The sainted Pope John Paul II, almost at the cost of his own life, spoke with great moral clarity and courage against Russian hegemonic aims. Pope Francis, unfortunately, lacks the clarity to speak in such a manner. Unfortunately, it means he is currently giving aid and comfort to an immoral aggressor.
When one is both the spiritual vicar and guide for 1.2 billion people and also the head of a nation-state, one should be much more careful than Francis has been in his commentary on Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Unfortunately, much of what he has said on the subject so far has been both remarkably blinkered and an abomination of (mis-)applied ethics. Because of his prominence and his justly earned status as a man of deep love ordinarily worthy of great respect, a few words are in order to correct misimpressions he has spread about the state of geopolitics.
The pope carelessly mused in an interview with an Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, over how much responsibility NATO had in starting the war. Here's the passage that has everyone upset:
Pope Bergoglio’s main concern is that Putin won’t stop any time soon. He tries to consider the roots of his behaviour, the reasons that are pushing him to engage in such a brutal conflict. Maybe it was "NATO barking at Russia’s gate" that compelled Putin to unleash the invasion of Ukraine. "I have no way of telling whether his rage has been provoked," Bergoglio wonders, "but I suspect it was maybe facilitated by the West’s attitude."
[Francis's] doctrine has always rejected the arms race and strongly condemned any escalation in the production of weapons, which might end up being used sooner or later on the battlefield, causing unspeakable horror and suffering. "I can’t answer that question, I live too far away, I don’t know if it is the right thing to supply the Ukrainian fighters," he tries to reason it out. "What seems indisputable is that in that country both sides are trying out new weapons. The Russians have just found out that tanks are useless and they might be developing new weapons. Wars are fought for this reason too: to test your arsenals. This is what happened in the Spanish Civil War, before the Second World War...."
This is completely wrong — and to the point that it is ambiguous, someone as important as Francis has to refrain from being so careless about what he says.
NATO has never, not once, threatened aggressive action against Russia. Through its seven decades of existence, it has made abundantly clear that it is a purely defensive alliance. NATO has never barked at Russia, but it retains its power and alertness because Russia so persistently barks and threatens the territorial integrity or very existence of other sovereign nations, including Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, Estonia, and others. No one invaded Russia, and nobody even thinks that anyone was about to do so.
Specifically, with regard to Ukraine, that nation’s potential accession to NATO was a dead letter before Russia invaded. Having stolen Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then spent eight years funding and arming a rebellion in its eastern provinces, Russia pushed Ukraine toward NATO. Yet, even so, NATO did not include Ukraine in its membership (supposedly the cause of Russian ire) but merely reinvited it in 2021 to commence a multistep, multicondition process that could someday lead to membership. That is not a provocation worthy of the Russian invasion that has now cost tens of thousands of civilian lives.
Francis then offered what really seems in translation like a meandering and hard-to-follow vignette about Ukrainians. Many have interpreted this passage as meaning that he thinks the war was started by someone other than Russia:
Syria, Yemen, Iraq. In Africa, a string of conflicts one after the other. And in each and every one of them, there are international interests at stake. It’s unthinkable that a free state can unleash a war against another free state. In Ukraine, the conflict was triggered by other actors. The Ukrainians can’t be blamed for having fought back in the Donbas. We are talking of ten years ago. It’s an old argument. The Ukrainians are a proud people, that’s for sure. During the Way of the Cross we had two ladies, a Russian and a Ukrainian, who were asked to read the prayers together. The Ukrainians were outraged. I spoke with Krajewski, who was there with me, and he told me: stop them, don’t let them read the prayer together. He was right, of course, we can’t really understand them. So the two ladies remained silent. They are very touchy, the Ukrainians, maybe because they were defeated and demeaned after the Second World War, and they paid a very heavy price. So many lives lost, they are a martyred people. But let’s not drop our guard, let’s keep an eye on what is happening or could happen in Transnistria next.
The pope did say he has repeatedly tried to talk to Putin to urge the Russian war criminal to stop the “brutality,” but that Putin won’t take his calls. To quote the Daily Beast: “He also went to the Russian embassy to the Holy See days after the invasion began to ‘register his concerns’ about what was happening.”
So, to get this straight, he is registering his concerns to Putin to refrain from brutality in unfortunate reaction to dastardly Ukrainian-NATO-international conspiracies and threats. Or something.
And this comes on the heels of the instance in which one of the very few envoys to the United Nations who did not join a walkout in protest of Russia was the representative of the Holy See. The Vatican also has refused to condemn Russia’s use of nerve agents or support an investigation of Russian war crimes.
This is not to say Francis is somehow supportive of Putin’s routine atrocities. Nobody believes that even for a moment. It is to say that this pope’s naivete and gullibility are way off the charts. In the manner that he has given a strangely rambling voice to that naivete, Pope Francis unwittingly serves not the cause of peace but of the evil Putin.