Whenever a conflict breaks out in some corner of the world, popes generally strive to remain neutral so they can act as potential healers and mediators. On the other hand, popes also are expected to have the back of their own flock if they’re the ones under fire.
Striking the right balance between neutrality and loyalty can be tricky, as Francis’ recent rhetoric on Ukraine illustrates.
Many Ukrainian Catholics believe the pontiff went too far this week in an effort to prove to Russia, and especially the Russian Orthodox Church, that he doesn’t want to pick a fight. On Wednesday, Francis described the current violence in eastern Ukraine as “fratricidal,” when most Ukrainians would say it’s actually the product of foreign aggression by Moscow.
The result, many Ukrainians feel, is that Francis (perhaps inadvertently) threw their country under the bus for the sake of being “ecumenically correct,” meaning not irritating the Russian Orthodox.
“It shows the ignorance of the pope about the situation in Ukraine,” said Anatolij Babynskyj, editor of a prominent Greek Catholic journal, who blamed “pro-Russian forces at the Vatican” for distorting the pope’s view.
By way of background, Ukraine is a nation of 44 million people, roughly 3 to 5 million of whom belong to the Greek Catholic Church, which follows Orthodox rituals and spirituality, but is in full communion with Rome. Political life in the country tends to be defined by one’s attitudes toward Russia, with Catholics pre-eminent in the quest for an autonomous Ukraine not subservient to Moscow.
During the Soviet era, no Church produced more martyrs in percentage terms or suffered more vicious crackdowns. In light of that history, Greek Catholics become understandably nervous anytime they see Russian forces crossing their borders, or insurgents armed and supported by Moscow trying to slice off pieces of Ukrainian territory.
Right now, eastern Ukraine is once again an active combat zone, after pro-Russian rebels shelved a four-month truce and launched a new offensive. According to the United Nations, indiscriminate shelling has killed at least 224 civilians in the past three weeks, raising the overall death toll to 5,358 people since last April.
During his General Audience on Wednesday, Francis issued an appeal for peace.
“Let us pray the Lord so that this horrible fratricidal violence may cease as soon as possible,” Francis said.
The pope appealed for “every possible effort — even at an international level — for the resumption of dialogue, the only possible path for peace and harmony in that tormented land.”
Speaking off-the-cuff, Pope Francis said that when he hears the words “victory” or “defeat,” he feels great pain and sadness.
“They are not the right words,” he said. “The only right word is peace. This is the only right word.”
“I think of you, Ukrainian brothers and sisters, this is a war between Christians,” he said. Calling the conflict a scandal, he pointed out that all those involved have the same baptism.
Francis urged prayer, saying “prayer is our protest before God in times of war.”
To Ukrainian Catholic ears, to be frank, all that sounded uncomfortably like appeasement.
To begin, the term “fratricidal” seems to imply that what’s underway is an internal conflict among Ukrainians. In reality, most Ukrainians would say it’s an act of external hostility. Not only is Moscow arming and supporting the rebels, but Russian troops and tanks have been spotted in eastern Ukraine on multiple occasions.
Most other observers frame the conflict in terms of Russia’s role. For instance, NATO’s deputy secretary general Alexander Vershbow said in a speech at the Nobel Institute in Oslo this week that “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is not an isolated incident,” but rather a “game-changer in European security.”
If NATO can diagnose the situation accurately, some Ukrainian Catholics wonder, why can’t the pope?
Further, the pontiff’s mournful references to victory and defeat suggest a sort of “pox on both your houses” stance, as if the rights and wrongs of the conflict don’t really matter. That stab at even-handedness also rankles for many Ukrainians, who believe that in this instance, there really is an objectively guilty party (i.e., Russia) and a victim (i.e., Ukraine.)
The clincher for many Ukrainians is that Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, publicly thanked Francis for the Vatican’s “balanced approach” on Wednesday and in the same breath took a shot at the Greek Catholics, accusing them of harboring a “nationalistic” and “Russophobic” line.
The Russian Orthodox Church has always claimed Ukraine as part of its “canonical territory,” and resents the Catholic toehold in the country. It would love nothing more than to drive a wedge between Rome and the Greek Catholic Church, and apparently sees the present crisis as an opportunity to do just that.
Granted, Francis faces strong pressures not to appear biased.
In Ukraine, as elsewhere, he wants to be a peacemaker, and staying above the fray in terms of the political and diplomatic tit-for-tat is the price of admission. In addition, he’s made ecumenism a cornerstone of his papacy, and he and many of his aides are reluctant to do or say anything that would set back relations with the Russian Orthodox.
Of the roughly 225 million Orthodox Christians in the world, about 165 million are members of the Russian Orthodox Church. As a result, if the pope wants to move the ball in terms of Catholic/Orthodox relations, he simply can’t afford to ignore Moscow.
Yet at the same time, Francis has a tough and resilient Catholic community in Ukraine that’s paid in blood over the centuries for its loyalty to Rome, and that once again today finds itself in harm’s way.
At some point, he may need to find a way to communicate to those folks that he won’t let “ecumenical correctness” blur his view of the threats they face, or dissuade him from taking care of his own when they need him most.
As fate would have it, Francis will have a chance to make precisely that point soon, as the Ukrainian bishops will be in Rome Feb. 15-21 for their ad limina visit — the trip to Rome all bishops are required to make every five years. Especially in light of his comments on Wednesday, Ukrainian ears everywhere will be straining to hear whatever the pope has to say.