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Pope Francis in war and peace


Pope Francis has taken some unusual steps in the past two weeks. First, he crossed Rome to the Russian embassy where he personally ‘expressed his concern about the war’ then just begun in Ukraine. Second, he called Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy to communicate his ‘most profound pain’ for the country’s suffering.

More recently, on 6 March, he went further: ‘In Ukraine, rivers of blood and tears are flowing. This is not just a military operation but a war which sows death, destruction, and misery…In that martyred country the need for humanitarian assistance is growing by the hour…War is madness, please stop’, he implored.

In the past few days Pope Francis has taken to twitter, writing with greater frequency and more urgency in both English and Russian. ‘Never war! Think first about the children, about those who are deprived of the hope for a dignified life: dead or wounded children, orphans, children who play with the remnants of war…In the name of God, stop!’

These several acts have marked an important break with Vatican diplomatic protocol. Ambassadors normally come to the pope, not he to them. Equally, popes since Benedict XV during World War One have strived to inculcate an impression of their neutrality. Much of the Vatican’s diplomatic nexus has been built up and tolerated by Catholic and non-Catholic powers on the basis of that apolitical ideology.

Yet, here, Francis, even as he sustains the papacy’s now traditional opposition to all forms of war and its emphasis on the extreme suffering war brings, especially to the innocent, has taken a different, more partisan approach which he and others must feel is justified. His consolatory words to Ukraine’s president and his implied rejection of Russia’s description of its actions as a mere ‘military operation’ will have been inflammatory to President Putin.


'His consolatory words to Ukraine’s president and his implied rejection of Russia’s description of its actions as a mere ‘military operation’ will have been inflammatory to President Putin.'


The effects of that are unpredictable. Neither Francis, nor the rest of us, can know how his words or gestures will shape the fate of any Catholics who come under Russian control, nor how they might impact his advocacy for humanitarian decency and compassion.

Nor can he know their effect on the fragile oecumenical rapprochement between the Catholic and Orthodox leaderships which has consolidated since Paul VI’s historic meeting with the Greek Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in 1964.

In the short term, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has divided Orthodox Christianity against itself, as my ACU colleague Jonathan Zecher points out here. But in Christian history intra-confessional conflicts have had a habit of spilling wider before they are contained.

Moreover, certain interpretations of Eastern Orthodoxy are inherently wrapped up in the project of Russian imperialism, such that it may not matter that Roman Catholicism no longer has much to do with any ‘Western imperialist’ counterpart.

Francis will certainly have been under pressure from Catholic bishops in Central and Eastern Europe to take the strongest possible stand against Russia. Indeed, some Polish bishops have already gone much further in their remarks than even Francis was prepared to do via most recent words.

Stanislaw Gadecki, the Archbishop of Poznan, wrote to the Russian Patriarch Kirill in threatening, even apocalyptic terms earlier this month: ‘The time will come to settle these crimes, including before the international courts…However, even if someone manages to avoid this human justice, there is a tribunal that cannot be avoided.’ 

Bishops like Gadecki no doubt remember the role that John Paul II played in the fight against Communism in the 1970s and 1980s. However, like Francis, John Paul, as pope, was careful to temper his confrontations with the Soviets so they were not too overt. He did not want them to worsen the oppression that others were enduring.

In some ways Francis faces a more difficult and complex challenge than John Paul’s during the 1980s — not because there is any greater moral equivalence between Russian aggression and Ukrainian defence now than there was between Capitalism and Communism then.

Rather, it is because so many parties have been caught unawares by the speed of events and the lack of contingency planning for different scenarios has increased the risks both of immediate humanitarian disasters and also that events could spiral out of everybody’s control.

Even by going as far as he has done, Francis is placing the papacy’s reputation for neutrality — so hard won by Benedict XV — on the line, creating conditions for unpredictable outcomes. Yet Francis is surely right to have said what he has said for any whiff of cowardice on his part would render his credibility wrecked.

The threat of retaliation was, apparently, a major factor in Pius XII’s decision not to condemn the Nazis and Italian Fascists openly during World War Two — a position which may well have facilitated papal efforts to support anti-Axis elements, and also to protect some Italian Jews, but which many Catholics now regard as a source of deepest sorrow and shame.

‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace’, the opening line of Francis of Assisi’s famous prayer goes.

The threats confronting Pope Francis — the original Franciscan’s greatest living disciple — are not yet as great as those to Pius XII once were, but all Catholics should surely pray that he has the wisdom to navigate St Peter’s barque through waters as treacherous as any his predecessors have faced over several decades.



Dr Miles Pattenden is Senior Research Fellow in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Australian Catholic University. His books include Electing the Pope in Early Modern Italy, 1450-1700 (Oxford University Press, 2017) and he is and Co-Editor of The Journal of Religious History (2022–).

Main image: Chris Johnston illustration.

Topic tags: Miles Pattenden, Pope Francis, War, Russia, Ukraine



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Existing comments

If I understand this rather opaque article, it is saying Catholics now regard the failure of Pope Pius XII to condemn Germany during WW2 (which is disputed) as a source of deepest sorrow and shame but Pope Francis in not condemning Russia in Ukraine is masterly diplomacy. Consistency please.

Daniel O'CONNELL | 15 March 2022  

Francis needs to button the lips of his arch bishops, in particular Vigano who is praising Putin and claiming the war is a holy quest to re unite the Orthodox church.
"Viganò adopted Putin’s justifications for attacking Ukraine, lamenting the lack of media coverage of supposed neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine that have allegedly attacked Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the autonomous eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Zelenskyy has ridiculed the idea that Nazism is behind the eight-year-old conflict in his country’s east, which Russia invaded in 2014." American Jesuit Review March 07 2022.
Kirrill is also pro Putin and blames Ukraine as a US puppet envoy.
Putin wont listen to Francis and whether he's angered by his pleas and denouncements wont make a scrap of difference.

"The most notorious massacre of Jews in Ukraine was at the Babi Yar ravine outside Kiev, where 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation on 29–30 September 1941. (Some 100,000 to 150,000 Ukrainian and other Soviet citizens were also killed in the following weeks). The mass killing of Jews in Kiev was approved by the military governor Eberhardt, Police Commander for Army Group South (SS- Jeckeln) and Otto Rasch. It was carried out by a mixture of SS, SD and Security Police. On the Monday, the Jews of Kiev gathered by the cemetery, expecting to be loaded onto trains. The crowd was large enough that most of the men, women, and children could not have known what was happening until it was too late: by the time they heard the machine-gun fire, there was no chance to escape. All were driven down a corridor of soldiers, in groups of ten, and then shot." Wikipedia. That was one small incident in the Nazi war.
Putin may not necessarily target ethnic groups but in his mind the Ukrainians are an inferior race, an obstacle, and the ultimate death toll will be a statistic as he butchers his way to the vassalization of Ukraine. Now how do women and children defend themselves from bullets and being killed by falling masonry as Putin's tanks and planes blast them into oblivion.
The real killing has only just begun.

Francis Armstrong | 15 March 2022  

Pope Francis, acting as a global leader, has been proactive in going beyond the walls of the Vatican to personally articulate in strong terms the catastrophic consequences of rampant aggression which results in death and displacement. He has not been the only religious leader to respond robustly to the threat to global stability which the Russian invasion of Ukraine has unleashed. The Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has spoken powerfully about the profound destruction of human dignity. In Christian scripture peace is not merely the absence of war but a lifting up of God’s countenance upon us, thus giving us peace.

Pam | 15 March 2022  
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If Francis was serious about bringing about a cease fire he would join other leaders in Kyiv. "The leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia will visit Kyiv today in a show of support, while US President Joe Biden will attend a NATO meeting in Brussels next week." SMH AM edition today.
Trotting around the Vatican embassies wont achieve anything. This is no time for show pony diplomacy.
Meanwhile Putin ramps up the killing spree ostensibly to break their fighters resistance. Heaven help Kyiv if Zelensky is assassinated.

Francis Armstrong | 16 March 2022  

Every time the Bishop of Rome appears in public he is showing his commitment and concern for all people in the form of great courage. His words carry weight. We can continue to pray that talks result in a ceasefire and a rebuilding occurs.

Pam | 17 March 2022  

This is where we would do better with JP II

Bob | 15 March 2022  
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Actually, John XXIII trumped all his successors in behind the scenes effective outcome diplomacy with the then USSR

Bill Burke | 16 March 2022  

JP II brought down the USSR, after all the damage done by Paul VI. I used to laugh at those that mocked Paul VI as a freemason, communist and homosexual. Now I see some value in it. He was certainly too friendly to the demands of the Soviet Empire. The incumbent, Pope Francis, is far too craven to Chinese demands, much to his disgrace.
No Pope should tolerate, or be seen to tolerate, abortion, wars of aggression, communism, or imperialism of the kind now demonstrated by Russia and China.

We need another JP II. I reckon Cardinal Sarah could rise to the occasion if the Holy Spirit so wills it.

Bob | 17 March 2022  

"JP II brought down the USSR"? Really? I thought the end of the USSR had far more to do with the failing Soviet economy, the refusal of the west to bail out Gorbachov (fair enough for the times but short sighted in hindsight) and other tensions within the evil empire. JP supported the Polish opposition, but "brought down the USSR" is an overreach. Just because it happened on his watch doesn't mean he did it.

If you get a chance to hear Paul Dibb's recent address to the National Press Club, there are some interesting insights into the decline and fall of the USSR.

As they say these days, you are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.

Brett | 25 March 2022  

Psalm 34:14
'Turn away from evil and do good: seek peace and pursue it'
We are asked to seek peace and pursue it.
Very clear really.

Jan Wright | 16 March 2022  

It’s unsurprising Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has supported Putin. “The Sword and the Shield” is a history of the KGB, the Soviet intelligence services. It reveals Kirill represented the Russian Orthodox Church at the World Council of Churches, at a time when all representatives were carefully selected by the KGB. Some have suggested that Kirill was, at the very least, a KGB asset.
It will be interesting to see how the Vatican’s secret agreement with China over bishop’s appointments impacts its dealings with the Chinese Communist Party, now Moscow-aligned.
The KGB were also responsible for “Moscow’s Assault on the Vatican” wrote high-ranking defector, Ion Pacepa, including its disinformation campaign “to smear Pius as a Nazi collaborator” which materialized in the 1963 play, “The Deputy”.
Another KGB ploy was infiltrating seminaries and divinity schools “to divert the emphasis of clerical thinking from the spiritual to the material and political”, to neutralize anti-communism.
Accordingly, the statement “Pius XII’s decision not to condemn the Nazis” perpetuates an untruth. On 20th October 1939, the encyclical “Summi Pontificatus” rejected Nazi anti-Semitism. Rabbi David Dalin’s book, “The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII rescued Jews from the Nazis” debunks the disinformation and lies.

Ross Howard | 16 March 2022  

From Donum Vitae “God alone is the Master of life from its beginning until its end; no one under any circumstances can claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human life.”

Abortion is an act of violence upon the innocent, but even today as Christians, do we not still condone violence? As the term ‘Just War’ (Theory) continually shatters the reality of this teaching given by the Church.

The teaching by the church on a Just War is nothing more than a minefield with regards to its application of justified murder. Can there be anything more perverse than giving the Holy Eucharist to opposing Christian soldiers just before going into battle against each other?

Prior to Luke 22:36, we have Luke 22:35 Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you out without purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered”. So, from now on we see the divide between the true believer/follower who trusts in God alone whereas those who rely on possessions need to protect them, as in

Luke22;36 “But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one”..... and since the time of Christ, we see the continual escalation of violence.

Please consider continuing via the link

kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 16 March 2022  
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‘The teaching by the church on a Just War is nothing more than a minefield with regards to its application of justified murder. Can there be anything more perverse than giving the Holy Eucharist to opposing Christian soldiers just before going into battle against each other?’

The teaching on just war is like the teaching on divorce, a necessity because humans are stiff-necked. When Christians are attacked, they have to defend themselves. The last time two Christian nations went to war was the first world war and that was because the Kaiser wasn’t being true to his baptism.

It is unlikely that Putin was baptised at birth. He may have been baptised in his adulthood (probably after becoming president and discovering the usefulness of Orthodoxy as a pillar of nationalism) but, like the Kaiser, he isn’t being true to his baptism and neither is the Patriarch of Moscow, whose lapse is possibly going to raise questions about whether the Russian Orthodox Church, like the Dutch Reformed Church in apartheid South Africa, is going to have to issue an apology in the future. If we’re lucky, it might even call into question the nonsensical idea of autonomous territorial churches instead of a supra-national one, as if we were back in the old days when a boulder by the road demarcated the territory of one god from the other, and if a question like this can be raised about Orthodoxy, it can also be raised about the many autonomous streams of Protestanism living cheek by jowl in a single suburb.

As is common in history, a bad thing might have some good effects.

It’s a good question about eucharist to opposing soldiers, but eucharist exists as nutrition to protect (like material nutrition) against infection, in this case, the infecting influence of the generalised Evil that is the Devil (for those who believe in the personal existence of one), which is why it makes more sense for those who, by duty, are bound by obedience to an authority which, ultimately, is permitted by God to exist, to enter areas in proximity to sin, than, for example, practising homosexuals (and others who voluntarily breach the commandments) who enter into proximity to sin without any necessity to do so.

roy chen yee | 20 March 2022  

I am elevated by this article and the comments of the likes of Francis Armstrong and Ross Howard. Sadly, Kevin Walters seems to be still carting his soapbox around and preaching without a licence. Pope Francis is indeed an instrument of 'the peace that passeth all understanding'. Even though the papal role is primarily spiritual, Francis has tremendous standing in the world and he uses it appropriately. He probably has more prestige and impact than Queen Elizabeth. He is very much in the footsteps of Christ, as was the Poverello.

Edward Fido | 18 March 2022  

Great Thanks, Miles, for opening up for peace-brokering reflection this profoundly difficult situation and crisis for Christians and all others of goodwill to 'bring to the Table of a Just Peace'.

I understand +Francis' reticence and the dilemma he faces. He himself would be keenly aware of the attack on Russian national pride. As vainglorious as all nationalism is, Argentina became a victim of this during the Falklands War that occurred earlier in his life's experience.

That the Russians have extraordinarily sustained similar humiliation since the collapse of the Soviet Union has generally gone unnoticed, and as a consequence of which Putin's role in this has attracted a barrage of unquestionably knee-jerk demonisation.

Having attended a colloquium organised recently by Pax Christi Australia I am privileged to share it with my colleagues here. The recording offers some background and hope for a possible solution amidst a national conversation that has hitherto been highly partisan (as witnessed in one overheated double-post here) or otherwise been haplessly focused, as understandably it should be, on stopping the actual horror of the violence as it unfolds.

For those interested in viewing it, this is the link to the Pax Christi discussion:


Thank You.

Michael Furtado | 18 March 2022  
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‘Pax Christi’

From about 1:57 to 2:14. It took less than two minutes into the video for Father Mostowik (and, by proxy, Emeritus Professor Camilleri) to commit the fundamental fallacy that to make Putin nervous about his hold on power is the same as to threaten Russia’s national security.

Putin is not Russia any more than Kim Jong Un is North Korea or, for that matter, Ho Chi Minh was North Vietnam, let alone Vietnam as a whole. A government is a government of law, not of a man. Russia isn’t being threatened by NATO’s expansion, the government of Russia isn’t being threatened by NATO’s expansion, but the Tyrant of Russia is.

roy chen yee | 23 March 2022  

Maybe the Pope should unshackle himself from the backblocks of South America and join the real world.

john frawley | 19 March 2022  
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If any Australian had a peanut’s worth of faith, s/he could pinch the Cristo Redentor from its location on Hunchback Mountain and hover it perpetually over the most Liberal electorate in Sydney as a form of amusement for one of its residents.

In any case, Hunchback is a strange place to locate a statue of a healer who could heal anything. Why not atop the Rock of the Topsail, what with the marine imagery of the Barque of Peter and the stilling of the waves?

Or, if any British Overseas Citizen had a peanut’s worth of faith, atop the Rock that goes by the adapted name of Gibraltar as farewell to and sentry against the return of the opposing culture which originated the pre-adapted name?

roy chen yee | 25 March 2022  

The outraged howls bellowed in protest against Pope Francis' injunction can be measured against those traditionally disposed to shrieking out 'Christus Rex' for warmongering purposes.

For years Toowoomba City Council and the Catholic Bishop there, +James Morris, were put under pressure by the fundamentalist Magnificat Meal Movement to place an oversize statue of Christ, Rio-style, on Table-Top Mountain.

The Council demurred, as Table-Top is Crown Land and therefore belonged to the people, while Bishop Bill Morris explained that Christ's Kingdom is intended to reign in our hearts and should therefore not be used as an excuse for the triumphalistic expression of a misappropriated and sacred Christian idiom by the applicants, the now disbanded former 'Magnificat Meal Movement' led by a self-styled seer called Debra Geileskey.

Leading theologians of the Diocese also explained that the location of such a statue in very close proximity to the site of a covered-up massacre of Indigenous People would be inappropriate as well as disrespectful.

The Catholic journalist, political cartoonist and alumnus of my school, Sean Leahy, used his native Irish wit to sum up the situation. Christ, arms extended, surveys the fundamentalist Triple M Community below Him, while whimsically remarking: 'I can see Debra!'

Michael Furtado | 04 April 2022  

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