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Between war and peace: Pope Francis' Ukraine conundrum



Some commentators and many Ukrainians are puzzled or angry with the caution of Pope Francis in some of his comments on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. An advisor of Ukraine’s President Zelensky on 8 September 2023 claimed that Pope Francis was being ‘pro-Russian’ when in late August he praised the culture of ‘Great Mother Russia’ in a video to a group of Russian young people. Francis later said he was not praising Russian imperialism, but its culture and literature.

However, even the Ukrainian bishops of the Greek Catholic Church in a ‘frank conversation’ with the Pope on 6 September expressed the “pain, suffering, and a certain disappointment” about his comments. Francis was upset that the bishops had doubted him: ‘I want to assure you of my solidarity with you and constant prayerful closeness. I am with the Ukrainian people’, he said.

The Vatican commentator in La Croix, Robert Mickens, was on 9 September more critical of Pope Francis: ‘Does the pope believe that allowing Russia to keep whatever Ukrainian territory it has seized is a fair and just price for peace?’ Mickens acknowledged that the Pope had warned against demonising Russia or Putin, but charged that he had ‘not sufficiently condemned the unjust and evil actions of Putin, being careful not to criticize the Russian dictator by name.’

Mickens then went on to claim that the invasion was unprovoked: ‘And let’s not even talk about Francis blaming the West for somehow provoking Putin to invade Ukraine by repeating a comment some “former statesman” allegedly told the pope – i.e. NATO was barking at Russia’s door.’

Mickens declared ‘there can be no negotiating with Putin’, just as with other past imperialist conquerors, like Hitler. ‘Francis stubbornly refuses to accept that he… can play no role in resolving this conflict’, and that he has made ‘numerous missteps’ on a road going nowhere.

There are good reasons for the caution of Pope Francis, including his belief that the conflict over Ukraine is another case of a ‘third world war fought piece-meal’, a refrain he has used many times about conflicts in various parts of the world. In other words, he sees the Ukraine conflict as an episode in the contest for hegemony between the United States and Russia, and possibly the emerging new superpower, China, one might add.

Furthermore, Francis is determined to avoid depicting the Ukraine war in metaphysical terms, simply as a conflict between Good and Evil. Yes, he is forthright in his denunciation of the Russian incursion, the killing of thousands of Ukrainian civilians, the widespread destruction of homes and cities, displacing some millions of people internally or as refugees, and even disrupting world food supplies, especially for Africa.


'This is a very delicate mission since Francis has been close to the Ukrainian Catholic Church and wants to give them moral and religious support while still trying to rescue good relations with the Russian Orthodox churches. At the same time, he does not want to see a proxy war between Russia and the West fought till the last Ukrainian.'


On 6 March 2022 he declared: ‘In Ukraine, rivers of blood and tears are flowing. This is not a military operation but a war which sows death, destruction, and misery’ in that ‘martyred country. War is madness, please stop. Look at the cruelty.’  He strongly supported Ukraine in its defence, and in September 2022 conceded on his flight back from Kazakhstan that it ‘may be morally acceptable’ for western allies to provide support of arms and munitions on condition the intention was not to make ‘more war’. Yet Francis has consistently avoided giving the struggle a religious justification.

The Vatican has not forgotten a lesson from the Spanish Civil War, when many Catholic militants drew heavily from a ‘holy war’ or crusade mentality, in which they saw themselves as fighting in a quasi-Manichaean struggle for God against the forces of Evil.

Like Fr Luigi Sturzo, George Bernanos and Francois Mauriac, Jacques Maritain in July 1937 denounced this crusade mentality that so exacerbated the Spanish Civil War. A leading French Catholic philosopher and political activist, Maritain wrote an article which was republished the next year in Alfredo Mendizabal’s, The Martyrdom of Spain: Origins of a Civil War. Maritain insisted it was ‘horrible’ enough to kill in defence of one’s country, but he pleaded ‘do not let them kill in the name of Christ’. War ‘risks causing blasphemy of what is holy.’ He considered as ‘sacrilege’ murdering poor people in the name of religion even if ‘Marxists’. He strongly criticised those Spanish bishops and clergy who used this rhetoric of a religious crusade. He argued that the first duty of the Church was to prevent religion being used as a justification for war, while still insisting that a truly justified war of defence entailed protecting the human rights of everyone, especially non-combatants and including captured enemy soldiers.

Maritain was not only one of the major figures behind the renewal of Catholic social and political thought after the Second World War, especially in the Christian Democratic movements in Europe, but he was especially significant in the Christian Democratic movements in Latin America. Pope Francis would be very familiar with Maritain’s writing and his influence on Fr Pietro Pavan who took charge of the drafting of the famous 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris of Pope John XXIII. Maritain was a close friend of Pope Paul VI, and had a significant influence on the Second Vatican Council, especially on issues of war and peace, and human rights.

Similarly, Pope John Paul II in 2003 vehemently opposed the war on Iraq, especially President George W Bush’s initial invocation of a crusade rhetoric, which would have inflamed the conflict even more by superimposing a religious coloration.

Presumably conscious of Maritain’s warnings, Pope Francis sees his responsibilities as including peacemaking and fostering dialogue and negotiation to settle conflicts within and between nations. He has been especially active to promote an end to the conflict over Ukraine, with his own personal involvement and by sending his emissaries to visit leaders in different camps.

In Kazakhstan on 14 September 2022 he appealed to the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions: ‘May we never justify violence. May we never allow the sacred to be exploited by the profane.’ ‘The sacred must never be a prop for power, nor power a prop for the sacred!’ The Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was to have been at the meeting but pulled out at the last minute. When Francis criticised religious leaders trying to justify war and violence, he was widely seen as contradicting Kirill who has used religious language to justify the invasion. As Massimo Faggioli commented, Kirill had ‘adopted the language of the crusade.’ A few days after meeting with the papal nuncio in Russia, Kirill on 6 March 2022 ‘cast the war in metaphysical terms and as a response to gay-rights movements and western values.’

At the September 2022 Congress Francis tried to draw together the religions of the world in a joint denunciation of war and violence, so the international community can use its resources to counter the impending threats from climate change, increasing inequality and poverty, as well as the threat from a nuclear war. In his flight back from Kazakhstan, Francis repeated his earlier calls for dialogue between Russian and Ukrainian leaders. ‘I don’t exclude dialogue with any power that is at war, even if it is with the aggressor. . . It may smell, but one has to do it.’

Francis recognises the suffering by Russians too. The New York Times reported in August 2023 that military casualties of the Ukrainians are likely over 170,000, including 70,000 killed, and much higher for the Russians with nearly 300,000 casualties, including 120,000 dead. The Pope believes that the conflict can only be resolved by negotiation, and is appealing to people of reason and good will on all sides to help find a compromise the warring states can live with and so end the carnage.

This is a very delicate mission since Francis has been close to the Ukrainian Catholic Church and wants to give them moral and religious support while still trying to rescue good relations with the Russian Orthodox churches. At the same time, he does not want to see a proxy war between Russia and the West fought till the last Ukrainian.





Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest who taught about Catholic social thought and movements at Yarra Theological Union for many years and is chaplain at Catholic Aboriginal Ministry in Melbourne.

Main image: Chris Johnston illustration 

Topic tags: Bruce Duncan, Pope Francis, War, Ukraine



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Existing comments

The Pope would do well to confine himself to representing and guiding Christ's Church rather than offering his Marxist political views under the guise of Christian social justice.

John Frawley | 02 November 2023  

Thank you Bruce for this article. You have outlined how complex the war in Ukraine is and how the Pope has strived to uphold the unequivocal principles of Christian faith while retaining a sense of history and being mindful of mistakes made in the past. He could of course just ignore it all and pretend it is of no consequence to the Church, but that would be to abandon long held understandings of the place of the Church in the world, which is to be with people in their suffering and bring the light of Christ to them.

Beth Gibson | 03 November 2023  

Pope Francis has been "compromised" by Patriarch Kiril.

The Patriarch has jumped in boots and all to condone evil and to attempt to justify it by spurious excuses. The Pope is trying to save the Russian Orthodox Church from the Patriarch by letting its members know that the Pope still sees it, through Russia's Christian heritage, as part of the greater Christian family.

Yes, Just War principles are canonical but how or when they are adverted to is prudential because somebody has to save the furniture when the nominal householder goes rogue.

s martin | 04 November 2023