Catholicism in Russia Today

Dennis J. Dunn

Editor’s Note: The first portion of this article appeared in the previous issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Catholic Literature

A serious concern of the Catholic Church in Russia has been its lack of publications and literature. In October 1994 the Church began publishing a newspaper, Svet evangeliia [Light of the Gospe]) for the European part of Russia. For the Asian part of Russia, the Church began publishing letter from Siberia (in English) in 1993 and a newspaper (Sibirskaia katolicheskaia gazeta) in 1995, both of which feature regional religious news.1 In May 1996 the Vatican approved a Russian translation of the Catholic Church’s basic catechism. Besides the catechism, the Church in Russia also published a Dictionary of Liturgical Terms for the Latin Rite in June 1996. In 2002 the Church published the fourth edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and, for the first time, a Russian Catholic encyclopedia, which provides a wealth of information about the Catholic Church.2

Orthodox Hostility

Another critical problem that the Catholic Church faces in the new Russia is the old issue of Orthodoxy’s hostility to and suspicion of the Catholic Church.3 The Orthodox Church, which also suffered terribly under the Communists, objects to the Catholic Church in post-Soviet Russia on four grounds. First, there is the continuing issue of theological differences, principally papal primacy and the filioque question [concerning Orthodox objections to the Catholic addition of “and the Son” to the Nicene Creed without the consent of an ecumenical council]. Second, Orthodox leaders believe that the Catholic Church is attempting to convert to Catholicism Orthodox believers and Russian non-believers who, Orthodox think, belong to their mission field. Orthodox officials regularly denounce the “proselytizing” efforts of the Catholic Church in lands that are historically Orthodox.4 They are particularly irritated that some of Russia’s most dynamic intellectuals are converting to Catholicism. Third, the Russian Orthodox Church views the Catholic Church’s growth in Ukraine, particularly the revival of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, with its five million believers, to be a Trojan horse and a sinister attack upon Orthodoxy. The Russian Orthodox Church insists that the problem of “uniatism” be solved by Rome abandoning Eastern-Rite Catholics. Theological issues are decidedly secondary to Russian Orthodoxy’s preoccupation with the existence of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Finally, Orthodoxy believes that it needs time to rebuild its resources in order to compete with the Catholic Church and other Western faiths

The Catholic Response

On the issue of Catholic missionary efforts in Russia, the Catholic Church stresses its recognition of Russia as an Orthodox land. It further emphasizes that it has no intention of converting Orthodox believers to Catholicism and is not engaged, as Orthodox leaders charge, in “proselytism.” Metropolitan Kondrusziewicz has stated that “I always repeat that for me Russia was, is, and will remain an Orthodox land. In Russia, conversion from Orthodoxy to Catholicism is a rare occurrence. And I am against such conversions.”5 Indeed, there is little evidence that the Catholic Church is attempting to convert Russians, and Catholic leaders in Moscow emphasize that they do not proselytize but cannot proscribe Russians from seeking out Catholicism.6

Although Catholic leaders readily grant that Russia is an Orthodox land, they argue that the Catholic Church, too, has a place in Russia, that it has a following that needs to be served, and that it must receive into its midst any Russian who voluntarily seeks Catholicism.7 The Russian Orthodox Church, however, does not want any Russians, even willful atheists, becoming Catholics. Its definition of proselytism includes not only voluntary conversions to Catholicism or Protestantism of Orthodox believers and non-believers who never attended the Orthodox Church, but also missionary activity by non-Orthodox Christians among Tartar and Uzbek Muslims. Of course, there are Catholic groups in and out of Russia who harbor hopes of “converting” Russia, but such Catholics certainly are a minority and are in conflict with the official position of the Vatican and Catholic church leaders in Russia.

Orthodox Reaction to Catholic Administrative Changes

Until February 2002 the Vatican called its administrative divisions apostolic administrations, rather than episcopal dioceses. The Russian Orthodox Church objected to a Catholic episcopal structure on the grounds that there were already existing Orthodox episcopal dioceses and that any Catholic effort to set up dioceses challenged Orthodoxy’s legitimacy, was canonically redundant, and smacked of proselytism. The Vatican, however, opted to normalize its administrative structure in February 2002, in spite of Orthodox and Russian nationalist objections. A distinct chill has descended upon Catholic-Russian relations since the Vatican decided to restructure its apostolic administrations into dioceses.8

Additional Hardships

Possibly to retaliate, since February 2002 local government authorities and Russian Orthodox officials have blocked the building of Catholic churches or threatened to close existing Catholic churches in Magadan, Saratov, Pskov, Yaroslavl’, and Vologda. The reasons given range from pastors who lack a residence permit, which the government has not provided, to charges that Catholics were engaged in espionage. Also, since February 2002 a growing number of Catholic clergy, capped by Bishop Jerzy Mazur, have had their return visas canceled. On 20 April 2002 Metropolitan Kondrusziewicz declared that “an organized campaign is being waged against the Catholic Church in Russia.”

Answering Orthodox Charges

All things considered, there was nothing unreasonable about the Vatican’s decision to change the name of existing administrative divisions from apostolic administrations to dioceses, which is what existed in tsarist Russia and is the common organizational structure of the Catholic Church worldwide. The Catholic Church has existed in Russia for centuries, and the fact that it wanted to restore its administrative structure and position destroyed by the Communists was not a threat to Orthodoxy or evidence of proselytism. Furthermore, Orthodoxy has organized its followers who are not in Russia into dioceses. For example, there are Russian Orthodox dioceses in Germany, France, and the United States. The same is true for Kaliningrad Oblast, now part of Russia, but prior to World War II part of Germany. This region is predominantly Lutheran, with some Catholics, but virtually no Orthodox.

The Catholic Church in Russia does have a significant advantage over the Russian Orthodox Church in that it has the support of the worldwide Catholic Church. Virtually all Catholic priests in Siberia have phones, fax machines, and access to the Internet. Orthodoxy cannot yet match this technology, and it has no large, sophisticated external source to which it can turn for financial support. What it does have is influence with Russian and pro-Russian Orthodox political authorities, which it uses to frustrate Catholics.

In Defense of Catholic Presence in Russia

The Catholic Church, it is true, is foreign in the lands that formed old Muscovy, but it was present in St. Petersburg from its inception. Furthermore, it had a unique position in Siberia from the earliest days of tsarist rule, as the religion of the many Catholic Poles, Germans, and Lithuanians who, because of government action, resided there. It was also not foreign in the lands that Russia conquered, including Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, and Novgorod.

Orthodoxy maintains that it is the national religion of Russians and other East Slavic peoples and that a powerful central authority is needed for Russia’s revival and survival. However, it seems to push that agenda at the expense of the Russian people and of cooperation with other religious traditions that could help rebuild Russian society. A growing number of Russians have found Orthodoxy’s approach to religion to be wanting and have found a spiritual home in other religions, particularly Protestantism and, among some young intellectuals, Catholicism.9 Most Catholic parishioners, according to one survey, “are young, mainly students, and members of the intelligentsia. The survey notes that the general high level of education among parishioners (mainly artists, teachers, and academics) gives Catholicism greater influence and appeal” than other religions.

“Catholics,” the survey concluded, “are as a rule well-educated, with a Western outlook: for many of them the concepts of culture and freedom are linked primarily with the Catholic Church.”10 F

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Dennis J. Dunn, The Catholic Church and Russia; Popes, Patriarchs, Tsars and Commissars (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2004). Ashgate Web site:

Dennis J. Dunn is professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas.


1 All information on publications is from Yuli Shreider and Yuri Genedkov, 19 May 1996, pp.42-45. See also Yuli Shreider, “Russian Catholicism,” Religion, State and Society 24 (March 1996), 55-64.

2 Richard Szczepanowski, “Moscow Prelate Says New Dioceses Supported by Most Russians,” Catholic Standard, 7 March 2002,, p.2.

3 Daniel L. Schlafly, Jr., “Roman Catholicism in Today’s

Russia: The Troubled Heritage,” Journal of Church and State 39 (Autumn 1997), 681-97, provides a good overview of the historically estranged relationship between Orthodoxy and Catholicism.

4 Ibid.

5 Quoted in Istina i zhizn’, No. 9, 1994, pp. 13-14.

6 Lawrence Uzzell, “Russians and Catholics,” First Things (October 2002), 2.

7 Svet evangeliia, 25 June 1995, p.5.

8 Geraldine Fagan, “The Vatican Gets Tough with Russia,” The Wall Street Journal Europe, 25 February 2002, pp. 1-2.

9 Sergei B. Filatov, “Fenomem rossiiskogo protestantizma” in Sergei B. Filatov, ed., Religiia i obshchestvo: ocherki religioznoi zhizn sovremennoi Rossii (Moscow: Letnii Sad, 2002), 289; Sergei B. Filatov and Lyudmila Vorontsova, “Katoliki i katolitsizm v Rossii” in ibid., 289.

10 Filatov and Vorontsova, “Katoliki i katolitsizm v Rossii, 289.