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Paul Vallely: Pope Francis plays a risky diplomatic game

24 June 2022

What explains his statements about the war in Ukraine, asks Paul Vallely


Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in St Peter’s Square, earlier this month

Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in St Peter’s Square, earlier this month

WHAT is Pope Francis up to over Ukraine? Eyebrows have been raised over his suggestion to a group of Jesuit journalists that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine was “perhaps somehow provoked” by the West with its expansion of NATO in recent years.

Some commentators have accused the Pope of naïvely giving succour to Vladimir Putin, while the Primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, proclaimed that the Pope had either been duped or was being deceitful.

There seem to me to be two possible explanations of the Pope’s words.

It is not that he has been uncritical of what he has called the “ferocity and cruelty of the Russian troops”. But, revealingly, he spoke of Russia as a “superpower”. This was a word that he used to describe the United States when he was “Bishop of the Slums” in Argentina, and austerity measures imposed at the behest of American-based banking and financial institutions hit hardest the poorest in his flock. In the lens through which Pope Francis views the world, superpowers are bad for ordinary people.

To most of us, there is no moral equivalence between the military activities of Russia and Ukraine. Yet the Pope talked of there being “no metaphysical good guys and bad guys”. Rather, he detects “larger geopolitical power-plays and the global arms trade . . . fuelling an unnecessary conflict”. He continued: “What seems indisputable is that both sides are trying out new weapons.”

It is as if he sees the devastation of Ukraine as the outcome of a conflict of “geopolitical appropriation” between Russia and the United States.

It also seems to be that he is attempting to keep communications open with Moscow, with the aim of playing the part of honest broker when the conflict reaches its endgame. Vatican diplomacy has a long tradition of this, despite criticisms that it lacks moral clarity.

It would explain why the Pope refrains from naming President Putin in any of his public statements on the war. The Russian leader has been invited to the Vatican no fewer than three times. And the Pope has taken care to continue his dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, in an attempt to repair centuries of division between Western and Eastern Christianity — despite Patriarch Kirill’s being a great supporter of Putin’s War.

But, if the logic of peace-making is engrained in the Vatican’s DNA, restrained diplomacy is not exactly this Pope’s personal forte. When Kirill launched into a defence of the war in a recent Zoom call between the two men, Pope Francis warned him not to become “Putin’s altar boy” — a demotic aside that caused great offence.

That’s not all. The Pope invited a Russian and a Ukrainian nurse to carry a cross together on Good Friday, and recite the prayer: “Why have you forsaken us?” This time it was the Ukrainians who were offended at the idea that the aggressors were on an equal footing with the defenders as victims of the war. When Archbishop Shevchuk said that such a prayer was “inappropriate”, the Pope riposted: “They are very touchy, the Ukrainians.”

History may prove Pope Francis right. But as “Hitler’s Pope”, Pius XII, might suggest, he is playing a very dangerous game.

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