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ROME – From the first moments after his election, Pope Francis has defied conventional Vatican wisdom more times than even NASA supercomputers could calculate, from the choice not to live in the papal apartments to the titles he uses.
In all honesty, the unofficial anthem of this papacy probably ought to be Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” This is a papacy, after all, for which bucking tradition and courting confusion in the name of evangelical authenticity is essentially its modus operandi.
That background makes the pontiff’s recent response to an Argentine journalist about why a possible encounter with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church in June has been called off truly puzzling. It would have been their second encounter, after an historic meeting at the Havana airport in 2016.
“Our diplomacy understood that a meeting between the two at this time could lend itself to much confusion,” the pope told Joaquin Morales Sola of the Argentine newspaper La Nacion.
Really? Francis backed down because Vatican diplomats told him such a step might be “confusing”?
He showed no such reticence, for example, when critics warned that an opening to communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics risked “confusion” about Catholic teaching on marriage, issuing his controversial document Amoris Laetitia in 2016 anyway.
Indeed, this is the pope who, on his foreign trip to Brazil in 2013 for World Youth Day, went off the cuff in his native porteño, the Spanish dialect used in Buenos Aires, to urge young people to “make a mess” in their dioceses, meaning to shake things up, even if doing so courts confusion.
Rendering the pope’s discretion all the more remarkable is that in the same La Nacion interview, Francis said, “I am ready to do everything” to try to stop the bloodshed. Surely, one might wonder, wouldn’t a meeting with a hierarch who’s offered theological cover for Putin’s war be an example of trying “everything”?
So, what gives?
One possibility is that Francis is sensitive to the fact that his refusal to name Russia or Putin as the aggressor is being read in some quarters as signaling deference to Moscow, and he didn’t want to augment that interpretation. (He addressed that criticism too in the La Nacion interview, saying popes never condemn heads of state or whole nations, and insisting that a nation is a bigger reality than whoever happens to hold political power at any given moment.)
It’s also possible Francis believes his risk tolerance has to be lower when it comes to war. It’s one thing to “make a mess” when the worst thing that’s going to happen is that a few conservative cardinals get their noses out of joint; it’s another when innocent people might pay a price in blood if a churchman with good intentions inadvertently makes a conflict worse.
To this day, the Vatican is haunted by memories of what happened in 1942 when the Dutch bishops publicly condemned Nazi human rights abuses. In retribution, more than 400 Jews who had converted to Catholicism were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz, including the future Saint Edith Stein.
Another possibility is that the warnings of “confusion” aren’t coming just from unnamed Vatican diplomats but from Ukrainians themselves, especially members of the vibrant Greek Catholic community in Ukraine.
Recently, the pontiff irritated many of those Ukrainian Catholics by inviting a Russian and a Ukrainian woman to carry the cross together during the Good Friday “Way of the Cross” ritual, with the Ukrainians insisting that such symbolism blurs the distinction between the aggressor and the victims.
Imagine how they might have felt about images of the pope embracing the very Orthodox hierarch who’s blessing Russian troops on their way to Ukraine. Francis may have decided that he couldn’t risk alienating Ukrainian Catholics again, who have a long history of feeling betrayed by Vatican Realpolitik.
Francis may also have heard, at least indirectly, from his close friend and ally, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, about the proposed summit with Kirill. The war in Ukraine has accentuated a long-running struggle between Constantinople and Moscow for the soul of global Orthodoxy, and doubtless Bartholomew wouldn’t be anxious for the pontiff to do anything that might be perceived as lending Kirill additional credibility.
There’s also a secular angle. A prominent European NGO called “Human Rights Without Frontiers” recently called for Kirill to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for “inspiring, inciting, justifying, aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity,” which may have helped Francis decide this just isn’t a good time for a photo op.
(Russia is not a party to the ICC and thus an indictment is considered unlikely, but that doesn’t mean there may not be consequences for Kirill in other venues.)
There’s yet another, far more cynical possibility – to wit, that the Vatican never really intended to go through with meeting Kirill, dangling the prospect only to be able to pull it back. The aim would be to underscore Kirill’s growing international isolation, a sort of ecclesiastical analogue to the economic sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of the war.
The foregoing amounts to little more than speculation, because the real reasons for pulling the plug on the Pope/Patriarch summit aren’t yet known. What does seem clear, however, is that for a pope with a maverick streak a mile long, the mere possibility of “confusion” doesn’t quite answer the question.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr