Among some conservative Catholics, the current pontiff is known as “the Pope of confusion”. This not entirely unfair nickname gains a good deal of its rhetorical force from Francis’ spontaneous, colourful and discursive manner of speaking, which stands in sharp contrast to the more measured, precise and academic approach of his immediate predecessor, Benedict.
The off-the-cuff style means that papal remarks about the war in Ukraine have several times raised a few eyebrows. This week Francis hit the headlines for suggesting that we may be in the early stages of a new global conflict, but controversy usually arises from his apparent sympathy to the so-called “realist” position on Ukraine. It appears that, without supporting or condoning the invasion, he believes that the West has handled relations with Russia poorly, and has not taken seriously Russia’s perspective on matters such as the enlargement of NATO, the treatment of Russian-speaking minorities in Ukraine, and the role played by the US and the EU in the 2014 Euromaidan movement.
I don’t want to rehearse the well-worn arguments about this perspective. It is worth reflecting, however, on why the Pope — who of all statesmen might be expected to take a more moralistic stance — seems to think this way. For one thing, the Vatican has a reputation to maintain as an honest broker in global diplomacy, which requires a careful neutrality. At the time of the Falklands, John Paul II sought a peace through compromise, while a few years earlier diplomats from the Holy See helped to prevent a war between Chile and Argentina.
Papal envoys have been crucial in the signing of peace treaties across Africa, and have been employed in negotiating the release of hostages, notably in Beirut in the 1980s and 1990s. They were instrumental in the discussions that led to the release of British sailors captured by Iran in 2007. Such experience at the sharp end of international relations means that the Vatican must constantly keep in mind the difference between explanation and justification, a distinction without which the whole enterprise of diplomacy is impossible.
It should be noted too that for a long time now, the Catholic Church has been moving towards near-pacifism, which leads to a huge rhetorical and practical emphasis in Rome on peace-making, in line with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The belief that even a seemingly unjust peace — for example, one that leaves an aggressor nation in possession of their gains — is almost invariably preferable to war, is likely to have fed into the current papal scepticism of Western belligerence towards Russia.
Francis’ status as the first non-European Pope for many centuries may also play a role. It is not always easy for Europeans and the English-speaking world to escape the mental frame established by the last century of conflict, both hot and cold, in which Russia looms large as one of the great global and regional villains. For good or ill, the man formerly known as Jorge Bergoglio comes from a somewhat different imaginative world.