Aug 17, 2023
On the morning of June 2, 1979 church bells pealed across Poland as Pope John Paul II stepped from his plane onto the soil of his native country, then knelt to kiss its ground. His dramatic gesture of devotion and his crusade against human rights abuses helped demolish the Soviet Union. Polish insurgents were allowed to meet, organize, and pass messages in Catholic churches as their Pope spoke out eloquently against Soviet wrongdoing everywhere. In 2003, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize and declined out of humility. In 2014, he was canonized. By contrast, the current incumbent, Pope Francis, has never directly condemned Vladimir Putin or Russia by name in the 18 months since their horrific war began against the Ukrainian people. Worse, the Pope’s first quoted reaction echoed Kremlin talking points when he suggested that the war was a consequence of “NATO barging at Russia’s gate” and the “international arms industry”. This Pope’s failure to publicly condemn Putin and Russia, and his moral equivocation when pressed, is unforgivable and reminiscent of the Papacy’s tacit acceptance of Hitler and his Second World War.
Pope Francis is creating another “historic mess” because he aims to “show that he is neither on one side or the other,” commented Giovanni Maria Vian, a former editor of the Vatican’s newspaper. The Papal silence is perplexing, given that Catholicism is the largest religion in Europe and that 10 percent of Ukrainians are members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church which recognizes the Holy See. Other religious Ukrainians belong to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine which broke away from its Russian counterpart in 2019, but their worldwide spiritual leader, Patriarch Bartholomew, immediately labelled Russia’s invasion as “unholy and demonic”. And this March, he also directly accused the Russian branch of the Orthodox church and the Kremlin of cooperating “in the crime of aggression and shared the responsibility for the resulting crimes, like the shocking abduction of the Ukrainian children.”
Perhaps Pope Francis refuses to name the predators because one of them is a friend — Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill who also happens to be a former KGB agent and confidante of Putin’s. A few years ago, Forbes Magazine estimated that Kirill’s personal net worth was $4 billion, but this remains unverified. However, he wears $30,000 watches and owns a private jet, a palatial estate, a yacht, and valuable real estate in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Suspicions are that his fortune was accumulated by skimming profits made by his Church in the mid-1990s after it was granted a monopoly to import cigarettes duty-free.
After the February 2022 invasion, Kirill did not condemn it as the worldwide Orthodox Patriarch did, but issued a directive to Russian soldiers that “your task is to wipe the Ukrainian nation off the face of the Earth”. Despite such a shocking pronouncement, Pope Francis told newspapers in Italy a few weeks later that he spent 40 minutes on a zoom call with his friend Kirill and warned him against becoming “Putin’s altar boy”, wrote The Washington Post. He warned him? Surely,
the Pope knew that Kirill was a Putin insider and collaborator and had publicly promoted genocide.
One year later, on 30 April 2023, Pope Francis announced that the Vatican was embarking on a secret “peace mission” to try to end the war. In May, President Zelensky flew to meet the Pope to discuss the mission, but left in disgust and tweeted: “I asked [the Pope] to condemn [Russia’s] crimes in Ukraine. Because there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor. I also talked about our Peace Formula as the only effective algorithm for achieving a just peace. I proposed joining its implementation.”
The next day Zelensky’s advisor Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted a withering condemnation of the Vatican’s inaction, failure to call out the culprits, and use of the Kremlin’s damaging narrative. “The Vatican is primarily about morality. When you call an aggressor by their name. When you harshly and directly condemn mass crimes. When you openly side with a country that is being killed and destroyed without provocation. When you personally defend those who are unconditional victims of Russian aggression. When you call evil, which is Russia, by its name. Only then does Holy Justice emerge.”
One month later Pope Francis personally announced that his peace mission was over because there was no apparent end in sight to the war after his envoy held three days of talks in Moscow. But a Vatican statement followed which revealed that the Pope’s consultations were doomed (or cynical) from the start because they were between the Pope’s envoy and one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest foreign policy advisors as well as the odious Patriarch Kirill.
The International Affairs Institute of Italy analyzed why the Pope failed to mediate a deal. It blamed the Pope’s NATO-bashing narrative which aligned him with the Kremlin and portrayed Ukraine’s struggle for freedom and democracy and justice as simply a proxy war between colonial powers. “It denies agency to the Ukrainian people, undermining their ability to be active participants in the conflict and possible negotiations. Instead, it presents Ukraine, and its population of over 40 million, as a mere pawn in the hands of the so-called ‘great powers’,” it concluded.
So is this Pope tone deaf or co-opted? Is it because he’s not European, but from the Global South where Europe remains resented? Or is it because he’s a Jesuit, an order of priests devoted to education who are often theological “eggheads” that indulge in parsing and dissembling moral issues even when answers are simple and obvious. Such casuistry, or unsound reasoning in relation to moral questions, certainly afflicts this Pope. When asked by an Italian newspaper whether it was right to send weapons so Ukraine could defend itself, he said “I don’t know.” When pushed to castigate Putin and Russia, he responded “I am simply against reducing complexity to the distinction between good guys and bad guys, without reasoning about roots and interests, which are very complex”, then added Russia’s war in Ukraine was “perhaps somehow either provoked or not prevented.”
Whatever the underlying causes, his behaviour is inexcusable. The facts are simple: Ukraine was invaded by Russia, its people are being killed, the country is being destroyed, his friend Kirill
has called for genocide, and every perpetrator must be condemned and punished. This is not morally debatable.
It’s surprising that, despite the Pope’s dereliction of duty, some members of his flock haven’t lost faith. In August, many young Ukrainians attended the Apostolic Visit by the Pope in Portugal on World Youth Day hoping he would take up their cause. “The Pope said nothing”, remarked Rev. Roman Demush reported The New York Times. He leads the youth ministry office for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. “The war should make us scream, and it silences. He said he was impotent in front of this evil. It’s not enough just to listen — he has to do something. We want the Pope to be clear, in an understandable way, that Russia is a terrorist state.”