Imagine if the pope were invited to address a summit of Protestant leaders, and used the platform to take a swipe at Italy’s tiny Waldensian Protestant church — complaining that it tries to convert Catholics, and demanding that it shut up about the separation of church and state.

Protestants would rightly howl about how crude and arrogant the tirade was, how awful it was to try to intimidate a smaller and weaker church, and how it was especially out of line because the pope was an invited guest.

The incident would become a cause célèbre, and the Vatican would feel the heat until it coughed up an apology.

So why didn’t the same reaction ensue when Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for external relations, used a speech at the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops in the Vatican to take just such a gratuitous swipe at Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church?

Alas, the best answer is probably that when it comes to the Russians, Rome has long been locked into what we might call “weak-kneed ecumenism.”

The 5 million strong Greek Catholic Church is an important pro-democracy force in Ukraine. Speaking in the Vatican’s synod hall, Hilarion demanded that the Greek Catholics stop complaining about Russian foreign policy, and stop protesting support for Russian incursions in their country voiced by Russian Orthodox leaders.

Astonishingly, there was no protest by the Vatican, no demand for an apology, no threat to suspend or curtail dialogue.

For sure, not everyone took it lying down. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who was participating in the synod, grabbed Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church, and immediately taped a segment for his radio show protesting Hilarion’s rhetoric.

Still, the official Vatican response was deafening silence. What gives?

For the last 50 years or so, Catholicism has been committed to ecumenism, meaning the effort to unify the divided Christian family. The Orthodox are a special priority, since the split between East and West in 1054 is the primordial Christian fissure.

Almost two-thirds of the world’s 225 million Orthodox Christians are Russians, explaining why Rome is so keen about dialogue with Moscow.

Over the years, however, that “dialogue” has sometimes been defined by the Vatican as deference, meaning that no one calls out Russian clergy when they make unreasonable demands, issue claims that everyone knows to be false or exaggerated, or act as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin.

For instance, many Russian Orthodox leaders assert that the Catholic Church shouldn’t have a toehold in Ukraine because it’s part of Russia’s “canonical territory,” meaning that it belongs to the Orthodox Church centered in Moscow. It’s a way of claiming a monopoly over religious expression that flies in the face of both history and religious freedom.

Many Russian Orthodox also complain of Catholic “proselytism” in Russia, yet a study in 2002 found there were just 800 conversions in the entire decade of the 1990s. Meanwhile, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity exploded in Russia, so much so that a 2012 book referred to it as a “post-Soviet gold rush.”

In the 2000s, in another act of appeasement, the Vatican actually imposed an informal “no-growth” policy, instructing pastors to tell any Russian who wanted to become Catholic to go back to their Orthodox parish. Far from expanding, Catholicism shrunk, in part because many ethnic Germans and Poles left Russia.

The Russian Orthodox have also consistently, and churlishly, vetoed a papal trip to the country. That makes Moscow one of just a handful of places, including Beijing and Pyongyang, where the pope is not welcome, and the only one that’s majority Christian.

Yet the Vatican rarely objects to any of this, and quite often bends over backward in the opposite direction.

In 2007, for instance, Rome removed Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the leader of the Catholic community in Moscow, because he was seen as too confrontational. The pope’s ambassador also shut down a popular Catholic newspaper that didn’t parrot the Orthodox line.

At last, there are signs this weak-kneed ecumenism is beginning to give way.

In the wake of Hilarion’s blast at Greek Catholics during the synod, the papal ambassador in Ukraine, American Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, basically told Inés San Martín of Crux that enough is enough.

Too often, Gullickson said, “We humor certain types of misbehavior.”

“If my best friend starts picking on my little sister, I’m going to punch him in the nose,” Gullickson said. “We allow the neighbor kid to beat up on our little sister all the time … and it needs to stop.”

It may be understandable why neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI wanted to lay down a gauntlet, since both Poland and Germany, their home countries, have had a checkered history with Russia. Francis the Argentine brings no such baggage, so perhaps he can move the dialogue beyond the “tea and cookies” stage, in which the point is simply to be polite, onto a more substantive level.

As part of that picture, Francis could make clear that friendship doesn’t mean going weak in the knees when what your friend needs is someone to save him from himself. Certainly the Russian Orthodox aren’t bashful about objecting to perceived Catholic missteps. Maybe it’s time to return the favor.

Francis and evolution

Earlier this week, there was a brief media frenzy over comments Pope Francis made about science and the theory of evolution.

Saying that God does not wave a “magic wand” but rather allows the universe to unfold according to its own laws, the pope said on Monday that “the evolution of nature does not conflict with the notion of creation, because evolution presupposes the existence of creatures which evolve.”

The line initially was styled in some quarters as a breathtaking departure with Catholic tradition, which of course it wasn’t.

Other commentators already have pointed out how papal teaching since at least the 1950s consistently has asserted there’s no conflict between evolution and creation. In 2007, for instance, Benedict XVI famously called it “absurd” to posit a contradiction between the two.

Granted, there was brief spell of confusion in 2005 when Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, authored an opinion piece for The New York Times in which he appeared to endorse intelligent design. Some wondered if the Catholic Church was moving closer to a fundamentalist insistence on reading the Bible literally, and thus rejecting scientific accounts of the development of species.

Schönborn, however, quickly made it clear that what he was objecting to wasn’t evolution as a scientific theory, but rather “evolutionism,” meaning a philosophical position that allows no room for God in accounting for the origins of the universe or of life.

That’s basically the standard Catholic line: Yes to evolution as a way of explaining how species change over time, no to ratcheting evolution up into a proof of atheism.

In other words, what Francis said on Monday represented no novelty. How, then, do we explain the 24-hour period in which his comments were widely described as historic?

First, when it comes to framing the activity of this pope, we have a problem of narrative. Francis has been cast by the media as a maverick who’s turning Catholicism on its ear, and thus, far too often, everything he says or does is understood through that filter. It all has to be revolutionary, even when it clearly isn’t.

Second, we have a problem of context. Because Francis has strong appeal even in secular circles with little background in religion, many people are now paying attention to a pope for the first time. They tend to assume everything is happening for the first time under Francis, with no sense of how it fits into the bigger picture of Catholic teaching and tradition, to say nothing of the records of other recent popes.

That’s an especially galling omission in this case, given the actual occasion for Francis’ remarks: The unveiling of a bronze bust honoring Benedict XVI by the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, an event designed precisely to recognize the various ways in which Benedict supported and encouraged scientific inquiry.

In a tribute to his predecessor, Francis called Benedict a “great pope.”

Francis praised “the strength and penetrating quality of his intelligence, his important contribution to theology, his love for the Church and for human beings, and his virtue and religious character.”

“Far from dissipating with the passage of time,” Francis said, Benedict’s spirit “will seem ever greater and more powerful in each passing generation.”

In other words, if ever there was a time when styling one pope’s words as a break with another was almost self-parodying, this was it.

Narrative and context, however, are always powerful forces in shaping how people understand the world. As a result, the evolution fracas is unlikely to be the last time they skew understanding of this pope.

The bottom line when it comes to commentary on anything Francis does, therefore, is caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.

Trying to pigeonhole the pope

Depending on one’s point of view, Francis continues to be either a frustratingly enigmatic figure who seems to cut in one direction and then another almost randomly, or an original thinker charmingly impossible to pigeonhole according to the usual ideological categories.

Whatever the case, it’s a fact that, as soon as you think you have him figured out, the picture seems to change.

Inés San Martín of Crux, for instance, had a piece earlier this week about two recent speeches by Francis that created very different impressions of his politics.

One featured a strong defense of traditional marriage, making the pope seem like a tough conservative, while the other was a stirring plea for land, work, and housing for the poor that came off as remarkably progressive.

Something similar unfolded this week with regard to the pope’s attitude toward Opus Dei, the Catholic group founded by St. Josemaría Escrivá that has a strong presence in parts of the pontiff’s native Latin America, and that’s perceived by most people as fairly conservative.

Shortly after his election, Francis green-lighted the beatification of Don Alvaro Del Portillo, Escrivá’s successor as the leader of Opus Dei, which recently took place in a massive Madrid ceremony.

I wrote then that Francis actually sees a good deal to like about Opus Dei, adding that the future pope spent time in prayer before Escrivá’s tomb during a 2003 trip to Rome and that he knew several Opus Dei people in Argentina who worked in the villas miserias, the “villas of misery,” meaning the vast slums that ring Buenos Aires.

Yet, at around the same time Portillo was moving closer to sainthood, Francis also removed a bishop in Paraguay — Opus Dei member Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano — from the small diocese of Ciudad del Este.

This week he did something similar, accepting the resignation of Archbishop Juan Antonio Ugarte Pérez of Cuzco in Peru and replacing him with Richard Daniel Alarcón Urrutia, previously the bishop of Tarma.

Ugarte is an Opus Dei member who over the years has been a staunch ally of Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne of Lima, a fellow Opus Dei prelate who’s a lightning rod in Peru for his strong conservative leadership.

Alarcón, by way of contrast, is known for voting against Cipriani on most matters that have come before Peru’s bishops’ conference, meaning that the appointment in Cuzco marks a change in direction and something of a setback for the Opus Dei bloc within the Peruvian conference.

Yet, on the inevitable other hand, Francis also appointed two Opus Dei clergy as bishops earlier this month: Spanish Archbishop Celso Morga Iruzubieta to the archdiocese of Mérida-Badajoz, and Brazilian Levi Bonatto as the auxiliary bishop of Goiânia. Such moves are traditionally seen as signs of favor.

So, which is it? Is Francis a surprisingly conservative figure who admires Escrivá and Opus Dei, or is he a progressive bent on rolling back Opus Dei’s influence by reducing its footprint in the hierarchy?

Perhaps the flaw in framing the question about Francis that way is the assumption that the answer must be either/or. In truth, at this stage the only answer the evidence would actually seem to support is, “He’s both.”

* * *

Here’s a rundown of my speaking schedule for the next couple of weeks. I’d love to see Crux readers at any of these venues.

Nov. 5: St. Elizabeth Parish, Rockville, MD, 7:30 p.m. More information.

Nov. 13: The Cardinal Bernardin Lecture, Elmhurst (Illinois) College, Frick Center, Founders Lounge, 7:30 p.m. More information.

Nov. 17: Our Lady of the Presentation Lecture Hall and Library, St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA, 7 p.m. More information.

Nov. 20: Christian Brothers 41st Huether Lasallian Conference, Holiday Inn Chicago Mart Plaza, Chicago, 6:30 p.m. More information.

Later this month, I’ll head to Rome to prepare to cover Pope Francis’ Nov. 25 day trip to Strasbourg, France, to address the European Parliament, and then to Turkey Nov. 28-30. In both cases, I’ll be on the papal plane. Watch Crux for our coverage.