Friday, December 9, 2022

Ukraine Conflict: Has Pope Francis Changed Course?

Pope Francis received Grand Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk in audience in early November, with some consequences.

 Highlights by Andreas Becker

“Pope Francis continues to offer himself tirelessly as a peace mediator," writes Vatican scholar Sandro Magister.  But has Francis lost his credibility as a neutral mediator in the Ukraine conflict?  If so, who will be able to launch the necessary peace initiatives in this war in order to bring Moscow and Kiev, or rather, as some say, Moscow and Washington, to the negotiating table?

To the annoyance of western state chancellery and opinion makers, Francis stayed away from hasty condemnations in order to be a possible contact for all parties to the conflict.  Behind the scenes, Vatican diplomacy is working hard to explore opportunities for dialogue.  Unofficially, Francis has offered to conduct peace negotiations in the Vatican as neutral ground.  The Pope is the highest-ranking Western authority that rejected unilateral blame on Russia and blamed NATO, i.e. Washington, for the outbreak of the war.  In May he said in an interview that NATO had barked too loudly in front of Russia's doors and provoked Moscow.  He had also denounced that war was a product of the arms trade in order to sell arms and test new ones.  He insisted that he was not talking about a Russo-Ukrainian war but about a new world war.  This is also an indication that the interests involved go far beyond what appears at first glance.  Francis went so far as to question the possibility of a "just war" at all.  (See Roberto de Mattei: Is war always unjust?)

However, things may have changed in the past ten days, according to some commentators.  Has Francis also withdrawn from the “race” for peace like the ranks of European politicians before him?  Does the unconditional formation of a front help on the way to peace, or does it actually prevent it?

Surprisingly harsh words towards Santa Marta have recently been heard from Moscow.  The reason for this were statements made by Francis to the American Jesuit magazine America.  (See hacker attack against the Vatican – who is behind it?) The spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, was outraged:

 "This is not even an anti-Russian stance, but an outrageous distortion of the truth."

 The Russian Ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeyev, with whom the Vatican had previously been in close and friendly contact, reacted "outraged" and spoke of "insinuations".

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov initially held back, but then spoke up to brand Francis' statements as "un-Christian":

 "The Vatican has said that this will not happen again and that it is probably a misunderstanding, but that does nothing to strengthen the authority of the Papal States."

The representatives of the Vatican Secretariat of State had tried to extinguish the fire and tried to calm it down at the highest level.

The cleverness and a faux pas

But what did Francis say that caused such outrage in Russia?  In an interview with America, Pope Francis pointed to Western pressure to condemn Russia's President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government, and explained why it is not wise to constantly condemn those you want to bring to the negotiating table.

In doing so, however, the pope made a diplomatic faux pas, if it was not intentional: in order to exercise the prudence he had called for, but still meet Western expectations, Francis pronounced condemnations, albeit in the third row and not generalizing in concrete terms.  He said he had "a lot of information about the cruelty" of Russian troops in Ukraine.  Not enough, the pope added:

 "The cruellest in general are perhaps those who come from Russia, but not from the Russian tradition, like the Chechens, the Buryats and so on".

In his attempt to name no one and crack a nut by numbers—Chechens make up 1 percent of Russia's population, and Buryats just 0.3 percent—his criticism was given a racist tongue-in-cheek slap.  The Russian leadership had to react to this in order not to endanger the internal cohesion of the many peoples, ethnic groups, races and religions.  The Chechens in the North Caucasus are Muslims, the Buryats in Siberia are Buddhist Mongols.

In the southeast (pink) the Russian occupied and annexed areas;  in the west (outlined in red) the majority Catholic area, (dashed red) the areas with strong/significant Catholic minorities.

Communication errors are anything but impossible.  Francis often speaks spontaneously and gives numerous interviews.  Above all, however, he tries to respond to his respective interlocutors, and they were Americans.  That makes the tightrope walk difficult.

When the official website of the Holy See was hacked shortly after the publication of the America interview, the finger was immediately pointed at “the Russians” in the West.  But restraint is the mother of wisdom.  Francis said numerous other things in the interview that caused little joy in the West.

Shevchuk's visit to Rome

Since then, the question has been whether there was a misunderstanding or whether Francis changed course after almost ten months of war.  There is a lot to be said against it.  Francis is known for his insistence on a position once taken.  The main features of his geopolitical ideas are also known.  It is even less credible that he wants a war until the "victory of Ukraine", that is, the defeat of Russia.

It is therefore necessary to look at what happened in the days leading up to the interview.  The America interview took place on November 22nd and was published on November 28th.  On November 7, Francis had an audience with Grand Archbishop Svyatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Recently it has often been said that Francis and Shevchuk, who still know each other from Buenos Aires, have a close, friendly relationship.  But that is only partially true.  When the historic meeting between the Pope and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow took place in Cuba in 2016, loud tones of serious resentment could be heard from the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine, which is united with Rome.  Francis felt compelled to make special gestures to sort out the discrepancies to some extent.

Rather, it is a certain Ukrainian distrust that has shaped the mood ever since.  During the audience, Shevchuk made intensive efforts to win Pope Francis over to the Ukrainian cause, which does not mean the humanitarian aspects, but rather the one-sided political support that Francis had not previously granted in the way that the Kiev-Brussels-Washington axis  wishes.  It is said that Shevchuk pulled out numerous stops and managed to get Francis to write a letter directly to the Ukrainian people.  This letter, very moving, was published on November 24 and is not only based on a suggestion by the Ukrainian Grand Archbishop, but also recalls his own statements in language and style so clearly that the authorship can essentially be attributed to Shevchuk.

Francis complied to a large extent with the wishes that were brought to him by the Uniate Church leader on behalf of the Ukrainians.  Shevchuk also goes back to the fact that Francis, in this letter from the Holy Father to the Ukrainian people, but already at the general audience on November 23, at the Angelus on November 27 and on November 28 in the America interview, in the 1932  /33 million Ukrainians starved to death in what was dubbed a “horrific genocide.”  The pope spoke of "extermination by starvation" achieved by Stalin, the communist dictator, through an "artificial" famine.

This corresponds to Francis's diplomacy: he speaks of a historic event in order to stand by the Ukrainian people, without directly taking sides in today's event.  Francis went so far as to speak of a "historical precedent".

In the wake of Shevchuk's visit and the papal letter, media efforts increased to claim Francis for the anti-Russian boat.  However, the change of course is being written more about by interested parties.  A source in the Vatican Secretariat of State described Francis' choice of words in relation to the American magazine as "imprudent".  According to the Secretariat of State, Francis gave Shevchuk a little too much guidance.  However, there is no question of a course change.

It was not Shevchuk who endangered the line of the Vatican, but the spontaneity of Pope Francis.

No to arms sales and seven point peace plan

The peace movement in Italy, strongly influenced by left-wing Catholic circles, which Francis has in mind, categorically rejects arms deliveries to Ukraine.  But the new Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni also wants to continue this, signaling that she will submit to Washington's foreign policy.  At the end of November, she obtained a mandate from parliament to be able to continue the transfer of arms and armaments to Ukraine throughout 2023.  Francis has so far not endorsed or even shown understanding for arms deliveries.

However, the Pope never went as far as Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the Community of Sant'Egidio.  In the spring, Riccardi had called for Kiev to be declared an “open city” in order to prevent bloodshed and destruction, which would have meant Russian troops occupying the Ukrainian capital without a fight.  At the big peace rally on November 5 in Rome, where Riccardi gave the closing speech, it was hardly surprising that there were no Ukrainian flags to be seen.

Francis is closer to the position of Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian Bishops' Conference, which writes daily in favor of peace in Ukraine but is just as outspoken against arms shipments seen as an expression of a proxy war.  Editor-in-chief Marco Tarquinio doesn't say it openly, but makes it clear enough that in this war the Ukrainian army, which has been upgraded by the NATO countries, is an auxiliary force of the Biden government to weaken Russia.

 From this perspective, too, the Ukrainian people are seen as victims, albeit less of Russian aggression than of Washington's geopolitical egoism.

So far, however, the Vatican has not officially backed the seven-point peace plan drawn up by the two prominent Catholic intellectuals Stefano Zamagni and Mauro Magatti and presented in the October issue of the magazine Paradoxa.  Zamagni is President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, under Francis an important center of the Pope's political initiatives;  Magatti is a professor of sociology at the Catholic University of Milan and secretary of the Social Weeks of Italian Catholics, a study conference first held in 1907 at the suggestion of the economist Giuseppe Toniolo, which has been held every two years since then to "raise awareness of the true Christian social message".  reach.  The impetus for this was a social encyclical addressed to Italy's bishops by Pope Pius X in 1905.

The seven-point peace plan, as presented in Zamagni's Avvenire at the end of September, provides for:

1. Neutrality of Ukraine, which renounces NATO membership but retains the full right to become a member of the EU.  A UN resolution is to introduce mechanisms for monitoring, so that the peace agreement is guaranteed to be respected.

 2. Ukraine is guaranteed full sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.  A corresponding declaration of guarantee is to be made by the five permanent members of the World Security Council (USA, Russia, the People's Republic of China, Great Britain and France) as well as the EU and Turkey.

3. Russia will retain de facto control of Crimea for a number of years, during which the two sides will seek a lasting diplomatic solution, also de jure.  The local population will get free movement of people and capital both to Russia and to Ukraine.

 4. The Lugansk and Donetsk regions remain an integral part of Ukraine, but retain economic, political and cultural self-government.

5.  Russia and Ukraine will be given secure access to Black Sea ports to conduct their normal trading activities.

6. Gradual lifting of Western sanctions against Russia in parallel with withdrawal of Russian troops and arms from Ukraine.

6. Creation of a multilateral fund for the reconstruction and development of the devastated areas of Ukraine, including Lugansk, Donetsk and Crimea, in which Russia participates on the basis of a fixed key.  (Specifically, reference is made to the experiences with the Marshall Plan.)

The plan essentially follows the western post-war order for Europe, which categorically rules out annexing territories to another state (which is why Kosovo and Moldova and the behemoth Bosnia-Herzegovina exist).  On the other hand, it is acceptable for Brussels and Washington for member states to break away and achieve sovereign statehood – but only if this corresponds to the political interests of Brussels and Washington (see the partition of Czechoslovakia, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and, most recently, the separation of Montenegro from Serbia).  Territorial integrity is invoked where it does not correspond to the plans of Brussels and Washington (see the prevented secession of Catalonia, the Basque country, South Tyrol, Scotland, Corsica).  Poland's intention to annex Poland's western Ukraine until 1939, which was claimed by the Russian side or the media inclined towards it, completely ignores reality.  Although Lviv was once a predominantly Polish city, the population of western Ukraine has always been largely Ukrainian.  Within the framework of Western doctrine, at best an independent Republic of Crimea would be conceivable, possibly even the independence of individual oblasts.  However, only in theory.  In practice, there is currently not the slightest willingness to downsize Ukraine in favor of new, more pro-Russian states.

The prospects of the seven-point peace plan, which takes this into account, are nevertheless completely uncertain.  However, it shows the direction in which Vatican diplomacy is currently working.

 Image: VaticanMedia/Wikicommons (Screenshots)

Trans: Tancred vekraon99@hotmail.Com



  1. I would to point out a starement that needs to be qualified. The author if this article states"Although Lviv was once a predominantly Polish city, the population of western Ukraine has always been largely Ukrainian." It should be understood that Poles were in the minority in the countryside. BUT in the cities, Poles were a majority. So, one cannot say that Western Ukraine, which belonged to Poland, should not by right be Polish. These Ukrainians are just the US equivalent of rednecks and hillbillies. It was a Polish intellectual and cultural hub. It belongs to Poland.