A Step Towards Unity?: The Joint Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill

By Samuel S. Thorp, postgraduate research student 


Every generation finds themselves upon the cusp of history: a significant moment whereupon they have to take a step in one direction or another, a moment which will shape the course of history thereafter. One such pivotal moment was that of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 – arguably the closest the world has come to intentionally realising the possibility of Nuclear War, and, most likely, the destruction of the human race.

In that moment, two superpowers of the world – The Soviet Union and The United States of America – found themselves diametrically opposed in a battle of wills with escalating tensions. On October 27th President Robert F. Kennedy sent Premier Nikita Khrushchev an agreement to move missiles from Italy and Turkey, if he would remove missiles from Cuba. On October 28th Khrushchev responded in the affirmative and so began the efforts to practically achieve the agreed peace over the next days and weeks.

On the 12th of February 2016, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow met at Havana, Cuba – intentionally using the historical background of the island as a prophetic demonstration of the significance of this truly historical encounter, and its hopeful ramifications.

This was the first time that a Pope and a Russian Patriarch have met, and is the latest in a series of meetings and conversations which have started happening in the last century, after the best part of a millennium of schism between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Historically, the Eastern and Western churches were united in the Church’s infancy, and remained united through the early centuries, agreeing on the Nicene Creed, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Apostle’s Creed and the Athanasian Creed. However, theological tensions between the two came to a head when in 1014 Pope Benedict formally instituted the Latin version of the Nicene Creed into the liturgy, which inserted the now infamous filioque clause. By 1054, this resulted in theological schism and mutual excommunication which would take on the political divisions which, despite occasional (and unsuccessful) efforts through the centuries, are still to be overcome.

One notable occasion, however, which should be acknowledged as an important precursor for the Havana Declaration is the meeting of the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I and Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem 1964. They released a joint statement which, while acknowledging unresolved theological and traditional differences, lifted the existing mutual excommunications and expressed a desire for the global church to ‘pursue… the dialogue which will lead them… to live once again… in the full communion of faith, brotherly concord and of a sacramental life which existed between them throughout the first millennium of the life of the Church’.1

Pope Paul VI later wrote to Athenagoras I, observing, ‘If unity of faith is a prerequisite of full communion, then diversity of customs is not an obstacle; quite the contrary’.2 Athenagoras I responded: ‘In conformity with His Word, “I am with you”… Let us build up the Body of Christ… In doing so let us not look forward to the unity of only our two churches, but also to… the union of all so that the world may believe that God has sent Christ’.3

This ecumenical desire for communion has continued on into the Havana Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, who say:

We are pained by the loss of unity, the outcome of human weakness and of sin, which has occurred despite the priestly prayer of Christ the Saviour: ‘So that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you… so that they may be one, as we are one’ (Jn 17:21). … Mindful of the permanence of many obstacles, it is our hope that our meeting may contribute to the re-establishment of this unity willed by God, for which Christ prayed. May our meeting inspire Christians throughout the world to pray to the Lord with renewed fervour for the full unity of all his disciples… we wish to combine our efforts to give witness to the Gospel of Christ and to the shared heritage of the Church of the first millennium, responding together to the challenges of the contemporary world… much of the future of humanity will depend on our capacity to give shared witness to the spirit of truth in these difficult times. (§5, 6, 7, 28).

So what is this ‘shared witness’ which they have mentioned? What have they agreed on and, perhaps more importantly, what has been left out?

Firstly, it seems that there are three main themes which resonate throughout: there’s the mutual acknowledgement of historical significance and the shared heritage of the first millennium, there’s a common heart behind a gospel led ethics and desire for social justice, and there’s the joint hope of unity.

These are big themes. It’s interesting to see the way in which they have framed the declaration of unity by distancing themselves from their own disputes and uniting in recognition that the situations facing the world and the human race, and the need to be witnesses to them, are greater than their own disagreements. They’ve done this first by using Cuba as the location, but they’ve also acknowledged their identities as belonging firmly to the ‘Old World’, uniting to  address the ‘New World’ personified in Latin-America, though their message is for all peoples of the other continents as well(§2-3).

‘Human civilisation has entered into a period of epochal change’(§7). This period of change is identified by the growing restrictions on religious freedom and the secularisation of formerly Christian countries. In particular they suggest Europe is approaching a watershed moment, with a strong plea to ‘Christians of Eastern and Western Europe to unite in their shared witness to Christ and the Gospel, so that Europe may preserve its soul, shaped by 2000 years of tradition’(§16). Secularisation alone isn’t the only issue, however. Whilst not named explicitly, there can be no doubt that the extended attention paid to the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, and particularly Syria and Iraq, refers primarily to the on-going situation with ISIS (§8-12). The response? A desire for peace to be achieved through inter-religious dialogue, to make specific efforts to rediscover ‘common values uniting us, based on the Gospel of our Lord Jesus’ (§11, 13). This is no weak or feeble response denying the severity of the situations Christians face in parts of the Middle East. There’s clear reference to the thousands dead, and millions left without homes or sustenance due to the violence and terrorism(§10). They also remember those Christians who have been martyred, ‘preferring death to the denial of Christ’ (§12). This desire for a swift return to civil peace comes from ‘an authentic solidarity towards all those who suffer’ (§18).

This heart for peace and fidelity to the Gospel of Christ finds itself expressed through their joint statements on the more ethical sphere of life. These range from the personal, on the nature of the family and the dignity of human life, through to the national. Statements 19 to 21 in particular are worth paying attention to, in part because of what they have to say (and not say) and because these are the parts which will be of special interest to various interest groups and organisations.

Section 19 opens, ‘The family is the natural centre of human life and society. We are concerned about the crisis in the family in many countries.’ The family is then defended apologetically in section 20, ‘The family is based on marriage,’ (emphasis mine), ‘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.’ In and of itself, this statement whilst perhaps disagreeable to people in countries which are increasingly secular, or to those in more liberal church traditions, is not particularly surprising or controversial. Indeed, it echoes the traditional teaching of both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches over the last 2000 years. However, the Declaration then proceeds with a more polemical approach, saying, ‘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 public conscience.’

It is a sign of how divisive the issue of same-sex marriage has become that this statement will have produced in most people a strong reaction, whether of affirmation or rejection. However, the most stridently polemical passage in this joint Declaration is in the following section, 21; ‘We call on all to respect the inalienable right to life. Millions are denied the very right to be born into the world. The blood of the unborn cries out to God’ (Emphasis in original). Again, this may well seem ‘problematic’ to those who disagree, but it’s the traditional position not just of the Catholic Church, but the Orthodox too. More interesting though is the contrast between this statement on abortion and the following on euthanasia, ‘The emergence of so-called euthanasia leads elderly people and the disabled to begin to feel that they are a burden on their families and on society in general’. (§21) This is a surprisingly indirect criticism of Euthanasia. It is clear from the context and the use of ‘so-called’ that they disagree with the practice, but they have not declared it to be immoral in the same way as Abortion.

There are two other places where the Havana Declaration seems to be almost more significant through what it doesn’t say, rather than what it does. The first is to be found in section 26, commenting on the current political and military situation in Ukraine. Having acknowledged the ‘deep economic and humanitarian crisis’ they then ‘invite our churches in Ukraine to work towards social harmony, to refrain from taking part in the confrontation, and to not support any further development of the conflict.’ This last bit seems passive and makes no mention of the Russian involvement. True, Catholicism is not legally recognised as a religion in Russia and thus there are not really any Russian churches for Pope Francis to invite to be involved in the peace process. Therefore, it could be argued that it wouldn’t be appropriate for the Pope to issue a joint statement with the Patriarch of Moscow and all of Russia. It is worth noting briefly that the relationship between Patriarch Kirill and President Putin is involved and complex. Likely, the Pope and his advisors were keen to open a dialogue with a view to walking forwards in these discussions at a later date. Nevertheless, the silence here, whilst probably essential to the signing of a mutual document in the first place, seems deeply unfortunate.

There’s another notable absence too. Other than the fleeting allusion in the opening sections to ‘longstanding disputes of the “Old World”’ (§2), there is no mention of the theological and creedal debate around the filioque clause. Whilst there is a heart for unity, with language of ‘unanimous’, ‘shared’, ‘common’, ‘fraternal co-existence’, ‘peace and harmony’, there is no mention of a hope for eventual communion, as there was between Athenagoras I and Pope Paul VI. Nor is there any mention of the Eucharist in the shared statement. After the signing of the statement, Pope Francis said, ‘We speak as brothers, we have the same baptism…’4 How wonderful it would have been if this could have been included in the Havana Declaration! We can only hope that there will be future conversations where these topics can start to be discussed and, where common ground can be found, jointly affirmed.

Do not be fooled into thinking that this joint declaration left everything out, though. The meeting of the Pope with the Patriarch of Moscow is a truly historic encounter and the breadth of discussion which has been agreed upon is both significant and encouraging! It is also true that these times are uncertain. Our cultures and societies are changing and we as theologians, Christians and potential church leaders are called to be involved in shaping the way in which the Church responds to the world we see before us. As such, may the words of Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis to us be an encouragement, a challenge and a mission.

§22. Today, in a particular way, we address young Christians. You, young people, have the task of not hiding your talent in the ground (cf. Mt 25:25), but of using all the abilities God has given you to confirm Christ’s truth in the world, incarnating in your own lives the evangelical commandments of the love of God and of one’s neighbour. Do not be afraid of going against the current, defending God’s truth, to which contemporary secular norms are often far from conforming.

§23. God loves each of you and expects you to be His disciples and apostles. Be the light of the world so that those around you may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father (cf. Mt 5:14, 16). Raise your children in the Christian faith, transmitting to them the pearl of great price that is the faith (cf. Mt 13:46) you have received from your parents and forbears. Remember that “you have been purchased at a great prince” (1 Cor 6:20), at the cost of the death on the cross of the Man-God Jesus Christ.” (Emphasis in original).


1 Bria, Ecumenical, 116.

2 Paul VI, ‘Addresses’, 153

3 Athenagoras I, ‘Addresses’, 154-155.

4 Francis, ‘Declaration’, 8.



Bria, Ion, The Sense of Ecumenical Tradition: The Ecumenical witness and vision of the Orthodox,  Geneva: WCC Publications, 1991.

Paul VI, Pope; Athenagoras I, Patr of Constantinople, ‘Reciprocal Addresses’, St Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, ns 11 no 3 (1967), 152-155.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, Joint Declaration:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *