But the pope’s messages on the war, even to some supporters, were also overwhelming.
He obviously avoided condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin as the aggressor. He criticized Western sanctions and defense spending. And in an interview published this month by an Italian newspaper, Francis appeared to echo a Kremlin talking point, describing NATO’s “barking at Russia’s door” as one of the triggers for the Putin’s anger.
For Francis, 85, the war has become a second epochal event, after the pandemic, which has come to define the agenda of his pontificate. And although he has been widely recognized for his lucid view of the coronavirus – the isolation it has engendered, the dangers of inequitable distribution of vaccines – Francis has sparked debate within the church over his approach to the war and whether he is too cautious of Russia and too determined to maintain ties with the Russian Orthodox Church.
“There are people, like me, who think that the way he has acted so far is not enough,” said Thomas Bremer, theologian at the University of Münster, who argued that Russia and the The Russian Church had become too compromised to merit an attempt. to maintain good relationships. “There is no ‘business as usual’ possible at the moment. It cannot be like it was six months ago.
Defenders of Francis’ strategy say the pope maintains a neutrality that has long been central to Holy See diplomacy. Francis said it was not the role of a pontiff to call a head of state. And unlike World War II, when Jewish communities accused the Church of turning a blind eye, Francis highlights the suffering that is happening.
The Pope has positioned himself in a way that could, in theory, make the Church a credible player in any mediation – which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said would be “appreciated”.
“He’s neither acting like Putin, calling others Nazis, nor like Biden, saying Putin should leave,” said Marco Politi, a papal biographer, who argues that Francis wisely avoids making the conflict personal.
Andrii Yurash, Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See, said in an interview that he believes the Vatican is “doing everything possible to build peace.”
In a more critical account, however, Francis misperceives war and squanders some of his moral authority in a conflict where religion and Christianity are adjacent to politics and fighting.
Although Catholic teaching has long held that countries have the right to defend themselves in certain circumstances, the pope’s statements have been vague enough to leave Catholics uncertain as to whether he thinks defending Ukraine is justified.
Francis said in March that wars are “always unjust”. In his interview this month with Corriere della Sera, he was hesitant about whether to send arms to Ukraine. “I don’t know,” he said, continuing to denounce the production and sale of arms.
It has been left to other church leaders to suggest that Ukraine is morally justified in using arms against Russian forces. “Ukraine has the right to defend itself,” Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s de facto foreign minister, said in a recent television interview.
The pope’s most criticized effort amid the war was to restore symbolic peace – having a Ukrainian and a Russian wear a cross together on Good Friday. Originally, women had to recite a short passage saying, “Why have you forsaken us?” Why have you abandoned our peoples? But many Ukrainians said such a message would wrongly put Ukrainians and Russians on an equal footing as victims of war. Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, called the idea “inappropriate”.
The recitation was eventually dropped – a move the Pope attributed to a conversation he had with Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski. Francis acknowledged in the Corriere interview that the Ukrainians had been “outraged” by the plan, but then he suggested: “They are very sensitive, the Ukrainians, maybe because they were defeated and humiliated after the Second World War”.
There have been a series of criticisms of the pope’s approach, including from figures far removed from traditionalist circles.
In one of the most blunt, Giovanni Maria Vian, former editor of the Vatican newspaper, told Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia that Francis risked putting the Holy See in a “historic mess”, because of his efforts to “show that he is neither on one side nor the other. Vian emphatically noted that many historians remember Pius XII for not speaking enough about the evils of Nazism.
For Francis, perhaps the most personally sensitive aspect of the war is his relationship with Patriarch Cyril, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who has become one of the war’s most prominent supporters. Francis met Kirill in Havana in 2016, an initiative to mend centuries of divisions since the split of Eastern Orthodoxy from Western Christianity.
A second meeting, scheduled for June in Jerusalem, has been canceled, the pope said, because “it could send the wrong message.” According to Francis’ account, he warned Kirill on Zoom not to become “Putin’s altar boy” and to justify the war.
Don’t be ‘Putin’s altar boy’, pope warns
John Allen, editor of the Catholic publication Crux, noted in an op-ed that the various papal pronouncements throughout the war “seem almost deliberately calculated to keep people guessing.” He tied some of the uncertainty to the nature of Francis – a non-European pope who never seemed inclined to follow the conventions of Western powers. Allen wrote that Francis has been able to open doors with the Orthodox world, and in the church’s long-term vision, few things matter more to popes than the “quest for Christian unity.”
“No ecumenical detente with the Orthodox will ever be possible without the Russians,” Allen wrote.
Francis has so far sent several MPs to Ukraine, most recently including Gallagher. But the pope made it clear that his own preference was to go to Moscow first. In his interview with Corriere, he said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the second Vatican official, conveyed to Putin the pope’s interest in visiting.
But no invitation came.
“We continue to press them on this issue,” Francis said. “I fear, however, that Putin cannot or will not agree to our meeting at this time. But how can you not try to do everything you can to stop the atrocities?”