Finally last Sunday the Pope used the word “aggression,” but still without naming Russia. For some it is too little too late. Why is he so cautious?
by Massimo Introvigne*
*Translation of an editorial published in the Italian daily newspaper Il Mattino on March 15, 2022.
Last Sunday, March 13, Pope Francis went beyond his previous statements on Ukraine, which merely called for peace and condemned war. He mentioned explicitly an “unacceptable armed aggression” and the “barbarism” of bombings that target “children, innocents and defenseless civilians.” He also condemned those who “profane the name of God” to justify war.
Andrea Tornielli, who is not only a long-time Vatican observer but has an official position as editorial director of the Holy See’s Dicastery of Communication, explained that the reference, not explicit but clear, was precisely to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, who on March 6 had blessed the invasion by presenting it as a “metaphysical war” against the corrupt West that allows Gay Pride parades.
It is perhaps no coincidence that on Sunday the Holy See broke its silence, which it had kept for several days, on the very serious measure taken by a faithful ally of Moscow, Nicaragua. President Ortega had expelled the Apostolic Nuncio Sommertag after the regime’s squads had threatened and even beaten him. Sommertag has long criticized the human rights situation in Nicaragua, but international tensions certainly played a role in his expulsion, condemned as “unprecedented” and “incomprehensible” by the Vatican. President Ortega is so much pro-Putin that his face even decorates the one-ruble coins of South Ossetia, one of the pseudo-republics created by the Russians in Georgian territory, parallel to those they established in Ukraine.
Also on Sunday, the Holy See leaked news that a new meeting between the Pope and Kirill, which media in Russia keep giving as scheduled for this summer, will probably be canceled.
A number of Italian observers have noted and celebrated these developments as a turning point in Pope Francis’ position on the war in Ukraine. Perhaps the Pope himself, looking at the reactions twenty-four hours later, was surprised to note that in Ukraine itself, in much of Eastern Europe, and in the United States, the perception was different than in Italy and his position was still classified in most cases in the category of “too little too late.” What is missing from Pope Francis’ words?
There is no explicit condemnation of Russia and Putin. The old Catholic rule “one mentions the sin but never the sinner” is fine for confessions but less appropriate when a state is attacking and bombing another state. It is fine to condemn the aggression and the bombs, object the critics, but if you do not name the aggressor and do not mention who is throwing the bombs, the speech remains somewhat suspended in the middle.
For his part, Cardinal Secretary of State Parolin recalled that “armed resistance in the face of aggression” is legitimate according to Catholic morality, distancing himself from the absolute pacifism widespread in some Catholic circles. But he also affirmed that “after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have not been able to build a new system of coexistence between nations that goes beyond military alliances or economic convenience.” He may have a point, but he makes it at the wrong time, because his words seem in some way to criticize NATO and the European Union and to open a breach through which the Russian pretexts for aggression can pass.
Voices were heard among Catholic bishops who seemed to support more those who wave the flags of peace, carefully avoiding naming and condemning the aggressors, than those who wave the flags of the aggressed who resist, that is, the flags of Ukraine.
Why do the Pope and the Holy See behave in this way? Certainly among the bishops, and among Catholic priests, nuns and laypersons, there are those nostalgics of an old anti-American leftism and admirers of the “revolución” in Cuban, Venezuelan or Nicaraguan sauce, which is now siding with Putin.
However at the top levels of the Vatican the motivation is different. After a moment of greater distance in the years when the Pope in Rome was Polish—never were Polish Catholics and Russian Orthodox best friends—a German professor such as Benedict XVI and an Argentine Jesuit such as Francis have invested heavily in rebuilding a relationship, first diplomatic, then even friendly, with Patriarch Kirill and his Church. Rome has leveraged, involving Putin himself, even common causes: the defense of Christian communities in the Middle East threatened with disappearance, the protest against gender ideology and a common hostility to same-sex marriage.
It is true that Francis is less sensitive to these issues than Ratzinger was, and that Kirill has offered an increasingly caricatured version of them, justifying as a supposed defense of Christians threatened by the Islamic State every bombing by Putin and misdeed by Assad in Syria, and most recently using criticism of Gay Pride to justify aggression against Ukraine as a holy war against Western corruption. But Francis, who from his Argentinian Peronist past inherited a third-world-style criticism of the United States, is in other ways more inclined to understand the anti-Americanism of Putin and Kirill than the pro-American Ratzinger was.
From Benedict XVI to Francis, the Vatican’s effort to reconnect with the Orthodox Church in Moscow has been immense. Kirill for his part has gone along with these efforts at the cost of losing those radical conservative Orthodox for whom the Popes of Rome are heretics not to be spoken to. One can understand the Holy See being reluctant to abandon this enormous investment before it has even borne fruit, condemning Kirill and Putin, who increasingly look like one and the same, not only implicitly but by calling them by their names.
There is a parallel here with Francis’ investment on China, Xi Jinping, and the “Patriotic” Catholic Church loyal to the Beijing regime, once considered schismatic and excommunicated and now welcomed back, with the agreement the Vatican signed in 2018. Even that agreement has not paid any dividend so far. The Holy See is patient, but it also found itself gagged when the rest of the free world condemned China for its crackdown in Hong Kong and genocide of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
There are, of course, breaking points. A bombing or attack on Kiev with thousands of civilian casualties would probably force Francis to name names. But so far a reluctance to abandon a more than decade-long investment in Kirill continues to act as a brake.