ROME – Somewhere back in the early 2000s, I found myself in Russia and ran into a journalist who ran a Catholic newspaper. It turned out I was catching him at a bad moment, because the paper essentially was being shut down.

The problem wasn’t circulation numbers or advertising income, both of which were going well. Instead, the problem – and, to be clear, I am not making this up – was that people were reading it.

As surreal as it sounds, word had come down from the papal ambassador in Russia that as far as the Vatican was concerned, if a publication in Russia was going to offer a provocative and influential Christian take on current events, then it ought to be sponsored by the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow. Too much visibility for a Catholic paper, they judged, could upset the delicate ecumenical relations between the two churches.

It’s a small example of a much bigger picture, which is the way in which concern for Russian reaction has long dominated the Vatican’s thinking about almost any ecclesiastical question involving the former Soviet sphere, whether it’s the internal life of the Catholic community or ecumenical relations with other Orthodox churches.

That’s logical enough, given that for Rome to make any progress at all in Catholic/Orthodox dialogue it felt it had no choice but to engage – critics, naturally, would say placate – the 800-pound gorilla of Orthodoxy.

Since the Russian Orthodox Church claimed two-thirds of the 270 million or so Orthodox Christians in the world, as well as a preponderance of clergy, money and infrastructure, one could easily say that all roads led to Moscow.

Until, that is, last Thursday.

On Oct. 11, capping decades of speculation, delays, theological rumination and ecclesiastical brinksmanship, the Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized the Orthodox church in Ukraine as “autocephalous,” meaning independent, and therefore no longer subject to the authority of the Patriarchate of Moscow.

Four days later, Moscow announced a break in communion with Constantinople, meaning the two churches no longer recognize one another’s clergy, sacraments and liturgies, and for all intents and purposes, Moscow regards Constantinople as having fallen into heresy.

While the recriminations and anathema continue to reverberate, there’s also the question of what comes next. It seems reasonably clear that Constantinople’s end-game is the unification of the three branches of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, two of which were previously regarded as “schismatic” and one of which has been heretofore under the umbrella of Moscow.

A recent poll in Ukraine shows fairly strong public support for that aim, coming in a moment in which the national drive to affirm its own identity is especially strong owing to the Russian incursion in the eastern part of Ukraine. Some 42 percent of the population sees the idea of unification as either “completely” or “rather” positive, with only 19 percent against while the rest are essentially indifferent.

If that happens, the consequences would be felt on at least four levels:

  • Pastoral, in terms of everyday ecclesiastical life.
  • Cultural, in terms of what it would mean for Ukraine’s self-understanding.
  • Geopolitical, in terms of how it would position Ukraine vis-à-vis Russia, and how Russia would react.
  • Ecumenical, meaning how it would reshape the dialogue between Orthodoxy and the rest of the Christian world.

In terms of Vatican policy, it might well be that last level which proves most consequential.

In a recent interview with Crux, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Ukraine, head of the country’s Greek Catholic Church, said “this step by the Church of Constantinople has destroyed certain schemes of ecumenical dialogue that took hold during the time of the Cold War.”

“The primary and privileged interlocutor in this dialogue in the context of the Cold War and Ostpolitik was always Moscow,” he said. “Dialogue with the entire Orthodox world was understood in this direction. Now, it has to be rethought, not only in terms of how to conduct the dialogue, which has to be updated, but the entire concept has to be rethought.”

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In terms of why, it’s relatively simple: If Constantinople’s grant of independence holds up, the Russian Orthodox Church no longer is the big kid on the block because a strong share of its parishes, clergy and faithful are in Ukraine. If unification happens, all of a sudden the Orthodox church in Ukraine basically would be the numerically equal of Moscow, arguably with greater freedom of movement because it wouldn’t be as closely tied to the state as has historically been the case for the Patriarch of Moscow.

In other words, the Vatican would have a new dialogue partner that would likely be more open and flexible, and it would have the street credibility of the Greek Catholic Church and its support for Ukrainian autonomy to draw upon.

At the moment, some Orthodox observers believe that if Ukraine does indeed slip out of Moscow’s orbit, it might strengthen the hand of a conservative candidate to become the next Patriarch, such as Metropolitan Tikhon Shevkunov of Pskov. If that happens, the Russian Orthodox might pull back from ecumenical engagement precisely at the moment a new Orthodox protagonist is emerging – almost certainly with Constantinople’s support.

In other words, we could be witnessing the birth of a new Catholic/Orthodox relationship, one in which no single church on the Orthodox side holds an effective veto over where the relationship can go. While that doesn’t automatically guarantee progress, it does at least seem a situation in which forward movement may no longer seem quite so much a sucker’s bet.