The pope may be praying for Putin, but he clings to Ukraine neutrality

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ROME. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addressed the UN Human Rights Council just weeks after the Kremlin brought tanks into Ukraine, some 140 diplomats walked out. One of the few who remained: a messenger from the Holy See.

The Holy See’s decision epitomizes what some in the West see as the irritating tendency of a neutral sovereign entity to sit on the sidelines instead of naming and shaming Russian President Vladimir Putin for using the powerful Russian Orthodox Church. OK help legitimize his brutal revanchist war in Ukraine.

In several intergovernmental organizations, the sovereign territory repeatedly abstained from votes condemning Russian aggression, even before the invasion of Ukraine. At the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Holy See refused to support a measure condemning the Kremlin’s use of nerve agents. And in March, in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes several dozen European countries, the Holy See abstained in a vote on investigating possible war crimes in Ukraine.

Instead, Pope Francis chose to deplore the war with flamboyant but vague rhetoric. He called it a “blasphemous war” and referred to “a ruler caught up in anachronistic declarations of national interest”.

But he avoids naming Vladimir Putin and Russia. He also failed to mention the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, a key Putin supporter who sanctioned the invasion as a “holy war.” Notably, Francis opposed sending arms to Ukraine, saying rearmament would lead to a new “balance of fear”.

For Francis, the dilemma is whether to use his moral position to openly condemn Russia, or to abstain in the hope of creating space for mediation. One possible constructive role, for example, could be to involve the Russian Orthodox Church in conflict resolution options.

Supporters of the church say the church’s stubborn commitment to neutrality is pragmatic, based on the belief that it keeps the door open for dialogue and long-term thinking. It’s also unclear what the Vatican can achieve with a more aggressive tone, given Putin’s intransigence and the Holy See’s lack of authority over the Russian Orthodox Church, which has enthusiastically supported Putin’s war.

Cardinal Michael Czerny, who has worked in Ukraine on behalf of the Pope, said Francis was already “very harsh” in his criticism. “There is no need to name names,” he added. “It only complicates the dialogue.”

However, the approach of the Holy See left a bitter taste for some.

“When Western allies see a Holy See diplomat listening to Lavrov when everyone else has left the room, it’s annoying. They say they can’t be political, but this is seen as going over to Russia,” said one Western diplomat.

State without state interests

The motives of the church, often rooted in faith rather than politics, can be difficult for the secular world to understand.

“The Pope always hopes that anyone will experience a personal conversion,” said Victor Gaetan, author of God’s Diplomats, Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and American Armageddon.

Francis, Gaetan added, would “pray without ceasing” for Putin.

The Vatican is a state, but a state without economic, military or territorial interests. According to Gaetan, this allows him to focus on the common good of all people, including addressing immediate concerns such as access to food and water, humanitarian corridors and personal security, as well as longer-term goals such as protecting places of worship. .

But while he can weigh his words in public, Francis is not sitting idle. He listens to diplomatic channels behind the scenes.

The pope is “active in the realm of diplomacy and negotiations,” Czerny, a cardinal in Ukraine, said, pointing to Francis’ telephone conversations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Kirill. “The Pope seeks to unite rather than divide, and often works in the shadows and in silence.”

After the invasion, Francis also made an unprecedented visit to the Russian embassy to the Holy See. The meeting broke protocol and attracted attention. Usually the head of state calls or invites the ambassador for a talk, and does not just appear in the ambassador’s office.

According to a Western diplomat, the move was “strikingly unusual.” “Never heard of it. This gesture speaks of humility, thinking about the message, not the protocol.”

Diplomatic success

The Holy See may point to some historical success in conflict resolution.

Popes and Catholic humanitarian organizations such as the Community of Sant’Egidio mediated conflicts in Mozambique, Lebanon and Kosovo. Catholic officials also helped resolve the conflict between Argentina and Chile.

During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Pope John XXIII even received credit for helping to move the US and Russia away from the brink of nuclear war, when he pleaded with the country’s leaders to keep talking. The overture gave Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev the cover to present his retreat as an act of peace, not cowardice.

More recently, Francis has helped restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba after a half-century embargo. And in 2016, a spiritual retreat organized by Francis for the leaders of South Sudan helped prevent a civil war.

Priests acting as diplomats focus “on what the two sides have in common and identify common goals,” Gaetan, the author, said, adding that they “strive to make the two sides more humane towards each other.”

It can take years to reach solid political agreements, testing the patience of elected representatives. But, as a high-ranking church figure put it: “Politicians think for months, we have been working in the church for millennia.”

Of course, not all Holy See diplomacy is considered successful or even desirable.

There is still considerable controversy over the silence of Pope Pius XII in condemning Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. His critics argued that with a very significant Catholic population in both Germany and Austria, he could undermine support for the regime. The Vatican claims it remained silent to protect the church’s behind-the-scenes efforts to protect victims of Nazism, including Jews.

In Ukraine, the Pope has to walk a tightrope. He will seek to avoid presenting the conflict as a clash of civilizations, East and West, whose origins may date back to the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox Churches and Western Christianity in 1054.

For Francis, as for all recent popes, the reunification of the Christian churches is a central mission. The Holy See began to re-establish relations with Russia under John Paul II, when Kirill was Russia’s main external interlocutor. Francis became the first pope to meet a Russian patriarch when he sat down with Kirill in 2016.

But the war thwarted attempts to bring the churches closer together.

The Russian state and the Russian church officially have the same goal: to regain control over Ukraine.

According to Gaetan, many in Russia were shocked when the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2019 recognized its independent head, who did not answer to any outside patriarch or bishop. Some Russians even saw the US hand in this move, given that it was a concrete way to reduce Russian influence in Ukraine.

“I’m afraid the Russian Orthodox Church took it as a declaration of war, just like the Russian state,” Gaetan said.

Francis said the visit to Kyiv was “under discussion”.

Although Francis is one of the most powerful figures in the world and his presence would show solidarity with Ukraine, he would like any visit to be more than symbolic and a step towards a ceasefire, which is unlikely.

In addition, it is doubtful that the influence of the pope will extend to the Russian Orthodox Church, given its pro-Putin sentiment.

Religious leaders can play a role in post-conflict reconciliation efforts, when rebuilding trust will require more than political dialogue.

But now the world is looking for a miracle that the Vatican is unlikely to create.

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