Religion vs. nationalism—no contest

In discussing the present situation of the Ukrainian Catholic Church one frequently hears the following questions: You people aren’t really that interested in your Church, are you? Why don’t you admit it, that your concern for the Church is just a form of your nationalistic feelings? Aren’t you primarily interested in Ukraine rather than in the Ukrainian Catholic Church?

To answer these questions, which are usually posed with a knowing smile and a slight twinkle of the eyes, we have to point out some historical differences between the Eastern Churches and those of the West and to bring into focus the relationship between church and state as it existed in Ukraine.

As many church historians and theologians have pointed out, the relationship between church and state in the realm of the Eastern Churches was based on the idea of a harmonious coexistence between the two institutions. Historically this harmony continued in the East Roman Empire until the fall of Byzantium.

The annals of history also show us that whenever the state, for one reason or another, was unable to function properly, the church stepped in and used its structure to replace or at least to supplement the temporarily suspended or impaired governmental operations.

The value of such church-state relationship was recently pointed out by Valentyn Moroz. In his work The Boomerang, for example, he writes:

«Generally speaking, the easiest way to destroy the foundation of nation is to do it under the pretext of fighting the Church. The Church has rooted itself in the cultural life so deeply that it is impossible to touch it without damaging the spiritual structure of a nation. It is impossible to imagine traditional cultural values without the Church. It is ultimately necessary to understand that an attack against the Church is an attack against culture. How many times has the nation been saved by the Church? This was especially important when a change in faith meant a change in nationality. There were a number of villages near Kholm where Ukrainians spoke Polish. But they remained Ukrainians as long as they adhered to the Ukrainian faith and Church. Similarly, a Polish family in a Ukrainian village in Podilya would remain Polish for generations without knowing the Polish language as long as the family remained Catholic.»


«In Eastern Europe the Church was the only power independent of the authorities. Let us take the Ukrainian revival in Halychyna, how trivial was the role played by the teacher as compared with the priest! The teacher was a state employee afraid of losing his job. The priest did not know this fear. The majority of the people working for the Ukrainian cause came from the clergy. ‘The Reverend’ was often justifiably criticized, but it is also important to remember that it was he who kept the Ukrainian movement alive. Halychyna did not turn Polish because of the Ukrainian Church. In this and similar cases we can equate the Church and the nation — just as we can equate the Church and spirituality, in general.»

Many historical instances of such church-state relationship are recorded. During the Tartar occupation, for example, when the kingdom of Rus’ — Ukraine lost its political unity — it was the Church that kept up and perpetuated the customs and traditions of the Ukrainian people and thus prevented the complete denationalization of the populace. Similarly, one might add, after the Greeks lost their political independence, it was the Greek Church, and primarily the patriarch of Constantinople, who represented the Greek nation.

In more recent times, Ukraine, whose national independence was very short-lived, dependent more and more on the church to maintain a national awareness among the faithful as well as the idea of a common origin and a common destiny. It is therefore not surprising that many members of the Ukrainian Catholic hierarchy became prominent statesmen and political leaders. After all, the line of demarcation between the secular and the spiritual realm in the East is not as pronounced as it is in the West, and to be sure, the people who make up the nation also constitute the church. Things are quite different in the Western Church. Whereas it cannot be denied that the Roman Catholic Church frequently strengthened a given nation during the times of political upheavals and loss of national independence (Poland and Ireland can serve as examples here), church structure as such, however, was never used to replace the lost statehood of a western nation, as it was used throughout the ages in the East and particularly in Ukraine.

These historical precedents should make it quite clear that it is not unreasonable to expect the Ukrainian Church to protect also the national interests of the Ukrainian people. This demand is even more justified if we consider that the greatest part of Ukrainian Catholics is deprived of freedom and suffers religious and national persecution at the hands of the communist occupants.

Americans, who have been conditioned to the doctrine of separation between church and state, may legitimately voice the fear that such church-state relationship as described here could lead to excessive nationalistic feelings among the faithful which could be detrimental both to the Ukrainian Catholic Church and to our new homeland, the United States.

History once again provides us with an answer: there are no historical precedents for a Church-inspired chauvinism in Ukraine. As a matter of fact the contrary is the case.

Whereas the Church throughout the ages has favorably shaped the national consciousness of the Ukrainian people this church-state relationship always remained quite free from venomous nationalism. On the contrary it imbued the faithful with a true Christian humility.

One typically Ukrainian feast amply demonstrates this. We are referring here to the feast of Pokrova, that is the feast of Our Lady of Protection of the Veil which was created in ancient Rus-Ukraine, to commemorate the rescue of Constantinople from the besieging Slavs.

This feast became one of the most venerated and favorite with the people and nobody was ever offended by the fact that its historical origin was the victory of the Greeks over the Slavs, the ancestors of the Ukrainians.

Throughout history the Ukrainian Catholic Church has led its faithful in the spirit of unity and true Christian humility based on the doloristic wisdom acquired through centuries of persecution.

And today more then ever there is a need for an autonomous status of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in union with the Holy See.

Such status would insure the preservation of the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of the Ukrainians and to some extent recompense a people for their faithful allegiance to the Apostolic See; an allegiance which is sealed with the blood of countless martyrs and confessors of faith who are following the examples of ages past.

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