by Niall Gooch
Saturday, 3
September 2022
Explainer
09:00

The Pope is a Russia realist

Francis has refused to side with the West since the invasion
by Niall Gooch

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.

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Cassander Antipatru
Cassander Antipatru
24 days ago

I wonder if the West’s anti-Christian turn since the ’60s also plays a role. Francis has repeatedly spoken out against such Western causes celebres as abortion and gender theory, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he thinks that Ukraine becoming more closely involved with the West would be a bad outcome.

Peter B
Peter B
23 days ago

What is this nonsense:
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.
Since when is it part of the Catholic church’s mission to engage in global diplomacy ?
And what “reputation” is this ? When have they ever done a good job at it ?
We can certainly recall them coming to “accomodations” with Hitler and Mussolini as well as actively supporting Franco in Spain.
And why should there have been any “compromise” over the Falklands ? Legally British, never Argentinian, over 95% support by the population to remain British. But I guess that counts for nothing with the Vatican.
The Catholic church should put its own house in order before going out and trying to lecture others on morality. Criminal cover ups of child abuse. Criminal banking activities. They don’t have a leg to stand on.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
22 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

I’m not sure the article was in any way about morality, was it? If it is okay for a country to try to intervene to prevent bloodshed (eg France et al) then why not Vatican city which, in case you didn’t know it is a state in its own right!
Surely the issue is not whether the peacemaker is moral (is Macron?) but whether the intervention helps to bring about peace?

Peter B
Peter B
20 days ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

My comment was not primarly about morality.
I notice you do not address my principal points. Do you have anything to say on these ? “Replies” normally try to address the main points.
However, if the Catholic church is not about morality, then what is is for exactly ?
And quite why the Catholic church needs its own state raises a whole load more questions. Which other churches also require their own state ? Perhaps only Iran ?
Finally, if you’re argument is that “it is okay for a country to intervene to prevent bloodshed” is to be assumed (and I’m not sure I always do agree with this assumption), then over what time period is the “bloodshed prevention” to be measured and minimised ? There are obvious tradeoffs between less bloodshed now and more later. I’m just wondering how you would propose to get the balance “right” here.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
23 days ago

A bit off topic but I liked the wisdom of this from The Book of… Wisdom!

‘What man indeed can know the intentions of God?
Who can divine the will of the Lord?
The reasonings of mortals are unsure and our intentions unstable;GOD
for a perishable body presses down the soul,
and this tent of clay weighs down the teeming mind.
It is hard enough for us to work out what is on earth,
laborious to know what lies within our reach;
who, then, can discover what is in the heavens?
As for your intention, who could have learnt it, had you not granted Wisdom
and sent your holy spirit from above?

Thus have the paths of those on earth been straightened
and men been taught what pleases you, and saved, by Wisdom.’

Last edited 23 days ago by Dermot O'Sullivan
Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
24 days ago

But it’s not just ‘the West’ that he’s not siding with – he’s actually said that Ukraine are equally at fault as Russia, because they have the temerity to defend themselves from attack and invasion.

Not accepting your subjugation, defeat or death, makes you a warmonger!

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
24 days ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

Just war doctrine does not condone fighting unwinnable or disproportionate wars. All Russia has wanted since 2008 was a guarantee that Ukraine would not align itself with NATO. Instead we have what the Ukrainians must now endure.

Simon Roper
Simon Roper
24 days ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

I think the ‘disproportionate wars’ part needs to be addressed by Russia, seeing as they are categorically the aggressors here. And who says it’s unwinnable?

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
22 days ago
Reply to  Simon Roper

There are several aggressors besides Russia: Ukraine (Azov battalion v Donbas): NATO in its aggressive expansionist threat. US and UK in formenting the Maiden coup..

harry storm
harry storm
23 days ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

As far as I can tell, Ukraine never “aligned itself with NATO”, though it may have wished to. And this “all Russia wanted” stuff is garbage. Putin has made it quite clear that he believes Ukraine is an integral part of Russia, and that Ukrainians are Russians. Of course, he forgot what that meant in practical terms: i.e. that, like Russians, Ukrainians would fight to the death to protect their homeland.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
22 days ago
Reply to  harry storm

Too simplistic..

Edit Szegedi
Edit Szegedi
22 days ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

“All Russia has wanted since 2008 was a guarantee that Ukraine would not align itself with NATO.”
But what about Ukraine’s wishes?
Why are the wishes of East-European countries less important than thoses of Russia?

Jan Masleid
Jan Masleid
22 days ago
Reply to  Edit Szegedi

“Why are the wishes of East-European countries less important than thoses of Russia?”
By the same reasoning, why are the wishes and lives of East-Ukrainians (ethnic Russians of the eastern and southern areas) less important than those of Western (nationalist) Ukraine?
I believe that Putin is motivated by MANY factors but one of them surely is the continued escalation of anti-Russian hatred – the hatred of Ukraine’s own citizens.
In 2008 the head of the CIA warned D.C. that they could not continue down the path of NATO expansion without the threat of bringing on this very disaster. The talk of Ukraine joining NATO was dynamite. We blew this off despite Putin repeatedly telling us this was a red line.
“Thanks, diplomats.”
Ukraine could not bring itself to honor the Minsk Accords. It’s almost as if this was by design.
Russia, Russia, Russia. The only superpower that dared to keep us in check.
We could not pass up the chance to screw with Russia and have yet another proxy war at someone else’s expense. The Ukrainians are definitely paying for their friendship with the West, aren’t they?
The Pope is not a stupid man. All of us are to blame.

martin logan
martin logan
22 days ago
Reply to  Jan Masleid

The Pope–or somebody–better move quick then.
Russia looks headed for defeat, and there’s little that anyone can do about it.

Dominic S
Dominic S
22 days ago
Reply to  martin logan

Really?! You believe the tripe peddled by the MSM then?

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
22 days ago
Reply to  martin logan

Don’t hold your breath on that one. Ukraine will win this war like N¤zi Germany and Napoleon did!

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
22 days ago
Reply to  Jan Masleid

A voice of reason: with clear facts as evidence of a far more nuanced situation than the minihawks (with their silly, simplistic pronouncements on this issue) can even begin to grapple with.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
22 days ago
Reply to  Edit Szegedi

Why were Cuba’s wishes to arm itself against the US (which did invade it before!) less important than the US’s wishes to secure its borders? How about Mexico? Does it have carte blanche to bring in Russian or Chinese arms to defend itself? It’s not like the US is super friendly to Mexico is it?

Z 0
Z 0
22 days ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Even to the degree that “not super friendly” has any truth, “invading and attempting to conquer” is hardly equivalent. I see lots of comments from L O’M and the degree to which they have to contort their logic is kind of amusing.
Ukraine is currently receiving unduly positive coverage in the West, as if it’s hands were entirely clean. Russia is waging an unjustified and horrifically damaging war of conquest against a soverign nation. Both can be true.
That nobody is a complete saint or demon, does not mean everybody’s actions are therefor equally moral.

martin logan
martin logan
22 days ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

That, of course, is entirely untrue.
“All” Putin wanted was to totally control Ukraine, and eventually incorporate it into his failed Eurasian Union.
Minsk was designed to give tiny Donbas a veto over all Ukrainians–an unprecedented power for any minority.
Putin’s failures up to this point stem from taking millions of Russophones out of Ukraine in 2014. The election of Zelensky, mostly by Russophones from the South and the East, insured that any invasion would be met with a united front.
Russia’s failure in Ukraine is entirely due to Putin’s many miscalculations. A man ignorant about both Russia and Ukraine has brought havoc on both nations.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
22 days ago
Reply to  martin logan

Most of the comments are are simplistic. Yours isn’t. It’s in the realm of fantasy.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
22 days ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

…and for the Russian population in the Donbas not to be annihilated by the N¤zi Azov battalion!

Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
22 days ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

“All Russia has wanted …” Putin’s Russia has wanted a great deal more than that, because its dictator lives in the past, hoping to bring back a slightly updated version of the glorious USSR. To achieve that he keeps alive the old trope of Russia being vulnerable to invasions — a few of which have happened, although their number is dwarfed by that of Russia’s own aggressive moves of the past. And as to the threat of NATO … who in his right mind would want to invade Russia, anyway? It’s a dreary place with a horrible climate. The only one that might do so is China, which seems to covet Russia’s bleak Far East.

ormondotvos
ormondotvos
22 days ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

“All Russia ever wanted…”
wow…

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
22 days ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

I think you may have forgotten the 8 years from 2014 to 2022 when the Ukrainian Azov (N¤zi) battalion attacked the huge Russian (speaking) population in the Donbas.
If say the Spanish army attacked the huge exPat (migrant?) English population in say the Costa del Sol would GB stand idly by? And if GB’s RN landed on the Costa to defend its own people would you allocate any blame at all to the Spanish govt for persecuting your countrymen? Or would you solely blame GB for its illegal invasion?
Always best to think of a similar situation ‘closer to home’ to get a more balanced perspective I think?

Z 0
Z 0
22 days ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

A bad analogy is not better than no analogy, as it may mislead the naive.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
22 days ago

The Pope is probably very well aware of the diplomatic stance of the Catholic countries that are home the majority of his flock, and the certainly of the most dedicated of his flock. The moralistically superior West tends to forget that most of the rest of the world is not subject to the same censorship and propaganda as we are, and their views are correspondingly more nuanced.

N T
N T
21 days ago

Well, this didn’t age well, did it?

Dominic S
Dominic S
22 days ago

“…the Catholic Church has been moving towards near-pacifism…”
If it really was it would be a blessing, given the millions of innocents it has murdered over the centuries.

David Foot
David Foot
21 days ago

The Catholic Church has a lot of bad things to say for itself in so many planes of its activities. In diplomacy and international relations Pancho I has had infernal friends and has shaken the hands of all sorts of criminals and terrorists like Raul Castro among many others all of them much closer to Satan than to Jesus. Pancho I has even contradicted Christ himself about spreading the Gospel, we shouldn’t do that to Moslems whose leaders he goes around kissing all the time.
I would expect Pancho I to side with the Terrorist State of Russia because it rimes with everything else the Peronist Pope has been doing and murderous Russia is much closer to Satan than to Christ from whom Pancho I tries to escape all the time.

martin logan
martin logan
22 days ago

Somehow I don’t see this having any effect on the war. Past Vatican attempts to end conflicts haven’t had much success.
This will be decided on the battlefield, as all wars are. And right now Ukraine is winning.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
22 days ago
Reply to  martin logan

To say “wars are decided on the battlefield” is akin to saying boxing matches are decided in the boxing ring. It’s kind if a bit too obvious!

Iris C
Iris C
22 days ago
Reply to  martin logan

What makes you say that? There is no point in making such a statement without qualifying it with facts.

Peter B
Peter B
20 days ago
Reply to  Iris C

You must know perfectly well by now that there are not enough facts on the Ukraine war or enough certainty at this stage for anyone standing at this distance from the conflict to offer more than their brest judgement as to who is winning.
So your demand is frankly unrealistic.

Nick Bernard
Nick Bernard
24 days ago

The association of the Catholic Church and notions of morality has been thoroughly separated. I’m not sure they ever were conjoined. It is a virtue-signalling self-serving parasitical ideology, a parade of self-important control freaks. Why on earth would a rational thinker expect the pope to take the ethical side of any issue unless it by chance simultaneously benefited the Church?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
24 days ago
Reply to  Nick Bernard

Yeah the Pope knocked it out the park for the Jews in WW2.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
22 days ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

The pope did more to save Jews than all the Allies combined.. which wasn’t much but then he only had the Swiss guard while the Allies had vast armies. All the Allies did was tidy the ashes of the Jews and execute the guilty. Fat lot of use that was to the six million that died!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
21 days ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Nah you’re wrong. He kept quiet, as confirmed by sundry historians, and in failing to condemn the germans persecution of Jews unequivocally he provided a moral shelter for catholic Germans to justify their support for Hitler. If he’d challenged more openly, more German catholics would have resisted Hitler.

Last edited 21 days ago by Ian Stewart
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
24 days ago
Reply to  Nick Bernard

Ignore the downvotes Nick, i get the same when patiently explaining the reality of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, those of a Catholic bent seem to think it has something to do with religion, rather than coercive control.

Dominic S
Dominic S
22 days ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Agreed, wholeheartedly.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
24 days ago
Reply to  Nick Bernard

An organisation that shields kiddie fiddlers, sits on tens of billions of pounds while their “flock” live in poverty with the threat of starvation, and whose rules around contraception have condemned their followers to a lifetime (and death) from HIV in Africa. A Pope that attacks the Ukrainians fir having the temerity to defend their homeland from invasion.
I think I’ll ignore the morality lessons from the Catholic Church personally

Last edited 24 days ago by Billy Bob
Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
24 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Really well thought out arguments there Billy Bob.

Last edited 24 days ago by Dermot O'Sullivan
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
23 days ago

I’ve no problem with religion. I’m slightly envious of those who genuinely believe as it must be comforting to believe that death isn’t final, but alas I don’t. I also respect the good that is done by local vicars, priests etc in their local parishes helping the needy in their communities.
However when it comes to the top of the organisation, the Vatican, Popes and all that nonsense I hold them in utter contempt, for the reasons I’ve listed above

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
23 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Well said.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
22 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Of you hold those in authority responsible for the actions of their evil colleagues because they chose to protect the organisation rather than future victims then you hold the leaders of a great many businesses, political and other organisations in utter contempt! ..as I do myself! Just two small points:
1. Don’t confuse those who cover up with the actual perpetrators: both are evil but hardly equally so?
2. Don’t tar everyone in such an organisation with the same brush: not everyone, even at very senior levels is in full possession of all the facts, all the time: nor are the facts always indisputable all the time.

D Walsh
D Walsh
23 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Rule by Homosexuals will be as successful for us as it has been for the Catholic Church

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
22 days ago
Reply to  D Walsh

Do you mean the RC church was ruled (solely) by homosexuals? And pray tell: what differs (in the lay world) from being ruled by heterosexuals? Were not the great tyrants all heterosexual? Name a tyrant who was homosexual! OK maybe Alexander the Great:
Go one: name one or two others..

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
22 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

You too confuse diplomacy with morality.. it’s not an easy mistake. Must try harder!

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
22 days ago
Reply to  Nick Bernard

..maybe just a tad negative don’t you think?