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Vatican Ostpolitik is inadequate

16 December 2022

The Pope should condemn Russian aggression more explicitly, says Jonathan Luxmoore


Pope Francis prays in the Piazza di Spagna, in Rome, on Wednesday of last week, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

Pope Francis prays in the Piazza di Spagna, in Rome, on Wednesday of last week, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

WHEN Pope Francis came under attack from Russia, in late November, for remarks made in an interview about the war in Ukraine, it seemed that his new-look Ostpolitik could be working, by steering an independent course between the sides.

Ukraine itself has long-held reservations, however, about the Pope’s response to President Putin’s invasion, and may well have compared it unfavourably with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s outspokenness during his recent visit (News, 2 December).

Roman and Greek Catholics, in contrast to Anglicans, are a notable presence in both Russia and Ukraine; so a pope and an Archbishop of Canterbury will naturally respond differently. Yet those yearning for Pope Francis to condemn Russia’s aggression directly have been disappointed.

In May, he suggested to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that NATO had contributed to war by “barking at Russia’s door”, and he questioned — perhaps recalling past violence in his native Latin America — whether Ukraine should be supplied with weapons. In June, in an interview with the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, he denied being “pro-Putin”, but rejected any “distinction between good guys and bad guys”.

In August, the Vatican’s Kyiv nuncio was called in by Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, after the Pope described an assassinated Russian far-Right commentator as an “innocent”, paying for “the madness of all sides”. Forced to clarify, the Vatican confirmed that the war had, indeed, been “initiated by the Russian Federation”, and said that Francis had condemned it as “morally unjust, unacceptable, barbaric, senseless, repugnant and sacrilegious”.

In November, however, the Pope blamed the cruelty on mercenaries, not Russians, whom he held in “high esteem”. In a subsequent message to Ukrainians, his first in nine months of war, he lamented the country’s “immense tragedy”, but also offended its leaders by calling on them to take “far-sighted decisions for peace”.

Even when comparing Ukrainian sufferings to a notorious Soviet-engineered “terror famine” in the 1930s, Pope Francis again declined to mention Russia by name.
In late November, Moscow itself protested when the Pope blamed the ongoing cruelty on troops “not of the Russian tradition”, such as Chechens and Buryats. It will have been angered again by the Pope’s remarks to Poles on 7 December, apparently equating events in Ukraine with the mass murder of Jews during the Second World War.


YET the Pope’s otherwise undimmed faith in Vatican diplomacy has provoked doubts further afield.

In Belarus, where 1400 political prisoners are languishing in prison, the Roman Catholic Church was outspoken when President Lukashenka regained power in rigged 2020 elections, but has since fallen silent at the Vatican’s behest. Last month, Christian dissidents published a collection of unanswered appeals to the Pope, including one from the exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, requesting a “genuine word of truth and justice”; and a prison letter from Ales Bialiatski, one of the winners of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.

“The Vatican isn’t a diplomatic corporation, but the heart of the Catholic Church. When it fails to support the oppressed, this has a deeply demoralising effect,” the collection’s editor, Natallia Vasilevich, told me recently. “Viewed from Belarus, however, Rome seems more interested in good relations with the Lukashenka regime.”

The Nuncio charged with handling these relations, Archbishop Ante Jozic, hosted a reception last month, at which he enthused that Vatican-Belarus diplomatic ties were being “supplemented with new wonderful pages”.

Before reaching Minsk, Archbishop Jozic had been instrumental in negotiating Rome’s still unpublished 2018 agreement with China, which accorded the Communist regime a say in nominating bishops. As Beijing’s line on organised religion hardens, this, too, shows signs of unravelling.


VATICAN diplomatic traditions are the stuff of legend, taking in such figures as the Cardinal-diplomats Ercole Consalvi and Giacomo Antonelli, who negotiated deals with outwardly anti-clerical republican regimes in the 19th century. They have proved controversial before, as when Rome denounced Polish uprisings against Russian rule. And they reached a new peak in the 1960s and ’70s, when Popes John XXIII and Paul VI adopted a policy of appeasement towards Communist regimes, believing that a “small steps” approach over the head of local Churches would achieve more than public condemnations.

The proverbial Ostpolitik centred on soft-power missions by Bishop (later Cardinal) Agostino Casaroli. It is claimed by the Vatican today as a historic success. This is not how it is seen, however, in Eastern Europe, where many believe that it has sown confusion and boosted the regimes’ legitimacy, while weakening local bishops who understand the situation far better.

The “small steps” policy was comprehensively changed after 1978 by St John Paul II, who believed that the Church could exploit Communist weaknesses and rally people power for democratic change. In the event, Eastern Europeans liberated themselves through their own courage and determination. For Vatican diplomats to claim credit is tantamount to historical plagiarism.

Yet, today, Rome seems to have reverted to a similar approach, evading explicit condemnations in favour of discreet negotiations. Like popes before him, Francis is right to see peace as a supreme goal, and deserves praise for sending humanitarian missions to Ukraine and helping to arrange prisoner swaps.

But speaking truth to power, when necessary with prophetic firmness, is essential to the Church’s mission. If it declines this mission in favour of diplomatic calculations, its loss in trust and moral authority will be greater than its gains.

Jonathan Luxmoore’s two-volume study of martyrdom, The God of the Gulag, is published by Gracewing.

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