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If The Pope Won't Condemn Putin, He'll Wind Up On The Wrong Side Of History

Pope Francis must make a hard choice that supersedes his eagerness to heal the rift between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, which is diluting his already tepid postures on the Russian war in Ukraine.

If The Pope Won't Condemn Putin, He'll Wind Up On The Wrong Side Of History

Pope Francis receiving the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky in February 2020

Ricardo Roa

-OpEd-

BUENOS AIRES — It is difficult to find an explanation for the Pope's choice for discretion in the face of the massacre in Ukraine. A month into the invasion, as the deaths and destruction mount, Pope Francis has yet to condemn Russia or its president, Vladimir Putin. As far as our Jorge Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, is concerned, they are not at fault. Few in the world would agree; in fact he is swimming against the tide.


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Thousands have already died and 10 million Ukrainians have been forced from their homes, with 3.5 million fleeing abroad. This is the biggest outpouring of refugees in Europe since World War II.

The pope's strange, even bizarre, silence has been explained by some who seem to want to justify him. What are the apologists saying? They say Francis has yet to mention Russia or Putin by name because he wants to be a facilitator of negotiations, which he has yet to succeed in doing. In diplomacy, a facilitator is in a less risky position than a negotiator from a political standpoint.

Why not call this an invasion?

You can always use words to justify this omission (which is not an oversight, because it is deliberate) of a brazen aggression and the Russians' use of high-tech missiles on schools, hospitals and shopping malls; in other words, on innocent civilians .

The Pope's discourse is dense, but he won't say a simple thing: that one state has invaded another. He has repeatedly condemned the killings and sent messages and envoys to Moscow and Kyiv. His actions were also paltry — calling for a day of fasting and prayer for the victims — with seemingly paltry results. Again on Friday, Francis organized a special prayer for peace in Ukraine in a ceremony that evoked a century-old apocalyptic prophecy linked to purported visions of the Virgin Mary to three peasant children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. Still, prayers are not the only tools that Pope's can turn to

Saying nothing about Putin's war is definitely not enough

Yes, there have been two bolder diplomatic gestures in the past month. One was to visit the Russian embassy in the Vatican, 100 meters from Saint Peter's Square, in the same building as the Argentine embassy. It was exceptional as popes do not visit embassies. The other was more subtle, as he rejected the Russian label of a "special military operation" instead of war. That is the Kremlin's own use of words to hide some ugly facts.

Francis has received Putin three times, more than any other European head of state

Stefano Spaziani/dpa via ZUMA

Infighting within the Orthodox Church

A key personality in understanding this incredible silence is Kirill I, the Patriarch of Moscow, who calls Putin a "miracle of God." Francis is determined to bring the Western and Eastern churches closer and met with Kirill, the head of Russian Orthodoxy, in Havana in 2016. Moscow itself rivals the Patriarch of Constantinople as head of the Eastern Church, and was dealt a blow when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church declared itself independent of Moscow in 2019, with support from the Greek Church.

There is an intense fight going on in the Ukrainian Church. Kirill controls two of the three groups that make up its flock, and blocked the bishop of Kyiv's designation as a cardinal. Also, to help Francis, he authorized for the first time the designation of a Catholic archbishop in Moscow.

Kirill has been the pope's intermediary with Putin. Francis has received Putin three times, more than any other European head of state. The first time was in 2013, when the two asked the United States not to intervene militarily in Syria, then after the Russian takeover of Crimea, which Kirill praised, and lastly in 2019.

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In a word, Putin and Kirill share a nationalism that transcends religion. They want an empire and Russia as the center of opposition to the liberalism of Western democracies. Kirill blessed the cathedral Putin had built for the armies of Russia.

It is likely too much to ask the pope to visit Kyiv to stop the killings, as Ukraine has desperately urged. But saying nothing is definitely the wrong decision in the face of Putin's brutal war.

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