September 29, 2023


ROME — When Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council just weeks after the Kremlin rolled tanks into Ukraine, around 140 diplomats walked out. One of the few that stayed: The envoy from the Holy See.

The Holy See’s decision typified what some in the West see as an exasperating tendency by the neutral sovereign entity to sit on the fence rather than naming and shaming Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has used the powerful Russian Orthodox Church’s imprimatur to help legitimize his brutal, revanchist war in Ukraine.

Across several intergovernmental organizations, the sovereign territory has repeatedly abstained on votes condemning Russia’s aggression, even before the invasion of Ukraine. At the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Holy See refused to back a measure condemning the Kremlin’s use of nerve agents. And in March at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which spans several dozen European countries, the Holy See abstained on a vote to investigate possible war crimes in Ukraine.

Instead, Pope Francis has chosen to deplore the war with vivid but non-specific rhetoric. He branded it a “sacrilegious war” and referred to a “potentate caught up in anachronistic claims of national interest.”

But he has avoided naming Vladimir Putin and Russia. Nor has he mentioned the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, a key backer of Putin who has sanctioned the invasion as a “holy war.” And notably, Francis has opposed sending arms to Ukraine, saying a rearming will drive a new “balance of terror.”

For Francis, the dilemma is whether to use his moral standing to explicitly denounce Russia or hold back in the hope of creating space for mediation. One possible constructive role, for instance, might be to engage the Russian Orthodox Church on conflict resolution options.

Church backers say a dogged commitment to neutrality is pragmatic, based on the conviction that it keeps the door open for dialogue and long-term thinking. It’s also unclear what the Vatican could accomplish with a more aggressive tone, given Putin’s intransigence and the Holy See’s lack of power over the Russian Orthodox Church, which has enthusiastically backed Putin’s war.

Cardinal Michael Czerny, who has been working in Ukraine on behalf of the pope, said Francis has already been “very harsh” in his criticisms. “There is no need to name names,” he added. “To do so only makes dialogue more difficult.”

Still, the Holy See’s approach has left a bitter taste for some.

“When the Western allies see the Holy See diplomat listening to Lavrov when everyone else has left the room, it grates. They say they can’t be political, but it is seen as taking Russia’s side,” said one Western diplomat.

A state without a state’s interests

The church’s motivations, often rooted in faith and not politics, can be hard for the secular world to understand.

“A pope always hopes that any individual will experience personal conversion,” said Victor Gaetan, author of “God’s Diplomats, Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon.”

Francis, Gaetan added, will be praying “incessantly” for Putin.

The Vatican is a state but a state without economic, military or territorial interests. That frees it to concentrate on the common good of all people, Gaetan said, including addressing immediate concerns such as access to food and water, humanitarian corridors, and personal safety, as well as longer-term goals such as protecting opportunities to worship.

But while he may be measuring his words in public, Francis is not sitting idle. He is tapping diplomatic channels behind the scenes.

The pope “is active in diplomacy and negotiation fields,” said Czerny, the cardinal in Ukraine, pointing to calls Francis has held with both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Kirill. “The pope seeks to bring together not further to divide and often works in the shadows and in silence.”

Following the invasion, Francis also made an unprecedented visit to the Russian Embassy to the Holy See. The meeting broke protocol and drew attention. Normally, a head of state summons or invites an ambassador for a talk — instead of just showing up at the ambassador’s office.

The move was “staggeringly unusual,” the Western diplomat said. “Never heard of it. The gesture is about humility, thinking about the message, not protocol.”

Diplomatic success

The Holy See can point to some historic success in conflict resolution.

Popes and Catholic humanitarian organizations such as the Sant’Egidio Community have served as mediators in conflicts in Mozambique, Lebanon and Kosovo. Catholic officials also helped mediate a clash between Argentina and Chile.

During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Pope John XXIII even got credit for helping pull the U.S. and Russia back from the brink of nuclear war when he implored the country’s leaders to keep talking. The overture gave Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev cover to present his climbdown as an act of peace, not cowardice.

More recently, Francis facilitated the renewal of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba after a half-century embargo. And in 2016, a Francis-hosted spiritual retreat for South Sudan leaders helped avert a civil war.

Priests serving as diplomats focus “on what the two sides have in common and identifying shared objectives,” said Gaetan, the author, adding that they “strive to humanize the two sides to each other.”

Lasting political agreements can take years to negotiate, testing the patience of elected representatives. But as a senior church figure put it: “Politicians think in months, we in the church deal in millennia.”

Of course not all Holy See diplomacy has been seen as successful or even desirable.

There is still considerable controversy over Pope Pius XII’s silence in condemning Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. His critics argued that with very sizeable Catholic populations in both Germany and Austria, he could have undermined support for the regime. The Vatican maintains that he kept silent to protect the Church’s behind-the-scenes efforts to protect Nazi victims including Jews.

In Ukraine, the pope has a delicate tightrope to walk. He will be anxious to avoid the conflict being framed as a clash of civilizations, West versus East, with origins that could arguably stretch back to the Great Schism between Eastern Orthodox churches and Western Christianity in 1054.

For Francis, as with all recent popes, the reunion of Christian churches is a central mission. The Holy See began to rebuild relations with Russia under John Paul II, when Kirill was the main external interlocutor for Russia. Francis became the first pope to meet a Russian patriarch when he sat down with Kirill in 2016. 

But the war has stymied attempts to bring the churches closer together.

The Russian state and the Rusian church officially share the same objective: To regain control of Ukraine.

According to Gaetan, many in Russia were appalled when the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2019 recognized its own, independent head who didn’t report to any outside patriarch or bishop. Some Russians even saw the U.S. hand behind the move, given it was a concrete way to reduce Russian influence in Ukraine.

“I am afraid the Russian Orthodox Church saw that as a declaration of war and so did the Russian state,” said Gaetan.  

Francis has said a visit to Kyiv is “on the table.”

While Francis is one of the world’s most influential figures and his presence would demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine, he would want to ensure that any visit is more than symbolic and a step toward at least a cease-fire — an unlikely achievement.

Additionally, it is doubtful that the pope’s influence would extend to the Russian Orthodox Church, given its pro-Putin sentiment.

There may be a role for religious leaders in reconciliation efforts after conflict concludes when rebuilding trust will require more than political dialogue.

But the world is looking for a miracle now — one the Vatican is unlikely to conjure.


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