, which added to an older anti-Catholic hostility going back to “Hussite” Protestantism and to the subsequent re-Catholicizing imposed by the Habsburgs has made it such that in this country fully 72 percent of the population declares itself to be unaffiliated with any sort of religious faith. But here as well, among the Catholics who make up a fifth of the population Sunday attendance is in any case 22 percent, more or less like in Italy and considerably more than in Germany, France, or Spain, not to mention Belgium and Holland.
And the same holds true for Bosnia, where there are very few Catholics, just 8 percent, but Sunday attendance among them is a hefty 54 percent.
The whole survey from the Pew Research Center is worth reading, for the richness of the information it provides. But here it is enough to point out that the Catholics of eastern Europe are distinguished from the Orthodox not only by their much higher levels of religious practice but also by a contrasting geopolitical vision.
While among the Orthodox Russia is looked at as the natural bastion against the West and receives the approval of large majorities, among Catholics there is much more coolness toward Russia, especially in Ukraine and Poland, which lean much more toward an alliance with the United States and the West.
And a further divergence can also be found in the Orthodox camp between those who, as in Russia, recognize the patriarch of Moscow as the highest hierarchical authority of Orthodoxy, and those who opt more for the patriarch of Constantinople than for that of Moscow, as in Ukraine, with 46 percent of the Orthodox for the one and only 17 percent for the other.
On marriage, family, homosexuality, and related issues at least half of Catholics side with the traditional positions of the Church. And a large majority of the whole population – with the sole exception of the Czech Republic – is opposed to the legal recognition of unions between persons of the same sex.
But in breaking down the data by age groups it is easy to point out that young people are increasingly adopting the permissive mentality that in western Europe – including the Catholic Church – is already rampant.
A mentality that is certainly meeting no resistance from the pontificate of Francis.
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)
Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!