ROME — This week, the University of Notre Dame announced that Bishop Borys Gudziak, the highest prelate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, will deliver this year’s keynote address. Whatever the circumstances, the choice would have made a lot of sense – Gudziak is a Harvard graduate who studied under Henri Nouwen, the founder and president of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic University of L’viv, and one of the public intellectuals the most eminent of the Catholic Church.
In context, however, inviting Gudziak is also a statement of solidarity with Ukraine as Putin’s scorched earth war continues ruthlessly.
If a retired NYU Russian history professor is right, the big scene for Gudziak might also help explain what Putin is doing in Ukraine in the first place.
Jane Burbank took to the New York Times on March 22 to offer a provocative reading of Putin’s motives. Forget the Czar or the Soviet Union, Burbank argues provocatively – what Putin really wants back is nothing less than the Mongol Empire, with him in control.
Historically, says Burbank, in the Russia of the 1910s and 1920s, there were two major intellectual camps regarding the country’s future after the tsar, and both reflected deeply imperialist ambitions.
One was the Bolsheviks and their dream of Russia leading a global workers’ struggle to usher in the classless state. The other was less well known, but influential in elite circles. He dreamed that Russia would rebuild the great Eurasian Empire of the 13and and 14and centuries, which at its peak included all of modern Mongolia, China, parts of Burma, Romania, Pakistan, Siberia, Ukraine, Belarus, Cilicia, Anatolia, Georgia, l Armenia, Persia, Iraq, Central Asia and much or all of Russia, as well as other countries as tributary states.
This Eurasian vision imagined such a modern empire as deeply rooted in the Russian Orthodox faith, thus standing as a permanent bulwark of values and traditions against the decadent West.
This empire, according to Burbank, is the “grand theory” that drives the war.
This, in turn, may help explain Putin’s obsession with Ukraine, which is not just about the baptism of Rus’ in 988 or the reabsorption of territory Russians have always considered their own. It is also about destroying, or at least stifling, the main source of resistance to the Eurasian vision within its own territory, namely the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine.
By far the largest of the 23 Eastern Churches in full communion with Rome, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has about 6 million members, split roughly evenly between Ukraine itself and a Ukrainian diaspora around the world. Historically, it dates from the Union of Brest of 1596, which united the Ruthenian Orthodox Church of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with the Vatican.
In 1963, the church was officially recognized as Ukrainian since that is where it flourished and took root.
It’s not just the numbers, however. The Greek Catholic Church punches above its weight in terms of social and cultural affairs. He helped lead the “Orange Revolution” of 2004-2005, which brought down the corrupt regime of Viktor Yanukovych in favor of the more pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, and he also led the moral and spiritual mobilization against the Russian invasion current.
Greek Catholics have a noble history, having been the most martyred church in the world by percentage during the Soviet era. Gudziak envisioned the legacy of these martyrs as a “wing” of the refounded Catholic University in Ukraine, described as the “only Catholic university between Poland and Japan”. (In line with Gudziak’s studies under Nouwen, the other wing is for the disabled.)
Although one shouldn’t brush aside the thinking of Greek Catholics too much, for they have their internal contrasts and divisions like everyone else – I mean, a small rump group of Greek Orthodox traditionalists who consecrated their own bishops without permission of the pope in 2009, in fact declared the throne of Peter vacant in 2019, organized a conclave and elected, of all, the Italian archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who developed a second career as a professional spine alongside the Pope Francis.
Nevertheless, it is safe to say that mainstream Greek Catholic thought is highly nationalistic, but not in Russia’s pugnacious “us versus the West” sense. Instead, he envisions a truly independent Ukraine, fostering the best of its distinctive culture but deeply engaged with the international community. As part of this image, Greek-Catholic intellectuals dreamed of Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic believers coming together in some form of “reconciled diversity”, and thus independent of Moscow.
Greek Catholics also doubt the Vatican’s “Russian policy,” which in practice often means bending over backwards to appease Moscow in the name of an eschatological dream of reuniting Christian East and West. As Ukrainians tend to see it, these long-term ambitions should not justify allowing a tyrant to circumvent a local church that has paid more than its fair share of blood for its loyalty to Rome.
There is simply no other place in the former Mongol Empire with such a large, vibrant and relevant, and, from Moscow’s perspective, such a menacing Catholic Church.
Of course, inflicting damage on the Greek Catholic Church may not be the main reason why Russian tanks clog Ukrainian highways these days. On the other hand, from Putin’s perspective, shutting down his main spiritual and intellectual rival in his own backyard probably wouldn’t be a silly change either.
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