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Three reasons why Pope Francis perpetually fails Ukraine

Pope Francis Ukraine war Kirill russia
Patriarch Kirill met with Pope Francis in Cuba in 2016, two years after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and signed the Havana Declaration. Photo:
Three reasons why Pope Francis perpetually fails Ukraine
Article by: Regina Elsner
Every time Pope Francis opens his mouth, Ukrainians prepare to cringe: the Catholic leader has offered plenty of platitudes but zero specifics of who the aggressor and victim is in Russia’s six-month bloody war. Catholic theologian Regina Elsner explains why.

For six months, the world is watching Russia invading sovereign Ukraine, bombing civil objects, killing and abusing civilians, lying and manipulating international organizations, destroying fundamental trust – and legitimating all of this with a quasi-religious ideology.

Christian churches are perceived as institutions capable to facilitate dialogue where other actors fail.However, it is a paradigm of religions in violent conflicts that they can be only part of a peaceful solution if they are not part of the problem.

There has been written a lot about the role of the Orthodox churches in the war-torn region, which are deeply entangled with the conflict and the ideology behind this war.

Russian World: the heresy driving Putin’s war

This is one reason why international observers paid a lot of hope and trust in the activities of the Vatican and Pope Francis. Both the social ethics of the Roman Catholic Church and the spirituality of Pope Francis as well as the transnational and block-free, neutral, diplomatic position of the Vatican could have certainly provided a fundament for negotiations.

However, for six months almost every statement from Rome disappoints in its ambivalence and inability to name the truth:

  • who is the aggressor;
  • who is guilty;
  • and driven by which deadly ideology.
In several symbolic acts, the Vatican equated the suffering of Ukraine and Russia in this war: when a Ukrainian and a Russian woman carried the cross on Good Friday together; and when he consecrated Ukraine and Russia simultaneously to the Virgin Mary.

Pope Francis’ ambiguous position on Ukraine

The Pope stands firmly on his plans to talk first directly to Putin and to Russian Patriarch Kirill, and only afterward visit Ukraine and meet the religious leaders of the war-torn country. More than once, the Pope admitted the possible share of the blame in the “West,” meaning NATO to provoke Russia or “everyone being guilty.”

With the good intention to move Patriarch Kirill to condemn the war and speak up against Russia’s political elites, the Vatican several times bestowed the Russian church with the opportunity to present Rome as an ally in its perspective of the events in Ukraine.

A new low in this line is the notion of “that poor girl blown up by a bomb under her car seat in Moscow. The innocent pay for war, the innocent!” during the General Audience on 24 August, the Independence Day of Ukraine.

The Pope here speaks about Daria Dugina, the daughter of the ultra-rightwing populist Alexander Dugin. She has been a rightwing populist herself, propagating all assets of the Russian World ideology, which stands behind Russia’s war.

She was killed in a nebulous terroristic act on August 21, which was immediately exploited by Orthodox activists in order to demand the full extermination of Ukraine, who in their view was responsible for the death of “our innocent daughter.”

The question here is not so much why the Pope includes killed people in Russia – without doubt, all the victims of the Russian terror costs are worth praying for. The problem is that the Pope gives a judgment on the moral condition of a person while he obviously is not aware of her role in legitimizing this war.

Months before, Ukrainians did not hide their anger about the Pope admitting that “we are all guilty” in the face of the victims of Bucha and Irpin.

So how can it be that Ukrainians are “also guilty” but one of the major propagandists in Russia is an “innocent” and “poor girl”? How can this be reconcilable even with the claim to tell the truth and be neutral, not talking about unconditional solidarity with the victims.

Pope Francis and his special relation with Russia

It has been argued that it is the principle of Vatican diplomacy never to name the aggressor in order to remain a possible dialogue partner for the aggressor. And it has been argued that it is indeed the special value of the Vatican’s neutral position to underline that every war brings pain and suffering on all sides of a conflict.

However, at least the reaction of Ukrainians, the victim of this war, which the Pope embraces in every prayer and public statement, to every new positioning by the Vatican should draw attention to the failure of these principles in the case of Ukraine. There are several reasons for this.

1. Vatican lacks expertise on Eastern Europe

First, and obviously, the Vatican lacks serious expertise on Eastern Europe beyond Russia – or the will to use the existing expertise. Not only Ukrainians but also Polish and Romanian faithful expressed their deep disappointment about the Vatican supporting the Russian myth about NATO pressing Russia, thus ignoring the autonomy and social developments of the countries of the former Soviet block.

Both Catholics and Orthodox in these countries underlined their experience with Russian church and state representatives manipulating information, instrumentalizing church structures for political goals, and oppressing dissenting voices.

Simultaneously, the Vatican is obviously not aware of the deep anti-ecumenical currents within the Orthodox Church in Russia and its branches in Ukraine and Belarus, which significantly lowers the authority of the Pope as a mediator. When the Pope expressed his hope to “speak as a priest” to Putin, he presented this fundamentally wrong assessment of the situation.

2. Vatican needs allies to fight liberalism

Of course, this attitude to Eastern Europe and Russia has a history. Since the Cold War, the Vatican tried to maintain special relations with the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union and played an important role in enabling Orthodox theologians and hierarchs to travel and build networks in the free world.

After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, the relations cooled down because of an occurring contestation about faithful, in Russia through the establishment of a structure of Catholic dioceses, in Ukraine through the return of the Greek-Catholic Church from the underground. The theological dialogues, until 1990 shaped by socio-ethical discussions about peace and justice, turned to core dogmatic issues and stopped by the end of the 1990s.

A renewal of good bilateral relations started only under Pope Benedikt XVI. when the leadership of both churches discovered an important common interest: to defend conservative Christian values against liberalism.

This strategic alliance was able to smooth out the dogmatic disagreements and build a new and exclusive relationship between Rome and Moscow with its climax in the meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Havana in 2016.

Remarkably, the church leadership in Moscow used the moral capital of a church that survived decades of state repression to push the authority of conservative actors all over the world, and at the same time fully participated in the repression of dissenting actors within and outside the church in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

These inner repressions have never been a topic of ecumenical dialogue. Instead, fighting the common enemy of liberalism became such a strong link between the churches that until today no one in Rome was able to debunk the “Russian world” ideology as the legitimation of a full-fledged war and to fundamentally distance Christian teachings from this ideology.

3. Vatican is ignorant of Russian propaganda

A third reason for the failure of the Vatican to position itself unanimously against the war is the complete ignorance of the functionality of propaganda, which became such a powerful tool in this war.

Countering critics of Vatican diplomacy, the speakers underlined the importance of a neutral position and confidential talks behind the curtains to gain substantial results.

However, in this war, neutrality and the claim that both sides have their share of truth is one of the main weapons of warfare.

The deep uncertainty about what is going on in Ukraine, about alleged repressions of the Russian language and Orthodox faith, nationalists, and gay pride parades has been an intentional aim of Russian propaganda in preparing for the invasion since 2014.

When the Vatican agrees to give the West a share of guilt and Russia a share of truth, it exactly contributes to these myths, it admits that is has no idea about the situation in Ukraine and is not able to differentiate information.The words of the Pope about Daria Dugina underline this complete misinterpretation, and it is another gift to those voices believing the Pope to be on the side of Russia.

Considering these aspects of a Vatican unable to reshape its relationship with a church deeply compliant to aggressive war, observers nervously awaited the meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Kazakhstan later in September.

On August 25, the Moscow Patriarchate canceled the participation of Patriarch Kirill in the Summit of Religious Leaders for Peace, the meeting with the Pope will not happen. There might be manifold reasons for this decision.

However, for the Vatican this could be a chance to finally find a clear stance in relation to Russia, to realize that neither Putin nor Patriarch Kirill have an interest in ending this war. If so, the Vatican also finally could strengthen its solidarity with Ukraine and contribute to the empowerment of its society in its incredible fight for freedom and dignity.

Regina Elsner is a Catholic theologian and researcher at the Berlin Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS). At ZOiS, she is investigating the dynamics of Orthodox social ethics in Eastern Europe since the dissolution of the Soviet Union with a special focus on peace ethics. She serves also as a consultant for the German Bishops Conference and is a member of the Pro Oriente Steering Committee for the Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue.

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