Vienna, November 5 – Even as Moscow celebrates a holiday with anti-Catholic undertones and as Orthodox Patriarch Kirill promotes a special role for Russia’s “traditional religions” of which Catholicism is not one, the Catholic archbishopric in Moscow and the Catholic bishopric in Novosibirsk have launched websites to promote Catholicism in Russia.
Last Friday, Paul Pezzi, the Catholic archbishop in Moscow, announced the start of a website for his see at www.cathmos.ru, a site that he said would allow Russians to “find out about the structure and news of the archdiocese, acquaint themselves with official documents, and learn the addresses of Catholic parishes” in Russia.
The cleric said that the new site was the brainchild of Father Aleksandr Khmelnitsky, who had headed the Information Service of the archdiocese from 2007 to this year and that the site, which he indicated remained “under construction” will develop to try to meet the needs of its visitors.
Three days later, the Transformation Bishopric of Novosibirsk announced the launch of its own site, www.sibcatholic.ru, which will perform the same functions but also serve as a primary distribution arm of an electronic version of the “Sibirskaya Katolicheskaya Gazeta” which the diocese has been issuing in a limited hard copy edition since 1996.
Three aspects of this development, which Blagovest-info.ru reported on Tuesday (www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=3&id=30621), are especially intriguing. First, it shows that the Catholic Church in Russia has now decided, much as Protestant groups and Muslims already have, to use the Internet to spread the faith.
Second, this high-visibility public stance puts the Catholic Church on a collision course with Patriarch Kirill, who not only insists that only Russia’s “traditional” faiths should enjoy full support in Russia but who actively opposes any missionary activity by any religious group directed at members of nationalities that are historically associated with other faiths.
Because the patriarch insists that members of the Russian nation are by definition Orthodox, he and his church are likely to view the appearance of these Catholic websites, which explicitly are directed at attracting Russian speakers to the faith of Rome, as a violation of the rules of the game as Kirill believes they should be understood.
Some Russian Orthodox hierarchs -- but not Kirill himself -- have even suggested that Catholicism should be treated like any other extremist “sect.” However, because Kirill is actively seeking a rapprochement with the papacy, he will have to constrain them. Indeed, it may be that the Catholic leadership in Russia decided to take advantage of the patriarch’s dilemma.
And third, these sites and the Catholic faith that informs them are appearing at a time when anti-Catholic sentiments in Russia appear to be on the rise. Not only did the Day of National Unity occur on the anniversary of the expulsion of Catholic Poles from Moscow in 1612, but recent comments on Aleksandr Nevsky have included anti-Catholic messages.
As many Russian writers argued last year, Nevsky was “justified” in concluding an alliance with the Mongol khans because the Teutonic knights represented not just the German emperor but also the Roman pope. Had he acted along religious lines, they argue, Russia would have been converted to Catholicism and reduced to a kind of “Eastern Poland.”
That such arguments resonated with Russian audiences who are typically more inclined to accept a clash of civilizations model which defines the basic divide in Eurasia between Christianity, on the one hand, and Islam, on the other, underscores just how sensitive such Russians are likely to be to any expansion of Catholicism in Russia today.
Because that is what these two new websites are intended to do, many Russians both inside the Orthodox Church and beyond will be watching them closely, and because they will be doing so, those concerned about religious freedom in Russia will have to keep track of both what these sites carry and how many Russians in fact visit them.