‘All war is anachronistic’: Pope Francis struggles to gain traction for peaceful vision

Pope Francis' refusal to condemn Putin by name disguises his 'severe moral judgment' of the war, experts say.

Pope Francis shows a flag that was brought to him from Bucha, Ukraine, during his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall, at the Vatican, April 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — The night after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Pope Francis lay awake in bed at the Vatican thinking about what he could do to prevent “one more death in Ukraine. Not one more,” he told the Argentine daily La Nacion in an interview published Thursday (April 21).

The next day he jumped on a papal white utility vehicle to meet with the Russian ambassador to the Holy See to voice his concerns about the war in a last-ditch attempt to preserve the last remnant of peace in Ukraine. 

The war, of course, continues today, and the pontiff’s hope for a meeting between the pope and Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has been shelved. For all his peacemaking efforts, the media’s primary takeaway about Francis regarding the war is that he refuses to call out President Vladimir Putin directly as the aggressor.

In his interview with La Nacion, the pope said: “I am willing to do everything” to prevent further bloodshed, explaining why he believed mentioning Putin was inappropriate. “A pope never names a head of state, much less a country, which is superior to its head of state,” Francis said.

Recent history, at least, bears him out: Popes have avoided pointing a finger at political leaders or nations. The Vatican’s long experience in jostling the ever-bubbling rivalries among European nations dictates that remaining above the fray is essential to brokering peace.

Nonetheless, his take on the war has been dismissed as idealistic and even pro-communist by his detractors.

While Francis may sound idealistic publicly, his public voice is not the only one Russia is hearing. “Pope Francis’ moral judgment of the war is absolutely severe,” said Massimo Borghesi, a professor of philosophy at the University of Perugia and author of “The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey.”

The Vatican’s diplomatic corps “never rests” in its effort to promote peace, Francis said in his Nacion interview, adding that this work is typically happening behind the scenes.

“There are backchannels, and they are functioning,” said journalist Victor Gaetan, author of “God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon,” pointing to Vatican diplomacy in the Middle East and Africa that has positioned Francis to be a bridge for peace.

“Publicly the pope appears to be a lonely voice,” Gaetan told RNS, but some countries have been drawn in by his “mantra of diplomacy, of dialogue and encounter, where you can’t bully or insult your interlocutor into a positive outcome.”

What makes Francis’ position difficult for many politicians is that he opposes not just Putin’s war, but a lack of commitment to peace on both sides. “Pope Francis sees this escalation, where the only answer that Europe has undertaken is to send weapons and issue sanctions, but it doesn’t have a shred of negotiation for a political and peaceful solution,” Borghesi said.

Francis has criticized the sale and distribution of weapons to Ukraine and condemned the economic sanctions that the West quickly enforced on Russia. “All war is anachronistic in this world and at this level of civilization,” the pope told La Nacion.

Francis has repeatedly condemned the cycle of violence, which he refers to as “the spirit of Cain,” referring to the biblical figure who murdered his own brother.

Vatican diplomats have long regarded the world as multipolar, not entrenched into two major camps. What makes this pope’s diplomatic style unique, Gaetan said, is his emphasis on dialogue and humility.

Francis sees humility as a precondition “to sit down at the negotiation table with empathy, listening to the other side and eventually having the mercy to forgive each other, in order to overcome the egotistical tensions of conflict,” Gaetan said.

A new Ipsos survey of people in 27 Western countries shows conflicting opinions on economic sanctions against Russia, with only 48% in favor of adding more sanctions, hinting that while Francis remains a somewhat isolated voice among political leaders, many share his views.

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Those who want to see Francis demonize Putin along with other Western leaders recall John Paul II’s antipathy for Communist Party leaders in his native Poland. But John Paul II’s role in bringing an end to the Cold War arose from his relationship with both President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

“A really big difference is that John Paul II had this really nice relationship with Gorbachev,” said Paul Kengor, a political science professor and author of “A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.”

According to Kengor, what allowed John Paul II to mediate between Reagan and Gorbachev was that “the three were committed to avoiding conflict, military conflict above everything else.”

“You don’t have anything like that right now with Francis, Biden and Putin,” he added.

John Paul II and Gorbachev floated the idea of meeting in Moscow, and it was the Orthodox Church in the country that posed an obstacle to the event, Kengor said, and the rivalry between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican has posed a limit to the possibility of building peace.

Francis’ hope earlier in the war to meet with Kirill seems to have met a dead end. After being the first pope to sit down with a Russian patriarch during a 2016 meeting at the airport in Havana, Cuba, Francis has watched powerlessly as Kirill strongly supported Putin’s plans. The Ukrainian war has seemingly ruined any hope of a rapprochement between the two churches.

Francis said in the interview that his relationship with Kirill “is very good” but that a scheduled second meeting in Jerusalem “between the two at this time could lead to much confusion.” 

According to Gaetan, the lack of a meeting between Kirill and the pope represents “quasi-victory for those who are opposed to peace,” but added that you won’t hear Francis say it’s not possible.

“If Pope Francis were to shut the door toward Putin or Kirill” Gaetan said, “he would be just like any other world leader, refusing to meet with the other.”

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