Listen to this story:
ROME – In the wake of Russia’s contentious annexation of four regions of Ukraine, here’s how a spokesperson for a major global institution, one that’s already drawn criticism for its allegedly ambivalent attitude on Putin’s war, reacted.
“We believe that all countries deserve respect for their sovereignty and territorial integrity, that the purposes and principles of the UN Charter should be observed, that the legitimate security concerns of any country should be taken seriously, and that support should be given to all efforts conducive to peacefully resolving the crisis,” the spokesperson said.
“We hope the parties concerned will properly address differences through dialogue and consultation. [We] stand ready to work with members of the international community to continue to play a constructive part in de-escalation efforts.”
Note the lack of a forthright condemnation of Russia’s action, the apparent effort to suggest a degree of legitimacy to security concerns cited by Putin as a pretext for the war, and the emphasis on calls for dialogue and peace rather than assigning blame or taking sides.
While all that has been characteristic of commentary on Ukraine by Pope Francis and his Vatican team – most recently, the pope hit many of the same notes in a conversation with fellow Jesuits while he was in Kazakhstan – in this case it wasn’t a spokesperson for the Vatican quoted above, but rather China’s Foreign Ministry.
When the UN Security Council considered a motion Friday to condemn the annexation submitted by the United States, 10 nations voted in favor while four abstained: China, India, Brazil, and Gabon. The Vatican doesn’t sit on the Security Council, but if it did, it’s easy to imagine it probably would have voted with the abstentions.
Of course, the political, economic and strategic calculations which have led China to take a mixed stance on Ukraine are far different from the moral and humanitarian considerations driving Francis, but the fact of the matter nonetheless is that the Vatican’s substantive position on the Ukraine conflict often seems closer to Beijing’s than to, say, Washington’s, or, for that matter, Rome’s.
For her part, Italy’s new Prime Minister-apparent, Giorgia Meloni, issued a stinging statement Friday describing the referenda in the four territories as a “farce” and the annexations as having “no legal or political value,” adding that Putin’s attitude is “neo-imperialistic of the Soviet variety.” Nobody in the Vatican has even come close to something like that.
The fact that Francis and his Vatican allies sometimes sound more like China, or India, than their historical partners in the West is, naturally, one reason why some Catholic critics are unhappy.
Yet for a moment, let’s set aside the rights and wrongs and instead try to understand the situation in historical terms. From a certain point of view, one could argue that this papacy’s reaction to the Ukraine conflict is a natural consequence of the massive demographic and cultural transitions within Catholicism over much of the last century.
When the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) was founded in 1949, it was sometimes jokingly said in Catholic circles that the pontiff at the time, Pope Pius XII, should be appointed its chaplain. In part, that was a result of Catholicism’s demography: In 1950 there were just over 400 million Catholics in the world, of whom roughly half were in Europe, which depended heavily on the American security umbrella against what was perceived as the threat of a European land war, and also the anti-religious policies of the Soviet Union weighed heavily.
By 2022, the face of the faith has changed dramatically.
Today there are 1.3 billion Catholics in the world, of whom more than two-thirds live in Africa, Asia, Latin America, i.e., outside the traditional boundaries of the West. Statistically speaking, the typical Catholic in the world today is far more likely to be a person of color and poor than white and middle-class, and also more likely to live in a neighborhood where the presumed virtue of the United States and its western allies isn’t axiomatic.
Many Christians across the Middle East remain leery of American foreign policy in the wake of the Iraq war, an outlook turbo-charged by what was perceived as our abandonment of Afghanistan. In Latin America, many people have long memories of the checkered history of the U.S. in the region. Even in Africa, many ordinary people today favorably contrast China’s policy of investment and engagement with what they see as broad American neglect.
Francis is the pope who’s put a face on these trends, the first pontiff from the global south, the first from Latin America and the first from outside Europe since the early centuries of the church. In some ways it’s a return to Catholic roots, in that the very first pope, St. Peter, was born in Bethsaida in modern-day Israel, into a people who were also fairly skeptical about the day’s great empires.
None of this background, obviously, addresses the substance of the pope’s line on Ukraine, which is open to legitimate debate – even the most sweeping conception of papal infallibility would not include his positions on geopolitics. Moreover, Francis himself claims not to be bothered by the criticism, telling the Jesuits, “The pope does not get angry if he is misunderstood, because I know well the suffering that is behind it.”
Yet as Auguste Comte, the father of modern sociology, famously put it, “Demography is destiny.”
By that rubric, American and European Catholics probably ought to get used to hearing notes from the Vatican that don’t come from the NATO playbook – because whatever else popes may be today, they don’t seem destined to be the chaplains of the Atlantic alliance anymore.
As a footnote, Francis arguably has another reason not to be irked if he’s perceived as friendly to China right now, which is the Vatican’s desire to see its controversial deal with Beijing over the appointment of bishops in the country renewed. On that front, he might be encouraged by something else the Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Friday, in response to a question about the agreement.
“Since China and the Vatican signed the provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops, the agreement has been successfully implemented thanks to the efforts of both sides,” spokesperson Mao Ning said. “The two sides will continue with the relevant work in accordance with the agreed agenda.”
Whatever that actually means, it sure doesn’t sound like a flat “no.”