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Ideas

What Exactly Does Pope Francis Think About The War In Ukraine?

Seven months after Russia’s invasion, the Pope finally called on Vladimir Putin directly to stop the war. But just days earlier, Francis had offered an elaborate theory on the causes of the war, which he blamed on competing “imperialisms” of Russia and the West, and the need to have wars to sell weapons.

Photo of Pope Francis sitting in church in Rome

Pope Francis in Rome

Jeff Israely

-Analysis-

Pope Francis has not been particularly popular in Ukraine since the war began in February. Unlike other Western leaders, the pope didn’t condemn Vladimir Putin in the days and weeks after the invasion, largely limiting his remarks about the war to prayers for the victims and universal calls for peace.

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A Ukrainian colleague was furious that Francis wasn’t calling Putin out for his invasion. Having covered the Vatican for more than a decade in my prior job, I tried to explain that papal diplomacy tends not to point fingers or name names, partly in their hope of leaving church channels open for possible future negotiations.

Well, on Sunday, Francis finally pointed his finger at Putin, in what was perhaps his strongest call to date to stop the war. “My appeal goes above all to the president of the Russian Federation, begging him to stop this spiral of violence and death, even out of love for his own people,” the pope said.

In the same breath, he also urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to be open to negotiations. The pope also warned against the rising threat of the use of nuclear weapons. This is what popes do in times of war: They call for peace and try to save lives, hoping the message seeps into the ears and hearts of political leaders and public opinion.

Still, there are other messages that Francis has been spreading about the war that are not so obvious.


Indeed, just three days before his latest call for peace in St. Peter’s Square, a rather stunning exchange appeared in the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica where the pope shared his view on the causes of the war with priests gathered during his recent visit to Kazakhstan.

Good guys, bad guys

In the exchange, the pope warned against “simplistic” thinking about the war, as if it were a "cowboy movie where there are good guys and bad guys." Instead, he said, it was important “to investigate the dynamics” that caused the war, which he summed up as “imperialisms in conflict.”

The pontiff blamed the war on the competition between rival imperial powers.

Rather than focusing on Russia’s decision to invade its neighbor, the pontiff blamed the war on the competition between rival imperial powers, declaring that when they "feel threatened and in decline, the imperialisms react thinking that the solution is to wage a war […] and also to sell and test weapons.”

By any reading, we must assume that said "imperialisms" (plural) in decline are Russia and the U.S.-led West. It is a view of the war that appears to divide blame between the two, offering an alibi to Putin and other apologists of the invasion at a moment when Russia has just annexed four regions in southern and eastern Ukraine.

Putin loves to cite Western imperialism too

At Friday’s annexation ceremony at the Kremlin, Putin painted a picture of Russia defending itself against Western imperialism, addressing the “Kyiv authorities and their real masters in the West.”

The Russian leader offered a take on history that the Argentine-born pope might recognize: “The West began its colonial policy back in the Middle Ages,” Putin declared. “For the sake of land and resources, they hunted people like animals.”

Then speaking specifically of the United States, he added: “Even today, they actually occupy Germany, Japan, South Korea, and other countries, and at the same time cynically call them allies of equal standing. The dictatorship of the Western elites is directed against all societies, including the peoples of the Western countries themselves. This is a challenge to all.”

Last spring, when he was criticized for his reaction to the war, Francis made a point of declaring that he was “not pro-Putin!,” which his comments Sunday do well to confirm.

\u200bPope Francis in front of a Ukrainian flag on Vatican City

Pope Francis in Vatican City on Aug. 24

Grzegorz Galazka/Mondadori Portfolio/ZUMA

False equivalencies

Yet his ideas about the causes of the war, and the false equivalencies of blame, risk serving the storyline of the Kremlin. They are an expression of a long-standing tendency in parts of the world, including the pope’s native Argentina, to see U.S. power as the driving explanation for virtually everything that goes wrong in the world.

Yes, U.S. and Western imperialism exists, and has caused far too much suffering over the years, with the war in Iraq as only the most obvious example. And yes, the military-industrial complex is also real, and no doubt certain arms manufacturers are gladly profiting from the current war.

In his attempt to not be “simplistic,” Francis actually makes just the opposite point.

But this is not why blood is being spilled in Ukraine. There is exactly one declining empire — and would-be emperor — that wanted this war.

The extent of how misguided the pope’s thinking is can be seen in the final remarks to the group of Jesuit priests, where he cited the arms manufacturers interests in having wars: “Some say, for example, that the Spanish Civil War was started to prepare for World War II. I do not know if that was really the case, but it could have been.”

In his attempt to not be “simplistic,” Francis’ strange historical analogy actually makes just the opposite point about the current conflict. World War II was being “prepared” in and by Nazi Germany. So yes, we should think hard about how factors below the surface move events. But sometimes, the truth — even in war — is plain to see.

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