That same day [they] became friends with each other…

Patriarch Kirill and Pope FrancisThis week the Patriarchs of Rome and Moscow held a historic meeting in an airport in Havana, Cuba.

[Before I get to the meat of my issue, my inner pedant must clarify that the Internet is awash in incorrect headlines. I’ve added a section at the end addressing some of the issues.]

While Orthodox scholars are abuzz about what the meeting between His Beatitude and His Holiness means for ecumenical dialogue or the situation in Ukraine, the gay press is busy being scandalized by the couple’s joint declaration against gay marriage.

When I first read the headlines on Facebook last evening, I was too tired to deal with it. Certainly there was no surprise that this is the continued position of the two primates. But the hype was more than I could stomach.

Morning is wiser than evening, or so the Russians say. We’ll see…

My focus here is on two points excerpted from text released after the meeting:

From the Join Statement of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow

  1. The family is the natural center of human life and society. We are concerned about the crisis in the family in many countries. Orthodox and Catholics share the same conception of the family, and are called to witness that it is a path of holiness, testifying to the faithfulness of the spouses in their mutual interaction, to their openness to the procreation and rearing of their children, to solidarity between the generations and to respect for the weakest.


  1. The family is based on marriage, an act of freely given and faithful love between a man and a woman. It is love that seals their union and teaches them to accept one another as a gift. Marriage is a school of love and faithfulness. We regret that other forms of cohabitation have been placed on the same level as this union, while the concept, consecrated in the biblical tradition, of paternity and maternity as the distinct vocation of man and woman in marriage is being banished from the public conscience.

[Full text of the joint declaration.]

There is so much that could be said about the claims in these two points, and much of it has been said elsewhere already. So I will say only this…

Crisis of Differentiation

A crisis of differentiation takes place when two parties are involved in establishing their identities in competition with one another. This results when we try to establish an identity over and against an other. Such a crisis easily escalates to violence.

Two intertwined moments in the current case illustrate this concept.

First, such a rivalry exists between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. While I believe it is less keenly felt today on the Catholic side of the divide, the rivalry was sharp enough a millennium ago to come to a head in the Great Schism in which both sides excommunicated the other’s patriarch and broke communion with one another.

While today’s Catholic Church may be less inflamed by this old rivalry, Orthodox worldwide have a tendency to nurse the wounds received in this controversy as though the Great Schism happened only yesterday. Ask any informed Orthodox and you’ll hear a long list of grievances clutched tightly in offense. The modern Orthodox Church is rife with constructions of “The West” as Other.

Enter the second crisis of differentiation…

The two paragraphs excerpted above from the joint statement illustrate a second crisis of differentiation. On the one side is contemporary, church-sanctioned, heterosexual marriage, while same-sex relationships serve as its “other.” (Side note: another “other” here would be polyamorous relationships, though that isn’t the burning issue in the text.)

The language of a path of holiness, solidarity between the generations, respect for the weakest, school of love and faithfulness, and consecration by the biblical tradition all signal divine sanction.

The flip side of these sanctioned relationships is “a crisis in the family” resulting from the legitimation of “other forms of cohabitation.” But because human language tends to work in oppositional pairings, the dog whistle sounded in the text is that those other forms of cohabitation are unholy, spreading opposition between the generations, and disrespectful of the weakest. Such relationships are a school of hate and infidelity. They are profane or blasphemous.

Or to use time-tested biblical language, those who enter such relationships are filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless (Romans 1:29-31). And those who promote such relationships are the modern day equivalent of “liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:2).

A Temporary Peace?

Having (unconsciously) stoked the flames of us vs. them, the pope and the patriarch establish a rapprochement akin to a similar dynamic described in the Gospel of Luke. In that account, Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipater overcome their enmity for one another in their combined opposition to Jesus as an insurrectionist (Luke 23:12).

What both sides unconsciously hope for is the (short-lived) result of the scapegoat mechanism: the sense of peace that results from discharge of hostilities onto a sacrificial Other. For a moment, those who buy into this language can forget about the filioque, yeast in the host, the sacking of Constantinople by European Crusaders, the competing Sees of Antioch, the Union of Brest-Litovsk, and (if the process works well enough) the current conflict between the churches of Ukraine.

For the moment these two great churches can stand in solidarity against evil straw men who seek to subvert the church, the family, and all of society as they place rings on each other’s fingers in a perceived mockery of holy tradition.

There are many more things that can be unpacked here. And perhaps in the future there will be time. But for now, I point out that there’s very little difference between a joint Catholic-Orthodox statement against same-sex marriage and the power of the scapegoat to unify Christians and Muslims against gay people in Uganda. The difference is a matter of rhetorical degree.

The Unconscious Nature of the Scapegoating Mechanism

I am not suggesting that Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis are consciously turning the historic enmity of their two churches on a sacrificial scapegoat. Indeed, for the scapegoating mechanism to work, both parties must participate unconsciously. When the dynamics of scapegoating are revealed, the sacrificial system of sacred violence loses its power to unify the parties in crisis.

Both men, like many of their followers, may very well believe the threat that they describe to be real. Such belief can only be maintained while the the victim remains unheard or responds with anger and cries for vengeance.

The Good News is that more and more LGBTQ Christians are living and speaking openly. It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain ignorance about our struggles, our treatment at the hands of religious institutions, and our spiritual journeys.

The Gospel has laid bare the dynamics of mimetic rivalry, and like a slow yeast working its way through dough, the awakening consciousness of our participation in the scapegoating mechanism makes it harder and harder to build unity at the expense of an Other.

In the meantime, may we pray with Jesus:

Father forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.




And now… my historical beefs.

While the Great Schism occurred in 1054, this week’s meeting is not the first between heads of the Catholic and Orthodox worlds since that time. Allow me to explain…

First, Patriarch Kirill is head of the Russian Orthodox Church. And while His Beatitude is responsible for the largest flock of Orthodox Christians among the 15 (or 14 depending on whether one recognizes the Orthodox Church in America) autocephalous Orthodox churches, he is not the leader of the entire Orthodox Church.

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople holds the privileged position of first among equals in the Orthodox polity. Yet this position is closer in authority to the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Anglican Communion than the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church—a titular head with no authority to speak ex cathedra or to make agreements on behalf of all Orthodox.

Second, ecumenical patriarchs and popes have meeting together for over 50 years: Athenagoras and Paul VI (1964, 1967), Dimitrios and John Paul II (1979, 1987), Bartholomew and John Paul II (1995, 2002, 2004), Bartholomew and Benedict XVI (2006, 2007, 2008, 2012), and now Bartholomew and Francis (2013, 2014).

Third, while Patriarch Kirill is the first modern primate of the Moscow Patriarchate to meet with a pope, Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev and Moscow met with Eugene IV during the infamous (from the Orthodox perspective) Council of Ferrara/Florence in 1438-1439.

However, the Moscow Patriarchate was not established until 1448 and did was not formally recognized as an autocephalous church by the rest of the Orthodox world until 1589. So one may question whether Isidore counts as a patriarchate of a see that did not yet exist.

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