Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.
Pope Francis has offered to travel to Moscow to meet with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in hopes of ending the war with Ukraine. He made this offer about three weeks into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine through the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, but has yet to hear back. Not that he is likely to either. Even if Putin would agree to any peace talks, his attitude towards the pope would be somewhat similar to that of his most notable role model – Joseph Stalin who, at the 1943 Teheran conference dismissed the suggestion that the pope participate in any peace talks with the famous line: “How many (military) divisions does the pope have?” Putin has certainly shown the world that the only thing he understands is brute force.
While the pope is trying to play a diplomatic role in this conflict, he should remember that — first and foremost – he is a religious leader and thus his prime function on the world stage is to preach morality and peace and to denounce evil wherever he sees it. It is on this level where – due to his efforts at diplomacy – he becomes ambivalent.
To his credit Pope Francis warned the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church to stop justifying the Russian dictator’s invasion of Ukraine.
In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that ran May 3, Francis said he spoke with Patriarch Kirill for 40 minutes over Zoom. During the March 16 conversation, Francis said, Kirill was listing off all the justifications for the war from a sheet of paper he was holding.
“I listened and then told him: I don’t understand anything about this,” Francis said. “Brother, we are not state clerics, we cannot use the language of politics but that of Jesus. We are pastors of the same holy people of God. Because of this, we must seek avenues of peace, to put an end to the firing of weapons.”
Then, Francis, who has repeatedly called for an end to the war, went one step further and challenged Kirill not to follow along with the actions of the Russian president.
“The patriarch cannot transform himself into Putin’s altar boy,” the pope said in a quote he borrowed from Archbishop Borys Gudziak, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Metropolitan of Philadelphia.
But while Pope Francis has denounced the Russian military operation and has expressed concern for civilians, he has refrained from naming Moscow as an aggressor – a reflection of the Vatican’s tradition of neutrality and his own ambition to improve relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. This attempt at neutrality was also reflected in his decision to have both a Ukrainian and a Russian woman carry a cross together during the Good Friday evening procession. Ukrainian Greek Catholic Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk called the idea “inappropriate and ambiguous and does not take into account the context of Russian military aggression against Ukraine.” He added that the gesture was “incoherent and even offensive, particularly as we await the second, more bloody attack of Russian troops on our cities and villages.” In his statement, Shevchuk said that numerous Ukrainian Catholics had asked him to “transmit to the Holy See their indignation and rejection of this project.” For them, reconciliation “will be possible only when the war is over and those guilty of crimes against humanity have faced justice,” he said.
For one thing the pope’s ambition to improve relations with the Russian Church is uncalled for because any quasi-religious body that places the interests of an aggressive imperialist power ahead of its obligation to spread the message of Jesus Christ cannot be considered a Christian Church. For another, one cannot maintain a veneer of neutrality in a situation where there is such a stark contrast between the two sides in the conflict – a contrast that can only be described as a true battle between good and evil.
• How can you be neutral when one side brazenly launches an unprovoked attack on its neighbour while the other strives only to defend its people and its land?
• How can you be neutral when one side treats its prisoners of war according to the Geneva Convention, while the other tortures them and kills them?
• How can you be neutral when one side defends its soil valiantly on the battlefield, while the other launches cowardly missile attacks on civilian targets from a distance?
• And how can you be neutral when one side has set out to commit genocide against the other?
But the most ridiculous statement the pope made was during that same interview with Corriere Della Sera when he said that the real “scandal” of Putin’s war is “NATO barking at Russia’s door,” which he said caused the Kremlin to “react badly and unleash the conflict.”
This is pure Russian propaganda, and it is utter nonsense. NATO has no intention whatsoever to make incursions into Russian space. It is strictly a defensive alliance and defence is what its eastward expansion is all about –- the defence of the former Warsaw Pact countries and Baltic states who asked to join NATO precisely because they had experienced Russian aggression firsthand. They asked because they remembered how:
• Moscow imposed a totalitarian atheistic Communist dictatorship upon them after World War II.
• Russian tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956 to crush a democratic movement.
• Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush a democratic movement.
• Polish Communists instituted martial law in 1981 to crush a democratic movement before Moscow decided to roll its tanks in once again.
Saint John Paul II did not help to bring down the evil Soviet Empire in 1989-1991 by diplomacy. He did it by steadfastly supporting human rights and giving inspiration to the victims of Russian oppression.
Pope Francis would do well to step back and ponder – how would Saint John Paul II react to this evil war?