When war erupted in Georgia last month, it was only to be expected that Russia's Orthodox leaders would take their country's side. Yet the crisis has raised concerns that the Moscow Patriarchate is routinely endorsing the policies of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in ways that look certain to affect ties with Catholics and faith groups.
"Relations are looking bleak -- conditions for dialogue have worsened, and there seems little chance now of agreement on key issues," said Father Waclaw Hryniewicz, an expert on ecumenism at Poland's Catholic University of Lublin.
"Russia's aggressive foreign policy ambitions are already being felt, especially when they're combined with the view that only Russian Orthodoxy lives up to the purity and truth of the Gospel."
Catholic-Orthodox ties have long been tense in Eastern Europe over Orthodox complaints of Catholic "proselytism." When Pope Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, it was predicted the situation would improve, as Russia's Orthodox bishops pledged to work with Catholics in defending Christian values in Europe, and hinted at a readiness to accept some aspects of papal primacy.
Several Catholic leaders visited Moscow and St. Petersburg, where a working group set about tackling the local issues dividing the churches. This April, the pope broadcast a message of greetings to the Russian people, as part of a rare TV documentary about the Vatican and the Catholic Church.
With Russia's Orthodox patriarch, Alexy II, due to visit Vienna in December as a guest of Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, the bilateral contacts look set to continue.
Yet there have been signs of reluctance to go further. Last October, when a Catholic-Orthodox International Theological Commission met in Ravenna, Italy, the Russian Orthodox delegation walked out amid disagreements with fellow Orthodox representatives and refused to endorse a declaration that talked of "a spirit of friendship."
The Moscow Patriarchate shows no sign of compromising over a possible meeting between Patriarch Alexy and the pope, insisting bilateral disputes must first be settled. In February, Alexy shocked Catholics by backing a call by his church's ecumenical relations director, Metropolitan Kirill, for the downgrading of Russia's four Catholic dioceses.
Some observers blame the jingoistic mood in Russia, where most citizens appear content to see a vigorous, autocratic leadership using economic and military pressure to rebuild their country's national pride and reassert its geopolitical dominance.
Far from tempering post-Soviet complexes, Orthodox leaders seem to have encouraged them, making no effort to ensure other moral perspectives are considered.
Against such a background, the Russian church's response to the latest conflict, which erupted Aug. 7 when the Georgian Army tried to regain control of the Moscow-backed separatist region of South Ossetia, triggering a counteroffensive, has been predictable.
Although prayers and collections have been requested, these have been predominantly for Russians and South Ossetians. When Moscow recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to a chorus of international protests, the patriarchate accepted the move as "the unanimous opinion" of the Russian parliament.
Russian Orthodox leaders pledged not to extend jurisdiction over the two regions without dialogue with Georgian Orthodox counterparts. But the administrator of the Church in Abkhazia, Father Vissarion Aplia, has already asked for his community to join the Moscow Patriarchate. Claims that the patriarchate has worked to bring peace appear wide of the mark, too.
In an August statement, Archbishop Feofan of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz urged "Russian militants on service in the Caucasus" to be merciful, adding that "the only objective and task of our peacemakers" was "to protect citizens of Russia and South Ossetia from extermination and exile."
Such statements have been repudiated by church communities closer to the conflict, including Georgia's influential Union of Evangelical Baptists, whose Archbishop Malkhaz Songul-ashvili has described how towns and villages were "plundered by mercenaries," leaving hundreds of women "raped and abused," and how he himself "lost the ability to see the power of the Gospel" during the conflict.
They also contrast with peace appeals to both sides by the pope, and with reports from Catholic aid agencies that have given help to refugees and displaced people in both Georgia and Russia.
Distrust of West
Orthodox critics say Russia is witnessing a return to the alliance between throne and altar that predominated in czarist times, when a privileged, wealthy Church bestowed a moral and spiritual endorsement on state practices.
In July 2006, Metropolitan Kirill said the Church would help foster a "non-Western" conception of human rights that reflected a "moral imperative" and accorded with the "values of the Orthodox east."
Meanwhile, in a radio interview this month, a senior church official launched a blistering attack on Western democracy.
"We should be strong in a military sense, and have the will and capacity to prevent any invasion of our lifestyle," insisted Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy director of the patriarchate's External Church Relations Department.
He has spoken before of the "unity of power and people" achieved under Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev, vowing that Orthodox civilization will "resist a Western democracy whose ultimate fall is drawing ever closer."
Not all Orthodox leaders are ready to go that far.
The bishop who led the walkout from last autumn's Catholic-Orthodox talks in Ravenna, Hilarion Alfeyev, who represents his church to European institutions from Vienna, told Austria's Catholic Kathpress news agency last week he still hoped for a "practical alliance" with Catholics to resist secularization and relativism.
Unless the Russian Church asserts its independence and adopts a more prophetic stance, however, such calls are likely to encounter skepticism.
"Perhaps we really are witnessing a return to the old regime," said Father Hryniewicz, who sat on the Catholic-Orthodox International Commission for 25 years. "It will be important to look back at what the patriarch and his bishops said during this period, when, as the Olympic flame of peace burned, Russia waged war against its tiny neighbor. Did they try to calm their country's aggressive fervor, or did they help inflame it?"
Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.