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ROME — When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council just weeks after the Kremlin launched tanks into Ukraine, around 140 diplomats came out. One of the few to stay: the envoy of the Holy See.
The Holy See’s decision exemplified what some in the West see as a maddening tendency for the neutral sovereign entity to sit on the fence rather than appoint and shame Russian President Vladimir Putin, who used the imprimatur of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church to help legitimize its brutal, revengeful war in Ukraine.
In several intergovernmental organizations, the sovereign territory has repeatedly abstained in votes condemning Russia’s aggression, even before the invasion of Ukraine. At the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Holy See refused to support a measure condemning the use of nerve agents by the Kremlin. And in March, at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which covers several dozen European countries, the Holy See abstained in a vote to investigate possible war crimes. in Ukraine.
Instead, Pope Francis chose to lament the war with sharp but unspecific rhetoric. He called it a “sacrilegious war” and spoke of a “potentate caught up in anachronistic claims of national interest”.
But he avoided naming Vladimir Putin and Russia. Nor did he mention the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, a key Putin backer who sanctioned the invasion as a “holy war.” And notably, Francis opposed sending arms to Ukraine, saying that a rearmament would lead to a new “balance of terror”.
For Francis, the dilemma is whether he should use his moral stance to explicitly denounce Russia or hold back in the hope of creating space for mediation. A possible constructive role, for example, could be to engage the Russian Orthodox Church on conflict resolution options.
Church supporters say a stubborn commitment to neutrality is pragmatic, based on the belief that it keeps the door open for dialogue and long-term thinking. It’s also unclear what the Vatican could accomplish with a more aggressive tone, given Putin’s intransigence and the Holy See’s lack of power over the Russian Orthodox Church, which enthusiastically backed Putin’s war. .
Cardinal Michael Czerny, who has worked in Ukraine on behalf of the pope, said Francis had already been “very harsh” in his criticism. “There is no need to name names,” he added. “It only makes dialogue more difficult.”
Yet the approach of the Holy See has left a bitter taste in some people.
“When Western allies see the Holy See diplomat listening to Lavrov after everyone has left the room, it squeaks. They say they can’t be political, but that’s considered siding with Russia,” a Western diplomat said.
A state without state interests
Church motivations, often rooted in faith and not politics, can be difficult for the secular world to understand.
“A pope always hopes that every individual will experience a personal conversion,” said Victor Gaetan, author of “God’s Diplomats, Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon.”
Francis, Gaetan added, will pray “unceasingly” for Putin.
The Vatican is a state but a state without economic, military or territorial interests. This frees him to focus on the common good of all, Gaetan said, including addressing immediate concerns such as access to food and water, humanitarian corridors and personal safety, as well as to longer-term goals such as protecting worship opportunities.
But if he measures his words in public, François does not remain inactive. He listens to diplomatic channels behind the scenes.
The pope “is active in the areas of diplomacy and negotiations,” said Czerny, the cardinal in Ukraine, pointing to calls Francis has had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Kirill. “The pope seeks to unite so as not to further divide and often works in the shadows and in silence.”
After the invasion, Francis also made an unprecedented visit to the Russian Embassy to the Holy See. The meeting broke protocol and drew attention. Normally, a head of state summons or invites an ambassador for an interview – instead of just showing up at the ambassador’s office.
The move was “incredibly unusual”, the Western diplomat said. “Never heard of it. The gesture is a matter of humility, reflection on the message, not protocol.
The Holy See can point to some historic successes in conflict resolution.
Popes and Catholic humanitarian organizations such as the Sant’Egidio community have served as mediators in the conflicts in Mozambique, Lebanon and Kosovo. Catholic officials also helped referee a clash between Argentina and Chile.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Pope John XXIII was even credited with helping pull the United States and Russia from the brink of nuclear war when he implored the country’s leaders to keep talking. The opening allowed Russian Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev to present his downfall as an act of peace, not cowardice.
More recently, Francis facilitated the renewal of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba after a half-century embargo. And in 2016, a spiritual retreat organized by Francis for the leaders of South Sudan helped avert a civil war.
Priests serving as diplomats focus “on what both sides have in common and identify shared goals,” said Gaetan, the author, adding that they “strive to humanize both sides through relation to another”.
Lasting political agreements can take years to negotiate, testing the patience of elected officials. But as one senior church official put it, “Politicians think in months, we in the church deal in millennia.”
Of course, not all Holy See diplomacies were considered successful or even desirable.
There is still considerable controversy over Pope Pius XII’s silence condemning Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. His critics argued that with very large Catholic populations in Germany and Austria, he could have undermined support for the regime. The Vatican maintains that it kept silent to protect the Church’s behind-the-scenes efforts to protect Nazi victims, including Jews.
In Ukraine, the pope has a delicate tightrope to walk. He will be careful to avoid that the conflict is presented as a clash of civilizations, West against East, with origins which could undoubtedly date back to the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox churches and Western Christianity in 1054.
For Francis, as for all recent popes, the reunion of Christian churches is a central mission. The Holy See began to rebuild relations with Russia under John Paul II, when Kirill was Russia’s main external interlocutor. Francis became the first pope to meet a Russian patriarch when he sat down with Kirill in 2016.
But the war thwarted attempts to bring the churches closer together.
The Russian state and the Russian Church officially share the same goal: to regain control of Ukraine.
According to Gaetan, many in Russia were appalled when the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2019 recognized its own independent leader who did not report to any outside patriarch or bishop. Some Russians even saw the hand of the United States behind this decision, since it was a concrete way to reduce Russian influence in Ukraine.
“I fear that the Russian Orthodox Church saw this as a declaration of war, as did the Russian state,” Gaetan said.
Francis said a visit to Kyiv was “on the table”.
While Francis is one of the most influential figures in the world and his presence would show his solidarity with Ukraine, he would like to ensure that any visit is more than symbolic and a step towards at least a ceasefire. fire – an unlikely achievement.
Moreover, it is doubtful that the Pope’s influence will extend to the Russian Orthodox Church, given his pro-Putin sentiment.
Religious leaders may have a role to play in post-conflict reconciliation efforts when rebuilding trust will require more than political dialogue.
But the world is looking for a miracle now – a miracle the Vatican is not likely to stave off.